After 23 years of ministry and aged 50-something, John and Penny were thinking that perhaps they were due to pastor a church in a quiet seaside town.
But God had other plans — he sent them to a country in North Africa where only one in 40 000 people are Christians. They have been serving there for nearly 14 years, pastoring a church for the first 9 years and then establishing a house of prayer and restoration.
Their life took an unexpected turn after they listened to a mission organisation speaker and developed a burden for the 10/40 window — an area of the world between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the equator which is home to the largest population of non-Christian people in the world.
“We found ourselves packing our bags, selling our house in East London and telling our 19-year-old son he would have to make his own way in life,” said John.
After a reorientation stint with a mission organisation in England the couple joined a group on a visit to a North African country where John believed God was calling them.
“At first I wasn’t very convinced that John had heard the Lord correctly,” said Penny.
“But God sorted me out. After about two weeks of arguing with God, I heard him very clearly saying ‘Just fit in with your husbands plans’. And the minute I said ‘okay Lord’ there was this beautiful peace that came to me.
” But yes, it was quite a big step to step out like Abraham and Sarah.”
Penny said that when she learnt that 99.8% of the people in that country followed the strict, official religion of that nation, she assumed that there would not be any churches in the country. But about 10 days after arriving there she had a dream about a pretty little English country church with stone walls and stained glass windows. In the dream she saw the congregation, that looked like a happy family group, come out of the building and into a garden. The dream church was surrounded by a white wall.
Through an unexpected series of events the couple discovered that in one of the cities of that country there was a church exactly like the church in Penny’s dream. What is more, the church was desperately in need of a pastor. John applied for the post and despite many obstacles he was accepted.
Penny said she was very thankful for the confirmation that God had given them about their calling to that church. They spent nine happy but challenging years there, ministering to Christian workers who represented more than 20 nationalities and about 15 denominations.
When they felt a call to establish a house of prayer, God again intervened by providing them with a suitable base in a large villa in another city.
A heavy toll
John and Penny said that life in that city took a heavy spiritual, emotional and physical toll on Christian workers who tried to advance the gospel while maintaining a legitimate business front in an environment where evangelism was forbidden. Constant official suspicion, a sense of alienation from the local culture, oppressive red tape and the lack of visible results of their ministry, led to stress and frustration and put a strain on team relationships — playing into the hands of the devil.
“Some folk get pretty damaged and need to be restored and re-visioned. So we do welcome people who want to come to the prayer house for retreats or still times with the Lord,” said Penny.
She said they were also increasingly offering people ‘Sozo’ ministry which ministered liberty to the whole person. They had done a basic course in Sozo at Bethel Church in California and aspired to gain further knowledge and experience in this field.
“We have already found that the 10 or so people that have done the course with us have experienced great liberty and a real releasing of things that have held them back,” said John.
“We are realising more and more that we need to run a ‘field hospital’ for those in the field,” said Penny.
She said that although they did not advertise the prayer house, people from all over the world knew about it and visited them. They had about 250 to 300 international visitors a year.
“A lot of people say they have met with God (in the prayer house) like they never met Him before,” she said.
John and Penny have two married sons, living in London and Port Elizabeth respectively. They see their UK son and daughter-in-law and grand-daughter more often, because London is only a few hours away by air. But they only see their PE family every two to two-and-a-half years.
Penny said: “For me as a grandmother it has been a sacrifice not to see our two little grandsons in PE growing up through the various stages.”
She said she recently “got into a bit of a pity party” about the cost of missing out on family life. But God told her not to let the enemy make her feel resentful as He had placed them in that country for a season.
“And I do sense that when the time is right the Lord will send us to a place where we can genuinely retire. Maybe when we are 70. I don’t know; we can’t put an age limit on God. We know we are in the right place now. He will open the door when we need to move.”