Every Tribe, Every Tongue
It was a time of crisis that brought John Kinlaw to the saving knowledge of the Lord. His father had passed away from cancer and he’d been arrested on theft charges. Broken and “tired of running”, he asked God to reveal Himself to him — and He did.
Today, John serves the Lord in Kigoma and the Muslim village of Ujiji, Tanzania, together with his wife Jennifer, who he’s been married to for almost 15 years. They are parents to Isaac (12), Elaina (11), Sam (7), and Katie (6).
Here, he tells us about the extremely challenging ministry they’re involved in among those who live in deep poverty — and learning to serve the community’s spiritual needs without being overwhelmed by its physical needs.
It was during a time of crisis that you began reading the Bible, looking for answers to the reality of God, which led to your salvation. What would you say to others who are seeking God in the midst of a crisis?
I had come to the place often known as “rock bottom”. I was broken, tired of running, and genuinely wanted to know if God was real or not. I think what opened up the door for God to reveal Himself to me and work in my life was when I prayed, “God, if You are real, please show me; please help me.”
I was broken, tired of running, and genuinely wanted to know if God was real or not
Looking back, that seemed to be the door which opened to let Him in, and it wasn’t long — perhaps a few weeks later — before I was on my knees asking Jesus Christ to save me. That prayer was followed up with seeking Him by reading various religious books — one of them being the Bible. And it was through the Gospel of John that Jesus revealed Himself to me. So, turning to God with an open and honest heart and opening the Bible would be my advice to others in crisis situations.
How did the Lord call you to this specific mission field?
Our assembly began working with a large group of refugee children living near our chapel in an apartment complex. As many of these children were saved and grew older, they began to join our youth group, which I was leading. In 2015, the Lord led us to sell our home and move into this apartment complex to better minister to these refugees and their children.
Through this experience, the Lord gave us a burden for Swahili-speaking, African people. In 2016, we were invited to visit Kigoma for two weeks, and through that visit, the Lord confirmed His calling for us to come serve Him in Kigoma. The next year, after much prayer and discussion with our elders, we were commended to the work which we are now doing.
What are some practical things we can do to better serve the community God has placed us in?
A great illustration from Scripture is that the church is the body of Christ. Christ is the Head of the church, and we are His body. So, as His body, we must continually get our instructions, directions, and commands from the Head. Perhaps that seems a bit cliché but, like the parable in Matthew 20, when the landowner found men standing idly in the marketplace, he put them to work in his vineyard.
Every area and opportunity is different. It begins with prayer, checking in with ‘headquarters’, and asking God to show us opportunities in our community through which we can serve Him. But we often give up on prayer too early and miss the door that is opening down the road. Practical things, such as prayer and waiting on the Lord, are key. All the specifics should come from Him; otherwise, you risk getting off course and doing your own will.
We often give up on prayer too early and miss the door that is opening down the road
Tell us about the people you minister to.
The part of Tanzania where we are serving is a very poor area. There are no industries and very little work for many. The two main religions in the country are Islam and Christianity; where we live and serve, there are far more Muslims than Christians.
The Tanzanians are a very friendly and passive group of people; they enjoy hospitality and receiving guests. There are many churches and denominations in Tanzania. However, the struggle with the prosperity gospel and the preaching of salvation by works can be found in many churches.
How do you address these false beliefs in your ministry?
We just preach the gospel — the true gospel of grace — every opportunity we get. In the reading room, while teaching the children in the schools, when preaching from the pulpit, or while giving a short gospel message to street boys. The best way to counter false teaching is with the truth.
What are some personal spiritual challenges you face?
Our greatest challenge while serving in Tanzania is not how to get the gospel out to people, nor is it the need for open doors for the gospel. We have more opportunities than we can fill! Truly the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.
Our greatest challenge is how to minister to the poor. We are faced with the needs of the poor every day: medical costs, school costs, food, etc. It is extremely hard, when we have so much, to live among those who have so little — but even more difficult when they come to you for most of their needs and emergencies.
It is extremely hard, when we have so much, to live among those who have so little — but even more difficult when they come to you for most of their needs
After two years of living in this culture, we have learned that there is no clear-cut way to solve this problem. On one hand, we do not want to create a dependency on us; they need to look to the Lord. On the other hand, we don’t want to send them away saying, “Be warmed and filled!” while giving them nothing. We also cannot meet the needs of every person who comes to us, nor has the Lord sent us here to do so. Many Tanzanian Christians believe God sent us to them to deliver them out of their poverty. It took a while before we realised this hidden reality!
The problem is real, extremely difficult and emotionally draining, but fulfilling at the same time. We have to deal with each situation or request as it comes, and listen to the Lord. When we say no, we both go away discouraged. When we say yes or come to some sort of compromise, we both go away encouraged. It’s hard. Every day the requests come, by way of text messages, home visits or calls. We never thought working among the poor would be this challenging!
Of course, it’s also rewarding — like when we rescued a starving baby and provided baby formula over a one-year period, which saved his life. Or provided a young lady with a sewing machine to start a small business to bring income for her family. Or sponsored the education of two girls who weren’t able to afford it past seventh grade. Or provided food for a family that had nothing to eat for days. Or the countless times we provided malaria medication for those who came to us very sick. I could keep going; the examples are endless. There is a part of this which does bring blessing, as it is more blessed to give than receive.
For readers who may be constantly meeting the needs of those around them, how can they stay encouraged and not burn out?
Well, there is an ocean of needs and we only have a thimble. Being overwhelmed by the physical needs of the poor will very quickly extinguish the spiritual ministry — which they need much more. The poor want to be delivered from poverty, while they need to be delivered from sin! It’s a very challenging ministry, to say the least. Some of the needs are heartbreaking, but there are some basic boundaries that must be in place.
Avoid creating dependency, and stay close to the Lord so that you can discern His leading and each situation. Point them to the Lord as their Saviour, and not you. Pray, pray, pray for wisdom.
In America, even among the refugee community we lived in, there was very little true poverty. The refugees had debit cards from the government, plenty of food, and free bus fares. Unfortunately, after two years in a very poor region of Tanzania, we have not yet figured out how to avoid burnout. We have to leave town after 4-6 months to get a break. So, we have much to learn!
The poor want to be delivered from poverty, while they need to be delivered from sin! It’s a very challenging ministry
Can you give us an example of a challenging situation you recently faced and what the Lord taught you from the experience?
I opened a reading room or small library in the Muslim village of Ujiji. This is the place where Henry Morton Stanley found David Livingstone and uttered those famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. A girl by the name of Sada came in once and was given a New Testament in Swahili. We give out copies of the New Testament to all who will take one. While she was reading Matthew, she had two separate dreams where Jesus revealed Himself to her and said, “I am the Way; follow Me”.
About three months after these dreams, she stopped in to tell me about them. She, who is Muslim and in a large, wealthy Muslim family, confessed that she now knows that Jesus is the only Way! I rejoiced and asked her the obvious question, “Sada, did you receive Jesus Christ as your Saviour?” She told me that she had. But as she continued to visit the reading room, she was unwilling to read any books, or take part in anything that would help her grow as a new believer. I was confused, and began to have doubts about her true spiritual condition.
A Tanzanian friend who has partnered with me in this work recently had an opportunity to sit down with her and talk with her privately about these dreams. She openly confessed to him that she had not yet believed. Later, as we discussed their conversation, he explained an aspect of Tanzanian culture to me. When I asked Sada a direct question about her salvation, she answered with what she thought I wanted to hear, so as not to offend me. Tanzanians would rather lie than offend someone, and feel no guilt in doing so!
Even today, Sada has not yet yielded her heart to the Lord. I have learned the value of partnering with Tanzanians who know the culture and people far better than I ever will. I also learned that I need to keep giving out the Word of God, because the Lord is using it to reveal Himself to the people in this area.
How can we pray for you?
We need daily wisdom to navigate these difficult situations, as well as encouragement and fellowship through other believers.
Pray that each of our children will turn to the Lord for salvation and choose to follow Him.
Pray that we would grow in our Swahili.
Pray also for protection from the government and those who are not happy about our work here.
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