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A Church of Christ on wheels

The Gospel Chariot, an African-led ministry, sends its signature red trucks across the continent. ‘If we find a sinner, we stop and pick him up,’ a preacher explains. ‘If we find the devil, we roll over him.’

MOLEPOLOLE, Botswana — At once, he left his nets and followed Jesus.

Actually, it was a meat cleaver that Robert Reid set aside when he saw the big red truck, emblazoned with the words “Gospel Chariot,” park across the street from his butcher shop in this southern African town.

Robert Reid

He watched as men opened the truck’s side panels, set up loudspeakers and began singing.

Then, like the apostles Peter and Andrew — who stopped fishing when Christ said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” — Reid  “took off and ran” to the truck, said his wife, Malebogo.

It was strange, she recalled. He’s not usually a curious guy.

“I felt pulled to the Chariot,” said Robert Reid, 59, in his native language, Setswana, as minister Dennis Malepa translated. “I was looking for truth.”

What he found was a Church of Christ on wheels, one of a fleet of trucks that travel to big cities and rural villages across the African continent, in Ghana, Kenya, Botswana and beyond.

Each carries the essentials for a gospel meeting — chairs, tents and a baptistery. After his first visit, Reid “came back singing,” his wife said.

He returned for nightly worship services. During the day, he met with church members and studied lessons from the World Bible School correspondence ministry.

Three days later, he was the first person baptized in the campaign.

In the next two weeks, 34 more souls were immersed in the big red truck. And a new church was born.

BORN AGAIN, AS APARTHEID DIES

Just like the children’s song from which it takes its name, Gospel Chariot Missions has a simple purpose, said minister Bongani Mabena.

“If we find a sinner, we stop and pick him up. If we find the devil, we roll over him,” said Mabena, a South African, former Seventh Day Adventist who studied World Bible School lessons and was baptized in 2002. Soon after, he joined the Gospel Chariot team.

The ministry has roots in the end of apartheid, South Africa’s policy of racial segregation and discrimination that lasted four decades. In 1994, George Funk, a white South African, and his wife, Ria, left their jobs and began doing World Bible School follow-up ministry out of a small office in their home.

Machona Monyamane speaks at a fundraiser for World Bible School in 2013. “I never liked church,” he said. “It was a symbol of the system that oppressed us.” Click the photo to learn about his journey “From communism to Christ.” (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

Two years later, George Funk studied the Bible with Machona Monyamane, a black South African who viewed whites as oppressors. But every time Monyamane asked a question, George Funk “put a smile on his face and a finger on the passage” in the Bible, he recalled.

When Monyamane asked to be baptized, George Funk found a hotel swimming pool but couldn’t locate its owner. The minister jumped the fence and performed the immersion.

Monyamane later became a minister for the Seeiso Street Church of Christ in Pretoria, South Africa. When it comes to taking the Gospel to the world, Jesus “didn’t give instructions in black and white,” he said.

REACHING AND TEACHING

To reach more Africans with the Gospel — and to avoid jumping fences for baptisms — the Funks commissioned the first Gospel Chariot in 2000.

George and Ria Funk

Networking with leaders of Churches of Christ across the continent, the ministry has grown its fleet to 15 vehicles. Six, including one under construction in Nigeria, are “Big Chariots,” Mercedes-Benz Ategos and Australian Hino 500s. The rest are “Mini-Chariots” of various makes and models, including a retrofitted school bus in Benin.

Churches of Christ have used the vehicles in 20 African countries. George Funk estimates that 2,000 people per year are baptized through the ministry.

The Funks recently moved to Australia, and now Monyamane and other African Christians, including Dimpo Motimele, coordinate the work of Gospel Chariot Missions.

In West Africa, a Gospel Chariot rolls into Bong County in Liberia. During Liberia’s Ebola crisis, Christians used the chariot to distribute literature about prevention of the virus.

In the West African nation of Liberia, a recent Gospel Chariot campaign yielded 11 baptisms. More importantly, the ministry’s coordinators worked in partnership with local churches to coordinate follow-up visits, said Liberian minister Alfred Beyan, who participated in the campaign.

The mission also enrolls students in NationsUniversity, a distance-learning institution associated with Churches of Christ. Students earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religious studies online or through training centers in southern Africa, including one in the meeting place of the Downtown Church of Christ in Pretoria.   

“We use World Bible School to reach new students,” Monyamane said, “and we use NationsUniversity to equip them.”

ENERGIZING OLD CHURCHES …

Still rolling after 17 years, the first Gospel Chariot was at the heart of a recent campaign in Swaziland, a small kingdom that borders South Africa and Mozambique.

The Mliba Church of Christ, established in 1975, hosted the campaign as an effort “to bring back the lost sheep, to reconcile the people with God,” said church member Sibusiso Mdzebele.

Bongani Mabena, right, speaks with 70-year-old Mabuza Erick Muba, who was baptized during a Gospel Chariot campaign in Swaziland

Three baptisms resulted, including 70-year-old Mabuza Erick Muba, who said he had never before been a part of a church. After decades of ignoring the divine, “he saw that Jesus Christ made him alive,” said Bongani Mabena, who preached during the campaign, as he translated Muba’s words from siSwati, the local language.

“Now he feels excited,” Mabena said. “He wants to hear and listen and learn more about God’s Word.”

In addition to the baptisms, the campaign energized the 42-year-old congregation, said church member Ginindza Lindiwe.

The Gospel Chariot “did bring a lot of people into our community from different denominations,” she said. “They came and worshiped together with us as a church.”

Sibusiso Mdzebele and Ginindza Lindiwe talk about the Gospel Chariot campaign in Mliba, Swaziland.

… AND PLANTING NEW ONES

Back in Botswana, nearly a year after the Gospel Chariot’s visit, the newly planted Molepolole Church of Christ has constructed a small meeting place and its members are reaching out to their community of 60,000 souls.

Nearly a year of planning went into the campaign that birthed the church, said Dennis Malepa, a longtime church leader in Botswana and minister for the Broadhurst Church of Christ in the country’s capital, Gaborone. Church members were careful to select an ideal site for the campaign and get permission from the tribal chief to use the land.

A year after the Gospel Chariot’s visit, the Molepolole Church of Christ includes new converts and transfers from other churches, including minister Kenneth Tsheboagae (right, blue stripes), Oarabile Diamond (center, red shirt) and Godi Tshome (left, in glasses). Tshome and six of her siblings were baptized after her sister, Onnalethata, was introduced to a Church of Christ while working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Members of other congregations, including the Francistown Church of Christ in east Botswana, canvassed the community in the weeks before the campaign, handing out flyers and hosting a “mini-campaign” before the Gospel Chariot arrived.

The new church’s minister, Kenneth Tsheboagae, trained in a ministry program overseen by Malepa. The Broadhurst congregation provides support for the work.

Godi Tshome, a former member at Broadhurst, now teaches Bible class for children at Molepolole.

After time on Africa’s harsh roads Gospel Chariots, including this one in Tanzania.

“It’s been a very good experience,” said Tshome, a computer systems analyst for Botswana’s Ministry of Health and Wellness who, providentially, was recently transferred to a facility not far from the new church.

The Gospel Chariot’s visit attracted a lot of kids, she said, and the church’s Sunday classes can be large. At Broadhurst, on many Sundays she had nothing to do, she remembered, chuckling.

That’s no longer the case.

A former member at Francistown, Oarabile Diamond, participated in the campaign, during which “we talked to a lot of youths and said, ‘Brethren, don’t just be converted into the church to come and sit in the church and be a member,’” he said. “We are called out to go call out others.”

In Molepolole, and in Francistown, “a lot of people are still fired up for the next Gospel Chariot meeting that will come here,” he said. “They say, ‘Wherever the Gospel Chariot comes, let’s go there.’”

A WITCH DOCTOR AND COLD FEET

The name “Molepolole” itself means “set him free,” Diamond said.

Dennis Malepa preaches for the Broadhurst Church of Christ in Gaborone, Botswana.

Legend has it that the name came from an early settler of the area who was cursed by magic. His community urged a witch doctor to release him from the curse.

Now the name has new meaning, Malepa said, as the young church strives to “claim them from their sins.”

Robert Reid was the first, but his wife didn’t follow immediately.

Two days after his baptism in the Gospel Chariot, Malebogo Reid brought a change of clothes to the evening worship service in case she decided to be immersed.

“But I grew cold feet,” she said.

After five days, however, she marched up the ramp to the truck’s small baptistery and took the plunge.

A year later, she said, her husband still can’t help but brag, “I’m five days older than you in the Lord!”

Molepolole, Kweneng District, Botswana

Filed under: International Partners

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