African Mission Comes Full-Circle in Family Story of Heart for Africa

In 1914 BERGE REVNE sat in a stuffy classroom in GrandForks, North Dakota listening to a tearful teacher. As E.M. Broen paused his teaching to wipe tears he shed for the lost in the world, students scribbled notes in Norwegian, pulling life-changing lessons from the words that echoed in the dimly lit classroom filled with Bible School students. The simple Christian education Revne received led to an inspiring story that has shaped Hillcrest as we welcome students from the
African continent.

Revne’s classes helped mold a blond-haired boy into aNorwegian evangelist with viking-like resolve. Statistics from his Church History class weighed heavily in Revne’s notebook, as he frequently paused in astonishment to consider the number of people who had never heard the Gospel. The barrage of numbers translated to souls in Africa as Revne sat in the dusty classrooms where he looked over the expanse of North Dakota.

HIS MASSIVE HANDS, WEATHERED FROM SEASONS OF FARMING, GRIPPED THE COLLARED SHIRT THAT DRAPED OVER HIS CHEST WHERE HIS SOUL STARTED TO ACHE FOR THE HEART OF AFRICA.

The Church of the Lutheran Brethren (CLB) had a decades-old ministry to China when Revne graduated from the Bible School. The Bible School, and subsequent High School, were training grounds for lay people to engage in larger mission fields. As Revne realized his future in missions, he began seeking a call from the Lutheran Brethren’s mission organization. When a return letter from the CLB mission group directed him to China, he politely declined. He felt called to another people, and his decision would be used to build an expanding mission heart in the CLB, directing their vision across the Atlantic Ocean.

Revne waited. After completing his work at Bible School, declining the mission invitation to China, he called the CLB to a mission outreach in Africa. The mission culture worldwide was beginning to embrace a passion for Africa after the world answered the call to China at the turn of the century. A 1910 mission conference in Edinburg, Scotland caught the attention of many larger mission organizations, and the eyes of missionaries started scanning Africa. Revne hoped to convince the CLB to embrace the new continent. It wasn’t easy.

Articles in the CLB periodical raised a call to Africa, and homes were stirred. The Lord pricked the hearts of individual church members to consider the unreached people in what mission groups were calling the dark continent. At the CLB annual convention in 1915 a motion to consider mission outreach in Africa was presented on the floor for discussion. Conversation was enlightening, and a deep concern was shared by the convention, but Revne walked gingerly out the church doors without a call. So, his bags remained unpacked.

CLB President E.H. Gunhus took a bold step following Revne’s disappointment, pointedly writing in a synod periodical that,

AMONG THE NORWEGIANS WE OFTEN HEAR THE CRY, ‘CHINA FOR CHRIST.’ WHY NOT ‘AFRICA FOR CHRIST?’
— E.H. Gunhus

 The response was negative. A fear arose in the synod that the added cost in sending missionaries to Africa would jeopardize the work of the CLB in China. The vision for the CLB in Africa was threatened by a fear of finances.

The CLB nevertheless commissioned the Board of Missions to explore in great detail a mission venture in Africa. They presented a report to the CLB Convention of 1917 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Two full sessions were committed to the report, drawing out questions of whether the CLB should open a new mission outreach, thereby joining a massive movement of mission forces to the heart of Africa. The arduous discussion eventually led to a vote to open CLB missions in Africa. It passed unanimously.

Revne waited two full years for his call to Africa. After the vote at the convention, Revne and
his wife floated on excitement as they prepared to leave the United States for the Sudan. Passport delays kept the young missionary couple from boarding the boat in their timeframe,
a small exercise that would build muscles necessary for future challenges. Finally, in the winter of 1918, Berge and Herborg Revne stepped foot on the African coastline, a proverbial landing on the moon that was a strong statement that the CLB is open to the people of the world.

The Revnes celebrated Christmas with a band of missionaries in Nigeria. The Sudan United Mission welcomed the couple that January as co-laborers, equipping the Revnes for their
work with Nigeria’s largest people group. However, the Sudan United Mission desired all missionaries to break denominational ties and meld into an ecumenical effort. The Revnes didn’t want to leave their CLB roots, and started a nearly two year exploration of unreached places in Africa, giving the CLB a heart for the entire continent, rather than a simple region or people group focus as other mission sites had developed.

Revne’s viking-like instincts took over. He traveled over untraversed land, writing to supporters to communicate his heart. 

The Norwegian people, whether in Norway or America have never refused to travel...We who work for the Kingdom of God should be willing to overcome even the dangers of the north pole or south pole in order to get the Gospel out!
— Berge Revne

Overlooking serene settings in the heart of Africa, Revne desired that the CLB develop a passion for this part of the world, knowing that technology would soon open opportunities of greater contact. In a letter written to the CLB convention of 1920, Revne noted, “I believe that airplanes will be no small factor in the spreading of the Gospel, especially in Africa.” Revne’s expansive vision planted a mission group in Cameroon that morphed to fund its own church body, growing independently from CLB support in the 1960s, fully self-functioning with no CLB missionary support in 1997. Mission outposts throughout Chad, Africa also resulted in Revne’s passion to reach across land and sea to minister to unreached groups. This expansive vision drew out expressions in the DNA of the CLB that is represented today at Hillcrest. Revne could not have foreseen that in a few generations his great granddaughter, Karissa Wiebe, would sit in Hillcrest classrooms realizing his prophetic words about technology enhancing mission
outreach fulfilled at Hillcrest Academy.

Karissa sat at the lunch table at the CLB Youth Convention with the August air turning slightly dry. She gazed at the Rocky Mountains from the lunchroom window as her six friends pondered Hillcrest. Questions about Hillcrest’s athletics programs, financial aid, and how the dormitories work seemed like menial questions for a handful of hearts who were feeling pulled to Hillcrest. Karissa spoke of the things she would miss, of spending time with family and her love for cheerleading, but a short sentence revealed an aspect of her ancestry that is becoming more real at Hillcrest: “I want to build my own faith.”

Over the next few weeks Karissa vacillated between attending Hillcrest and staying home. Students had started climbing the four flights of Hillcrest’s steeple to move belongings into the dorm when Karissa’s mother left a voicemail at Hillcrest asking if it was too late for Karissa to join. The flurry of paperwork, trips to Walmart to stock her room, and meeting a host of new students kept Karissa busy until the second week of school, when she was finally able to settle in to Hillcrest and focus on the reason she is attending.

Karissa-Closeup.jpg

Now sitting atop her third floor perch overlooking Fergus Falls it is hard not to draw connection between Karissa’s story and her great grandfather’s. Revne ventured in unknown territory to expand the hearts of the CLB in Africa. Karissa can look down the hall of her dorm room and see four African countries represented. In many ways, Revne's work opened doors to welcome students from Africa into the school tradition that called him to give the Gospel to their country.

As Karissa lives her time at Hillcrest it is exciting to think that this story has come full-circle, opening hearts and minds to consider the expanse of God’s providence and supply, as he completes His mission with a small school dedicated to training young people for a life of Gospel-oriented significance.

Wayne StenderComment