by Dan Okall
Note from Eric: Moving can be a hard transition no matter where you’re moving from or to. But moving half-way around the world to do missions work adds an extra dimensions of both excitement and complexity. This week, I’ve asked my friend Dan Okall to write about his current move from the US to Kenya and how God is helping him through it. Dan grew up in Kenya, came to the US to study at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and is now returning to the land of his birth, along with his wife and their two-year old daughter, to help grow and expand a ministry they started there several years ago, currently focusing on breast cancer education. I hope you’ll enjoy Dan’s article, no matter what kind of transition you may be going through, and please be sure to read my footnote at the end about how their ministry has touched our family personally.
Transitions aren’t always easy. They’re not always wanted. For the past several years our life has been in a constant state of transition and what I can say I’ve learned from it, is that God is faithful.
Less than a year after we married, our plans to visit Kenya were halted by violence and the lease on our apartment expired so we had to move into a friend’s house. We founded Dala Development Programs shortly after moving in; our goal is to make disciples in my village in western Kenya using the avenue of community development. More than a year after our intended departure, we left for Kenya. Three months later, once we started to feel comfortable with our surroundings, we returned to the US. We both got jobs, but before we could get comfortable, several people told us they were going to Kenya with us the following year. We did not have plans to return to Kenya so soon, but made plans to accommodate them anyway. One year later, we were back in Kenya. Six months and 17 visitors later, we were back in the US. Emily got a job, but I could not find one. The first three years of our ministry were really hard and when we were just about to give up, God transitioned the focus of our ministry to breast cancer education. Without any medical background we followed.
By now we had longed for anything stable. Job searching, getting a job, quitting a job, moving, moving back, and then starting the whole cycle over was exhausting. Every time our location or circumstances changed, we had to adjust, and sometimes that adjustment process was not quick or easy. I continued looking for work while running the ministry from home. A year later, an opportunity arose for us to return to Kenya for three months. It was a fulfilling three months that we both really enjoyed. Once we returned to the US, Emily resumed working at her previous job and a few months later I got a job in my field. It finally seemed that we were on a path towards stability. FINALLY!
We started making plans. We would find an apartment in St. Louis (all this time we had been staying in a spare room at Emily’s parents’ house). We would paint the walls, and we would buy a car. When Emily got pregnant, we planned to move out and be our own family, it was exciting! At the same time, the work in Kenya was growing in amazing ways. Story after story confirmed we were reaching people in very meaningful ways, physically and spiritually. Today we have 11 staff members who reach an average of 300 people a month and work alongside two medical facilities to offer screening and treatment. This year, we started Joanna House (partly named after Lana Elder), that offers room and board to low income patients undergoing treatment in the capital. Though things were going so well, neither of us really wanted to go back. We had other plans, but we were open to a short visit sometime in the future to see the work.
In the midst of our planning, frustrations at my job began to really wear on me. Issues with uncooperative clients and disengaged co-workers made me want to quit. I prayed about it and then “told” God that I would stay put for one more year, make money to sustain my family, and then quit. Well, God has a funny way of doing things. One week later, just when we were narrowing down our apartment search, six coworkers and I lost our jobs because of federal spending cuts. None of our plans worked out. We were crushed. But God is faithful, and great is His faithfulness.
This was a wakeup call. Emily and I both knew we needed to go back to Kenya, but this time we needed to stay longer. Neither of us was really ready but that point marked the beginning of our transition to full-time ministry and plans to move to Kenya. That summer we started to pray about moving. There were discussions about employment opportunities, ministry opportunities, a growing need for good leadership, where we might live, and how things might go. None of these things genuinely thrilled me, but I knew, and I know, that God is faithful and that when we obey it usually leads to a pleasant surprise.
God started us on this journey by leading us to read through the book of Joshua. This is a great story of God calling Joshua to take on the enormous task of finally leading His people to the Promised Land. Over and over, God commanded Joshua, “Be courageous, be strong, do not fear.” Since we know how the story ends, it’s easy to see why God instructed Joshua to be courageous—because there were battles ahead. Likewise, it’s clear why God said not to fear—because the battles belonged to the Lord and His faithfulness would carry them through. For Joshua, however, I’m sure he needed the reminders.
It is important to remember that when God calls you and you have to make a transition, whether big or small, short term or long term, urgent or slow, local or international, what matters most is knowing that you are in great hands. Be strong, be courageous, do not fear, God is in control.
Initially, we thought our transition was really big. Taking our 19-month old baby to a different country and to direct a growing ministry is a pretty big deal. But considering I was born in Kenya and lived there for over 24 years, our transition does not compare to the one Joshua was called to. First, God called him to be the president of a nation (that’s a lot of responsibility!). Second, He gave Joshua a few days notice (not one year) to move the whole nation into a foreign land to fight and settle in the Promised Land.
Here is a man that God called and put through TWO MAJOR transitions in the span of one week! The thing that made Joshua’s transition go well was that God had told him awhile earlier (as recorded in Deuteronomy 31) that he would become the leader. Then God filled him with His Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9), and gave him the specific mission to accomplish (Joshua 1:1-5).
The part that gets rough for us in the process of transition is managing the details. We know as believers that we have the Spirit dwelling in us (1 Corinthians 3:16), and we know we have been called to go make disciples for the Kingdom (Matthew 28:20), but it can be very hard to know when to make a move and in what sequence. For us this has been the hardest part. Do I quit my job now and move, or should I wait until later on? For us, this aspect was the most stressful one. How are we going to finance our time of service in Kenya? Should I get another part-time job before we move? Should we put our child in day care so I can focus completely on the demands of the transition and ministry needs? Should I go to Kenya and scout out where we will stay or should we save that money?
Joshua did not know exactly when Moses would die. But when the time came God was clear with Joshua about how and when to move the nation into the new country. Sometimes we need to use the wisdom He has given us, like when Joshua sent spies to Jericho. Yet God was very specific about how to go about conquering Jericho (read that amazing story in Joshua 5). The counsel of trusted believers is always valuable.
To move along our transition, it became common for us to go to bed late and rise up early in order to get a lot done. I would wake up early to get a jump start on the to-do list, but this made it very hard to step back and focus on God alone. We also got so busy that for three weeks we missed our small group Bible studies. When we finally made it back, the group was discussing the topic of solitude. God convicted me of the need to practice solitude during these busy periods. He also revealed to me how being busy was having a devastating effect on our spiritual and personal lives. I was more stressed out, irritable, making mistakes, and missing out on opportunities. As I practice solitude, I hear God more clearly, and get His perspective and priority for the days’ activities. Instead of dashing to check my email, or making calls, I am learning to surrender tasks and needs at the feet of Christ. We can learn from Joshua, who continuously sought God’s counsel, and Jesus, who, though busy, set the example for us by waking up early in the morning to pray (Mark 1:35). Set your alarm for early morning solitude; go for a long quite walk to spend time in prayer.
Lies from the devil can bring discouragement and make transitions very rough as well. Our ministry has been growing amazingly yet we have faced intense mental and emotional attacks. For example, we ask: If we are surely doing God’s work, how come funds are not pouring in? It can even manifest itself emotionally, asking why my spouse and I are not equally excited about entering this new phase. The toughest one has been comparing ourselves to our friends who are employed, with their extra income, vacations, and the size of their houses…. yet here we are struggling! In the midst of transitions, be aware that Satan, sin, or a lack of fellowship with God make you vulnerable and lose sight of God’s mission. Recruit a few close friends and an older couple who have faced transitions that are similar to yours and are willing to walk through it with you. Give them the liberty to ask hard questions, offer tangible ideas, and pray with you fervently.
External things have happened during our transition period that caused fear and took our eyes off the mission God has called us to. One morning I woke up worried about our daughter. She is less than two years old and being in a malaria zone is scary. About the same time a few passenger planes crashed, terrorists struck parts of Coastal Kenya, then the dreaded Ebola virus surfaced. Concerns about our health, safety, and future wellbeing started rolling. I remember praying during this time and wow, did God speak clearly into our situation! He led me into Psalms 121, telling me that God is our help, he watches over us (repeated five times), protects us from harm (repeated twice) and is with us as we go and come, always and forever. I would advise that you bring fears and concerns to the feet of Christ and then openly talk to your spouse, and/or accountability partners about them.
We do not know how it will all work out, but we have peace and passion, and are laying our burdens on Him. We hope our message will encourage you, cause you to approach transitions in a better manner, and above all experience God’s grace wherever you are on the journey. Remember that God is faithful even when we are not (2 Timothy 2). Keep running with perseverance the race set before you, fixing your eyes on Jesus and the throne (Hebrews 12:1-2).
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Follow-up from Eric: On a very personal note, it was because of Dan and Emily that my wife Lana and I discovered that Lana had breast cancer two years ago, on the very night after attending one of their talks here in the US about their breast cancer education in Kenya. I have loved and respected Dan and Emily for many years, but I will be forever grateful and indebted to them for their ministry and their heart to follow God’s call on their lives. God has led them very specifically and strategically in the past, just as He is leading them now. Soon I’ll share more with you about Dan and Emily’s work, and how you can be involved with it, too!
If you need a boost in your faith, we hope you’ll join us for our 2nd Annual Ranch Retreat here in the heart of the Great Midwest on Columbus Day weekend, October 10-12. We’ll have great food, great worship, great messages and great fellowship. Why not get away and see what God has to say? Click here to learn more or to register.