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March 13, 2006 | Issue 42•11
MARADI, NIGER—More than 60,000 urgently needed Bibles arrived to allay suffering throughout the famine-stricken nation of Niger Friday, in one of the largest humanitarian-relief operations ever attempted by a Christian ministry. Enlarge Image
Africans gather in hopes of receiving the Bibles they have hoped for.
"Come rejoice, and feast upon the word of Our Lord, Jehovah God," said Christina Clarkson, executive director of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Brooklyn, NY. "Those who were hungry, hunger no more, for the Word brings life."
An exuberant Clarkson said the Bible and Watchtower drop was the culmination of one of the largest and most aggressive grassroots fundraising drives ever undertaken by the organization, which was able to fund the mission largely through local charitable events, such as bake-offs, barbecues, and pie-eating contests.
"We absolutely would not be here today if it were not for the amazing generosity of the people back home," Clarkson said. "People everywhere opened up their hearts and checkbooks to us and said, 'Dig in.'"
Niger, ranked as the second-poorest nation on Earth, is experiencing its worst famine in more than 20 years, as a brutal drought last year was followed by a plague of crop-destroying locusts. An estimated 3.5 million of Niger's 12 million people are currently at risk of starvation.
"That's why it was so important for this mission to happen right now," said Clarkson. "So many people here are suffering. Disease, starvation, and lack of shelter are day-to-day realities in Niger. But once they hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and accept Him as their Lord and Savior—once they really take Him into their hearts—then they will see what poor comforts are the things of this world."
Due to the tireless efforts of Clarkson and other members of the congregation, the ministry was able to provide the needy with Bibles superior to the ones they use in their own church services.
"Handcrafted, genuine leather—best money can buy," said 61-year-old missionary Don Kostic as he ran his hand along the book's ornately embossed spine. "It's like my wife back home says: Nothing is too good for people who are ready to receive the Living Word of Christ."
Although the fundraising efforts were unprecedented, congregation members said Living Light would never have succeeded had they not obtained the generous support of an array of corporate sponsors, including Applebee's and Church's Fried Chicken.
"We spent so much money just to get here," Kostic continued. "After we had all the Bibles engraved, we still had to charter the plane. When we landed in Niamey, we could barely even afford ground transportation."
Undaunted, the missionaries purchased the best vehicle they could find, which turned out to be a used bread truck. "That old thing!" recalled Kostic, laughing. "We must've scrubbed it down a hundred times. You couldn't get the smell of freshly baked, vitamin-fortified bread out of it if your life depended on it."
Reaction among Niger residents has been mixed.
Moussa Yaouli, a 35-year-old farmer, was particularly interested to learn more about the doctrine of transubstantiation, which Living Light personnel told him involved the eating of wafers. "It is said to be a big wafer. I am sure it will feed many of my children." Enlarge Image
Moussa Yaouli derives spiritual nourishment from his handcrafted leather Bible.
Though "spiritually gratified" by their work, many of the missionaries spoke about the difficulties of working in an impoverished country.
"It can be so hard being away from the comfort of our homes and our loving families," Clarkson confided. "I will admit, there have been times when I prayed, Jehovah, just help me get through this mission and get me back to Brooklyn!' But when we rolled into town and people started running after the truck with those big smiles on their faces, I couldn't help but smile back."
Clarkson added: "And when we opened up the back of the truck and they saw that it was full of Bibles... Grown men and women wept in front of their children. That's how moved they were by the Holy Spirit. That's how I know it's all been worth it."
Clarkson said her mission will succeed in bringing the people of Niger "the spiritual sustenance they've been deprived of," despite such obstacles as the nation's 18 percent literacy rate.
"You say you're suffering. I say, let the good Lord do the suffering for you," she said. "You say you're exhibiting the deleterious effects of severe dehydration and chronic malnutrition. And I say that no matter what ails you, the Holy Bible, along with the Watchtower is the best medicine there is."