NORTH AFRICA (BP)–Sweat rolls down Todd Riddle’s* bald head as he thumbs through the mountain of cash heaped on his dining room table. Wrapped in cheap, plastic bags, the money is being prepped for a transfer at a crumbling airstrip in the middle of nowhere in North Africa.
Sound like a scene from an action movie? Not quite.
Todd doesn’t deal drugs, run arms or launder money for the mafia. He’s a Southern Baptist worker who supplies a medical team with anything from syringes and tongue depressors to Bibles, toilet paper and cash because there are no banks in town.
The 39-year-old Virginia man came to North Africa in 2008 with his wife, Kathryn,* and their two teenage sons. The Riddles are serving a two-year term as logistics coordinators for a team of Southern Baptist medical workers that go by the acronym TRUTH — Trailblazers Reaching the Unreached Through Healthcare.
The TRUTH team operates out of a remote town more than 100 miles from the capital city. The area has few stores and almost no infrastructure, which means it’s up to the Riddles to supply the team with nearly everything they need for medical work, ministry and day-to-day life.
The latest supply shipment for the TRUTH team also includes fresh fruit, furniture and propane cylinders for cooking. It must be transported via a chartered flight because the road linking the town with the country’s capital is too dangerous to drive.
Much of the shopping for the TRUTH team falls to Kathryn, who’s an expert at haggling over prices at the capital’s massive open-air market. The experience isn’t pleasant.
Baked by the Saharan sun, the market is hot, noisy and crowded, teeming with life like an oversized Petri dish. There are at least twice as many flies — lured by a sickening bouquet of spoiled fruit, raw fish and sweat — as there are people. Ratty beach umbrellas mark each vendor’s stand; looming over them are the minarets of the capital’s largest mosque, a reminder of just how badly this country needs Jesus.
“The spiritual darkness they’re under is so frustrating,” Todd said. “It crushes your heart because you come to love these people and you want them to see the Light, but their eyes are veiled by Islam.”
MORE THAN LOGISTICS
In addition to handling logistics for the TRUTH team, the Riddles manage a steady stream of volunteer teams, run the International Mission Board’s guesthouse and homeschool their two children.
The Riddles also teach English classes three times a week at a language school set up by the IMB. Every class uses the Bible as its primary textbook, working from a specially prepared curriculum of stories that walk students through the Gospel.
Saleh,* 16, is a pupil in Todd’s intermediate-level class. He wants to be a doctor and says he’s studying English to pave the way for his career. After roll call, Todd asks him to stand and read the day’s lesson: Luke 16, Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus.
“What does Muhammad say [in the Quran] you must do to get across the pit that separated the rich man and Lazarus?” Todd asks the class after Saleh finishes reading.
They throw out answers from the Quran about righteousness, daily prayers and doing good deeds, but Todd doesn’t let them off the hook.
“So how do you know whether you’ve done enough good to reach heaven?” he presses. Saleh and others fumble for an answer but come up short. Todd gives them a homework assignment: Write an essay detailing the Quran’s requirements for eternal life.
In the meantime Todd gives the class an alternative view, explaining Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Saleh isn’t convinced. He says the Christian way seems too easy because it doesn’t require any work; Jesus already paid for everything.
“Muslims know Jesus as a prophet,” Todd said. “They can’t grasp the fact He is the Son of God because they’ve been told all their life that God can’t have a son.”
The Riddles depend on these kind of classroom discussions to ferret out students whose hearts have been softened by the Holy Spirit and to discover whether they’re open to knowing more about Jesus.
“There are those that have no interest whatsoever in what we’re teaching, but there are others who are truthfully discerning between what they’ve heard in the mosque and what I’m teaching from the Bible,” Todd said.
Nadjwa* is one of those students who wanted to know more. Todd befriended the 26-year-old Muslim at the school and gave him a Bible to read. For months, Nadjwa lingered on the edge of believing but was held back by fear that his family would kill him if he left Islam.
“We’ve heard that it takes a Muslim seven times to hear the Gospel before they’ll believe,” Kathryn said. “So we have to constantly keep plugging Jesus and pray that God is working and that one day a light bulb comes on in their heads and they say, ‘I’m ready, I want this.'”
That persistence has paid off. To Todd’s delight, Nadjwa finally surrendered his life to Jesus earlier this year. He’s now being discipled and attends church regularly. So far, he’s been spared any severe persecution for his newfound faith.
Despite bright spots like Nadjwa’s salvation, there have been some dark days in the Riddles’ ministry.
Todd remembers a particularly promising young student named Youssef* who had won a scholarship to study in Egypt. But Youssef’s college dreams were crushed when an identity thief stole his visa just two weeks before he was to leave for school. Youssef couldn’t handle it, and his mind snapped.
The next time Todd saw Youssef he was lying on the floor drenched in sweat, mumbling gibberish, flailing his arms and legs wildly. He wouldn’t speak and didn’t seem to recognize anyone. Todd knew this behavior was beyond anger or depression. He believed Youssef was possessed.
Todd visited Youssef several times over the next few weeks. With each visit he saw his former student getting worse. He asked Youssef’s father for permission to pray over his son in the name of Jesus in an attempt to cast out the demons that were destroying his mind and body.
But when Todd arrived at the house, Youssef wasn’t there. His father had taken him to an Islamic witch doctor. Todd found him.
Youssef was lying on the floor in a fetal position with his hands and feet bound like an animal in a rodeo. The witch doctor covered him in white powder, blindfolded his eyes and bound his hands and feet. As a stereo blasted Quranic chants, the witch doctor beat Youssef’s chest and slapped his face, then repeatedly forced his mouth open and poured water down his throat.
“Tears were streaming down my face,” Todd said. Overwhelmed by what he saw but powerless to stop the ritual, Todd agreed to meet the family back at their house. Because his father was present, Todd didn’t think Youssef’s life was in danger.
Later that afternoon Todd got a call from one of his students. Youssef was dead.
“I was so mad and upset that I couldn’t face God,” Todd said. “I just couldn’t believe He allowed this to happen, because I had a plan…. God was going to allow me to go cast out this demon with His power and His strength and deliver this guy from Satan, and then Youssef was going to lead his family to Christ through his deliverance.”
Though they still don’t understand God’s timing, the Riddles say Youssef’s death has inspired them to be much bolder about sharing their faith.
“We’ve definitely realized you don’t stop short of the invitation,” Todd said. “You have to invite the person to believe. We could tell them every story in the Bible and inadvertently lead them straight to hell because we didn’t ask them to accept Jesus. That’s where the urgency lies because we don’t know if we’ll be here tomorrow.”
The Riddles have led at least three people to the Lord and prepared the way for dozens of others.
The couple is nearing the end of their two-year term and making plans to go back to the United States. New workers are needed to replace them to continue supporting the TRUTH team and running the English ministry at the school.
“God has been great and doing so many things here,” Kathryn said. “We stand amazed constantly at His goodness and His mercy…. Pray that God will continually peel back the layers of darkness here and allow His light to penetrate.”
*Name changed. Don Graham writes for the International Mission Board.