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Southern storyteller recounts African venture

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — It was the gift that keeps on giving. A kind uncle encouraged a sensitive 17-year-old boy to write about life in a journal, suggesting the best place to start might be “the good, the bad and the in-between.”

Forty-plus years, 12 books and more than 1,200 blog posts later, Curt Iles still keeps a journal — the beginning point of a writing career that’s taken him to Africa and back.

“I still have the note from that uncle encouraging me to write,” Iles says. “I’m from a culture of storytellers. It’s part of the Deep South. It’s part of my own family.

“As a child, I loved hearing the old folks tell stories,” he recalls. “I guess it’s my turn.”

The former Baptist camp director, principal and schoolteacher mostly writes about life in rural Louisiana, stemming from a calling he senses to have influence and impact on the world around him. This is the reason he originally wanted to write a book and have it printed — it can go where he may never go, like the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

“One day a guy called to talk about a story in ‘Deep Roots.’ He had just gotten out of state prison where he read my book. He promised God that when he got out, he’d call and thank me,” Iles says. “I have no idea how one of my books ended up in Angola but that’s where God knew someone needed it.”

While his stories and characters aren’t always overtly Christian, biblical foundations are in every aspect of what he does. So much so that when God called Iles and his wife DeDe to the international mission field as volunteers, he was ready to do anything that might spread the Gospel.

But it didn’t take long for Iles to see that God planned for him to keep writing — even in the midst of war, famine and disease in central Africa. He spent three years researching people groups in South Sudan, Chad and northern Uganda. His job was to not only record numbers for future Christian workers to have a starting point of basic knowledge of the area and beliefs but to tell the stories of people he met along the way.

David Crane, retired IMB missionary who was one of Iles’ supervisors, was looking to add someone to his team. This person needed the “driving skills of a NASCAR racer” and “the research skills of Edison and the literary skills of Shakespeare.”

“You see, I wanted someone who could do more than just crunch numbers and pull together GPS waypoints into a Google earth map,” Crane wrote in the forward of “Trampled Grass,” Iles’ newest book recounting his time in Africa. “I prayed to recruit someone who could turn his research into passionate stories that would impact readers to pray for and become actively engaged in the story that God Himself composed in the lives of the precious people of Africa. Jesus answered that prayer and led me to Curt.”

The stories Iles gathered as a researcher and church planter are told in Trampled Grass through his eyes as a newcomer to the African continent and someone experiencing God’s mercies in a whole new way.

One of the most powerful stories for Iles is when he attended a church at a refugee camp in four languages. He called it a “Southern Gospel Quartet.” Translating God’s Word into four different heart languages struck a chord with Iles that day.

“Nothing connects with a person quite like Truth in their heart language,” he wrote. “It’s like the book of Acts. Chapter 2.”

Curt and DeDe also spent time helping drill wells in South Sudan and in refugee camps scattered across northern Uganda. With each borehole, clean water not only reached a segment of people but also carried the Gospel. Iles says every place they drilled a well a church was planted, and he prays each day for the believers there to grow and thrive.

“This book is unapologetically about missions and the Gospel,” Iles says. “Person after person in central Africa asked us not to forget them. They wanted me to tell their story.

“I saw writing this book as a way to remember … to tell their story … the good, the bad and the in-between.”