LISBON, Portugal (BP)–Iona McHaney loves to play.
At her preschool in Lisbon, Portugal, she fits in quite nicely with the other 4-year-olds who play alongside her — so nicely, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to believe she isn’t Portuguese.
It’s even harder to imagine that soon she and her family will be missionaries in Angola, a battle-scarred country in southern Africa recently identified as the worst place in the world for children.
Iona — whose name comes from a Scottish isle — and her two older sisters, Megan and Sarah, were born in Scotland. And although parents Scot and Leslie McHaney are American, the entire family speaks with a Scottish accent.
McHaney served as a journeyman and then was pastor of Crieff Baptist Church in Scotland for a total of 12 years before accepting a career missionary assignment with the International Mission Board in July 1998.
Moving to Portugal to prepare for missionary service in Angola forced the family to adjust to a different country and culture. But the move to Angola after language study will demand all the flexibility and faith the family can muster.
War has ravaged Angola for almost four decades. The conflict began when Angola asserted its independence from Portugal in 1961. The war for independence lasted until 1975, when Portugal — emptied of finances and full of its own political turmoil — relinquished power.
But freedom did not translate into peace for the Angolans. Civil war immediately broke out between a Marxist force supported by Soviet and Cuban troops and an anticommunist group backed by the United States and South Africa.
Nearly a quarter century later, the battle continues.
The prolonged conflict has taken its toll on the Angolan people. Attempts at peace have accomplished little. Millions are dead and hundreds of thousands of civilians still flee villages under attack.
Camps of refugees lace the outskirts of Luanda, Angola’s overpopulated capital. The city, situated on Africa’s western coast, has become a haven for people escaping the fighting. An estimated 25 percent of Angola’s entire population live in Luanda.
It’s not easy for outsiders to comprehend the tragedy so many Angolans have experienced. Clyde Berkley, the International Mission Board’s Richmond-based associate to missionaries in southern Africa, tried explaining the rough circumstances to the McHaneys when they first sensed God calling them to Angola.
“I said everything I could to try to convince them not to go,” Berkley remembers. “I wanted them to realize how bad a situation it is — so they would know what they were getting themselves into. But they are confident God wants them there.”
The McHaneys are so confident they don’t flinch when they hear news about the bleak state of affairs in Angola.
The United Nations, for example, issued a report in mid-July pinpointing Angola as the worst country in the world for a child to grow up in. According to UNICEF’s annual “Progress of Nations” report, Angola’s civil war has resulted in “the virtual collapse of the health system, the lack of basic education and countrywide food shortages,” BBC news reports.
Polio also is a serious concern. Almost 100 children died of the crippling disease this past year in Luanda alone.
“We have obvious concerns for our children,” McHaney says, “but there are advantages as well. They will grow up knowing there are people who need the gospel. They will see how Jesus does change lives. And they will realize that the little they do in faith can make a big difference in our world.”
The McHaneys will work as strategy coordinators in Luanda to reach various people groups. They join two other couples already serving in Luanda as missionaries through the IMB.
Eddie and Janice Ray, former missionaries to Swaziland, now work as the strategy coordinators for all of Angola. They felt God calling them to Angola about two years ago and committed the issue to prayer.
“Through the years, we have determined that when we are confident that God is leading, we should follow,” Ray says. “The certainty of our hearts is that God has led us here. For us … this is the anchor that holds us firm in difficult circumstances.”
Such trying circumstances often include going days or even weeks at a time without electricity.
“The situation has deteriorated to the point that U.N. monitoring teams have completely pulled out of Angola,” Ray says.
Some of the Rays’ work will not begin until the fighting stops.
“We hope we will be able to get in some areas of the country that they [former missionaries] were never privileged to go because of the ongoing conflict,” Ray says. “We constantly pray for peace and want to be prepared for when the peace comes.”
Still, the Rays remain concerned about the here and now. “We also pray God will reveal to us what we can do now and how we can go about accomplishing his will,” Ray explains.
They work alongside Thomas and Janice Brown, who serve as maintenance and construction workers, and with Donald and Carol Minshew, who are based in nearby Namibia.
The Browns were first introduced to the needs in Angola through a volunteer trip in 1989. They later served in Tanzania, Malawi and then Angola again through the IMB’s International Service Corps — a four- to 24-month assignment to meet priority needs.
Now the Browns facilitate the work of other missionaries in the region. They are currently building a house for the McHaneys to live in once they arrive in the country. He hopes to open a factory where prosthetic limbs can be fabricated for victims of land mines.
Brown says he recognizes the importance of missionaries ministering in a place where the needs are so great.
“The people are hurting and they need to know somebody cares about them,” he says. “I pray that as my wife and I work with the people and share Christ that they will gain hope and truly trust him for salvation.”
Scot McHaney agrees. “We — as a family — feel deeply honored to be called and sent to a place of desperate need,” he says. “We know our limitations and look forward to seeing how God is going to use us there.”
Limitations define daily life in Angola. As nationals try to cope with the uncertainty and oppression often accompanied by war, the missionaries wait in expectation for God to heal the hearts of a broken people.
“When peace does come for the people and the country of Angola, it will be a new day,” Ray says.
Until then, the Browns, Rays and McHaneys resolve to continue in the work God has put before them.
“We are in the nail-scarred hands of Christ,” McHaney says. “And come what may, we do not want to be anywhere else.”
As for little Iona — she’s in those hands too.