John & Anne Span – Life on the Deployment Roller Coaster

Here are a few highlights of our wild ride—as they used to say on a sports channel— as we experienced the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”     

With the blessing of Peter Schuurman, the Global Scholars Canada director, we purchased our tickets for the flights to Johannesburg in mid-October. The flight was scheduled for Dec. 28. At that time both Canada and Germany were on the ‘fly’ list for South Africa. A few days later we had a send-off service at our home church and it looked like the rocket launch would be effortless. A day later, however, we received a note from the South African embassy that Canada and Germany were downgraded to the ‘no-fly’ list and so thoughts of going were gone. We felt like we had just received a knock-out punch and sighed a lot.

Now we were faced with the question, “do we continue to pack up our house, or do we prepare for staying in Canada, or both?” Life in the limbo state. We decided to pack very slowly and ask for prayers for our mountain-moving God to have His way. To keep sane we decided to repurpose some hardwood flooring with lots of nails still embedded in the wood, and finish our upstairs. Between removing flooring nails, gluing, sanding and varnishing we had a few splinters but tired bodies and time to talk about our future. These are the times to realize that we walk—and sometimes limp—between bold faith, fear, presumption and submitting to God’s perfect will.

The plan to go to South Africa looked bleak, but little did we know that on November 11 or so, due to pressure from the tourism sector—as it is the summer high season in December-January—the South African government changed its restrictions. With a negative COVID test, one could come on a tourist visa. We were informed of this reality in mid-December. A quick change of plans. Stop the house packing and prepare to fly in less than two weeks. Out came the suitcases, and a scramble to find out who could administer a COVID test on Boxing Day when Ontario was going into a lockdown state, not to mention having our children over for Christmas with Joel from Luxembourg having to quarantine for two weeks. We figured it would be a miracle if our COVID tests were negative.

It was hard to pack, however, because we heard of the fact that the more virulent form of COVID had manifested itself in the UK and in parts of South Africa. Almost immediately, Germany shut down flights coming from South Africa, effective January 3rd, 2021. Our departing flight looked very tentative. All of our half-packed suitcases stood, patiently waiting and off we went on Boxing Day for our COVID tests. The weather was good, and this was a relief because we learned that the test samples were flown to Montreal that same day. Imagine if there was an ice-storm that day with a flight cancellation.

We waited until 7 PM on Sunday evening and we received the all-clear results. Quick, buy travel insurance, book a car rental, and a two-day hotel stay in Johannesburg. Not sure we did much sleeping that weekend.

When I (John) woke up Monday morning, our departure day, it was impressed on me that civilians avoid danger zones, while those in military service go to them. We felt like God, the general was sending us on an assignment. It was a wonderful confirmation when my (John’s) parents came over and my mother who loves to sing had the song “Stand up Stand up for Jesus” on her mind, especially the stanza which reads,

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
stand in his strength alone;
the arm of flesh will fail you,
ye dare not trust your own:
put on the gospel armor,
each piece put on with pray’r;
where duty calls, or danger,
be never wanting there.

On Monday the 28th of December we moved through an eerily quiet Toronto airport, had the first of more than a dozen temperature scans and had our precious ‘all-clear’ COVID document in hand. It was our permission/ticket to depart Canada, enter Germany, and finally enter South Africa. We kept turning to each other in disbelief that we were actually en route.

Just before we left Canada, our host from the Mukhanyo Theological College where we were to teach, called us to say that the accommodations that he had arranged, had fallen through. Again, it felt like the agony of defeat. This was a good testing time to trust in God’s provision for us, as we are aware that security considerations are important for expats in South Africa. Yet as the song above states, we knew we could not put our trust in “the arm of flesh.” Our prayers were more like desperate sighs than eloquent prose.  Two days before the flight, Eben our host told us that he had found a place that was better. It was furnished. Out came the pots and pans from one of our suitcases we thought we would need. Hallelujah.

We rested for a couple of days in Johannesburg and soaked up some sunshine and realized we were dog-tired.

We followed Eben and his wife Fia in our rental car to the place God had prepared for us near Rustenburg, and it was tailor-made. Anne and I looked at each other and effectively agreed that we have never had a reason to doubt the Lord’s good provision. Yet the reality of life in Africa hit us when a section of power line was stolen in a heavy rainstorm. So here we were back to buying ice, using flashlights, and the like. It was a reminder of our Guinea days. The power is back on and we are preparing for the start of the school semester next week. This too, comes with a few challenges.

As much as Mukhanyo Theological College offers generous bursaries, COVID has hit the economy very hard. That makes it a sacrifice for many students to pay their school fees. Added to that, like many places in the world, there is a palpable fear of getting COVID. Yet, the minivan taxis that the students must ride in still are at full capacity, which means not much social distancing. Some students will not attend. Pray for creative solutions for the students and for wisdom for us as well, especially when Zoom classrooms are not a common option here.

Thank you all, once again for your prayers and financial support that even extends to us being able to rent a car for a time, and so lessen our COVID risk dramatically.

In His Majesty’s service,
John and Anne Span

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