Out of Africa, missionaries faced challenges leaving continent. 

July 14, 2020

Out of Africa, missionaries faced challenges leaving continent. 

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

(Editor’s note: As a practice, I normally do not write in first person. I believe journalists should try to be observers as much as possible. However, I must disclose that I am personally involved in this story).

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major challenges and disruptions for millions of people. While we here in the United States have faced our own issues, COVID-19 has made international travel nearly impossible, especially from remote locations. Missionaries Jim and Becky Petersen, who began their missionary work in Ludington at Prayer and Praise Assemblies of God, have spent the last four months trying to get back to the U.S. from Botswana, located north of South Africa. 

Jim, 69, is a second generation African missionary with Assemblies of God (his father was a missionary in Africa for 32 years). He and Becky, 70, have been in the mission field for 37 years and were scheduled to return back to the U.S., to begin their retirement, in April, as COVID-19 began spreading around the world. Flights out of the African continent began cancelling making it nearly impossible to leave the country. 

By June 24, they had seven flights cancelled on them and had one last flight scheduled for July 12. The next available flight wouldn’t have been until September. While the U.S. embassy in South Africa had chartered two flights out of that country in late June, the Petersens were unable to leave Botswana due to the U.S. embassy significantly downsizing there. Only the ambassador, a few staff people and security remain.

At the end of last week the situation was getting desperate. The couple, who have some health challenges, only had enough prescriptions to last one more week and supplies were getting low in Botswana. 

On Friday night Shannon Nash, Jim and Becky’s daughter, who lives in Missouri, posted a plea for prayers on Facebook. The missionaries hadn’t been able to get in touch with the American embassy in Botswana. The embassy had told the Petersens that it would send someone to the border who would be able to get them across. Their flight was scheduled to leave late Saturday afternoon (Botswana is six hours ahead of Eastern Time Zone). 

Not only did they have to get into South Africa, but then they had to be transported five hours to the Kingdom of the Netherlands embassy in Johannesburg, which would then transport them, along with dozens of others, to the chartered flights. 

  I have known Jim and Becky Petersen for over 26 years. They are truly one of the most amazing couples I know. Their faith in God has likely inspired thousands to accept Jesus Christ as their savior, including myself. It was 10 p.m. on a Friday night but I knew I could do something to help. One of the benefits in working in journalism, even in a small town, is you get to know your legislators. I texted Brian “Boomer” Patrick, communications director for Congressman Bill Huizenga (R, Zeeland). 

I knew that since the Dutch embassy was involved, and that it was helping American citizens, that it likely had a connection with the American ambassador to the Netherlands, who is Pete Hoekstra, Huizenga’s predecessor. 

Boomer responded within minutes. “Have them send me as much information about the situation that they can,” he said. Early Saturday morning I received a text from Boomer, “ It looks like resolution is going forward.” It was early afternoon in Botswana at this point and Jim Petersen had received four emails and a phone call from the American embassy in Botswana. He and Becky were instructed to travel to the South African border immediately. There, a representative from the U.S. government would meet them and present them with a letter from the U.S. Secretary of State stating that it is requesting Jim and Becky Petersen be granted passage into South Africa, on behalf of the United States of America. 

There were some tense moments at the border, Jim said. 

“Once you leave Botswana, there is a quarter mile walk to the South African border,” he said. “It’s kind of like no man’s land. We had no vehicle and the representative from the U.S. embassy in Botswana couldn’t drive us (because he would be leaving the country and, upon re-entering, would have to go into 14 days of quarantine due to COVID-19). We had four big checked bags and two carry on bags. There was no way Becky, with her medical condition, could carry all that. But somehow, we were able to that.” 

The border patrol read the letter and granted entry. However, because the Petersens did not have a visa, they had to travel directly to the airport, five hours away. 

“We got to the transport van, which held five of us (another missionary couple was traveling with them),” Jim said. “Then, we waited. We had to wait for the police to escort us. They would switch off three times, but none of them coordinated with each other. So, we had to stop and wait about an hour each time. We were cutting it short.” 

The transport van finally made it to the Dutch embassy. From there, the Petersens and the other couple got on buses which transported them to the airport.” 

They are now safe and back home in the United States, staying with their son, J.J. and his wife, Jacquelyn near Dallas, Texas. 

Jim said he and Becky will take a month off and then are allowed by Assemblies of God to spend three months visiting churches to raise support funds for their retirement. In September they will celebrate 49 years of marriage. While they are no longer living in Ludington, Jim said he and Becky always consider Ludington their home. 

“We are so thankful for answered prayers,” he said. “I am also thankful for Congressman Huizenga’s staff for helping us.” 

Brian “Boomer” Patrick said it’s part of the congressman’s job. 

“Assisting West Michigan residents who are traveling or living outside the United States is something our office does regularly,” Boomer said. “The sooner a constituent is able contact us, the better the chance for a positive outcome. Thank you to the State Department as well as the embassy staff at the Kingdom of the Netherlands for working so diligently to help get the Petersens home.” 

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