Local

Kansan, friend feel a calling in West Africa

Jeff Miller of El Dorado crawled exhausted into his airplane seat and had himself a two-finger serving of Scotch in a glass. It was 2004, and he'd been coming to Ghana along the Gold Coast of West Africa off and on for five years, to have a look at all the poverty.

Now he was on the airfield in Accra, the capital, and he was leaving for good, or so he decided.

He wanted to go home to Kansas and stay there.

He wanted to tell his friends from Charlotte and from El Dorado that he was done with Africa. That he was tired of the Republic of Ghana, sick of Ghanaian corruption. And though a Christian, compelled to love and help others, he was sick of suffering in Ghana.

The plane took off, and he took a sip of Scotch. "So much for being a spiritual giant," he thought.

He thought he'd never come back.

"Thank you, Jesus," he thought. "I am going home."

And just like that, a vision appeared.

* *

The vision stayed in his mind's eye while flew over hundreds of miles of the Atlantic Ocean. The vision looked real and clear as day: a building with doors, walls, windows. A building located on the seashore of Ghana.

Scotch does not induce visions, not a sip or two, anyway. No, this vision was from somewhere else, he thought. But what was it?

And what was he supposed to think about it?

He told his wife, Lori, about the vision after he got to El Dorado. He told his friend Matt Garrett of Charlotte, who had made trips to Ghana with him.

"What am I supposed to do?" he asked each of them.

They didn't know. He didn't, either.

But seven years later, on Jan. 11, because of that vision, Garrett and other friends of Miller traveled to Lake Volta, the giant reservoir in southeast Ghana, and cruised out to the island fishing villages there.

They talked to village slavemasters and chiefs.

And they rescued eight malnourished boys from slavery.

Those children live in a rescue home now. Miller calls it the Father's House.

Miller and Garrett and their friends built it.

On a beach.

In Ghana.

Miller went back after all.

* * *

In 1999, five years before that vision, Miller and Garrett flew off to a church conference in Toronto looking for inspiration. They were friends who had met years before at First Baptist Church of Huntersville, a Charlotte suburb. They had hardly heard of a place called Ghana.

Garrett was the analytical mortgage company guy. Miller was the masonry construction guy with mystic inclinations.

They'd become church-going Christians by different routes. Garrett reached devotion slowly, with a lifetime of peaceful and reflective thought. Miller had come to Jesus after sinning as a teen: drinking, dope, girls.

At the Toronto conference they saw an African pastor named David Banini. Miller felt a call to walk across the room and befriend him. Banini asked them to visit him.

In Ghana.

Garrett had never gone anyplace in his life. Miller hated travel. But Miller thought they were called to go.

So they went. Every part of Garrett's analytical mind told him it was crazy. Go to Ghana — and do what?

But he felt like he'd been called, too.

* * *

For five years the two friends went to Ghana.

They didn't do any substantial missionary work; they didn't feed the poor, or take truckloads of medicine, or teach extensively about health and hygiene.

Mostly they just looked around and talked in evangelical churches that Banini brought them to.

Ghana was a shock of heat and humanity; if they showered, they began to sweat right out of the shower. They inhaled the smells of burning trash, and charcoal burning under cooking fires, odors Garrett came to love. The villagers treated them warmly.

But they saw how corrupt government officials bend people to their will.

They saw malnourished kids, incredible poverty, suffering.

And so for Miller came that sip of Scotch. And the vision.

When Miller told Garrett about it, Garrett said, "Huh?"

* * *

Miller to this day remains befuddled by how a pair of clueless white men have done what they've done to help combat slavery.

"I'm the visionary, and Matt's the brains," Miller said. "But both of us on some days are pretty much Forrest Gump."

Like the clueless movie character, Miller and Garrett did clueless things. And yet time after time it turned out great, like in the movie.

For example:

* After Miller had that vision, and after he decided God wanted him and Garrett to build a beachfront Ghanaian home for children, they searched for beach property. A silly idea: The world's oceanfront property has been taken, even in Ghana. Or so they were told.

But somebody gave them seven acres on the beach.

* Where did they expect they would get money to build a children's home? They hadn't thought about it; they weren't part of a missionary network; all they had was word of mouth.

So they donated their own money, and then people started donating. Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cornelius, N.C., a church they'd never even set foot in, gave them $14,000.

Miller had moved to El Dorado in 2002; new friends from Kansas donated.

They raised $200,000 over the next six years.

* What kind of home should it be? An orphanage, Miller thought. In many poor countries, orphans live off garbage heaps and roam homeless. But Ghanaians tend to take orphans in. So where would they find orphans?

* But the most silly thing of all was that Miller and Garrett had somehow gone to Ghana for years without realizing how Ghana is virtually "Slave Central," as Miller now calls it... a hotbed of 21st-century slavery and human trafficking.

Less-clueless missionaries from Texas finally clued them in — told them thousands of children had been dragged into slavery, including among the islands and fishermen of Lake Volta, about 12 hard, bouncy hours by jeep from the Father's House on the beach.

Most of these thousands of slave children were not orphans; many had been snatched by traffickers or sold into slavery by their parents.

When the Texans pointed this out to him a couple of years ago, as the Father's House children's home took shape, Miller shook his head over his ignorance.

Forrest Gump, he thought.

We're just a couple of Forrest Gumps.

But Forrest meant well.

And when he saw a need, he acted.

* * *

On Jan. 11, Pastor Banini, Matt and Tammy Garrett, and six other Americans climbed into an old wooden ferry with a shade awning. They rode out over the vast expanse of Lake Volta, their boat motor sputtering.

With them was George Achibra.

The Texans had told Miller and Garrett about Achibra: a Ghanaian man who spreads education throughout villages and rescues children from slavery.

Garrett watched spellbound as they cruised toward the fishermen. Achibra pointed to the men in the boats.

Slavemasters, Achibra said.

"And look who's rowing."

Garrett looked. There were boys rowing the boats, young boys. When Achibra brought their boat closer, the boys tried to row away fast.

They gave chase.

Achibra called out in Ewe (pronounced ee-vay), the language of that part of Ghana. He asked the slavemasters to talk. He spoke respectfully. Are these your sons? No? Then why do they row for you? What is your village? Where is your island?

They did this for hours. Then they rode to one of the islands. There are islands all over the lake.

Garrett will remember Achibra's pitch to the chiefs and slavemasters all his life. He spoke in Ewe, but told the Americans what he'd said.

Slavery is illegal, Achibra told the chiefs.

You could get in trouble someday. Why do you do this? Would you make your own sons row for nothing? No? Then why do you make these boys row?

You should release some of these boys to us.

Achibra did not offer anything in return; doing so would make him a slave trafficker, too. Instead, he asked them respectfully to give him children.

And they did.

Garrett watched with a lump in his throat.

Achibra asked Garrett how many boys he wanted; Garrett said eight. The chiefs gave eight.

Garrett helped coax eight slave boys into the boat, an old wooden craft with steep sides, about 20 feet long and crowded now with 21 souls. He could hardly believe this was happening.

He felt like he was watching a documentary in which someone else was plucking boys out of slavery.

But it was real.

* *

They crowded into a van, no air-conditioning, eight slave boys and 10 rescuers, a torturous 12-hour trip.

The Americans tried to talk to the boys. Some spoke a bit of English. But the boys stared at them warily.

The Americans asked how old they were.

The boys did not know.

Eight boys, Matt thought. There are hundreds more on the lake.

They could start with eight, but the Father's House could take in up to 32 when they finish building soon.

Then they could come back to Lake Volta. With Achibra.

They could rescue 32.

Matt felt waves of emotion. He thought the eldest child might be 11, the youngest, 6; but with malnourishment, who knew?

The Americans asked the boys for their names.

The children answered.

Gideon.

Julius.

Ame.

God's Way.

God's Way Jr.

Evans.

Clement.

Francis.

They rode for hours.

At last, not far from the beach and the Father's House, they drove past the clear, open water of a lagoon.

One of the boys looked out over the water and spoke up. "Is this where we work now?"

Matt almost choked up.

The boy thought he'd been sold into slavery again.

"No," Matt said.

"No. You won't have to work like that ever again."

  Comments