This is a world of contrast, where barefoot children meet roaring military trucks, and tangled jungles meet satellites. It’s a world where East meets West, and despair meets hope. It’s where extreme courage and unbridled faith meet the satisfaction of knowing you’ve changed nations.
This is Overland Missions, a force in motion, bringing the gospel and humanitarian aid to some of the most geographically challenging places in the world. Established in 1999 by Phil and Sharon Smethurst, Overland is all about new frontiers. Combining trailblazing equipment and cutting-edge technology with backpacks and dugout canoes, they’ve already cleared a path into unreached villages in more than 40 countries, and their next mission is a risky venture to fulfill a longtime dream. More than 20 years after he fought as a soldier in Angola’s civil war, Smethurst is returning to a country still loaded with land mines to bring the gospel of peace.
Pioneering missions in remote environments requires technical extremes, says Smethurst, who’s been called a modern-day David Livingstone after the 19th-century Scottish missionary and explorer in Africa. With the motto, “Any road, any load, any time,” Overland’s bring-it-onmentality has a strong appeal to adventurous Christians.
“We play with all the big toys,” Smethurst says. One of Overland’s signatures is the use of highly equipped 4x4 trucks that help teams reach villages otherwise inaccessible due to harsh terrain, lack of infrastructure and even wild animals. The ministry has a fleet of nine 10-ton, ex-military trucks purchased from Holland and Germany, refitted in its workshops in Africa. The vehicles are equipped with satellite telephones and satellite-based R-BGAN Internet for accessing Google Earth and other essential services.
Up to 22 people can ride in the all-wheel-drive vehicles, modeled after overland touring trucks but stripped of luxury elements for maximum mobility. Some can carry enough fuel, food, drinking water and camping equipment for long-term expeditions lasting up to eight weeks, according to Smethurst.
Imagine driving along a muddy riverbank in Africa when your truck breaks down. You can’t call AAA to come and tow you to a nearby service station, so Overland’s trucks are designed to be basic enough for their trained driver/mechanic to repair them on location when necessary.
Although military-style transportation is how it rolls, Overland doesn’t classify itself as an “extreme missions” organization. “The ultimate goal is to get the message to the indigenous,” Smethurst says. “If it comes on a donkey, I don’t care. If it’s a truck, I don’t care.”
Smethurst is also a pioneer in the cyber world. He created Timbuctu.me, a new Internet application that invites real-time posts similar to Facebook and Twitter but is organized around geographical locations rather than personal profiles. Creating threads called “Adventures,” users can journal events or trips to specific locations, allowing others to track the activity and interact online.
Martine Lopez, Overland director of operations and co-developer of Timbuctu.me, says the latest version, launched this year, is open to anyone’s use, though the app was created specifically to help advance the gospel.
“I feel it’s going to be revolutionary in world missions,” says Rodney Howard-Browne, international evangelist and pastor of The River at Tampa Bay in Tampa, Fla. Howard-Browne and Smethurst, both born in South Africa, frequently work and travel together in ministry.
Howard-Browne says missionaries often feel disconnected and forgotten while they’re on the field, even though most of them have financial supporters. When needs come up on the mission field, friends using Timbuctu.me can respond immediately with prayer, finances and moral support.
“Every missionary needs to know there are people who love them,” he says.
For churches and missionaries, Timbuctu.me is a Web-based meeting ground where Christians can follow one another’s current and archived outreaches. It also provides greater accountability and communication with families and donors, and the ability to post updates and photos will be enhanced when the iPhone app (currently being tested) is released, Lopez says. Using Timbuctu.me means: “My life is unfolding in real time, and you can be part of it,” he says.
Coming Full Circle
Smethurst hopes Christians worldwide will use Timbuctu.me to follow his next adventure. In August, he and his wife, Sharon, and their two children, ages 9 and 6, will spend a month scouting areas of southeast Angola to pave the way for a long-term work there. Sharon, the daughter of missionaries, grew up in Brazil and has also traveled extensively. She is an experienced worship leader and the vice president of Overland Missions.
“This is a major expedition in very remote Africa ... and will break open a whole new mission field for Overland Missions,” Phil says.
Although a profound effort in itself, this long-awaited operation has a uniquely significant meaning for Smethurst. He gave his life to Christ at age 14 when he was a competitive surfer in South Africa, but it was his experience as a young soldier that opened his eyes to mission opportunities throughout the country. In 1987, when he was 18, Smethurst was drafted into the South African Army to fight in Angola’s long-standing civil war, and his upcoming expedition will be his first time returning to Angola for ministry.
The 27-year conflict began in 1975 following Angola’s decolonization from Portugal. South Africa, which bordered Angola at the time, was covertly assisting U.S.-backed troops against Russian/Cuban-backed forces. Smethurst served on the front lines at Cuito Cuanavale, the site of Africa’s largest land battle since World War II.
“We were largely outnumbered and fought for months in foxholes,” says Smethurst, adding that many soldiers were wounded or died in the trenches. “I would spend those days ministering and preaching to them.”
After his term Smethurst traveled around Africa, preaching wherever he was welcome. Over the next six years he went to more than 40 countries as an international instructor for expeditions with Camel Trophy, an annual worldwide competition of Land Rover vehicles. The team-focused contests helped define his assignment to world missions.
“It taught me that to reach people, it cannot just be a concept from a mountaintop experience,” he says. “You actually have to go out and do it.”
During the war, which ended in 2002, an unknown number of land mines were planted in the oil-rich country. Estimates have ranged widely from 500,000 to 6 million, and despite successful demining efforts over the last decade, hundreds of active mine fields remain, endangering the population and travelers. “This has largely hindered the gospel going into that region,” Smethurst says.
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