You've said you had to repent when you got to Africa, when you realized you had been disobedient to God by not taking care of people in need. Tell me about your process of repentance.
Repentance means you change your mind so deeply that it changes you. It's not just that I changed how I thought-I am now changed. I went to Africa without the perspective of a balance between teaching people the truth, which has been my calling, and helping people who have physical problems, like AIDS and orphans and hunger.
I started looking at the passages of the Bible that would help me as I live in Africa. And I centered on Isaiah 58, and I read it over and over and began to change my mind about what I should be doing, what I should have been doing all this time. If you really don't run away from it and don't let it be intellectual and you process it in your heart and you think about the implications of-if I'd been doing this what could it have meant to people?-you feel sorrow, genuine grief. To truly repent of a big thing, you have to go into it with your heart open and force yourself to deal with it at that level and to apologize to God. I'm almost through that.
When you decided to go to Africa last spring, you were in the process of moving to California, but you couldn't find a house. What had you planned to do in Los Angeles?
I'd been with the organization I'd founded, Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, for 25 years. In 1998 I launched an organization with a 15-year goal: get a [Bible] teacher for every 50,000 people, in every country of the world, in 15 years' time. And after five years we were in 82 countries. That's a new country every 3 weeks. We had 33,000 trained Bible teachers.
We also had a top-down strategy--to mobilize a general interest in biblical topics by having a motion picture made in Hollywood on that topic and a popular TV series on [the same] topic. An example would be "marriage."
I told the board that's what I wanted. But the board didn't want me to go there. They felt I was being pulled off. I had to make up my mind to stay in the organization or resign, and I resigned. And I announced I was moving to California to make movies. I spoke to producers who wanted to know about Jabez, and then I went out in April to find a house and couldn't find one. It didn't make sense. I'm not really that fussy, and I was a little bit frustrated.
So in May I went to Africa. I was already working in Hollywood on a number of films by that time. One of them was about The Prayer of Jabez, and there were others as well.
When I was in Kenya I spoke to 1000 religious leaders, and I asked how many people had someone in their immediate family die of AIDS. I asked them to stand. A thousand people stood. I stepped back from that, stunned. I asked the question again, thinking maybe they didn't understand. The same number of people stood. So I asked how many of you have preached at least one sermon on AIDS? And three people stood. I said, "How can you not be speaking about this?" One man stood and said, "Because we don't know what to say."
So I trained them that week about what to say, and in that week I went to see the president of Kenya. I said, "Is there something that keeps you awake at night that perhaps I can help you with?" He said, "AIDS is killing my country. I wish I had a Hollywood movie on AIDS that would take the misconceptions away." So I said, "OK sir, I'll make you a movie."
So we made a movie in South Africa about a Zulu boy whose parents die of AIDS, his pilgrimage to Johannesburg, and what he learns. And it's a compelling two-hour movie. Right now it's in a festival in California and was the number one hit at this festival. It's called Beat the Drum, and it comes out next year.
Tell us about your current ministry, in South Africa.
It's so broad, and thus far I've not been able to narrow it. We're not with an organization. We're a family who moved there. I went down in May of 2002, spoke for a week in Johannesburg, and we simulcast that to about 100,000 people in 10 countries. Then I went up to Nigeria for a week, spoke to 9,000 leaders for a week, and met the president. Then I then went to Ghana for a week and spoke to 3,500 leaders and met the majority and minority whips of their Parliament.
In those 3 weeks, it was like God opened up my chest, took out my heart, dug a hole in the dirt, put my heart in it, and said, "Now you follow yourself right into there." I didn't go because I wanted to go, or had a vision to do something when I went.
When we got there we began to process life there, and figure out the different cultures.
You live in a city? We live in a suburb called Bryanston. And I got involved in things right off the bat by going to Namibia, which is a country right next to it. I was asked to lead a conference there. They had 2,000 of the country's leaders together for two days. It was the first time they'd ever done this. They told me that Namibia has a national dream that it's meant to be the gem of Africa that's going to turn around and lead the rest of Africa.
Half the people at the conference were white, and the other half were a mixture of colored and black. And I asked them, "How many of you believe in the national dream?" And 70% of the people raised their hands. So I said, "If that's to be true, then certain things have to change. You know what's happening in Zimbabwe with the white farmers. And those problems are perhaps brewing here, so let's deal with white farmers. Just like that.
And I said, "Is this true?" Nobody moved. And I said, "I'm asking for a white farmer in this room to talk about this. Not all of you have done these things, but some of you do. And I want you to come forward in front of everyone and acknowledge this is the way you've been doing it and you're calling your employees together on Monday morning and you're going to change their pay and let them have their own property and treat them with respect. So could you please come forward?"
It got real quiet. Here's this white guy, an American no less, talking about it-calmly-but talking about it. Nobody came forward. So I then walked into the middle of this auditorium and said, "I need to validate if this is true or not. If you're a black man or a colored man and you've lived on one of these farms, tell us if this is the true." Nobody moved. I mean, people weren't breathing.
Finally, a black man came up, and he had a calm face, and I gave him the microphone. He said, "I grew up on a farm like this. My grandmother was raped by the white farmer. My father is a result of that." He calmly outlined the trauma. And when he was done I said, "Is this the truth?" Nobody argued it.
I went back up to the front and I said, "You didn't pay me to fly here, and I paid my own hotel, and you're not giving me an honorarium because I won't take it. I'm here to help you. If we can't break through here, your dream about your country isn't going to come true. So I'm going to stand here and I'm not talking anymore and I don't mind standing here all night. I'm waiting for a white farmer."
Eventually, a big white farmer did stand up, and his cheeks were all red. And he walked to the front and I said, "Sir, are you a white farmer?" Yes. "Have you been treating your people like this?" Yes. "Are you going to call your people together on Monday morning, ask their forgiveness?" No.
"No?" The white farmer said, "I will do it Sunday afternoon."
So I shook his hand ,and he stood next to me, and one by one, slowly, different people came forward. Same thing, same thing. There were 50 of them.
Then a black woman in the audience stood up and came forward and she was obviously distressed. So I say, "Why did you come forward?" She said, "Two years ago I bought a farm from a white farmer and nothing's changed. I pay them the same, I treat them the same, and they live in the same shacks. And I'm here to repent."
So we worked through all that.
I just got back from Swaziland, which has the second-highest rate of infection from AIDS in the world. Swaziland is dying. If you're 25 to 29 years old, 47.7% of you have AIDS today. Every other person in that age category is dying. If you're 15 today, the chances of you growing up to be 35 is 20%. So even though huge amounts of money have been poured in for condoms, nothing is changing.
So they invited me to come speak to the country. They had seen a course I made on God's Answer To AIDS because I was on a television show there every Sunday. They cancelled their main TV channel's programming and two radio stations for four days while I was there.
I said, "I'm here to help you, and unless there's unity among Christians, no changes are going to take place. Either we're going to get past this or we're not. And if we don't, we're going to stay on this until we do." So I called the leaders of five different Christian groups to the platform-who had never even met before--and I began talking about the biblical reason to separate from somebody else. They were separating from each other for non-biblical reasons. And I told them they were arrogant and had no right to do that. So there was repentance between these five groups, right on the platform."
I don't have an agenda-I'm not trying to get something from this or become something because of this, I'm trying to help them. I just teach the Bible. By the second day they trust me, come to understand me, and by the third day major changes take place. I have a lot to learn there, but I'm learning.
Did you write your new book because you realized at some point you weren't following your Big Dream?
My big dream is to help people.
So were you not following your dream?
The Big Dream is, "How do I help change the world the way God wants me to? How do I reach more people all the time? How do I train more people?" That's the dream. What's happening in Africa is far beyond anything I've ever done.
Africa has lost its dream and when people don't have a dream and don't pursue it they flounder. People are shocked that I would move to Africa. But I say the place of greatest need is the place of greatest opportunity.
Was it difficult confronting AIDS, as an evangelical Christian?
When I was asked to make the course on AIDS, I told them no. Every year, we had church leaders from around the world come to the United States for a conference. In 1997, an African church leader asked me to make this course, and I said no. Then he asked, "Will you pray about it?" and I said no. He said, "Then I'm going to ask my staff to pray for you." And I said, "Don't do that."
The next year he asked me again and I told him no. The following year I told my wife, "He's going to ask me again." I was talking to some guys and I saw him standing in the middle of the back porch. I walked over to him and he very calmly asked me, "Sir will you make a course on God's answer to AIDS?" And I couldn't speak. I couldn't. I became overwhelmed with emotion that wasn't mine. I said yes. Tears running down my face, and tears running down his face. I didn't believe this happened. I didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to think about it, didn't want to deal with it.
I was uncomfortable because of how it got positioned in this country and because most Americans don't know anybody with AIDS. I didn't know anybody with AIDS. So I started working on this course, but I had no passion for it and so I prayed to God, "Will you please tell me how you feel about this?" A couple weeks later, I got an email from the African church leader with notes from pastors in Africa.
As I was reading the second one, I started weeping--and I'm not a weeping guy. And I didn't know why I was weeping because it wasn't emotional. Well, I went back to work on the course. Two more times I began to sob. I got out of my chair and was crying, now on all fours. I couldn't control it. I said to God "What is going on?" And He said, "You asked me to tell you how I feel about AIDS, and this is how I feel."
The pain in Africa is beyond description. I'm there, and I can't come to grips with what I'm seeing. I was having dinner with a friend there who has a farm. Every day they feed 600 kids-all orphans. And if they don't feed them they'll die.
We have to deal with the question of what does God want done here? My dream is helping other people. You have to sacrifice your life. Whatever God asks you to do always requires the death of the old person and the rebirth of a new person.