Though He called me to be a preacher and teacher of His word, it would be difficult for me to speak of God’s call to one particular place as my wife and I are now in our third sphere of service for Him. I shall begin, however, with our call to Botswana, which first burst upon my consciousness when I was eighteen years old.
I had been saved at the age of eleven in Sakeji School in what was then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, where my parents Norman and Iris Rees were missionaries. For as long as I can remember, I had wanted to be a missionary and there was no question in my mind that I would serve the Lord somewhere in Africa, as it is a continent very dear to my heart. The question was, ‘where’? Stan Ford, an evangelist, came to preach for a couple of nights in the assembly in Aberystwyth, where I was a student, and after the last meeting he shook us all by the hand and went downstairs to his car. To my astonishment, he came back into the hall, came up to me and said, ‘Ian, the Lord wants you in Botswana’. To be honest, I had never heard of Botswana, but I couldn’t get his words out of my mind. I looked up the country in Echoes magazine and began writing to Jim and Irene Legge in Serowe. All sorts of difficulties were thrown in my path before, eventually, I arrived in Serowe, seven years after I first heard Stan Ford’s comment. When my father had wanted to go to Northern Rhodesia in the 1950s, he was told he had to go single and had no right to go engaged to a young lady, even though she was also called to go. When I wanted to go to Botswana in the 1980s, the advice given to me was I could not go single! How things change!
I have always felt that God calls someone to a work by giving him or her a particular desire for that work, by ordering his circumstances towards it, and by confirming it in His word. The interest in Botswana had been awakened along with a desire to go and help there. I graduated with a law degree, but did not last long with an accountancy firm as my heart was now set on Botswana. I went to London and spent a year at the Missionary School of Medicine. On my return to Swansea, I felt I could not apply for jobs involving training as my conscience felt it was wrong to apply for a job knowing – or hoping – I would not be long in it, so I worked as a hospital porter for a year or so. Circumstances were leading me towards missionary work, but how does God call a person through His word to work for Him in a country that is not mentioned in the Bible? Here’s how God did it to me.
On one occasion when Jim Legge was home on furlough, I decided to meet him and hear him give a report on the work in Botswana. I caught a train from Swansea to Cowdenbeath to hear him. Nothing he said spoke to me. However, my reading for that particular day contained the words, ‘Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place’, Mark 6. 31. When Jim had finished speaking on Botswana, Crawford Allison stood up to speak. He had been serving the Lord in Malawi and was a good friend of Jim’s. He prefaced his report on his work in Malawi with the following words, ‘I'm very glad to hear that report from our brother Jim, because, you know, Botswana is a desert place’. That was all he said about Botswana, and there seemed no reason why he should have used those particular words apart from the fact that the Lord immediately linked them in my mind to the reading I had had that morning, ‘come ye apart into a desert place’. Botswana, evidently, was, for me, that desert place.
I was eventually asked by the then editors of Echoes of Service in Bath to move there to work with them. I met my wife, Rebecca, in Manvers Hall, Bath. She had been saved as a young girl and, by the time I met her, had an interest in going as a missionary to Brazil. When she agreed to marry me, I mentioned the problem of her interest in Brazil and mine in Botswana and she replied, ‘There is no problem. Where you go I go’. Rebecca has always faithfully followed me and served with me, even in places to which she has not felt called. Her work has been by my side as a wife, and mother to our children; I could not have done what I have done without her support. And so we married in 1982 and the assembly meeting in Manvers Hall commended us to the grace of God and the work of God in Botswana in 1984. We spent some time learning the language in Serowe and helping in the little assembly there, then moved up to Francistown where, eventually, we built a hall and planted an assembly, which is still there. We were able, also, to give teaching in Livingstone, Zambia, which eventually led to the planting of an English-speaking assembly.
After thirteen years in Botswana, and due to a number of difficult circumstances, I was on the verge of a breakdown. Our commending elders in Manvers Hall, Bath, were very anxious that this should not take place. I remember discussing it with Rebecca on one occasion and she said, ‘I think we should go home’. I replied I was not so sure. She said, ‘If the elders in Bath tell us to go home, we will take it as guidance from the Lord’. I replied, ‘They will never tell us that. They will never advise us what to do’. However, that very evening when Ivor Sampson, one of the godly elders in the Bath assembly, was on the phone to me, I broke down in tears. His response was, ‘Ian, we had an elders’ meeting last night and we feel that you should come home before your health breaks down’. When I mentioned this to Rebecca, she said, ‘This is the guidance we have been looking for’, and within a month we were back in Bath. Thus began the next thirteen years of our service for the Lord. After a year of recovery, the elders insisted that I remain in full-time service for the Lord in this country and so we continued, preaching and teaching in the assembly there and the smaller assemblies round about. I started a Bible Class in the assembly and Rebecca started a Mothers’ and Toddlers’ Group and our home was open to all. I also took on responsibility as an elder in the assembly that had commended us to Botswana, and it steadily grew in numbers.
One thing my wife has always felt is that a Welshman usually returns home to Wales. It was no surprise to her, therefore, as the assembly in Bath grew and there was evidence of much gift in preaching and teaching from other brethren in the assembly, that I began to feel surplus to requirements and felt we should move to Wales, where we could be of more use. Assembly testimony in Swansea and West Wales was a shadow of what it had been when I was a teenager. The Lord gave me an increasing burden to strengthen the existing work in West Wales and also to start something new. He confirmed this through His word and through circumstances in Bath and in Pembrokeshire. Rebecca knew I was itching to move to Wales, and so she suggested I go down and look for a suitable house. I found the one in which we are now living, a dilapidated, empty, country farmhouse, and took her excitedly down to see it. She did not like it! However, she suggested that we try to sell the house in Bath and see if the Lord was in this move. We had tried to sell before, over a number of years, but nothing had come of any attempt.
A few weeks before I saw the house in Pembrokeshire, a leaflet had dropped through our letterbox asking us if we wanted to sell our house. I telephoned the gentleman who had posted the leaflet on the Monday following our visit to Pembrokeshire. He came and saw the house on the Friday evening of that week, and put in an offer for the full asking price the following day. And so we began to pack up the house in Bath to move to this house in the country just outside Narberth, assuredly gathering the Lord was opening up the way. I initially moved down with our two boys to a holiday house in Saundersfoot, kindly made available to us by two believers in the Pen-y-groes assembly, in order to get the boys started in school as soon as possible, as the learning of Welsh is compulsory in all schools in Wales. Our two heroic lads began to learn Welsh at the age of 12 and 14! It was a hard thing for us to attend a farewell supper at Manvers Hall, but the believers were very kind to us and prayed with us as we left.
We have opened up our house here in Pembrokeshire to the young people from the assemblies in this area, and further afield, and have seen their numbers grow. We have witnessed over twenty baptisms in this area in the four years we have been here, and are thrilled to see Saturday evening ministry meetings packed out with youngsters where, five years ago, there were only about thirty older believers sitting at the back of empty halls. We are in happy fellowship in the Carmarthen assembly, to which we were commended by Manvers Hall. Once again I started a Bible Class in the Carmarthen assembly and we have seen a Sunday School re-commence after a Children’s Holiday Bible Club held there two years ago. But what of planting another assembly, a work dear to my heart? It is a remarkable thing that there should be a county in Britain without an assembly of Christians meeting after the New Testament pattern, but Pembrokeshire is one. I started preaching three years ago, every Lord’s Day evening, in a community centre in the town of Tenby, with a view to planting a new assembly there. We average thirty people on a Lord’s Day evening in Tenby, and twenty at the weekly Bible Class there on a Thursday evening. It may be that we will begin breaking bread in Tenby in the will of the Lord this year.
So, though called to full-time work for Him, we have not been called to serve in one place. Some do so all their lives, some are prevented from doing so, and some move on if and when the Lord leads. The important thing for us all as believers is to be open to the Lord’s leading, to serve Him wherever He places us, to give Him our all, and to obey His word.