You are here

Heather Johnstone: Putting my call into action

Heather Johnstone

In 2011, after almost 30 years’ experience in the corporate world I was made redundant. In fact, I made myself redundant – as I was by then the Head of HR in a business risk consultancy. In a major reorganisation, I had to tell over 100 people they were losing their jobs, and it was quickly clear I was among them.

As traumatic as it was at the time, I now feel that God definitely had his hand in it and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

It forced me to re-examine and re-evaluate values and ethics that were important to me in my life as a Christian. I had ony become a Christian in October 2009.

Start exploring your call today with the FREE.IN.DEED web app

For a long time I had been uneasy with the company and its sole focus on 'the bottom line'. It was when the recession was really biting and while I had looked around for other jobs, redundancy was the shove I needed!

Looking at the Tearfund website for paid work, I saw a short term opportunity with their partner Go MAD (Make a Difference) – 14 weeks in Tanzania helping build water tanks and latrines to improve sanitation and prevent water-borne disease.

Looking for a sign

I went to my vicar to pray about it and she asked God to provide a sign that it was the right thing for me – as explicit as the 'writing on the wall' in the book of Daniel. 

As I waited at the pedestrian crossing after our meeting I looked down at the pavement and saw the scrawled letters TF – which I assume were connected with maintenance work. But for me they stood for Tearfund and confirmed that I was going to Tanzania!

Although I was the oldest (by far!) in a group mainly made up of gap year students, I was the youngest in terms of my faith. Over the 14 weeks, although we encountered extreme poverty, illness, and adversity first hand, we turned to prayer whenever we could and knew without doubt that God was with us and was guiding us.

We met the most wonderful, friendly and deeply spiritual people – people who had nothing, yet welcomed us into their family with genuine love and companionship. It was fantastic to be able to share in the love of Christ together – a love that transcends all boundaries.

Hearing the voiceless

During that trip I felt that God was directing me and opening doors and opportunities. While there I met Amy Vink, a CMS Australia mission partner who was leading the Diocese of Mara’s Rehema Project. She had been praying for someone to take over the work while she and her husband were on home leave in Australia for six months. I jumped at the chance.

The additional six months quickly turned into 12, as I worked alongside the most disadvantaged women and children of the area. Rehema means "mercy and compassion" and its aim is to be "the voice of the voiceless". Two enterprises, a cafe and a crafts workshop with its own shop, provide women who may have been abused or are living with HIV/AIDS with new skills and a chance to earn money.

The profit generated goes to Rehema Assistance which benefits the women and children in crisis – women and children whose basic needs aren’t met. They don’t have food, clothing, or shelter to keep them dry in the rain and are susceptible to all sorts of illnesses because of malnutrition.

They are trapped in poverty, with little hope, and as Christians we are compelled, because of Christ’s love, to show love, compassion and mercy.

New priorities

Living and working shoulder to shoulder with people in these circumstances makes you rethink your own priorities. It really made me want to try and help these people change their lives by providing a hand up – jobs and opportunities to empower them so they can put supper on the table for their family and pay for the most basic medical needs or buy mosquito nets. The tiniest things by our Western standards, but the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty for them.

Next, to my surprise, came another Go MAD venture to India to work with a Dalit community. This further cemented my call.

I feel that God called me to short term mission to give me a taster of life in long term mission.

Through the short term experiences both in Tanzania and India, my outlook and approach to life had quickly changed.

So when the opportunity arose to return to Tanzania to run the Rehema Project on a permanent basis I did not hesitate to follow the call.

The Diocese of Mara, led by Bishop Hilkiah Omindo, has a vision which I share – to start a women’s shelter in the near future to protect the region’s most vulnerable women and girls from abuse. I would also like to investigate the possibility of opening a guest house as an income-generating project to fund the shelter.

Part of the family

Having been an independent mission partner for a year, I was acutely aware that I wanted to return with the backing of an organisation. From the practical (it had suddenly occurred to me in Tanzania that no one even knew who to contact if I had accident) to the spiritual (Church Mission Society adds to the prayerful support of my own church through other 'link churches' who take an interest in my work), it is great to have their backing.

They arranged a mentor too, someone who has already served in mission in Africa, who knows the struggles and challenges involved.

I thank God every day for this opportunity to serve him and to be a part of the Church Mission Society family.

Start exploring your call today with the FREE.IN.DEED web app