He turned his back on a career in law to be a missionary in war-torn Kenya
Alpha Asia Pacific // June 29, 2021, 5:30 pm
"In the end, I had to place everything in God’s hands." Working in areas of conflict in Kenya, this is the principle that Father Francis falls back on when he finds himself in circumstances that are beyond his control. Like a carjacking, for example.
The items that we think are the most important to us may turn out to be less important than we thought, said Father Francis Teo, a Catholic priest and missionary who has spent most of his life in Kenya.
Before leaving for the mission field fresh out of law school over 30 years ago, Father Francis did two things: First, he bought a world map for his parents which he framed and hung in their home “so that they would at least be able to follow which countries I was passing through”.
Then, Father Francis gave away almost everything he owned.
“I thought I wouldn’t need most of the things that I had … clothes, books, everything,” he recalled. “It was very liberating.
“But, 34 years on, I have not even opened that box.”
“And what I thought most precious in my life, I kept in a little carton box. That’s the only thing I had.”
He kept that box in his parents’ home.
“But you know, 34 years on, I have not even opened that box. It is still there, under the staircase.”
In the third episode of the Leadership Conversations video series by Alpha Asia Pacific, Father Francis Teo shares his journey from National University of Singapore law school to missions in far-flung nations.
After giving up a lucrative career as a lawyer to become a missionary in Kenya, Father Francis is now based in Quezon City in the Philippines, where he helps prepare other young men for the mission field.
This excerpt of the Leadership Conversations interview with Father Francis is published by Salt&Light in collaboration with Alpha Asia Pacific.
Protected by AK-47s
We started small agricultural schemes and small-scale projects in order to introduce more sustained food and resources for the people.
“We would camp next to the Omo river. And the tribal people, with AK-47 guns, would camp around us just to protect us.”
We work quite a lot in education, but also in conflict resolution because, along the border areas of that part of Kenya, these are regions of conflict. The Church plays a very instrumental role in bringing the tribes together to sit down, have a dialogue and work for peace.
Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is a development. It is constantly being developed – the Church is a very big player in that area.
Those were fascinating times.
There were no mission houses then – we built that eventually – but we were living in tents, and we would go out and camp next to the Omo river, which is a very long river. And the tribal people, with AK-47 guns, would camp around us just to protect us.
Carjacked and beaten up
There have been moments of uncertainties. When faced with such moments, of course, prayer is needed. Prayer with God and with those in my community.
In the end, I had to place everything in God’s hands.
It’s very important to surrender to God, trusting that He will see us through; He will open a way.
I mean, when I was carjacked and beaten up, and was caught for one day – I still think about it, you know, it still comes to mind – and I thought: “That’s it. I won’t go on.”
In the end, I had to place everything in God’s hands.
I guess that’s what it is.
The times when we don’t have a say anymore, these are the times when God will have the say, not us.
Drop everything and go
This was two years after I was ordained a priest, in 1988 or 1989, and it was about a month before my dad passed away.
I was asked to come back because we weren’t sure of how long more he would live. The priest in charge of us back in Kenya, Father Paco, he said: “Francis, drop everything and go.”
“At the end of your life, you’ll realise that the only thing that matters is the good that you have done.”
I went and I spent the whole month with my dad in the hospital.
I remember one night, when I was next to him on the chair, I saw him slowly stand up because of the pain he felt in his legs and waist. He shuffled very slowly up to the mirror, looking at himself.
When I saw that, I said: “Pa, are you alright?”
He nodded his head and shuffled back to the bed, sat down and told me: “You know, son, if I had to start my life all over again …”
He said: “… I would be a priest like you.”
I was very moved because, for a long time, my dad was not happy about me going on to be a priest.
And I was overwhelmed with emotion. I didn’t know what to say. I just blurted out: “If you did, I wouldn’t exist, you know?”
Then he went on and said: “I realise now that everything that we do is in vain, but when you’re at the end of your life, you’ll realise that the only thing that matters is the good that you have done.”
That taught me a great lesson and something that I apply in my life.
An expression of joy
I think the most important thing that we can learn from the African church is the joy in the expression.
“We’ve walked four hours to come here and you finish it in one hour. No way, Father, go on!”
Here, as a priest, I conduct mass, and everyone is looking at their watch. “One hour, father, one hour.” And if you do it in 45 minutes, you’re a good priest.
But in Africa, if we finished the whole Eucharist and the celebration under one hour, we got scolded.
“How can you do it so fast? We’ve walked four hours to come here and you finish it in one hour. No way, Father, go on!”
When you go to some places and see how staged and solemn things are … Well, maybe it’s the culture of the place, but, really to be Christians, we have to be joyful!
What more when we are expressing our love and our devotion to God. We need to be joyful in that expression!
Watch the interview with Father Francis here:
This excerpt has been republished, with permission, in collaboration with Alpha Asia Pacific.
Alpha is a way to inspire and equip churches to create a space where people from any background can encounter Jesus.
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