Three women with a thirst for God developed a friendship that has spanned more than a decade and keeps strengthening as they pray each other through life's difficulties. A shorter version of this story first appeared in the March issue of The Mennonite.
ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) — The mysteries of prayer raised many questions in Melissa Atchison's scientifically-inclined mind. She noticed that in biblical accounts people heard God speak and sensed God's presence. She wanted that intimacy with God.
"I'd never been taught to pray that way and didn't know anyone who practiced that kind of prayer," Atchison said. "I went looking for more."
Atchison discovered a promising path when she participated in a small-group practice of lectio divina with her congregation, Manhattan (Kansas) Mennonite Church. This method of reading the Bible focuses on the first-hand experience of God revealed in a text rather than on a theological analysis. Her next step led her to a course at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary's (AMBS) Great Plains campus in North Newton, Kansas. This course helped her explore new perspectives on prayer.
As part of her quest to deepen her prayer life, she experimented with liturgical prayer. When she came to the section that called her to "pray for the church abroad," she used Mennonite Mission Network's Mission Mosaic, a pictorial directory of partners and workers.
"I would picture the workers in their location with the help of the handy map on the page and hold them in prayer before God," Atchison said. "It connected me with the work of the church abroad without me ever having left my own house!"
Melissa Atchison. Photo provided.
Atchison met Margaret De Jong in the pages of the Mission Mosaic. So when she got an e-mail asking for urgent prayer for De Jong, who experienced a stroke seven months into her mission assignment in Senegal, she prayed fervently as for a beloved friend.
De Jong had served as a nurse in Haiti for 11 years before beginning a Mission Network assignment in Senegal in 2006. She spent three months in the capital city of Dakar, where she met Patricia Attiba, a language teacher, translator, and cultural interpreter. In addition to Attiba's language expertise in English, French and Wolof (Senegal's major language), she serves as a prison chaplain. She was a chaplain for the Mercy Ship hospital from August 2019 to March 2020, when the ship left the harbor ahead of schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Margaret De Jong and Patricia Attiba. Photo provided.
As Attiba taught De Jong Wolof, the two quickly became friends. They also shared their faith in Jesus, a rare blessing in a country where only 5 percent of the population adheres to the Christian faith.
"I'm usually very reserved," Attiba said. "But with Margaret, I was open. I trust her 200 percent."
Lessons and friendly chats with Attiba continued by phone even after De Jong moved upcountry to a smaller city, Louga. Sept. 25, 2006, started normally with De Jong taking a three-and-half-mile walk. However, she had a severe headache. Then following an immense fatigue, she realized that paralysis was taking over her body. She had just enough time, about five minutes, to telephone teammates before she became totally paralyzed on her right side.
De Jong was taken to a hospital in Dakar, but after 24 hours there, she was evacuated to France. During her time in the hospital, Attiba's family supplied food for all of De Jong's support team of fellow mission workers.
The medical care and De Jong's characteristic determination in partnership with the prayers of Atchison, Attiba, and more than 1,000 Mission Network prayer partners, brought healing. After two weeks in the hospital and four more weeks of recovery, De Jong completely recovered from the internal carotid artery dissection that caused her stroke.
De Jong returned to Louga to continue ministry with Attiba's Wolof tutoring that helped her tell the biblical story of how God loved the world and sent Jesus as healer and Savior. De Jong's healing was a powerful testimony both in Senegal and in Kansas.
"Wow!" Atchinson said. "This was an amazing experience for me to have participated in God's healing miracle, and it became so real and true for me to thank God for Margaret's recovery and for her work in Senegal."
Although she's never had the opportunity to travel outside the United States, Atchison felt that God provided a way through prayer to experience what was happening on another continent.
"I witnessed God's power and realize my own role in stepping into that mystery," she said.
Prior to this experience, Atchison had doubts about asking for whatever came to her mind and expecting God to give it.
"It was that skepticism that nudged me forward to learn how to pray," she said. "In my own faith journey, I had gotten to a point of desiring to pray in a way that pleases God — to have a relationship with our God who is not a vending machine, or a bellboy."
God continued to nudge Atchison toward seminary; one day, she and De Jong ended up in the same Beginning Hebrew language study group!
"We read Hebrew aloud together once each week in an online class — she was in Senegal and I was in Kansas!" Atchinson said. "I knew a bit about who she was, but she only knew me as a classmate who struggled with pronunciation of biblical Hebrew!"
And then in 2014 on the AMBS campus in Elkhart, Indiana, the two women who had such strong spiritual bonds met for the first time in person. Atchison saw a woman, dressed in traditional Senegalese clothing, who had such a welcoming aura that she wasn't at all hesitant to approach De Jong and tell her that she had been praying for her.
"Margaret's immediate reaction was to praise God and tell me how she had felt supported by prayers during that time," Atchison said. "I felt so thankful to God that this was happening. My faith in God grew, knowing that it was by the Holy Spirit moving that we were together in one place, worshiping and learning side-by-side!"
Atchison said that in addition to her friendship with De Jong, she got a bonus boost in spiritual growth by learning to know Attiba.
"This sort of thing only happens through God's movement!" Atchinson said. "Now that I have learned to recognize these amazing ways that God is moving, I notice God's Spirit every day."
Atchison and Attiba share similar parenting challenges that keep them interceding for each other daily.
Atchison completed her degree in Christian Faith Formation this year. She served as interim pastor at Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kansas, is a spiritual director, and curates Together in Worship, an Anabaptist online worship resource collection.
Attiba continues her ministries in Dakar, although things have slowed down a lot due to COVID-19 restrictions. De Jong is now living in northern Maine and working as a hospice nurse.
The three women regularly share their hearts with each other through prayer, texts, social media, and phone calls. They also each carry an identical handbag made of Senegalese fabric, a gift sent by Attiba to symbolize their friendship. The one prayer that awaits God's response is the desire of the three of them to be together in the same space. Atchison and Attiba have not yet met in the physical realm.
"We never know what God is going to do next!" Attiba said.