God’s calling has taken Keitha Story-Stephenson of Paradise to Ghana in a journey whose lessons can be conveyed simply with five rocks.
Story-Stephenson has known since she was 15 that she was to go to the African country to spread her faith and talents.
“I had been raised to listen for the voice of God, and at 15, I heard it and He told me to go to Africa,” she said. “At the time, that was the last place you wanted your child to go because it sounded like the end of the world. There was a lot of fear. But through college and the seminary, I have studied Africa, I have prayed for Africa, I have sent kids to Africa who are there as missionaries now.”
In May 2011, Story-Stephenson was presented with her opportunity by a childhood friend, Kathy Sullivan. The executive director of Operation Dignity in Minnesota, Sullivan was barely able to finish the question before Story-Stephenson responded without hesitation, with a firm and enthusiastic, ‘Yes!’
“She said, ‘Excuse me?’” Story-Stephenson recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s time. I’m supposed to go to Africa.’ That’s what opened the door.”
Last November, Story-Stephenson made the 26-hour flight to Ghana to teach and preach for a week through SkyBlue Ministries, her ministry in Decatur, embarking on a spiritual journey depicted with five stones.
After stepping off the plane in Accra, Ghana, Story-Stephenson reached down and picked a rock off the ground.
“It was an indication that I had arrived,” she said. “A hard reality – ‘I’m here. I’m truly here.’ The plane ride was long, but this was a firm hold on the reality that I was there. It was a big and burning thing within me that I want to get accomplished.”
That thing, she specified, was the desire to “minister outside of herself” and increase outreach to other areas of the world.
“If not me, then who?” she said. “I think God is an economist. If God is calling you to do a job it’s because he thinks you are the best at it. And if you say no and walk away, he may have to call a hundred people to replace you in every way you may have had an impact. If you feel God calling, you better act on it. He doesn’t call what He doesn’t equip.”
Equipped with the burning desire and her experience through her ministry and Blue Sky Wellness Center, and being older than 15 years, Story-Stephenson pounced on the opportunity to fulfill her calling.
“I was excited to be a part of something larger,” she said. “When you have much, you help those who have little. The calling I had heard all of my life was to Ghana. And it was finally happening.”
Wielded, jagged and equipped
During her time in Ghana, Story-Stephenson taught at Central University and preached at the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church Beulah Temple Asylum-Down.
“You got all your bases covered,” she added with a laugh. “In every corner, there’s a different church. There are some areas where you can find four churches in one block. Fifty percent of the population is Christian, the other 50 percent Muslim. You also have some random numbers that are tribal (religions). But for the most part, they are either Christian or Muslim.”
At the university Story-Stephenson found a river rock to symbolize the heart of her time in Ghana.
“There were 1,500 students that came to a service that I did there,” she said. “We did a three-and-a-half hour service. I only spoke for an hour, and they did praise and worship for two-and-a-half hours. It was awesome.”
Furthermore, as Story-Stephenson points out, the conditions were less than ideal.
“It was 102 degrees, 98 percent humidity, no air conditioning, no fans, everybody’s in suits and ties and dresses,” she said. “But I thought about the rock. I saw it laying on the ground as you walked across, and it kind of looks like it’s been milled, like it’s been cut. And I thought, these are kids that have come here to this Christian university to receive training and to be redirected. Most of them want to go back in and better their own country. That’s really awesome to me.”
While on the trip, Story-Stephenson ventured out to the Ivory Coast, but not without an adventure “going about 70 miles per hour down a narrow, windy road filled with potholes” and delays characterized by a chunk of quartz.
“We took what was supposed to be a three-hour drive, but it turned out to be eight hours through the jungle,” she said. “We came across this gasoline truck that said “inflammable” laying across the road. I asked, ‘How long has it been there?’ Our driver, Martin, said, ‘Maybe nine months.’ I said, ‘Why don’t they move it?’
“‘The owner has not moved it. Six or seven people have been killed hitting it.’ I said, ‘Why doesn’t someone drag it off, at least into the jungle?’ He said, ‘Well, it does not belong to them.’ I said, ‘Well in America, you’d get a ticket for leaving it; they would impound it; they would charge you by the day waiting for you to pick it up … then they would find you, and when they found you, you’d have to pick up that bill.’ And he went, ‘But how could they do that? It does not belong to them. It belongs to the man, and he will come when he is ready.’”
As they passed the truck, the occupants heard a clicking sound. The culprit was determined to be a wire in the battery cable.
“So he said he had to pull over to take care of it,” Story-Stephenson. “We got out, and for some reason there’s this concrete seating thing in the middle of the jungle. So we sit down and 20 to 25 little children appear out of the jungle … who were out harvesting. They visited with us until the driver was done messing with the wires.”
When the repairs were completed, they hopped back in for a short trek before falling victim to another car hassle.
“We get in, and as he starts the car, the right front tire (deflates),” she said, “which could’ve happened at 70 miles an hour in one of those holes. And I thought, ‘Look at this blessing. We could have died.’ So he gets out. He doesn’t have a jack, and he has to work around it. Finally this little cab stops, and they had a jack. So they jacked it up and put the spare on. But the spare was flat, too. So they had to go out in search of air. Mind you, we hadn’t seen anybody for 20 miles except for the children that came out of the jungle. He leaves and comes back with enough air to get us going.
“While I’m there, I pick up a rock. I pick up a rock because I’m in the jungle of Ghana, and in the jungle of Ghana, you do what you can with what you have. And that made me begin to think about the hunger issue.”
In Adagya, the unemployment rate is 98 percent and the average lifespan is 50 years, due to malaria, unsanitary water and poor nutrition, Story-Stephenson advised.
“If I was Ghanaian, I would’ve already been dead,” she said. “It was a reality shock. But no one is going to starve, as long as you can live on fruit, because fruit is very abundant – banana trees, plantains, mangos, papayas, coconuts, cocoa beans,” she said. “Everything is there. And this rock makes me remember they’re doing the best they can.”
Perhaps the most impactful of her collection of stones is a piece of black granite from Elmira Castle on the Ivory Coast, the oldest historical marker in civilized time, Story-Stephenson said.
“Elmira Castle was the scene of all slavery exportation out of Africa,” she said. “While I was there, I had this North American guilt. I felt like I kept needing to apologize to Martin. He looked at me very strangely and asked, ‘Why do you feel bad? We do not feel bad. Everyone bought slaves here, every nation.’”
During a tour of the castle, Story-Stephenson saw many painstaking features including the “doorway to no return” and an adjacent chamber.
“If you were a slave, you were pushed through that doorway, and dropped onto a boat, never to be seen again,” she said. “When you first come into the castle, there’s a room with skulls and crossbones carved into the wall, and if you had any aggression or if you were too big to be managed, you were put in there, the doors were shut – with no air, no windows, no ventilation – until you died. Then you were pushed into the sea.
“It was also here that the word ‘peep hole’ originated,” Story-Stephenson continued. “They had two little slits cut in a closet, and the slave buyer would stand there. The slave would be brought forward and stripped, and they’d look at them through the hole to decide if they wanted to buy them or not.”
In exploring that dark, black chamber, she came across a piece of black granite.
“It’s almost like you could feel the pain and the tears and the crying,” Story-Stephenson said. “The juxtaposition was just jarring because inside the castle were two churches.
“These people would be shoved through the doorway, drop about 40 feet and land on the deck. And they would go into the sea … once you went through there, you would never see home again, never see your family, never see anything of Africa again. You didn’t even know where you were going,” she added. “This one tugged at my heart.”
TEACH A MAN TO FISH
Last year, Operation Dignity was granted land by the government “to build, to better” Ghana by establishing five self-sustaining tilapia fish farms in Adagya, a remote village of the country.
“Each one is about the size of a football field, and they will provide protein for the community,” Story-Stephenson said. “In a couple of years, there should be about a $50,000 difference between what they consume as a village and what they will produce. And they can sell that to the restaurant market. The waters have polluted so they can’t fish them. They’re having to import from Russia, and China. This would give them a place to do that, and it would give them $20,000 to go down the road and do it again.”
Through local organizations such as the Lions Club, Rotary Club, the chambers of commerce, Wise Merchants and Area Business Women’s Network, Story-Stephenson was able to raise $3,000 to go toward the $4,000 initial costs to build all five farms, which should be complete at the end of the summer and in operation by the fall.
“I’m sitting at the top of the hill … and I picked up this rock because it showed me that regardless of how hard the heart is, the blood of Christ can fill it up. To me, that is extremely important,” Story-Stephenson said, holding a piece of clay-colored slate with a line of fossilized clay red running through.
MORE ROCKS TO COLLECT
Shortly after her return from Africa, Story-Stephenson began planning a second trip.
As a family counselor, she hopes to “share better parenting techniques and train better parents.”
In addition, Story-Stephenson has had another project dropped in her heart, one she hopes to fulfill in a return trip in November, almost a year to the date of her first.
“We will be working 100 percent on Dignity Gardens,” she said.
In times of low production during World War I and World War II, when all the farmers were at war and food production dropped, Americans were encouraged to plant a Victory Garden in their homes to grow and produce enough vegetables to sustain themselves.
“We’re having a new influx of that,” she said. “We will be teaching the villagers of Ghana how to cut produce enough to live on from a sack of seeds. That’s cool. We will train people to harvest a communal piece of land where everyone is given a section, to grow what they want to there.
“We will encourage them to plant medicinal herbs and enough to feed their family plus one, and take that plus one, and as a community have something to sell. This will allow communities to grow and prosper.”
And one rock at a time, Story-Stephenson contends that that is what her mission is all about.
“I carry the rocks, and when I’m not traveling, they’re right here (on the window sill), constant reminders of what I’ve learned, solidifying the pursuit of my calling and reminding me there are more to collect.”
For information or to join Story-Stephenson in this mission project, call her at (817) 239-9525. Listen to her radio show at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays on 91.3 KDKR.