by Kayla Sosa | photos courtesy of Graci Harkema
Thirty-five years ago, Ray and Jayn Harkema lives changed forever. After attending an informational meeting, they felt called to be Christian missionaries in Africa. They had four children at the time, and pretty soon the entire family packed up and moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they stayed for four years. During that time, they adopted their daughter Graci, an orphan with a life expectancy of mere hours. Graci survived and thrived in the care of the Harkemas and has grown to be a vital advocate for the LGBT community in Grand Rapids. She has since gone back to visit her biological mother in the Congo.
Today, Ray and Jayn spend six months out of the year in the Congo, continuing the work they feel called to do. Before they left on their most recent trip, they gave us inspiring insight into their lives of service and dedication to others.
WLM: What kind of work did you do in the Congo the first time you went in the ‘80s?
Ray Harkema: We were in what was called a support position. We had Bible translators in the mission, along with medical people in the mission, clinics, printing press and translators.
Jayn Harkema: And teachers.
RH: They needed people who could do practical things. I am mechanically inclined and able to repair anything, so I kept everybody’s cars, motorcycles and houses going at that time.
J: I was a support person in that we had various missionaries in the jungle in different places where they couldn’t get food— or anything, really. At that time, we had only radio contact. We had a mission plane, a six-seater; they would give me lists of groceries they needed, and I would buy it, weigh it and bring it to the plane. I also was a teacher. I taught classes and went to the prison.
And of course, everything changed while we were there. The Internet came into being. Cell phones weren’t in existence when we left; when we came home they were. When we left, computers were big things for businesses; when we came home they were for individuals. Life changed so much in the four years we were gone, it was very difficult to find our place here when we returned.
WLM: What kind of work are you doing now?
J: We’re involved with all kinds of things, but the mission that we’re with now has a house called Tracy’s Heart. It’s a foundation for women who have been raped, abused and forced into prostitution. People can’t afford to keep their children, so they force them into prostitution at age 12. And many of them have died. At Tracy’s Heart, women spend every day for an entire year learning. First of all, they learn they’re loved. They have no value; once you’ve been raped or abused, you can’t go home, because you’re not accepted in their village. They’re marginalized women who have no life, and we teach them that they’re valued and loved. We train them in a trade. After a year of learning their trade, we give them a gift. For instance, if they learn to sew with a sewing machine, we give them a sewing machine, and they start a business. There are other things that we train them to do as well so that they can run their own business, get their own place eventually and feed their children.
We had a graduation ceremony just before we left this last time. One by one they’re given a certificate and whichever gift they get to start their business. I was sitting in the audience before I gave out the gifts, and I watched some of these (women) march by who had never been celebrated before on any level; now they’re celebrated, and they know they’re loved. They have an opportunity to build a business that will allow them to take care of themselves and their children.
R: We have a portable sawmill to cut boards that was brought over by missionaries before us, and we’re trying to get that project going where we hire people to cut the trees down, cut them into boards and sell them. When we go back we’re going to try get that sawmill up and running.
J: I’ve been asked to start a school for orphans.
That’s a real challenge for me because that’s going to take some funds. I’m going to have to look up foundations and grants and all of that. So when I go over, one of my main jobs is to explore the feasibility: how to find a place, how to raise funds and create
Of all the people we know, everyone has taken in one, two, even three orphans because of so many deaths of parents. They may be able to send their biological kids, but they have no money to send orphans to school. I’m so thrilled almost everybody who works for us has taken in orphans. I think that’s amazing, especially when they have almost nothing themselves.
WLM: What are the conditions like inthe Congo?
J: The people are warm and caring and happy. They live in such poverty. To our (American) way of thinking, they have more peace and happiness without any reason. They’re beautiful people: wonderful, warm, entrepreneurial, and they do what they have to do to survive. It’s a very difficult life.
R: There’s probably 95 percent employment. So when we’re there, we hire a number
of people and they’re just so grateful because they have a wage that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
WLM: How has spending so much time in a third-world country affected your worldview?
J: We’re not the same people. World events are more important to us. It was amazing to us to never find news about any country in Africa on our news stations. We had to go looking for it.
R: The big thing is we realize that the world is bigger than the U.S., but the U.S. influences the whole world. When you’re over there, they know what’s going on here. If there’s a hurricane or a typhoon or earthquake in different parts of the world, we kind of know what that’s like because it affects real people, just like the people here, and they need real support. A lot of people, when they grow up in the U.S., they don’t even hear about it, they don’t care about it; they just live in Grand Rapids, or wherever they are, and only worry about their little part of the world.
WLM: Why did you decide to dedicate your lives to giving to others?
J: We knew we were called. Of course, I said we have this God thing going on, and He gives us desires. He opens the doors to make those things happen. So, for us that’s the bottom line.
Wealth is not mere money; it’s purpose and destiny. When you have purpose, and you know your destiny, life is good. Life is really good.