Missionary Diary: All in for a life in the wild west

Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries Nathan and Diane Lovell serve at George Whitefield College in Cape Town, South Africa.

Just over a decade ago, Diane and I touched down in Cape Town, full of anticipation and a little apprehension about what might lie ahead. By that time, we had been married for about six years and graduated together from Moore Theological College in Sydney.

After the usual CMS training and the valuable partnerships we formed with churches in Australia, we sold everything we had, got on a plane, and never looked back.

In 2011, I joined the faculty at George Whitefield College, an Anglican training institution in South Africa with students from all over the continent. Initially, I taught anything I was given, but over time I settled into a specialty in Old Testament. Diane began to work on a Bible Translation project in Zambia with The Seed Company, an affiliate organisation of Wycliffe Bible Translators. God has blessed us with two kids, born in 2012 (Shiri) and 2014 (Isaac).

It’s a little tricky to summarise all the things that came in between. By God’s grace, it’s been full and rich. But, depending on how you tell it, our story can look like a lot of different things.

Nathan and Diane Lovell with Shiri and Isaac

We could tell it as the story of the fruit of long-term mission. I’ve been here long enough to watch my students earn higher degrees and become teachers themselves. Former students are the senior ministers in many of the churches around now, or missionaries overseas, or university workers. Some are evangelists. There are so many jobs I used to do and classes that I used to teach, but no longer because they are done and taught by the people I once did them for.

In our time here, Diane has seen a people group who didn’t even have an alphabet for their heart language invent one, translate, and write down the gospel of Luke using it. She’s also seen the visual word of God come to the South African Deaf community in the form of a video sign-language Bible. Obviously, we’ve been just small parts in bigger organisations that God is using for the good of his church. But it’s been a privilege to play a role in what God is doing here. Ours could be the story of God building his kingdom.

Ours could be a story of God’s protection and provision.

But we could tell our story in other ways as well. We think we live in the most beautiful place on the planet, but people who visit us often tell us how Cape Town is like the wild-west compared to where they came from.

Looking back, we’ve certainly had our share of ups and downs. Our suburb has been filled with thick black smoke when a train carriage was lit on fire by protesters. We’ve had gang-related taxi-war shoot-outs down the road, bushfires close enough to hear the crackling, a massive city-wide drought where four million people were reduced for many months to showering once a week in a bucket. I’ve been mugged on the street by three men armed with screwdrivers and have counselled students who were robbed at gunpoint. We’ve had car thieves lose control and crash through our neighbour’s brick fence at 3am. It sounded like a bomb!

But through all of this, and COVID, and much more besides, God has kept us safe. As an Egyptian friend of mine reminded me many years ago, shortly after the Arab Spring uprisings, it’s not the country that keeps you safe. Ours could be a story of God’s protection and provision.

Celebrating academic achievement: Nathan and Diane Lovell

There are other ways to tell our story too. So much of our journey hasn’t been about what we’ve been doing or things that have happened but about what God has been doing in us personally. Our children, both born since we began work here, are growing in their knowledge, love of God, and empathy for those around them. Diane and I have had to learn how to be parents, making what felt like more than our fair share of mistakes as we went. Over the years, we’ve built close friendships here and a church community. And we thank God for those people.

During the time we’ve been here, we’ve had many accomplishments and many challenges. I’ve finished my PhD in Old Testament and published it. I’ve started writing commentaries and books. And I’ve become the Director of Research (looking after the postgraduate program) in the college. Diane handed in her Master’s dissertation in Bible translation late last year and is on the way to being a full-time consultant with SIL Southern Africa. And she has also been working as Dean of Women at GWC for the last several years, providing support and love to the 40 or so female students, even when COVID lockdowns stranded many of them from their families and countries. We’ve had to grow and learn quite a lot to do all these things. And God has been shaping us.

There have been enormous personal challenges too. Troubled relationships sometimes, far away loved ones, loss, and grief. But God has been gracious with us in the times we fumbled along. Ours could be the story of God’s patience and faithful love.

But in the end, I suppose, our story is simpler. It’s just a normal life. God sent us to live in South Africa. We went all in. And that’s that. God gave us a life, with all of the joys and sorrows, ups and downs, friends and frenemies, dangers and luxuries, accomplishments and failures you would expect. And we’re really grateful for the story God wrote for us. Just as he does with all of his children, he protects us and provides our needs, is patient with us and loves us as we grow, and graciously uses us to build up his church as we love those around us, most of whom happen to be Africans.

We’re not finished yet, of course. We’re looking forward to where our story will go from here. We like the author.