AS THE PLANE DESCENDED TOWARDS MALAGA AIRPORT IN SOUTHERN SPAIN, I scanned the surrounding slopes in search of the orange-tiled roof and the white plaster walls of Villa Isabel. How many thousands had passed through this training centre and meeting place over the past 14 years, en route to work in North Africa? I wondered. And how many tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives had been thus indirectly affected by this place?
Friends and well-wishers from far and near converged on the villa this last weekend for a double occasion: to celebrate with the centre’s founders, Garry and Anke Tissingh, their 25th wedding anniversary, and to bid them farewell as they transplant their base of operations to Senegal in western Africa, as directors of YWAM North Africa.
From Morocco and Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, Holland and England, America and even New Zealand, they came especially to recognise the quiet, unassuming but significant pioneering work this couple have done over the past 20 years into North Africa. Workers were present from OM, Wycliffe and the Arab World League, some of the many groups that have used the centre for meetings and training events. Missionary statesman Don McCurry came to testify that Garry was one of his closest confidants.
Guests listened to anecdotes and tributes to the Tissinghs as they crammed into every nook and cranny of the sprawling living space. The books lining the walls comprised what Todd Johnston of the World Christian Encyclopedia once called the best resource centre on North Africa he knew of, a tribute to long-time co-worker, Bep Donatz-Fontein.
Alfonso, pastor of the evangelical church in Ceuta, recalled first meeting the Tissinghs as they arrived with two small children and lived in a camp ground in the early ’80’s. They didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, he had thought then. And he was right. As newcomers to North Africa missions, promoting the work of short-term teams, Garry and Anke were more tolerated than welcomed by the missionary community. Rained out in the camp ground, interrogated for hours at border crossings, having their apartment in Ceuta staked out by Moroccan secret agents, and even enduring the imprisonment of one of their teams from Holland, the early years were tough going for the Tissinghs.
Their youngest son, Daniel, was born against doctor’s advice to have an abortion, when Anke discovered she was pregnant after taking vaccinations in preparation for a trip to Chad across the Sahara. Yet Daniel crossed the Sahara twice before being born in Holland as a robust, healthy baby, and has since grown into a robust, healthy and gifted young man.
In 1989, Garry and Anke made the strategic retreat from Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on African soil opposite Gibraltar, to Malaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol. The next year, Villa Isabel was purchased, a guesthouse at the end of a quiet road looking out towards the city and the snows of Sierra Nevada. Quickly the villa became known amongst the missionary community of North Africa as a place of retreat, hospitality, refreshment and of strategic consultation. Workshops on partnership were held at the villa by InterDev. These led to the formation of the North Africa Partnership, in which over 120 organisations found a framework for cooperation. Garry was pressed into chairing this partnership for a number of years, an indication that the Tissinghs were now seen as senior leaders in the region, not new kids on the block. The widespread acceptance and deployment of short-term missions among the North African mission community was yet another indication of the Tissinghs’ growing influence.
During the celebrations, several thanked Garry and Anke for their networking, trust-developing and bridge-building abilities. Both with low-key temperaments and unpretentious personalities-necessary for work in that part of the world-the Tissinghs are the last people to blow their own trumpet. Yet they have overseen the growth of the YWAM staff in North Africa to number some 180, spread around the perimeters of the Sahara, engaged in some of the least evangelised parts of the world.
But last weekend, it was time to move on for the Tissinghs. Not to move into semi-retirement or to leave their work in North Africa, but to go “further up and deeper in” – to relocate to Senegal and begin pioneering … again. They have handed over leadership of Villa Isabel-now known as the Sahara Centre-to Mark and Gina Fadely. (Gina was recently appointed the international director of Frontier Missions in YWAM.)
The Tissingh children, all young adults now living in London together, urged their parents on during the reception, reminding them they were still in the prime of their lives. You don’t have to be prejudiced through family ties (Anke and my wife are sisters) to recognise that which was clear to all present in the villa over the weekend: that Garry and Anke leave behind a lasting legacy for missions in North Africa after 14 years in Malaga.
And there’s every reason to expect they’ll do the same from Senegal.
Till next week,