“It’s Dave Golding! Is Denise here?” Those simple words will always be etched in my memory as they rocked my world and changed the direction of my life forever. I had been curled up in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee in the home of the dorm administrators, Evan and Jewel Evans, at International Christian Academy in the Ivory Coast. It was our day off from our active role as dorm parents to twenty-two middle school boys, and I was enjoying a relaxing visit with several other staff women before my husband Dave and I planned to spend the day together. Suddenly one of the dorm assistants came running through the door with panic in her voice. I ran as fast as I could down to the track, where she told me Dave had collapsed.
As soon as I rounded the corner and saw his lifeless body receiving CPR from both school nurses, I knew in my heart my gentle giant was gone. The nurses continued CPR, and he was lifted into the back of a truck and rushed to a local clinic. Instead of going with him, I made the quick decision to go and find my three children, Josh, Mark and Nikki, in their classrooms. I wanted to be with them when they got the news about their dad. It was not long before the director of the school, Dan Grudda, came to our dorm apartment. My children will never forget his words, “I am sorry, but your dad isn’t coming home.”
So many thoughts and emotions overwhelmed my mind and heart in the following hours and days. I remember thinking, how can I raise my children alone? How do I help my children cope with this loss when my own grief is so overwhelming? And another huge question was, Is this the end of my life as a missionary?
Called by God
My call to missions actually began when I was a young girl, several years before I came to know Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. I was born in Vancouver, B.C. and then spent my childhood in Vernon, B.C. I was raised in a non-Christian home. Though I understood God was real, I was not taught anything about a personal relationship with Him. My parents sent me to a girl’s club at the United Church where, from time to time, we were shown slide presentations about missionaries in different parts of the world.
I still remember the day I saw the slides of Africa. Though as a young child, I thought being a missionary simply meant going and helping people, I decided I wanted to be a missionary in Africa when I grew up. But, of course, these were the thoughts of a young child of ten. Several years later, at the age of seventeen, I was introduced to Jesus and began to understand what it meant to give Him my heart.
In my teenage search for meaning and purpose, I encountered friends who spoke to me about the Christian faith and modelled radical change in their lives. One night, alone in my room, I knelt beside my bed and gave my life to Jesus. With my decision came a refining of the call to be a missionary. I had already planned to go to nursing school after graduation, but now I knew I wanted to use my nursing skills to serve the Lord in Africa. I started attending the Alliance church in Vernon, and there I was discipled in my new faith and encouraged in my future goals. Pastor Keith Taylor recommended I consider eventually attending Canadian Bible College in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Preparing for Missions
After two and a half years of nurses training at Okanagan College to acquire my diploma and become a registered nurse, I got my first job in a small hospital in Creston, B.C. I had not given up on my missionary plans but felt I wanted to spend some time gaining nursing experience. I was only there for a few months before the Lord used a dating relationship gone sour to direct my sights on the goal of heading overseas. That summer, while taking a day off at the beach, I read through the brochure for Canadian Bible College, and within a couple of days, I began the application process to attend a year later.
Though I knew there was a possibility I could meet a man at Bible college who would be my life partner, I did not want to go there with that being my focus or expectation. So, I made my plans believing there was a good chance I would go to the mission field as a single woman, and I was perfectly at peace. I was not prepared for reality; after only one week at Bible college, while sitting in the college cafeteria, I would meet the man who would become my husband. Dave Golding was a tall, gentle, godly man whose heart was also set on serving the Lord overseas. We married the summer before our final year of college then finished classes, received our accreditation with The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), and graduated together.
Before being approved for overseas service, the C&MA required that we serve at least two years in a local church. We were invited by Harvey Town, the district superintendent of the Western Canadian District, to do a church plant in Yellowknife, NWT. So only a few weeks after graduation, we took the long road north. I was eight weeks pregnant with our first child, so we were very excited for our first ministry together and to start our family.
The time in Yellowknife was challenging in many ways, but at the end of our two years, we felt it was not yet the right time to leave this floundering church; if we did, it would feel like we were just looking for an escape. So, we spent two more years there and then sensed it was the right time for the church and us to move toward our goal of overseas ministries. Looking back, I know all the challenges helped us grow in our marriage, grow in our ability to work together, and prepare us for even more significant challenges ahead.
While we were in Yellowknife, God defined His calling on us as a couple. Up until then, though Dave knew he was called to the mission field, he did not sense a call to any specific place. For me, I still felt a very definite call to Africa but was open to God redirecting my heart. While I stayed home with our very young boys, Dave attended General Assembly in Eastern Canada. He had a couple of life-changing conversations with missionaries from Africa, who told him that his friendly, open personality would fit well within the African culture. Dave came home from his week away and said to me, “Denise, I feel that God is calling us to West Africa.”
The next couple of years were spent back in Regina, where Dave attended Canadian Theological Seminary to earn his Masters in Missiology. I supported him by caring for our little family of three children and helping edit the many papers he had to write. One of his most extensive assignments was to do an in-depth study on the Senoufo people, an essentially unreached people group in the southern part of Burkina Faso. After completing this study, we were officially assigned to church planting and evangelism among the Senoufo people, serving with the C&MA. We then moved to Quebec to attend Laval University together for our French language training. Because Dave found language learning incredibly challenging, we extended our time there a few extra months. Finally, in late December 1994, our young family boarded a plane for Burkina Faso, West Africa.
As we circled over the capital city of Ouagadougou before landing, my anxiety was very high, and I was asking myself, what have we got ourselves into? All the preparation we received through language study and pre-field orientation just seemed to disappear in the overwhelming reality of spending the next three and a half years, and potentially many more, in this extraordinary place. The large “boulder” I felt in my stomach would not go away for almost six months. I found out later, Dave had a matching boulder.
We found our primary role as missionaries was to equip and encourage the national pastors so they could reach their own people with the Gospel. So, during our time in Dakoro, we made weekly trips by motorbike to visit each of the other four pastors in the surrounding villages. While Dave met with the men, I would work with the pastor’s wives, teaching them to read and write. In Dakoro, I worked with Marthe to conduct a reading and writing class in the village.
Another large project I took on during our years in Burkina Faso was translating an English Sunday school curriculum into French and Jula. The material, thirty-seven in-depth lessons on Bible stories and theology from Genesis to Revelation, had been donated to another missionary who had since left the field. I took on the task of simplifying the lessons in English and then working with an English-speaking Burkinabe pastor to translate the lessons into French and Jula. All the long, meticulous hours were worth it when I found, even after we left Burkina Faso, this material was being used by the nationals to teach their own people. But, just as important, I know God used that experience to deepen my own faith and be awestruck at the wonder of the gospel message contained in these lessons.
While we were in Dakoro, God laid it on the heart of a couple back in our home church to visit us in the village and bring the financial resources needed to build a church structure for the small body of believers there. Unfortunately, partway through the building process, we were stopped by the authority of the village chief, and none of us would be there for the completion. I found out several years later the door finally had been opened to complete the work. Due to the ongoing work of the national pastors and other missionaries, there is a growing church body in the village.
During this second term, despite the direction, resources, and good relationships we had while doing ministry in the village, there was a tugging on our hearts we found hard to understand. While on our visits to ICA to see our children, the boarding administrators approached us multiple times to consider changing our missionary career to become dorm parents. They strongly felt that our gifting and natural love for kids would be assets to the school boarding program. We could not deny the strong pull we felt to say yes, but at the same time, a strong sense of loyalty to continue what we had just begun in Dakoro and the surrounding area. We questioned if this was God calling us, and if so, why would He have us in Dakoro for such a short time? We wrestled with the motivation of our own hearts. Were we just feeling this way because it would keep us close to our kids? Dave voiced the struggle in saying he felt like being a dorm parent was not “real” missionary work.
Then one night, Dave woke up suddenly and was washed over with an overwhelming peace and an almost audible voice saying this was from the Lord. In the following days and weeks, many miracles and changes took place, none of which we could have imagined or orchestrated ourselves. After a short return to North America for screening and training, in August 2001, we moved from Dakoro to Bouake and started our new role as dorm parents to the middle school boys of Bethel dorm.
Despite a big learning curve and many challenges, the following year was a year of deep fulfilment in ministry. We loved being dorm parents to these third culture kids whose parents were serving in missions, and we loved the process of strangers becoming family in a very short time. We also loved being a part of our own kids’ lives in what had been their world up until then. Dave and I were deeply impacted by the reality of our work being just as vital to the gospel message going out as if we were on the frontlines. We knew from first-hand experience, if we had the assurance our children were doing well, then we could pour into our ministry wholeheartedly. This was now a gift we had to offer the families of “our” boys.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere in the Ivory Coast had been changing, and there was unrest in the air which had not been there when we started our missionary career. In the summer after our first year, we experienced the trauma of armed robbers invading the campus, shooting a guard while he was face down on the ground, and taking our business manager captive for several hours before he was able to escape. As we entered our second year, there was a sense of uneasiness, compounded by Dave experiencing some heart symptoms of concern. Even after he saw a cardiologist and was given a “clean bill of health,” I could not let go of my concern; I found out later Dave had actually asked permission to take a leave back to Canada to get more thoroughly checked. But before this could ever happen, on September 18, 2002, Dave collapsed and died instantly while running on the track at ICA. I was told he did not even put his hands down to stop his fall forward.
Two days later, still in shock, we suddenly found ourselves caught in the middle of a civil war breaking out between government military and rebel forces. Though our campus was not under direct attack, we were certainly in danger at times as gunfire raged around us. One evening it was right over our walls. What followed was a week of putting grief on hold while, with help, I continued to care for my dorm family and my own children. We experienced several lockdowns in the lower hall of our dorm. Finally, after what seemed like the longest week of my life, we were evacuated by the French army. Multiple French military vehicles escorted twenty-six campus vehicles carrying one hundred and sixty-five staff and students on a twelve-hour trip overnight through the bush. We arrived at the city of Yamoussoukro, located only one and a half hours south of Bouake by the main road. Each of us was only carrying a backpack of belongings.
From there, after quick and painful good-byes, my children and I were driven by a U.S. embassy vehicle south to the airport in the capital city of Abidjan, where we were met by colleagues Dave and Cyndy Ingram. I will never forget the relief I felt when I saw their familiar faces as they stood on the curb waiting for us to arrive. They helped us through the steps of getting on to our pre-booked flight home, and soon we found ourselves in the air, leaving the place we had come to love as home, without our beloved husband and father. I was to find out later Dan Grudda had stayed and taken the risk to get Dave’s body out of the morgue and down to Yamoussoukro, where he was given a proper burial by the grace and help of the body of believers at the Bible school there.
Return to Canada
Back in Canada, after being quietly whisked through a private, customs check in Calgary to avoid the possible onslaught of media, my children and I were welcomed by our family and Ron and Myra Brown. They were our regional developers at the time. Two days later, in a planned press conference at Harvest Hills Alliance Church, the media was given the opportunity to hear my story before we left for Vernon to stay with my parents.
It was very surreal to read the multiple newspaper articles surrounding the events of Dave’s death and our escape from the war zone. It would be three years before I dared to watch the news clips. Even amid all the turmoil, I remember thinking how gracious God was to have called us from Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast, and the tapestry of His planning even when we do not understand it. If Dave’s heart had given out when it did while living in Burkina, my children would have been separated from me when they got the news about their dad and when the war broke out. The borders were closed, and I would not have been able to get to them.
Upon Dave’s death, we began making plans to only spend a couple of weeks back in Canada before returning to finish the school year, but the war changed everything. Within a brief time after arriving, I received a call from Ron Brown letting me know I needed to enrol my children in school and make plans to stay in Canada. When I broke the news to them, the deep sadness in my children was a reflection of the deep sadness in my own heart. Africa, where I had felt a boulder in my stomach when I first arrived, had become our home, a place our family was thriving, and where we were being used to advance the Kingdom of God.
The next few years were challenging ones. I took a position at Vernon Alliance Church as children’s pastor, as my nursing license had long expired. Though I worked hard, my heart was not in it. Instead, my heart ached for Dave, for Africa, and for my hurting teenage children, struggling with their own grief. I kept wishing we could “rewind the tape.” One of the few highlights for me during this season was serving alongside Becky Matchullis in running the kids camp for the Alliance third culture kids attending Home Ministry Seminar (HMS) with their parents each summer. It was a small way I could serve the missionary community I had once been a part of.
I have often heard the expression “time heals,” but my experience is “time helps,” and nothing ever stays the same. In 2006, I decided to refresh my nurse’s training and become a practicing R.N. once again. During Spring Break, I took my children on a trip back to Africa, to Dakar, Senegal, where a large number of students and staff from ICA had moved to immediately after the evacuation from the Ivory Coast. We stayed with the Evans family and connected with many friends who were now a part of the Dakar Academy (DA) campus. It was a healing time for all of us, but little did I know that the Lord was using it to prepare me for another season of missionary service.
Carried by God
Just as I have experienced the grace of God in my life in the wake of tragedy, I have also seen this very clearly in the lives of my children. Despite the significant losses they experienced while still young and the many challenges they faced in the years that followed, they have grown into mature adults who handle life in healthy ways. They do not live as “victims” but are always seeking to grow and learn, not only in their relationship with the Lord but in all aspects of life’s journey. Each one has chosen a career path that serves people. God has carried them just as He has carried me.
As I have walked this life filled with great joy and great sorrow, I have learned some significant lessons on the journey.
- When God asks us to trust Him, He allows opportunities for us to have to do that.
- When God calls us to serve Him, He does not promise that it will be without sacrifice.
- When God says that His grace is sufficient, we may need to lose everything to truly understand.
- When God calls us to serve Him, it is not up to us to decide what it will look like.
- When God says He loves us, we are challenged to redefine our understanding of love.
- When God says He will give us hope and a future, it is much more about our relationship with Him than our life circumstances.
These are not necessarily one-time lessons, but without a doubt, the same God who calls me will also carry me until the day He takes me home. There have been many times over the years, as people have heard my story, they have suggested I write a book. My answer has always been, “The story isn’t over yet!”