It’s not easy to explain why a family with two school-aged boys and a toddler with cystic fibrosis would move around the world to write children’s textbooks, settling in the arid capital city of one of the world’s poorest nations to help people they have never met.
“Isn’t that funny? I mean, we live in a miserable place. But for some reason, I love it here,” says Rivers, who in 2008 moved to N’Djamena, Chad with his wife, Becky, and their young family. “God has just put a love in my heart for these people, for the country.”
The Louisiana couple met as students at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. They both felt drawn to missions — Rivers to the Muslim world, and Becky to anywhere but. As she was coming around to the idea of serving in an Islamic country, Rivers suggested they work in oral storytelling among desert nomads, essentially living on a camel. It seemed crazy, until they got in touch with a worker doing just that and learned that TEAM had been searching for five years for someone to serve among nomadic Muslims.
After a short vision trip to Northern Chad in 2005, they were hooked. The couple raised their financial support and spent a year in language school in France before moving to Chad for good in 2008 as workers with TEAM. With two sons at the time, ages 2 and 2-and-a-half months, they house-sat at first in the home of a co-worker recently released from captivity in Northern Chad, where he was being held hostage. The situation was dicey, so TEAM asked them to bide their time in N’Djamena until things cooled down.
Their dreams of becoming camel-riding desert storytellers faded. Instead, they remained in the capital city for a couple of years, learning the language of the nomads they longed to reach. They spent that time doing life together with a family from the north that lived in their front yard. They shot the breeze and drank a lot of tea.
In conversations, Rivers began to see the need for basic literacy training among Chad’s northern people who, if educated at all, are instructed entirely in French. They lacked even elementary-level books in their native language. So the couple began publishing small, basic vocabulary books in the local language. They traveled to visit remote towns and villages to introduce the books.
After three years of service, the family returned to the United States for home assignment. Everything went according to plan, including the birth of their third son, Elliot.
Then came the phone call that changed everything. They were driving away from New Orleans after a doctor’s appointment there to follow up on some abnormal findings from Elliot’s newborn blood screenings. They pulled into a gas station and their cell phone rang. The nurse on the other end told them Elliot had tested overwhelmingly positive for cystic fibrosis.
They hung up and sat parked at the gas station, crying.
“We don’t understand what you’re doing through it, but we know that you’re good,” the couple told God as they sorted through their pain. “We know that you don’t make mistakes and that you love Elliot even more than we do.”
They had to decide if they could go back to Chad. Cystic fibrosis is a respiratory disease that causes the body to produce unusually thick mucus, impeding digestion and dramatically increasing the risk of lung infections. It is often fatal, though many people with cystic fibrosis live into their late 30s and beyond, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
“We didn’t really feel like God had released us from our calling, and that’s what we really struggled with,” Becky says. “Here we have a child that’s sick and really, technically, we shouldn’t be in Africa with a child with cystic fibrosis and sick for his whole life unless God heals him.”
As they wrestled with what to do, Rivers and Becky say God led them to various Scripture passages encouraging them to “fear not,” including the story in 1 Kings of the starving widow and her son who gave up their last flour and oil to feed Elijah, who in turn provided them with a bottomless supply of flour and oil.
“For me, that was a really powerful passage,” says Becky, who felt God was telling her, “‘Follow me first, and trust me to sustain Elliot and his health.’”
With the support of their coworkers and family, the family returned to N’Djamena in 2013, after what Becky calls a series of small miracles to procure all the necessary equipment and medications to manage Elliot’s condition in a country with scarce medical resources.
And managing Elliot’s condition is essentially Becky’s full-time ministry — from the two hours a day it takes to administer his treatments, to coaxing him to eat dietitian-prescribed foods. When Elliot’s sick, Becky switches to round-the-clock vigilance, giving antibiotics, carefully monitoring his breathing, and doing extra “chest percussions,” a process of thumping his front or back with her hand to loosen the mucus in his body.
Becky and Elliot, now 2 years old, travel to France three times a year to see a specialist, undergo tests and bring back a bag full of medications. They also have doctors they work with in Chad, as well as a contingency plan if Elliot has a crisis and needs to be evacuated.
It’s unclear how much their Chadian friends understand about the seriousness of his illness. Elliot looks like a healthy boy, and most of his treatments happen in their home. According to Becky, Chadians tend to downplay sickness and spin even serious illness in a positive light, so she feels hesitant about how much she can share about her son’s condition.
“There are a couple of them that are closer to us, and they hear that he’s really sick, [but] we still came back to Chad,” Becky says. “I think it does mean a lot to them.”
To a degree, Becky is happy for Elliot to not have too much attention from the community just yet. Rivers and Becky believe that God is “up to something” bigger than they can imagine, that perhaps their situation will be used to soften the hearts of the Chadian people. But for the time being, they’re still learning as a family what it looks like to care for Elliot in the heart of Africa.
“We all have days when we just want to say, ‘Forget this, I’m going back to see my family and live an easier life.’ But you have to follow step by step, day by day,” Becky says. “We have our struggles, and we’re not perfect by any means. But we’re just trying to be faithful to what God has called us to do.”
-Written by Andy Olsen
-Photographed by Robert Johnson