Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 4
Will Norton could not have been more joyful. The year was 1939; along with an undergraduate degree from Wheaton College, he had just completed his seminary studies at Columbia Bible College. He and his new bride Colene, also a CBC grad, looked with eager anticipation to their upcoming mission work in Africa. They were bound for the Ubangi district of the Belgian Congo (now northwestern Zaire), yet neither of them could possibly know then what a perilous journey lay before them and what courage God would soon demand of them.
The Second World War broke out in Europe that year, making it impossible for the Nortons to get passage directly to Central Africa. In April, 1940, after a full year of waiting, they heard of a freighter traveling from West Texas to Africa which could take twelve passengers. There was only one slight problem — the ship was loaded with fifty-gallon drums of high-octane aviation fuel. But the Nortons jumped at the chance.
Will laughingly remembers, “We decided to board it because the first mate told us if a torpedo hit us, we’d never know it!”
It was no laughing matter then, though. German U-Boats were tyrannizing the Atlantic, torpedoing any ships. Reports also abounded of boats being captured and sunk by the Germans, their American citizens and missionaries ordered into lifeboats and left to die on the ocean.
But the Nortons’ dedication to God was strong; nothing was going to stop them. The trip was agonizingly slow; traveling at a top speed of only nine knots (ten or eleven miles) an hour, the freighter took a month to cross the South Atlantic, but they made it safely.
However, when they reached Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa, they were still nearly 2,500 miles from their final destination of Tandala in the western Congo. And worse, they had no clear directions to get there!
Although they had passage to Monrovia, Liberia, to the south, missionaries in Freetown advised them against going there; because of the war they might not be able to get out. Instead the Nortons waited, hoping and praying for another boat to take them down the west coast of Africa. Three weeks later they boarded a vessel which took them to the port of Douala, Cameroon; here the ship reached its turn-around point, and the Nortons were forced to get off — still 800 miles from their mission station of Tandala.
Left totally on their own, knowing no one and ignorant of the land, the couple faced the almost impossible task of covering hundreds of miles through African bush — during wartime. From Douala, they took a train to Yaounde, Cameroon, which took them one hundred miles closer to their destination, but, again, it was the end of the line — the train went no further.
“We were absolutely stymied,” says Will. “We had no idea how to get to Tandala from there, except to walk. So, I just began walking about on the station platform, listening for someone speaking English so I could ask for help.”
Providentially, God provided two American Presbyterian missionaries at that railway station who invited the Nortons to spend some time at their mission station. Here, the couple pored over maps, trying to decide the best route overland to Tandala.
CAMPING IN THE BUSH
Three days later, undaunted, they chartered a pickup truck, hired an African chauffeur and cookboy (their only guides), stuffed minimal camping supplies (including Will’s Boy Scout cook kit) into the truck, and set out on an unforgettable three-day trip which would take them to Mongumba on the Ubangi River– not their mission station, but they were getting closer!
“The first night, about sunset, we reached a fork in the road,” remembers Will. “We had to decide; do we want to take the northern or southern route to reach Tandala? Africans had advised us to take the northern route; although longer, the road was better. However, being a brash, young, independent American, I decided to take the shorter route. I lived to regret it.”
The next day saw the Nortons ferry across four rivers in dugout canoes, then forge on overland, watching herds of wild buffalo cross their path. Finally, they came to a Swedish mission at Carnot in the Central African Republic. Although the Nortons were total strangers, the missionaries gave them their beds and fed them.
They continued their journey the next morning, and about eight o’clock that night were again forced to stop; to their consternation, the road had literally disappeared.
“It was really spooky,” says Will. “The last twenty to thirty miles there was no road — just grass. The branches of the jungle began to close in over our heads; it was totally dark. We traveled for two hours without seeing a single village. I wished then that I had listened to the African who had told me to take the northern route.”
Just when hope was failing, they came upon the village of Mongumba, whose natives were to ferry them across the Ubangi River into the Congo. The Nortons’ delight quickly turned to horror, however, when they realized they were in great danger and could be killed. A white man’s arrival in a village after dark and without official escort was very unwelcome and cause for great alarm among the natives. In fact, a year later Will discovered that the natives had thought he and Colene were Hitler and his wife!
But God protected the Nortons, and they were not harmed. The natives took them in that night and ferried them across the Ubangi River the next morning. However, a severe storm blew up while they were crossing, dumping torrents of water and stirring the river into a raging current. They survived, but were blown over two hours upstream. Yet, when they stepped out of the boat, soaking wet, they discovered they had reached the town of Libenge, where missionaries were to meet them to take them about twenty miles to the mission station at Kala.
But the missionaries were not there. The telegram sent by the Nortons apparently had never arrived. So, the next morning, they rented yet another truck and driver and headed out into the wilderness toward Kala. About halfway to the mission station they met a beat-up missionary truck, the driver of which turned out to be a member of the mission at Kala. Sending their driver back to Libenge, the Nortons thankfully traveled on with their colleague.
Incredibly, Will and Colene had to travel yet another eighty-five miles to reach their mission work at Tandala. When they arrived there on June 21, 1940, they had been traveling for two and a half months and had covered over eight thousand miles.
BUILDING A SCHOOL
The years in the Congo were tough but rewarding. The first five were wartime years, and supplies were scarce.
“About a year and a half after we arrived, I traveled to a store 120 miles away and bought the last can of flour on the shelf,” Will recalls. “Colene used a grist mill to grind native shelled corn and make grits, which was a staple of our diet for quite a while. I can remember when we were down to our last fifty cents.”
Will’s assignment in the Congo was to found a Bible school for pastors; before he did that, however, he and Colene had to reorganize the primary school so that adults could learn how to read and write adequately before entering Bible school.
Building a Bible school would be a fairly simple project in the United States, but it was a mammoth undertaking in the primitive jungle of the Congo, requiring nine years to complete. All the lumber had to be sawn by hand in the forest and the bricks made by hand from the soil of countless anthills which dotted the landscape.
“I did not learn to make bricks at seminary,” recalls Will with a smile, “so for several months one year we prayed that someone would come to teach us. The Lord sent us the best brick layer in all of that part of Africa. I put six Africans to work with him to learn how to make brick; that’s the way the school was built.”
Yet, a mere three months after the school began, the Nortons were forced to leave Africa. After having given birth to their son Timmy, who died three days later, Colene had contracted malaria, and her medication for the disease had a grave effect on her sympathetic nervous system. The mission doctor could not diagnose her condition, so the Nortons returned to the United States in 1949, disappointed by the disruption of their missionary career.
But God had mission plans for them right here in the United States (see inset).
Will and Colene accomplished a great victory for the Lord in Tandala and overcame tremendous obstacles just getting there. But Will is quick to give all the glory to God.
“The fact that we made the trip safely,” says Will, “makes more precious Psalm 60:12, the verse we took as our own when we married — ‘Through God we will do valiantly, for He it is who will tread down our adversaries.'”
“I have rarely told this story,” continues Will, “because I did not want us to appear to be the hero and heroine of some missionary tale. I tell it now that people may know this: God had His hand on us every step of the way. He lovingly protected us and guided us through harrowing circumstances, as we followed His will. He answered our prayers when we were in need, and He never left us. He will do the same for you, if you follow Him.”
Will Norton: Dedication is His Middle Name
Most men who are almost seventy-five years old have already packed it in and retired, leaning back and enjoying the good life for which they have worked so hard their entire lives.
Not Will Norton, new RTS Professor of Missions — not by a long shot. Here is a man who has, among other things, started one seminary and been president of another, built a Bible school for pastors in the Congo, organized two graduate missions programs, been the director of a theological extension program, co-authored the widely acclaimed book What’s Gone Wrong With the Harvest?, and authored numerous other volumes on missions — all in one lifetime! His indefatigable energy is matched only by his broad experience in cross-cultural missions, upon which he will call as he helps RTS establish a Ph.D. program in intercultural studies and expand its increasingly strong missions program.
It seems that Will’s entire life has been a cross-cultural experience. Born in Chicago to Swedish immigrant parents, he didn’t learn to speak English until age three — when he went out to play. Later the blond-haired Swede had a cross-cultural experience of a different type when he married Colene, a Southern Presbyterian from the low country of South Carolina. She soon introduced him to Southern traditions, including grits, black-eyed peas, and collard greens.
Norton began his missions career nearly fifty years ago in the Belgian Congo, spending over seven years carving a Bible school for pastors out of dense jungle in the most primitive conditions. (See “The Mission Trip to End All Mission Trips.”)
When he and his wife Colene were forced to return to the United States in 1949, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School invited Will to organize a missions program for them. He agreed and spent seven years laying the foundation for what has become one of the finest missions programs in North America. He then served seven years as president of Trinity.
In 1965, Will was asked to establish a missions program at Wheaton similar to that at Trinity. He remained at Wheaton for the next fifteen years, the last eight of which he served with distinction as dean of the graduate school.
At the age of sixty-five, Will retired from teaching, but he was not about to twiddle his thumbs. The Chairman of the Science Division at Wheaton asked the Nortons if they would be interested in establishing a new seminary in northern Nigeria for ECWA (The Evangelical Churches of West Africa). Will traveled to Nigeria and was overwhelmed by the need. How could he say no?
For the next three years Will worked tirelessly to start the seminary; the first graduating class of JETS (Jos ECWA Theological Seminary) had twenty-three students. Today, the seminary is a thriving institution administered by Africans, most of whom have earned doctorates. As many as 300 Africans apply each year for admission, and only thirty can be accepted.
In 1983 Will was invited to be the executive director of CAMEO (Committee to Assist Ministry Education Overseas), an international mission organization designed to help improve theological education throughout the former mission lands of the Third World. As director, Will helped develop evangelical seminary programs in different parts of the world; he also facilitated contact between North American seminary administrators and their Third World peers to develop cooperative programs.
God has blessed Will Norton with abundant skills and has afforded him a lifetime filled with opportunities to put those skills to work. Will has taken advantage of every occasion to do just that, all because of his love for Christ. Scripture tells us that from everyone who has been given much, much will be required (Luke 12:48). I don’t think Will Norton has much trouble with that verse, do you?
HOW YOUR CHURCH CAN DEVELOP AN EFFECTIVE MISSIONS PROGRAM