Above: If a hut was not available, the Van Gorkoms conducted church under the shade of the nearest acacia tree. The “congregation” included anyone within hearing distance, those who were called to the meeting and curious onlookers. Bunna men typically carried small stools to sit on and were often armed with automatic weapons and adorned with ear piercings and elaborate hairdos.
To this day, Fred Van Gorkom still doesn’t know how his vehicle managed to cling to the edge of the cliff and not plunge 1,000 feet into the ravine.
Van Gorkom, a missionary with Christian Veterinary Mission in Ethiopia, was confronted with a choice as he rounded a corner on the gravel mountain road. With a speeding bus barreling toward him, he could either swerve left and risk going over the drop-off or turn right and hope to survive getting crushed between the bus and mountainside.
Van Gorkom chose the former, and as his two outside tires dangled precariously over the edge – “probably held up by an angel,” he says – his passenger knew there had to be a God. “He became a Christian right there and then,” Van Gorkom laughs. “We both knew we should be dead.”
For Van Gorkom – a 1979 George Fox graduate honored by the Alumni Association as its 2013 Christian Service Award recipient – it was yet another reminder that God could do anything: guide a bullet, quell an army, deliver a family from a raging river, and in this case, defy physics and gravity.
Van Gorkom adjusts a microscope to test a stool or blood sample from a patient at the vet clinic. Blood and gastrointestinal parasites are common in Africa, so a microscope is a necessity.
A fateful phone call
As a biology major at George Fox in the late 1970s, Van Gorkom – inspired by “the great missions emphasis the school has” – considered going on the mission field but doubted his credentials. “I’d get inspired by chapel speakers and think, ‘Maybe I’ll do short-term missions or I’ll support missions.’ But I always thought being a missionary was something somebody else did. I said, ‘God, there’s no way you can use me. I’m no spiritual giant, and I’m just not that great a guy.’”
It was during his second year of veterinary school at Washington State University that he felt the unmistakable call to go into the ministry – and specifically, to serve as a missionary. “God really hit me with Romans 12:1 – ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.’ I was convicted by it, because if I was really on the altar as a living sacrifice I couldn’t presuppose what God wanted me to do. I had to say, ‘Your will be done, no matter what,’ so I knelt by my bed and prayed, ‘Lord I know you’re smarter than this, I know you’ve got better people than this, but if you want me to go, OK.’”
Still, upon graduation in 1983, he wasn’t completely sold on the idea – and he further questioned the calling when, upon applying for service-oriented jobs, he ran into dead ends. He applied to the Peace Corps and was told to get experience in the U.S. before working overseas. Mission organizations told him the same. “I thought, ‘God is beginning to agree with me,’” he reasoned.
Perhaps finding work at home was meant to be after all. He was leaning that direction when, as he was leaving his WSU housing for the last time, he heard the phone ring. On the line was Christian Veterinary Mission with a proposal: “We want you to go to Ethiopia.”
Van Gorkom balked. “I thought you wanted someone with experience,” he retorted. He was told it would only be a six-month commitment. “I figured, ‘Six months? Why not? I can do the missions thing and then come home and get my career started.’”
If only God’s plans were that convenient.
Van Gorkom consults with Garsho (on his left), the local Bunna pastor whom Fred trained to diagnose and treat at the vet clinic. The clinic was constructed from two shipping containers and equipped with a chute welded from metal water pipes.
A 25-year odyssey
Van Gorkom accepted the offer – only the “six-month assignment” turned into a 25-year odyssey as a veterinarian and church planter in Ethiopia. Fifteen of those years were spent in the remote bush, where Fred and wife Vicki, a fellow vet from Oklahoma whom he met in the country, raised four children – Cori, Jesse, Jodi and Aaron – among nine tribes of nomadic people in southwestern Ethiopia. Vicki says Fred first told her he loved her “while we were doing a postmortem exam on a dead cow.”
As veterinarians, the Van Gorkoms were revered. “To Ethiopians, a cow is their John Deere, their Mack Truck, their status symbol and their short- and long-term food source,” Fred says. “Because we treated their animals, they respected us and were much more receptive to the gospel than they would have been if we were just there to preach.”
The trust they gained as vets allowed the Van Gorkoms to begin planting churches. Fred also planted fruit trees, tested drought-tolerant crops, showed nationals how to improve milk production, and built roads and schools. Ultimately, that service spared the family’s lives when, upon the fall of Ethiopia’s communist government in the early 1990s, locals had to decide whether to kill or protect the Van Gorkoms.
“The Bunna [the local people] met for a week deliberating their course of action. Should they kill us and take all our stuff before other people in the area came and did so, or were we valuable enough to them that they should offer us their protection?” he recalls. “But the people said, ‘When we were hungry, you got us food. When we were thirsty, you helped us get water. When our family or cattle were sick, you gave us medicine. We want to keep you around.’”
Guards were placed in front of the Van Gorkoms’ home. Through it all, Fred never feared for the safety of his family. “God gave us a peace that passes all understanding,” he says. “We never lost a night of sleep that week.”
That same peace was transcendent. Even the communists noticed the impact of the gospel. “One communist official told us to take our message to other tribes that were fighting. He had noticed that when the gospel was preached and churches were planted, the people started to live in peace. He was tired of dealing with wars and raids. This request was hilarious, coming from a card-carrying communist!”
The vet practice consisted of treating sheep, goats and cattle. If people had a dog, it was a watchdog and not “worthy” of going to the vet. Villagers listened to the Van Gorkoms’ message because they treated their animals, the Ethiopians’ most valuable asset.
Brushes with death
Van Gorkom comes by his solace honestly. It’s a byproduct of living by faith and witnessing one miraculous deliverance after another. Like when a government soldier’s bullet sailed over his head. Or when he and his family escaped a raging flash flood in the Delbina River as it rolled their vehicle and pinned Fred under the car. On another occasion, Van Gorkom nearly bled to death after a freak sports injury. He has survived severe electric shock, had malaria six times, and once got malaria, typhoid and brucellosis at the same time. There was also that close call on the mountain.
Fred also recalls the time his Land Cruiser was completely surrounded by more than 50 Bunna warriors, armed with AK-47s, as he drove the government officials they wanted to kill to a police outpost an hour away. “If they decide to shoot, I’m Swiss cheese,” he astutely observed.
“My life is in God’s hands, and it’s up to him to decide when my time’s up,” he says. “I know one day I will die. And when I do, you may hear I was shot, or bled to death, or was run off the road, or got electrocuted, or drowned in a flash flood. The truth is, it was God’s time – or it would have happened before.”
The Van Gorkoms’ time living in the bush ended in 2002, when the family moved to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, so Fred could serve as a team leader for missionaries in rural mission stations. In 2008, Fred and Vicki transitioned to CVM’s home office in Seattle to work as Africa regional director and coordinator of donor services, respectively. Today, they are part of a CVM team recruiting, training and sending veterinary missionaries around the world.
During severe times of hunger, Van Gorkom organized logistics to get “food-for-work” grain to help the hardest-hit areas, providing a measured portion of grain for a specified amount of work. He also introduced new plants and grasses to improve cattle feed and provide food for the people.
Fred came away from Africa with two epiphanies: We can do nothing apart from Christ, and God can use anyone.
“Through our gifts and abilities learned in places like George Fox, and even in spite of our mistakes, God used us to help plant more than 40 churches among these tribes who had never heard of Jesus before,” says Van Gorkom. “We helped start Bible schools, train leaders, do community development. We consider it all as a privilege, not a sacrifice.”
Fred and Vicki hope to return to Africa someday – or “wherever in the world God calls us.” It’s a mind-set that’s been adopted by their children. Cori is in medical school studying to be a missionary doctor, and Jesse, a mechanical engineer, is drilling water wells in Uganda. Jodi and Aaron are a recent George Fox graduate and student, respectively, and also may end up overseas.
“My parents always told us that they had put us in God’s hands, and that they trusted him to take care of us,” says Jodi, who graduated with a psychology degree in May. “When you know that God is in control – that you are not gifted with life to try to preserve it, that you are not on earth to be ‘safe’ – your whole life is freed up to follow him wholeheartedly.”
Life didn’t exactly go as he originally planned, but Fred Van Gorkom wouldn’t have it any other way.
“What a privilege to be a living sacrifice,” he says. “At first you see the fleas, the dysentery, the cold showers with one cup of water, the malaria, the horrible roads. . . . Then you see God moving whole people groups from spiritual darkness to light – from wars and wife beating and killing babies, to loving and healthier living in peace. And the ‘sacrifices’ are nothing!”