WHEELING - As a missionary in Africa, Wellsburg native Jacob Schwertfeger has endured a roving and hungry lion, getting lost in the bush and being shaken down by crooked cops for money.
But it has all been for a good cause - to serve the Lord by helping people in dire need of basic necessities such as clean water wells.
Schwertfeger and his wife, Jessi (Hall) Schwertfeger, both 2002 graduates of Brooke High School, decided to pursue becoming missionaries after graduating from college. Seven years later, they have ministered to and helped thousands in Zambia. The couple have three children: Sunda, 7, who they adopted from an orphanage in Zambia; Kya, 3, who is their first child together born in South Africa; and Noah, 8 weeks old, born in Pittsburgh.
LEADS BIBLE STUDY — Wellsburg native Jacob Schwertfeger leads a bible study class in Zambia. - Contributed
''I had a rebellious season of my life coming out of a Christian home in high school,'' Schwertfeger, the son of Norm and Jeanie Schwertfeger, said. ''The Lord spoke to my heart and my senior year of high school is when I made an all or nothing commitment to Jesus.''
During their senior year of high school, Schwertfeger and his then-girlfriend Jessi Hall decided together they wanted to become missionaries after first pursuing college degrees. While at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Schwertfeger began attending the Way of Holiness Church, which gave him his first opportunity to see Africa through a ministry called Sons of Thunder. With a group of 15 other students, he ventured on a three-month mission to Zambia - the country where he and his future wife decided to begin dedicating their lives to helping others.
After taking a year off after college to raise money for their mission trip, the couple married in 2006 and six weeks later joined Sons of Thunder in Zambia. When they arrived, however, there were problems with the existing missionaries and many were sent home. The couple, new to Africa and the job at hand, had to take over the entire operation.
''There was an orphanage with 54 children under age 5 to manage. There was a 10,000-acre farm with 50 families doing various farming projects. There was a Bible school and primary school and clinic,'' he said. ''It was sink or swim. ... That first week, one of the children died that was really young in the orphanage. That was our first reality check of, we're really here and this is Africa - not everything goes as planned.''
During their two years with Sons of Thunder, the couple and their daughter, Sunda, whom they adopted from that same orphanage, would perform outreach missions, living in a tent for two weeks at a time.
''During that time our hearts really grew and longed for real neglected areas of Zambia. ... We realized people needed to get out into these places. We were watching 70-year-old women carrying 20-gallon buckets of dirty water for two and three miles to bring back to their home,'' he said.
They eventually joined a new group, Overland Missions, in 2008 and were able to stay in Zambia. He noted Zambia is one of the most hospitable areas of Africa despite the residents' hardships.
''We take for granted the ease of turning on a faucet. ... The basic things we expect in our lives are not provided,'' he said.
Nearly two years ago, someone donated a drilling rig to Overland Missions, allowing the group to start drilling water wells. Well kits are installed and the people are taught how to maintain them. To date, about 20 holes have been drilled, though the demand for clean water is greater than they can keep up with.
''That provides clean water to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people,'' Schwertfeger said of the wells.
Since Overland wants to reach more areas, Schwertfeger was asked to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola and develop a new sector. Last year he made three trips to the Congo. He does not take his family with him during such trips, but he does use interpreters.
''Day one getting in we were grabbed by police and put into a building, interrogated for a number of hours, told we needed to pay various fines and fees and get shots, which we already had. It was all just a scheme for money,'' he said of his initial foray into the Congo.
Several times in the Congo while riding his dirt bike, police stopped him and took his keys until he gave them money, he said.
''Another occasion we were sleeping in a pastor's home, and at midnight we could hear this commotion. It was soldiers who had surrounded the compound, chanting and screaming. That was probably the most danger we had been in because it was a rebel group called the Mai Mai,'' Schwertfeger said. ''That group has been around for a long time. I've just received word that group has taken over the village we were in a few weeks ago. The pastors contacted someone who was able to (contact) me and say, 'Just pray for us because our village is overrun and they have taken over.'''
Schwertfeger said he does have trips scheduled in that area this year and he plans to be very careful. He noted he believes his family will continue to live in Zambia because it's a strategic location that allows them to reach other countries that one can't necessarily live in at the moment because it's too dangerous.
''It's a lifelong commitment in our hearts. We'll have to see how it all plays out. You never know - governments can get overturned and overthrown quick and then it's a whole other situation,'' he said.
While Zambia is relatively safe, their home was broken into once and items stolen. Schwertfeger said the deed was committed by people coming from neighboring Zimbabwe, where the political climate is much less stable.
Before building his home, the family lived in a tent on a concrete slab. Eventually, he bricked in the concrete slab and then about a year ago, Schwertfeger finished building their present home. It has electricity, but since the power often fails they have a back-up generator. They also have an Internet feed from the tourist town of Livingstone.
"When I first got to Africa, we arrived with so much excitement and zeal. You have this hero mentality of meeting the needs of the people. And very quickly you find the need is overwhelming," he said.
The family also periodically must deal with native wildlife. For example, early on a stampede of about 90 elephants came through the village, eating all the crops. Other elephants have tried to charge their vehicles. And while most big cats live on game reserves, a lion once escaped and decided to make its home near Schwertfeger's home.
Before a five-day hunt, the lion ended up killing two cattle. They were able to tranquilize the beast instead of having to shoot it. It took 12 men to lift the animal into a pick-up truck.
"It was a monster," he said.
Hyenas also enter their camp, but are easier to scare away. There also are a variety of snakes that live in Africa. And since Schwertfeger has no fear of the serpents, he often is called upon to take care of them. He estimated to date he's killed 60 snakes including spitting cobras.
"At first we were humbled, that this is far bigger work. The lesson I've learned - we've had to be reliant on the Lord. I believe God gives us creativity and supernatural genius at times to meet certain needs. I'm a nobody. My ability to meet anyone's needs comes through Jesus Christ. ... Millions of dollars have been thrown into good intentioned projects," he said of other groups or companies. "But if we don't impact the heart of the people, the projects are useless. It's people we value, not projects. ... My reward is seeing the people who have been changed, who now live with hope."
Schwertfeger said while he sometimes misses the Ohio Valley, he feels as though Zambia is his true home.
''Seven years in, Zambia is far more home. ... There are certain things you can't talk about here because people don't get it,'' he said. ''My parents have visited us. ... I think they're definitely committed to trying to come as often as they can.''
Schwertfeger said before picking an area to explore, they use Google Earth to spot a village new to them. He then uses GPS navigation to reach the area on his dirt bike and stays in a tent on site, learning what the needs of the people are. They typically also choose a village that already has a church or pastor established.
He added while most of his old friends know he is a missionary and enjoy hearing his tales when he comes back to visit, some people are amazed that he lives in Africa.
"To this day, there still are people who don't believe me," he said, noting he has pulled out his Zambia dirt bike license as proof.