A Friend to Africa’s Orphans: An Interview with Rosemary Jensen
Tabletalk: How did you become a Christian, and what ministries have you been involved with over the years?
Rosemary Jensen: It seems as if I literally grew up in church. My parents were Southern Presbyterians in Jacksonville, Florida, during the time when that branch of the church was very conservative. By God’s grace, I heard the gospel preached faithfully every Sunday morning and every Sunday evening. I put my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ early in life, and at age seventeen, after hearing a missionary speak, I committed my life to “foreign missions” in Africa. My pastor helped my timidity by saying to me, “A little light goes a long way in a dark place.” As a teenager, all I knew was that I wanted to know God and be a little light in telling those in dark places how to know Him. But I needed to know Him myself, so I began reading the Bible, one chapter a day of the King James Version. After about three and a half years of that, I found that I loved Scripture and wouldn’t miss reading it for anything. That habit has stayed with me.
After college, teaching school, and training in occupational therapy, I met and married a very handsome military doctor, and the two of us plus a two-year-old daughter sailed out of New York harbor for Tanzania, Africa. That was in 1957, and I was twenty-eight years old. During our nine years in Tanzania, my husband founded the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, a 450-bed hospital on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. I gave birth to two more daughters, taught school, and helped my husband with the hospital.
When we returned to the USA, my love for the Word of God gave me the privilege of teaching it in Bible Study Fellowship. BSF International is an interdenominational in-depth Bible study that meets every week in more than a thousand classes in many countries. In 1980, I was appointed the executive director of BSF, where I served for twenty years.
In 1987, while still serving as director of BSF, I and three others, including my husband, founded the Rafiki Foundation. I have served as Rafiki’s president for twenty-five years.
TT: Why did you write your books Praying the Attributes of God and Living the Words of Jesus?
RJ: These books were written not for publication but for my own understanding of God and His Son, Jesus Christ. My goal in life was, and is, to know God. Therefore, at one point in my adult life, I spent my quiet time each morning going through the Bible and noting verses that spoke of the attributes of God. I organized the verses into thirty-one attributes so I could rehearse one each day of the month. This took me about four years, and it has influenced my life more than anything else I have ever done.
At another time, I promised God that I would obey everything Jesus told me to do. Going through the gospels again and again early each morning off and on for more than ten years resulted in helping me know how to live the Christian life.
The books were published because those in BSF asked me to make these exercises available to them.
TT: What is the mission and goal of the Rafiki Foundation?
RJ: Rafiki means “friend” in Swahili, and Rafiki’s mission is to help others in Africa to know God and to raise their standard of living. In 1987, to accomplish this mission, the Rafiki Foundation formed a board and became registered as a 501c3 missionsending agency. The goal is to enable committed Christians to volunteer in one of ten countries in Africa where Rafiki is legally established. These missionaries work in Rafiki Training Villages with nationals to help Africans know God, primarily through the Rafiki Bible Study. This study is designed to cover the entire Bible in six hundred weeklong lessons written by almost twenty Protestant theologians. It is taught every day to all Rafiki participants, including adults and children from preschool through high school. Regular Bible study is necessary to know God.
Rafiki helps Africans to raise their standard of living in several ways. They are:
Each Rafiki Training Village contains homes for up to 140 children who have no living father or mother. A home provides for ten children and a loving, well-qualified mother. When the children reach age ten, they are placed in a residence hall with a couple who become their parents. From the time the children enter Rafiki, they never consider themselves orphans again. They have parents who love them and care for them as their own.
Rafiki provides Christian classical schools for all children of school age. Curriculum has been written by Rafiki especially for Africa, and some government officials have stated that Rafiki schools are the best schools in the country. And why not?
A program especially for Rafiki’s Partner Denominations’ poor women operates in Rafiki’s ten countries to market handcrafted items that the women have made. The widows are paid for the beautiful handcrafted items that are sold in the Rafiki Exchange in Eustis, Florida. Items may also be ordered online on Rafiki’s website.
TT: How does Rafiki foster educational opportunities in Africa for children who might not otherwise go to school?
RJ: Rafiki does not attempt to build too many schools. The idea is to build schools only in Rafiki Villages that will be models for nationals who want a quality education for their children. Because Rafiki has produced its own Bible study and school curriculum, these can be given to Rafiki’s Partner Denominations and selected governments. God has opened this door to give good education, including Bible study, to thousands of children. National headmasters are trained in the Rafiki Bible Study curriculum and in Christian worldview integration for use in their own schools. The headmasters are appreciative and eager, and already hundreds of thousands of children are benefitting. The potential is staggering. If God provides the people and funds, ten million children could receive the gospel and a good education in the next five years.
TT: What are the greatest difficulties involved with doing ministry in Africa? The greatest blessings?
RJ: Without a doubt, the greatest difficulty for ministry in Africa is the lack of committed long-term missionaries. Orphanages and schools cannot operate with only those who will go for a few weeks. What is needed is committed people who will go for two years at a time and love it because they are serving God.
The blessings are too numerous to count. To know that your life is counting for something that is eternal, to see precious children change before your very eyes, to hear someone say “thank you,” to visit exotic places, to get to know a fascinating culture, to work with other Christians, and to have fun are just a few of the multitude of blessings.
TT: Is Rafiki planning to expand into more African nations? Which ones?
RJ: For the foreseeable future, Rafiki is not planning to expand outside of the ten nations containing Rafiki Villages now. The philosophy is not to expand past what can be supervised well. Excellence befits our God. There are too many groups or individuals who start ministries in Africa that are understaffed, underfunded, and undersupervised. The results often do more harm than good and damage the reputation of all Christian ministries.
TT: How can readers of Tabletalk get involved with the ministry of Rafiki?
RJ: There are many ways to be involved with Rafiki:
a. Pray on your own or join a Rafiki Prayer Group.
b. Sponsor a Rafiki orphan.
c. Give to any of Rafiki’s fund accounts. These accounts are orphans, buildings, curriculum development and production, scholarships, missionaries, and administration.
d. Go to Africa as a long- or short-term missionary.
For more information on any of these, check out Rafiki’s website, Rafikifoundation. org, or call Rafiki at 352-483-9131.
Rosemary Jensen has been involved in foreign mission work for seven decades, first in Tanzania, then as the executive director of Bible Study Fellowship International, and most recently as the president of Rafiki Foundation. The Rafiki Foundation was founded in 1987 by Rosemary and others who desired to help Africans to know God by caring for and educating orphans and giving economic opportunities to widows. “I do believe that Rafiki is the thing that God had me born to do,” Mrs. Jensen concludes. She is the author of Praying the Attributes of God: A Guide to Personal Worship Through Prayer and Living the Words of Jesus: Meditations on 96 Crucial Topics of the Christian Life.