“what do we do? I’ve never been in a coup before…So, our team got together and prayed and worshiped the Lord… Let’s skip the panic part and say the Lord will rescue us. And you guys came together here and prayed. Then we said, let’s get to work,” – Pastor Steve Miner
“somebody from the embassy said the airport has refused fuel. But make no mistake we are leaving on this plane, today.” – Maria Miner
“The Lord is faithful, and I knew he was going to get us home” – college student Madison Heyer
By Allen D. Payton
During a Welcome Home service Sunday morning, August 13, 2023, 10 of the 11 missionaries from Antioch’s Cornerstone Christian Center and School shared their experiences while stranded for a week in Niger, following a military coup that shut down the West African nation’s borders. The only one who wasn’t there for the reunion was the youngest team member, Madison Heyer, the daughter of Principal Logan Heyer, as she had already returned to college preparing for the fall semester. (See related articles here and here)
Pastor Steve Miner Shares About Trip
“We went to put on a camp for 250 children in the Niamey region. Our theme for this camp was the Kingdom of God over the kingdom of darkness. We felt attacks from the kingdom of darkness from the minute we got to SFO,” Pastor Steve Miner shared Sunday morning about the challenges they experienced on the trip.
“That’s Thursday night,” he continued. “We get to Niger on Saturday and all 22 bags don’t make it. We called Turkish Airlines. Sunday night we get a call from the airport and all 22 bags were there. We get there and they won’t release the bags to us. It was a shakedown. They wanted some money from us. They shake us down for $200. It’s all we had.”
“Then we faced an African rainstorm. By this time, it was well into Monday morning,” Miner said. “But we put on a camp. It was wonderful. The second to last day we were told it was a coup de tat. I think we learned of it from people back here. I thought ‘what do we do? I’ve never been in a coup before’.”
“It was the last day, we were supposed to go on an excursion to see the hippos. We were to go to the Radison Hotel the nicest one in Niger,” he continued. “We learned that day we weren’t going anywhere, and we couldn’t go on the hippo ride.”
“For Americans being told not to go where we wanted to go” was difficult the pastor explained.
But they had the help of “a Christian General from the American Air Force, we had the head of security from Samaritan’s Purse who started to text me. It was such a blessing.”
“Our airline tickets meant nothing, now,” he stated. “The Holy Spirit put a verse in my heart. Psalm 31. It was David who wrote, ‘Praise be to God for he showed me his love while I was in a city under siege,” reading from Psalm 31:21-22. “David was in fear.”
“We forget the thing the Lord brought us through last week, last month,” Miner continued.
“Yet, you heard my cry for mercy,” he finished reading the Bible passage. “So, our team got together and prayed and worshiped the Lord.”
“Let’s skip the panic part and say the Lord will rescue us,” Miner stated. “And you guys came together here and prayed. Then we said, let’s get to work.”
“We got to put desks together. Fix desks. Sanded, primered. We washed walls,” he explained. “We were getting ready for a new school year.”
“We came back last Sunday. Praise the Lord,” Miner exclaimed.
“Fox News who did the initial interview with us. They asked, ‘Would you do it, again?’ Everybody on the team said, ‘yeah, we’d do it again’. Because they understand what it means to be a disciple.”
“We are on mission here in Antioch. We have been sent,” he continued and saying “As the Father has sent me I am sending you,” quoting John 20:21.
“You feel the weight of people’s prayers lifting you up. You experience the presence of the Lord,” Miner stated.
“I wouldn’t trade living in the middle of a coup for anything. We get interviewed. It gives you a story to tell about God’s faithfulness,” the pastor continued.
“They said ‘yes, we’d go back’. And I said, “yes. We’re making disciples’,” he concluded.
Team Members Share of Their Experiences
Elidia Bird was the first to share saying “My biggest take away from this trip is the power of prayer…the partnership with God. The enemy was trying to stop us at the gate. But God had a plan.”
She then shared about a girl named Zarah (in photo) and that she wrote a letter to one of the girls.
“There’s no language barrier that can stop the Word of God,” Bird stated.
“I wouldn’t want to be led by anyone else,” Nutce Castelluccio said of Pastor Steve and Maria Miner, when sharing of his experiences on the trip. “The kids. They were so joyful. When we worshiped, they’d be dancing and dancing.”
Pastor Steve’s wife, Maria Miner was next to share saying, “This is a faithfulness of God celebration.”
“I do know the reason this team was so amazing was we were supported by your prayers,” she continued.
She chose the Armor of God as the theme for the week. Maria read from Ephesians 6:10-18 which describes the parts of the armor and then said, “You will be proud to know that all of the children left that camp with that entire passage memorized.”
“I have never felt the schemes of the devil like I did in Niger, Africa,” she stated. “The final day we taught during the storm…all the power went out. There is a battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. Our weapons are invisible. I felt harassed by the enemy. When I felt weak…I reached out to people to pray with me. We would worship and pray and go do what the Lord had for us to do. We were not battling against flesh and blood.”
“We got to the airport. The airport was closed. There was one plane there, our plane,” Maria stated. “About four hours in somebody from the embassy said the airport has refused fuel. But make no mistake we are leaving on this plane, today. We may have to go to another country to get fueled. It was at that point I felt the Lord saying start praying.”
“Nine hours later we were on the plane and told to unbuckle…when we were refueling,” she continued. “Then they announced we have enough fuel to get to France.”
Jennifer Bartoni shared next saying, “We’re going back. I want to thank all of you guys for your prayers and support. My plan was to go to Mexico on a mission trip. But my passport didn’t come in on time. God had a plan for me to go to Niger.”
“I was scared. I reached out to God for strength,” she stated. “Before the trip I was afraid to fly, afraid to speak in front of people.”
Bartoni then quoted Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
“I asked God to help me face my fears. So, He did,” she stated.
When it was her turn to share Jill Lawrence said, “He knew this coup was coming. We didn’t.”
She spoke of facing health issues before they went.
“I sing on the worship team. Worship really speaks to my soul,” she stated.
“After the coup happened, I was asked to go share my testimony at a church there,” Lawrence continued. “We felt like the early church. We felt like we were in the Old Testament. We were tramping through the sand. The whole church, everyone was one accord. It was after the coup had happened. Had we left we would not have experienced it.”
“We were able to tune into our local church service and worship with you” while at a home in Niger, she shared with the congregation. “It’s that one accord. God’s got you in the palm of his hand. That was what was so life changing about this trip.”
Margret Rickli shared next, saying, “This is my second year to go on the trip. I know on mission trips I hear God a little bit clearer. This one morning I heard very clear ‘wait’.”
“I’m a planner. I make my plans. My plan was to be home that week and set up my classroom. I was thinking ‘wait’? The plan was to be home. God spoke to me and said my plans are what’s best. This weight came off my back.”
She spoke of cleaning and organizing the classrooms in Naimey.
“I would have never had that experience had I not been there,” Rickli stated.
“A group of girls came running up to me and I said those are my girls,” she continued. “My family was back here…sometimes at 3 and 4 in the morning I was on the phone with them.”
They set up her classroom back here.
“That’s one of the ways God showed me the waiting,” Rickli shared. “God was not just working in us, there he was working in you. I just needed to see, let go, let God. Be patient. I just thank Him for that opportunity, this year.”
Scott Wells, Holly Heyer’s father and Madison’s grandfather shared next saying, “What I learned is God can use you no matter how old you are.”
“We’re missing someone up here. Maddy’s back at college,” he continued. “My wife stayed home. Sheila (his other daughter who lives in southern California) came up and stayed with her.”
“We worked. We couldn’t go home. We prayed. We worshiped every morning,” Wells said. “We said, ‘OK, God. We’re here, what do you want us to do?’”
“I was a teacher, a principal for 41 years and that’s what we did,” he stated. “It was familiar to me to go to the school every day…and fix desks. We worked for the Lord.”
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…for it is the Lord Christ you are serving,” Wells said quoting Colossians 3:23-24.
“It was a blessing to me just to help that school. We got to do a little part to help them for that school year coming up,” he added.
Holly Heyer, Wells’ daughter and Madison’s mother shared last saying, “We were a trio. Dad, me and Madison. But this team is my family. We lived that way for a while.”
“Our bonus time we were there, as we called it…some of us were scared. I never felt more peaceful in my life,” she continued. “We’re here. We’re working together and we felt the peace of God. I know that was from your prayers, here.”
“We were just praying. People were in random, different rooms. If a song came up to somebody, we were just singing. Praying for the preschool kids because this is where they’re going to meet Jesus,” Heyer said. “It was a blessing for us just to be praying for the kids. They’re just the same people. They have a school, it’s just in Niger. I got to pray for them. I got to see some of the kids. They’re so precious. I wanted to bring them home with us.”
“Scraping gum for Jesus,” she said with a chuckle.
Bobbi Jennings shared about their trip home.
“We land in Washington DC. We’re all still together. Then the separation starts,” she stated. “We came as a team. We wanted to leave us a team. But that was not to be. It was hard. Steve and Maria were frantically trying to get flights for us. So, we went in four groups. I wanted to be with our team, with our family. It was on the last flight, that last plane in Texas we were able to be together.”
She and Elidia were together on the flight. They were able to get into the cockpit and take a photo with the pilots after sharing about their trip and photos.
“I said, ‘you know, you’re our final flight home. Can I pray over you?’ So, I prayed over our pilots,” Jennings said. “I said, ‘when I get home, I’m going to get down on the ground and kiss it’ and I did.”
“I give all the thanks and glory to God,” she added.
Pastor Steve closed out the sharing time and service saying, “I have to say thank you to you and to Hannah (Foster) and Logan (Heyer). I think they lost more sleep than we did.”
“We all had a part in this. My mom in Texas went to her Senator’s office,” he continued. “There’s nothing better than to be a part of the family of God. We had people back home working their tails off. I just want to thank you.”
“We are on a mission and Antioch needs us. And the Lord has placed us here for a reason,” Miner stated. “We’re going to be strong abroad. But we’re going to be really strong, here…where we live. We’re going to get after it.”
College Student Madison Heyer Shares About Her First International Trip
When reached for comment about her experience, Madison Heyer, a 2022 graduate of Cornerstone Christian High School said, “When everything went haywire with the coup, I was thinking, this is a bummer, I have to get home and get back to school. But I had to rethink and change my heart and determine what the Lord wanted me to do. I thought, ‘you have to go where the Lord wants you to go and do’.”
She’s a sophomore at California Baptist University and a Resident Assistant in one of the apartment complexes on campus which required her to return before school starts September 5th. Madison is studying elementary education, following in her grandfather’s, grandmother’s, dad’s, mom’s and older sisters’ footsteps who have all been or are currently educators. She’s also minoring in Christian Studies.
About her trip experience Madison said, “the whole time, I was really excited to go, it was VBS (Vacation Bible School) and something I wanted to do for my career. I was doing the most as possible since I was the kid. No one required me to. But I wanted to be as helpful as I could.”
“This was my first international trip and what a story,” she exclaimed.
“My first thought was disbelief. Especially with the missionaries (Pastor Neil and Dannette Childs) who are there,” Madison shared. “With the news, there, it isn’t always accurate. It was initial fear. Then lots of questions came to mind. How was I going to get back to school? Are we able to fly home? Can we finish Vacation Bible School?”
“I was thinking, I’m going to finish that VBS program, then decide what else to do,” she continued. “We rallied around with the team and prayed. Pastor Steve was really great. We didn’t let the kids know about the coup.”
They did finish the VBS and “we ended up deciding to help even more to get the school ready for when the school year starts in October,” Madison shared.
“I was helping out the same way (as the others on the team), cleaning the classrooms. What I did, specifically was scrape the gum off the floor,” she said with a laugh. “I did a lot of sweeping. I was happy to do it.”
“I was communicating with my boyfriend (who is a student at CBU) through Whatsapp, and he was kind of freaking out. So, he called the White House,” Madison shared with another laugh.
About the trip home she said, “That was one of the scariest points. We were in the airport, and we could see the plane. They said, ‘we don’t have any gas for this plane’. So, I was praying a lot about that. Then we got on the plane, and they said we have enough gas to get to France. That was such a relief.”
Asked about her future plans and what she wants to do with her degree Madison responded, “I’ll go on mission trips in the future. That’s what the Lord has called me to do. I have a strong call for missions. I want to teach overseas, probably teach missionaries’ kids. Teach children in different countries, especially about Jesus.”
“With my mom being there, that was a blessing. It was such a comfort. So was my grandpa. It was so exciting being there with her. It’s something my siblings didn’t get to do. She’s truly amazing,” Madison stated.
“The Lord is faithful, and I knew he was going to get us home,” she added.
Pastor Steve Thanks Senator, Congressman
During the previous week’s service, Pastor Steve offered thanks to those who helped the team leave Niger and return home.
“First of all, I am so grateful to be part of such an incredible family. The support and efforts from people back home have been incredible. We would not be home today if it were not for their prayer and actions,” he said. “Hannah and Logan galvanized so many people into action including our government. If it wasn’t for our people making them aware there is no way they would know we were even there.”
“And I am grateful that Senator Feinstein’s and Rep. Garamendi’s offices listened and went into action,” the pastor continued. “When the State Department called me in Niger to tell me they were going to take our team, I thanked him and he said, ‘You can thank your congressmen and senator for this’. So, I am grateful that they truly did represent their constituents.”
“I hope everyone can experience the power of Jesus through a healthy church as we during this crisis. If everyone did, we would have less coups in the world!” he added.