The crack of gunfire and the pounding of artillery shells weren't Gail Stuart's most frightening moments deep in the heart of Africa.

What was more unnerving was a bat flying around the home the Sykesville woman and her husband, Rick, occupied during missionary work last fall in Rwanda.

Rick, 29, had his share of difficulty, too. It was hard leaving his wife in the base camp town of Butari while he and other missionaries embarked on field work for several weeks at a time.

The couple, members of Friendship Baptist Church in Sykesville, served 15 months as missionaries in Rwanda, a Maryland-sized country in east-central Africa.

The trip was part of the three-year program called the Umuganda Partnership, after an African word meaning "helping others," and was sponsored by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, an organization of Southern Baptist churches.

Since 1987, the partnership's missionaries have built six churches and a school in Butari, in addition to preaching and teaching agriculture and homemaking skills throughout Rwanda.

As the on-site coordinator, Rick arranged schedules, lodging, transportation and meals for 105 volunteers, who made up 12 mission teams. He had to be available around the clock to help his fellow missionaries in the country of more than 7 million people.

The going is tougher for native Rwandans, whose average life expectancy is 40 years. Many are subsistance farmers with large families to support.

Gail worked with the children of the career missionaries -- American church members who accept long-term assignments and live in the countries where they work. She taught the children while Rick and the other missionaries were out in the field.

On top of thecultural hardships, the missionaries faced danger.

The Stuarts were staying near career missionaries Vernon and Sandi Sivage in the capital of Kigali, about 90 minutes from Butari. Tutsis rebel forces crossing from Uganda mounted a coup attempt Sept. 30, halting the mission work.

The Tutsis are an exiled tribe that ruled Rwanda until 1962, when the nation became independent and the majority Hutus gained control.

"There was gunfire and shelling from two blocks away," Gail said. "I thought they were going to take away the country."

About half of the seven-family missionary group fled to a retreat centerin Kenya. U.S. Embassy officials advised them to stay out of Rwanda.The Sivages and three other couples opted to return to Rwanda, whileothers stayed behind.

Making things more confusing, French and Belgian troops had arrived in Rwanda to secure their embassies and the airports.

"A tight lid on information made it difficult to get news," Rick said. "We were told of space on a plane, so we went."

Later, the missionaries who had remained in Kenya decided to return after the government declared victory over the 4,000-man rebel force Nov.1. But by that time, the Stuarts were gone.

The trip to Rwanda was not the first for Rick. He had worked there in February 1989 with an earlier construction team. It was during that trip he learned that two coordinators chose not to renew their assignment.

"The Lord laid it on my heart to take the job," said Rick, and Gail agreed.

InAugust 1989, Rick resigned his position as general manager at Clark's Hardware in Ellicott City, Howard County, and Gail gave up her job at Metzler's Garden Center in Columbia so they could pursue missionary work.

Despite the hardships, the Stuarts said the satisfaction they gained from the missionary work was worth it.

"It was rewarding to see peoples' lives changed," said Rick. "I was able to use basicskills to teach health, nutrition, sewing, and cooking."

The Stuarts are back in their South Carroll home. Gail is working at Greenberg Publishing here and Rick is looking for management work, while finishing the basement of Friendship Church.

The Stuarts have applied for another assignment to the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, Va., which oversees some 4,000 missionaries worldwide. This time, they hope to go out as career missionaries.

The Stuarts aren't sure where to begin when relecting on what they gained from their missionary experience in Africa.

"Society lies to people thatmaterial things bring happiness," said Rick. "The Africans live simply and are happier."

Other Carroll County Baptist church members who served were Nancy Houser, Manchester; Beth Lavery, Eldersburg; Rev. Mark Massey, Sykesville; John Faris, Sykesville; Jim Radcliffe, Westminster; Keyser Levering, Gamber; and Delores Ashley, Sykesville.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad