On a twisting narrow road of tropical forest, a concrete structure with porticos rises from the soil. Trim men in street clothes scrape wet cement along an exterior wall, while others in tall rubber boots sift rocks from the dirt floor inside. Overseeing the daily labor is Dr. Julius Esunge, a man in sunglasses and a floppy Panama hat, standing atop the vast unfinished slab of the second floor. The view beyond him is the “Mountain of Greatness”—Mount Cameroon. And emerging below him is Hope Academy, a nursery and primary school meant to change the face of a nation.
Esunge is an ordained preacher and mathematician, returned home to the town of Buea in Cameroon. With his wife and three young children, Esunge is here on an eight-month sabbatical from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. Though he lives an ocean away, Esunge’s heart is never far from his homeland. As a youth, he preached in the nation’s churches, and then as a graduate student in the U.S., he prayed and led mission trips. Now as a professor, he heads a team that carries the light of Christ from college campuses to the remotest parts of Cameroon.
While in Cameroon, Esunge maintains a dizzying schedule of academic and spiritual pursuits. Wherever he goes, he brings the resources of the In Touch Messenger Lab: the original Messenger, a solar-powered palm-sized audio player; the USB-style Key; and the Micro, a small SD card that slips into a cellphone. He distributes these tools easily, to people hungry for the true gospel, in a place where false hopes of prosperity have begun to land on deaf ears.
Overlooking new construction from his elevated vantage point, Esunge sees the shape of things to come. Out of poverty and broken dreams, generations of children will come to this school and discover how Jesus Christ can change their lives and their world. He wants them to be lifelong champions for the Lord, so that through them, the gospel will spread to their parents and countless others near and far.
The Making of an Evangelist
Esunge was just 19, three years into his walk with the Lord, when he stood in the pulpit of his church, guest preaching the Sunday morning sermon. So many church meetings were scheduled for that afternoon that he blurted out, “I’m not going to do an altar call today. Just let the Lord work in your heart.” In the congregation that day was Dr. Solomon Nfor Gwei, a distinguished Christian statesman and cabinet level member of Cameroon’s government. Gwei invited Esunge to lunch and asked him, “What would you think of a fisherman who casts a net, but finds an excuse not to pull it to shore?” With that winsome rebuke, Gwei became a spiritual father to Esunge, teaching him that there were no limits to what God could do.
Dr. Charles Stanley became the spiritual mentor Esunge needed to keep him focused as he completed his master’s studies and later his doctoral degree.
Soon Gwei had him meeting with the secretaries of government—energy, agriculture, and education—instructing the young man to call the offices of these officials and make confidential appointments. Once inside, Esunge introduced himself as a student of the Bible, with a charge to pray for those in authority. These meetings became Esunge’s training ground and the start of lifelong connections within the government.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Buea and began to consider the future. He naturally thought of becoming a pastor; the idea made sense until Sammy Chumbow, a beloved professor, challenged him to continue his mathematics education. He promised, “A day will come when platforms will be opened for you to advance the kingdom of God. Doors will open not because you are a minister, but because of your academic credentials.”
In 2000 Esunge moved to the United States for graduate school. One of his first visits was to see Dr. Gwei, who’d relocated to the U.S. to be near family but had continued to mentor Esunge despite the distance. It would be a brief reunion. Shortly after Esunge began his studies, Dr. Gwei returned to Cameroon, where he died in 2002. Gwei’s absence left a significant hole in Esunge’s life, and so he began to pray for a voice that could continue to strengthen him in his ministry.
Then one evening while he was at a friend’s house, a preacher came on TV. “He was very articulate, but also Christocentric, Scripture-centered,” Esunge said. Through TV and audio cassettes, Dr. Charles Stanley became the spiritual mentor Esunge needed to keep him focused as he completed his master’s studies and later his doctoral degree.
Witness to a Nation
Voices of adoration fill every corner of the assembly room at Buea City Hall: “Praise the Lord!” the people sing, “Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear His voice!” Dressed in their finest, over one hundred Cameroonians—with more entering every minute—join Esunge in song on this Friday morning. They have come to witness the civil wedding ceremony of 12 couples. Many of the people in attendance will not go to a church for their vows but are nonetheless grateful to receive a blessing as they begin their marriage.
“My name is Julius,” says Esunge into a handheld microphone. “Every couple tying the knot today has received a gift from In Touch Ministries—a Key with messages to strengthen your marriage. It is our gift to you, to say congratulations. You are entering an institution ordained by God.” After his message, men and women throughout the hall rise to confess Jesus as Lord. In time, nearly all are on their feet.
Esunge has an easy confidence borne from thousands of handshakes in private offices, in school corridors, and at church doors. When asked to give a rather ceremonial prayer before a political gathering, Esunge will preach-pray—“Lord, thank You for this wonderful day. We’re so grateful [because] without Jesus in our hearts, there’s no hope for us.” On one such occasion, he sat through two hours of speeches, pondering why God would have him there for such a long time. Then he remembered the 90 Messenger Lab Keys he had in his car. Leaning in to whisper to the man in charge of the ceremony, he told him he had gifts for everyone in attendance. “If I had a thousand on me, they would have been gone,” Esunge says. It was yet another great opportunity God used to scatter the seed of the gospel among the leaders of Cameroon.
Changes are coming to Cameroon not because of Esunge’s biblical knowledge or gracious manner, but because of his prayerful submission to God’s vision.
The fragrance of Christ is also carried far outside municipal buildings and seats of power, to the diverse communities that make up the country. People farm, set up shop in cramped spaces along the streets, and serve as domestics. Most are thin, but not all are healthy. Nearly everyone in Cameroon will have bouts of typhoid or malaria.
At the Buea Hope Center, a medical clinic operated by Esunge’s team, patients are treated for illnesses and inflammations, have checkups, or even deliver babies. In the waiting room, the teaching of Dr. Charles Stanley drifts from the speaker of a Messenger stashed atop a bookcase. It’s a soothing balm for the anxious moments. Then patients receive an In Touch devotional to bring home—good medicine to comfort their souls long after their bodies are treated.
Beyond a house the locals once called haunted, and up a bumpy elevation to a community field in the village of Woteke, Esunge stands on a makeshift stage. He preaches rapid-fire in Cameroonian Pidgin English to an undereducated crowd: “Shine, shine for Papa God!” he exhorts them. Heads of families are called forward to receive a Messenger, and with the device in hand, they pound the grass with their feet, and their bodies sway as a beacon of light streams from its edge.
Changes are coming to Cameroon not because of Esunge’s biblical knowledge or gracious manner, but because of his prayerful submission to God’s vision. His is one life given fully to the gospel, multiplied into countless others. This son of Cameroon has become a father, mentor, and friend to hundreds of students, peers, and national leaders.
On a bright, humid Saturday in May, in the last dry hours before the rainy season, Hope Academy is dedicated to the Lord. Rows of plastic seats line the freshly painted great hall; a host of dignitaries sit at the front, with a 30-voice choir in their regalia filling the seats along the right aisle. Then from the left comes Dr. Julius Esunge, his eyes bright as he stands at the lectern and takes in the crowd. “It is somewhat ironical that someone like me,” he begins, “who is least qualified to do something like this, would be entrusted with such a privilege.” But God is such a Father that He changes hearts and gives dreams to His children, empowering them to do greater things for the kingdom than can be imagined.
Photography by Ben Rollins