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Anchor in the Storm

On the day they were getting ready to return to Canada for Christmas vacation, tragedy struck, threatening the life of their youngest child. Only faith sustained them.

"Can't we wait out here, Daddy?" asked my daughter Sharyna. It was early morning and on the far side of a placid turquoise bay, tropical birds in the lush foliage were greeting the rising sun. Since the month of December was typically hot and humid, I was extremely grateful for the morning coolness as I loaded our heavy suitcases into the van.

"Sure," I told her. "We're almost done packing." Walking upstairs to our second story apartment, I glanced through the window to the road below where shops would soon be bustling with activity. The yard next door was usually patrolled by the eight noisy dogs that our Chinese neighbour kept to guard her business.

"The islanders accepted us and patiently taught us their ways."

Workmen had been busy each day making repairs on her aging fences, but at this early hour things were still quiet and I began to reflect on God's goodness in my life. After growing up in the cold winters of northern Alberta, it was amazing that I felt so at home here. A different climate, a different people, a different culture … yet God had given me peace and joy. It hadn't always been that way.

The instability of being raised by a single father whose work on the oil rigs forced us to move once or twice every year left me lost, hurting and angry, and I wondered often if happiness was just a myth.

At a turning point during my senior year of high school I was challenged to read the Bible. To my surprise, I discovered not only a God who was in love with a renegade people, but whose amazing plan to sacrificially draw them to Himself included me. Enrolling at Prairie Bible College, I grew in my new relationship with God and when I learned that people all over the world were asking for His message in their own language, I dedicated my life to Bible translation.

It was also at Prairie that I found a soul mate in Barbara Harvey, a California girl who shared my interest in taking God's Word to others. We were married in 1993 and finished our senior year. Then we attended the Canada Institute of Linguistics after which Wycliffe Bible Translators assigned us to the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu northeast of Australia. With some anxiety we headed out, trusting God to care for us and our three small children on a 23-square-mile island of jungle-covered hills.

The islanders quickly accepted us, explaining that no one can live without father or mother, family and community. They patiently taught us their ways and their language—the rhythm of life in the Melanesian culture. Our children knew they were loved. We weren't afraid to allow them to wander the village, eating in the kitchens of their island mamas, or climbing papaya and coconut trees with their adopted siblings. We felt at peace, knowing that God had knit us together with the people and that He was at work through us and around us.

Unlike some areas of the world, Vanuatu actually welcomes the Gospel. But while a hundred years of missionary work has developed a well-churched culture, illiteracy and lack of sound teaching sometimes result in a faith that is only skin-deep. Fear of spirits and black magic are still the driving force in many lives, especially in times of crisis. Nevertheless, we found there was a real interest in the Bible translation process. The development of a training course had produced qualified national translators from two language groups and several small books of Scripture, Bible studies, literacy materials, and songbooks had been produced. We knew it was only by God's goodness to us and the national people that these things had been accomplished.

How quickly these past four and a half years on our beloved island had flown by! Now we were in the capital city of Vila, preparing to return to North America where we would spend Christmas with the friends and family we hadn't seen for so long.

"Suddenly the tranquil morning air was ripped by blood-curdling screams. I raced to the patio and looked down."

Our children, Sharyna (10), Anthony (7) and Cassia (5) knew only the photos we had shown them. And yet they were excited about finally seeing the people and places they had heard so much about, even if it meant getting up in the wee hours of the morning to be at the airport for a 6:00 a.m. flight. Impatient to leave, the girls waited outside while I gathered the last of our things and Barbara went to wake Anthony.

Suddenly, the tranquil morning air was ripped by blood-curdling screams.

Racing to the patio I looked down to see three large dogs viciously tearing apart a life-size doll. But it wasn't a doll. It was Cassia.

Yelling was useless and the front stairs were too far away. I jumped over the balcony to the first floor railing and leapt to the ground. The dogs scattered, leaving Cassia lying limp on the road. Panic rose up inside me. Was she still alive? Blood from countless wounds soaked my shirt as I grabbed her up in my arms and ran to get Barb. Racing to the hospital in our loaded van, I struggled to grasp what was happening. We had experienced such a wonderful first term and were only moments away from our long-awaited holiday. Now this! How could God allow it? It seemed impossible!

Lord, I agonized, we were almost home. Why now? Suddenly the words of Job 4:3 came back to me: "Shall I accept only good from the Lord and not bad?"

But I don't want to be like Job!

"Shall you accept only good from the Lord and not bad?"

Glancing back at my wife soothing our little girl with words of assurance, I made the difficult choice to trust my Heavenly Father no matter what happened. Please, just preserve her life, just preserve … The words became a litany towards God for the next six hours as her fragile life hung in the balance and I wondered just how Job-like we would become.

At the hospital, we waited three hours for the surgical staff to assemble. It would take more than 130 stitches to repair five deep gashes to the scalp, two torn ears, wounds on her neck, lacerations on the arm, and nearly twenty major wounds on her legs. One thigh had been cut from front to back all the way to the bone, narrowly missing a major artery. The dogs had shaken Cassia so hard that she couldn't turn her head or move her limbs.

The distraught owner arrived at the hospital minutes after us. Devastated, she explained through her tears that the workmen had neglected to secure the fence the night before, allowing two Dobermans and a Rotweiller to escape and attack Cassia. In that moment God gave us impossible compassion for this woman whose dogs had nearly killed our child, and the strength to display grace toward her in the midst of our own distress.

When word reached members of our island family, however, they were outraged by the attack and arrived demanding payback, a cultural form of revenge or compensation. They were astonished at our pleas to do nothing, but when they heard that the owner had put the three dogs down and given us some money for medical expenses, they finally relented.

During Cassia's surgery Barbara sent out an urgent message to our support team and people immediately began going to God on our behalf. Prayer chains were alerted and e-mails forwarded until thousands around the world were praying. And God heard. Three hours later the surgeon emerged with the good news that our daughter's life was not in danger. He had done his best to piece the wounds together, he told us, but in years of practice he had never witnessed such horrific damage from a dog attack. "It's a miracle," he said, "that she's alive."

And the miracles continued. The next day Cassia pulled herself into a sitting position and soon began begging to visit other children in the hospital. In only four days she was walking with help. Amazed at her recovery, the doctor discharged her and a week later we were on the plane to California with our daughter beside us.

Today Cassia is a spunky, active little girl who realizes that God has spared her life. She talks freely about what happened and her fear of dogs has been transformed into a healthy caution and a love for all animals. The physical scars, now faded, are mostly hidden by hair and clothing. We realize that her life is a gift from God and we are thankful.

Cassia today: "Her life is a gift from God."

As parents, almost losing our daughter in such a sudden, violent way was the hardest thing we have ever faced. We have struggled with guilt and the "what ifs," as well as all the visual memories that remain so terribly vivid. But we have also learned that in the difficult times, God is there. The foundation of faith built up through our churches and families, our school days, and our experiences serving God on a remote island in the Pacific had anchored us so deeply that we knew we could trust our Heavenly Father no matter what the outcome. We asked Him to turn tragedy into something that would bring honour to His name and He has!

This experience also showed us what it means to belong to the Body of Christ. It was the instant support of God's people in Vanuatu and back home that pulled us through, together with the prayers of believers around the globe. As we traveled throughout Canada and the U.S. in the months that followed, we were surprised time and again by strangers who told us of their prayers.

It's easy to be complacent when things go well and trouble seems far away. Barb and I have been reminded that as we take God's light into the darkness, we are in a battle and will face the storms of discouragement and trials. When that happens, we can trust that " … in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose … " and "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:28, 31). He has already conquered the circumstances and He will carry us through.

Leigh and Barbara LaBrecque graduated from Prairie Bible College in 1994 and are presently serving in the South Pacific with Wycliffe Bible Translators. They can be reached at

Originally published in Servant, Issue 74, 2006.




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