Rich Franzen was just a lanky 17-year-old walking through the halls of the church office with no real direction when a children’s pastor stopped him. She looked at Rich and said, “Hey, you’re a teenager. Take this.” She removed a postcard from the top of her stack of mail and handed it to him. How could either of them know that this chance piece of “junk” mail would spark the trajectory to fulfilling God’s call on his life—something he hadn’t even begun to imagine while his thoughts were preoccupied with girls, sports, and what his mom was making for dinner that night.
When Rich got home, he read the mailer sent from a youth organization promoting their next ministry trip: “Join Teen Mania on a mission trip to Costa Rica!” And he took the next step that began his life’s journey. “I was curious,” Rich says. “I wasn’t feeling particularly ‘called’ in that moment, I just wanted to get out of town.” So he filled out the card and mailed it in.
Rich was a self-proclaimed punk kid from New York who did everything at 100%. When he got saved at 15, he jumped all in. His first mission trip would be no different. Rich was still working out what it meant to live for Christ, but in Costa Rica, God opened his heart to reach the world for Him. He caught the mission bug. He attended Oral Roberts University (ORU) and continued to fuel and mature his heart for missions while interning and traveling with Teen Mania. After graduating, he joined Teen Mania full-time to develop leaders and mobilize others on mission trips around the globe. (Years later, through his partnership with Gateway, Rich would discover that two of his trips led Gateway staff members Chase Willsey and Charley Elliott to realize their callings!) After serving in many corners of the world, Rich realized his heart broke for Africa.
Michelle Baumruk was a dutiful pastor’s daughter. While faithfully attending ORU, she thought, Okay, it’s time I go on a mission trip so I can check off that box on the Christian to-do list. She told her friends, “I’ll go anywhere but Africa.” So she signed up to go to Japan. “I was really intrigued by the idea of Japan. It sounded culturally appealing. Africa, on the other hand, sounded daunting and so far in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know anything about it. I wondered, ‘Do you stay in huts? Are there lions running around?’” she says.
About eight weeks into anticipating her visit to Japan, Michelle learned ORU had to cancel the trip, but they could still place her on another one. “The leader announced, ‘You’re going to South Africa!’ and everything he said from then on was ‘wah, wah, wah,’ like Charlie Brown’s teacher in Peanuts! He was talking, but I was in disbelief,” she says. So, by hap- penstance, Michelle’s introduction to missions was in South Africa. “I went kicking and screaming, and ironically, we were in the middle of nowhere. We stayed in Zulu land among tribesmen without running water,” she says. “In those days we still mailed letters, and the only letter my poor parents received during my two- month stay read something like, ‘Greetings from Hell.’ They still have it!”
Despite all the unknowns, that first trip to Africa became a fond memory for Michelle. She didn’t exactly fall in love with missions the first time she went to the field, but the Lord began to woo her heart tenderly. “Looking back, I see that sometimes it’s in the hardest places that God begins to do the most,” says Michelle. “He breaks you down and endears your heart. The Lord opened my eyes to the hunger in Africa—the people who don’t know Jesus.” When the trip was over, Michelle thought she might go again.
Michelle met “Mr. Missions,” a.k.a. Rich, at ORU right after her trip to South Africa. They were both resident advisors and involved in leadership programs. Rich’s heart had already been wrecked for missions by his trip to Costa Rica. He wasn’t thinking long term at that point, but he was pretty involved with Teen Mania. “Missions kind of became our common bond,” Michelle says. “He would tell me about his trips and encourage me to travel with Teen Mania. When I met Rich, I was just on the cusp of being called to missions and he was fully into it!” Michelle ended up going on more trips—one each summer for nine consecutive years. God was aligning Rich and Michelle for a long-term season in missions together. “Before and after we got married, we were still going on trips,” Michelle says. They both felt called to spend a longer season overseas, but they didn’t have a country on their hearts yet. They graduated with education degrees and started figuring out what long-term missions might look like. Michelle taught for a few years then joined Rich on staff at Teen Mania. They watched and learned and soaked in everything mission-related for about eight years before they felt the pull to South Africa.
Rich is a strategic guy, so he figured out how he and Michelle could set up and run a mission ministry near a first-world business city like Johannesburg. In 2004, Impact Africa was born to help ease the suffering on the African continent. “My heart was to reach the lost. We went where the need was,” Rich says. Johannesburg is called “Gold City” because it’s the economic capital of southern Africa. Yet despite having an abundance of economic resources, it’s plagued with hopelessness and oppression. It’s paradoxical to be ministering to some of the most poverty-stricken people in the world in a place that tops many vacationers’ bucket lists because of its natural beauty and abundant adventure.
South Africa attracts hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from all over Africa seeking work to support their families back home. Many live around the periphery of Johannesburg in densely populated squatter camps—also known as survivalist communities. “There could be 300,000 people occupying a 1.5-square-mile camp. The homes range from tin shacks to brick structures and everything in between,” Rich says. “It creates an environment so hungry for the gospel.” Rich and Michelle founded Impact Africa to address the area’s most devastating issues and help those in the poorest communities. Today they care for abandoned babies, strive to prevent baby dumping, feed and educate hundreds of preschool-age children, and deliver the gospel message to thousands of high schoolers! This is the harvest field. “This harvest field isn’t just ripe, there’s fruit all over the ground too because the farmers can’t get to it fast enough,” Rich says. “Our biggest need is more boots on the ground.”
Over the years, Impact Africa’s ministry has evolved into a hugely successful mission base that draws boots from all over the world. Their motto has always been to “serve, educate, and rescue,” but the Franzens have also been equipping people of all ages for short- and long-term missions—and many of them are Gateway people! “Impact Africa is one of our most highly rated ministry trips,” says Chase Willsey, the Gateway Global pastor overseeing our ministry partners all over Africa. “People love the eye-to-eye ministry they experience in the camps,” says Chase. Much of the time spent on a short-term mission trip is walking door to door in the camps, interacting with people right where they are—even doing what Rich calls “dirt ministry”—literally sitting in the dirt with people outside their homes. “We were able to pray for people and help them with their chores. They have an incredible sense of cleanliness in one of the dirtiest places I’ve ever seen. They are constantly sweeping their floors and washing their shoes in plastic tubs of water,” says Phillip Goldsberry, on a recent trip with Gateway. Rich is very hands-on with the teams visiting their mission base; he often joins them inside the camps. This is Rich’s heart and soul of the ministry. “I love seeing first-time guests’ day-one mindset, and then I get to see the dramatic change and how their perspective is blown open by the time they leave on the last day,” he says. He knows God can use them in a tangible way. “This place fosters such growth into your calling and an opportunity to use your gifts for the gospel. And I get to see both sides,” Rich says. They are uniquely positioned in South Africa to work with many Westerners and Africans. “We love seeing Africans reaching Africans; it maximizes the impact on the communities we work in,” Rich says. “When God gets a hold of these lives, they flourish. We get to witness joy in the midst of chaos and see how God grows them through biblical-principled living.” One such full-circle story lies at the heart of Impact Africa.
Denis, an African staff member with Impact Students, was saved in the Kya Sands squatter camp by one of Rich and Michelle’s short-term mission teams. Denis was stealing cars and selling drugs at a young age to survive. “I was walking in my neighborhood and saw this small group of white people down the road. I wanted to turn around and go the other way, but something nagged at me to keep going,” Denis says. “They greeted me and asked me a couple questions that spoke straight to my heart: ‘Have you heard of heaven and hell?’ ‘If you died today, do you know where you are going?’ Their words affected me immediately. I knew I wasn’t going to heaven. I was doing what I thought I had to do to survive,” he says. Denis gave everything to Christ that day and started attending church and studying God’s Word. “I reconciled with my mom who cried with joy as she drew me back into her arms. And then, I started volunteering with Impact Africa as a translator. Today I’m on staff and part of the greater Franzen family, like all the staff and interns here. I get to share my testimony with thousands of high school students each week,” Denis says. Impact Students sees thousands of salvations through their high school assemblies. Surprisingly, the government welcomes them to share the gospel in the public schools because they see the impact it’s made in the local landscape. “I can relate to these kids. Many of them are going through what I went through, and now I have an opportunity to help them change their legacies,” Denis says.
A lot of people ask Rich how he got where he is today. “I was moved by holy discontent,” he says. “I was just really mad at what I was seeing and wanted to do something about it.” Today their founding goal remains the same: introduce people to Jesus so He can transform their lives for eternity. “We westerners have such a ‘fix-it’ mentality. We aren’t here to fix these people or their problems. We’re here to introduce them to the One who can,” Rich says. “They learn biblical principles to pull themselves out of situations they are in. That brings hope.” Though Rich and Michelle have gotten more creative about how to reach people after 15 years, the intent remains the same. “We use our preschools to reach the families through the kids. We use the baby center and baby box ministry to speak hope and life to the masses of women in need. We share the gospel in high schools hoping to raise up believers who will lead their country into the next generation,” Rich says. Every conversation presents an opportunity to connect on a deeper level while sharing the tangible hope of the gospel. “We are so thankful to partner with globally minded churches like Gateway. We’re a collective body of Christ impacting Africa together,” Rich says. “Your personal involvement, investment, prayers, and commitment to reach all nations is changing lives in South Africa and around the world.”
So how is it 30 years after Michelle’s first trip to the “middle of nowhere,” she and Rich find themselves serving faithfully, abundantly, and joyfully in South Africa? It wasn’t happenstance; it was the Lord. “Never in a million years did I think I’d spend a season of my life in South Africa!” Michelle says. “In mission ministries, you see a lot of men at the forefront. I think part of why we are sustained here so long is because it was a dream for both of us. I wasn’t just following my husband and supporting his call. We both had the call. And together we fell in love with the people of South Africa.” With some, He gently nudges. With others, it’s a louder call. And sometimes if you step out, preconceived ideas could be shattered and the Lord’s plan could unfold, even if it appears to be happenstance.
To learn more about Impact Africa’s ministry and internship programs, visit impactafrica.org. To join an upcoming short-term Gateway Global ministry trip, visit trips.gatewaypeople.com.