Simon Guillebaud: Meet the missionary who faced death threats in what was once the world's most dangerous nation
Megan Cornwell meets the inspiring evangelist
Simon Guillebaud (pronounced Gilbo) is everything you’d expect from a privately educated Englishman who relinquished comfort and predictability for the sake of the gospel: eccentric, uncompromising in his faith and just a tad untameable. When I catch up with him during one of his regular speaking tours in the UK, he is lying prostrate on the floor of the hotel lobby we’ve agreed to meet in. His back has been causing him discomfort, so he’s taking preventative measures to stop it seizing up.
Apart from his privileged background, there is little that is conventional about the 46-year-old missionary who has spent the best part of his adult life in war-ravaged Burundi: once the most dangerous nation on earth, and still one of the poorest. He moved to Bujumbura in his 20s after receiving a stark instruction from God, and then, since meeting his wife, Lizzie, in 2002, has spent more than a decade bringing his family up there.
Burundi endured many years of political and economic instability when civil war erupted in the landlocked country in the early 1990s. An estimated 300,000 people were massacred. Guillebaud tells me the situation is still “desperately grim”, with one dentist for 1 million people and not nearly enough doctors.
Burundians are both literally and spiritually hungry, and so Guillebaud’s organisation, Great Lakes Outreach (GLO), responds to both needs. Some 164,000 people have become Christians through his ministry, and so this self-confessed “extreme extrovert” is full to bursting with extraordinary stories of the power of God, lurching from one miraculous tale to another.
The missionary is now back in England for his children’s education and, while he remains heavily involved in the work of GLO, he has passed much of the day-to-day running to a local man “way more capable than me”.
Guillebaud thinks the UK is just as much at war as any country in literal conflict, the only difference is the kind of bombs that are falling – bombs of “comfort, relativism and distraction”, he says, which are foes of a far more “insidious” nature. He’s worried about being “taken out” by them and, this time, preventative measures include 5:30am prayer walks in his new community (“I don’t need much sleep”), a housewarming party to get to know his neighbours and a commitment to prayer: “If I’m gonna be in the street for ten years, I will be held to account for these people having hope or not having hope, and having the truth claims of Christ presented to them.”
Given Guillebaud’s reputation for shunning worldly comfort and status, I was surprised to discover the father-of-three will be sending his children to private school. But, as with so many of Guillebaud’s stories, there’s more to it than meets the cynical eye. A friend generously offered to pay the school fees, he tells me. “I was completely dumbstruck because it’s a massive gift for three kids...so you know, the Lord is just pouring out his blessings, and it’s all grace, none of us deserves it more than anyone else.
“But with privilege comes responsibility,” he adds. “I used to feel that, with my background. ‘To those who’ve ‘been given much, much will be required’ Jesus said (12:48, NASB), so I don’t feel guilty about it, but I do want to do as much as I can with it.
What compelled you to travel to one of the most dangerous countries in the world?
I wanted to go to a country that had never heard of Jesus, where people really didn’t have a clue. So that was my heart’s desire. I felt the Lord had called me to Cambodia, but that didn’t work out. And then I was still in this good marketing job and this guy tracked me down – I’d never met him before – and he said: “I believe God sent me to you. He wants you to go to Burundi, and be involved in youth and mission and evangelism.” I had been praying: “I’ll do anything, I’ll go anywhere. I don’t want security, I just want to be in your will”, so I thought: “Well, either he’s a nut job, or he has been sent by God.” So I said to him: “Alright, thanks, weirdo, I’ll think about it, I’ll be spiritual, I’ll pray about it.” I went back to my job; I was in front of the computer and I said to God: “If you want me to go to Burundi, that means leaving family, friends, security, career, everything, and going to a place where I might get killed, so give me a radical sign, right now, in front of the computer.” I didn’t wait long: a friend called up out of the blue and said: “You know anyone who wants to work in Burundi?” Boom! That was it, my life direction just swung on that sentence.
You once said you didn’t think you’d make it past 30.
But you’re now in your mid-40s. What have been some of the dangerous situations God has brought you through?
Back in the early days (1999-2003) I would drive up roads, and onetime 40 people were killed but we got through; I had a guy come to my house with a grenade to blow me up– he wrote me a letter saying he was going to cut out my eyes. I remember preaching once in a displacement camp – a living hell where ten people were dying every day. The rebels had just sent down the chopped-off heads of soldiers they’d killed a few hundred yards up the hill. The guys said: “Come on, you’ve got to get out of here”, so I got on my motorbike and...came across the soldiers, who had that look in their eyes, and there was blood on the road. So, very, very intense, and a very heightened sense of the gift of life and wanting to maximise every single minute.
When you live expecting to die, it’s a great way to live. Sometimes, when I say that, people think that I’m a nut job, but no, if you live expecting to die, you prioritise people over stuff; you want to have short accounts; you want to resolve any grudges you’ve got with anyone; you want to receive and offer forgiveness; you don’t get excited about stuff, because you’re not going to take stuff with you.
Have you had any psychological repercussions from that time?
Well, praise the Lord, no, unless I’m so screwed up that I can’t even recognise it! I’ve had some evaluations, and I think what was healthy was that I’ve always had very close people to bounce stuff off, and I’ve cried a lot. In 2015 when, after ten years of peace, it kicked off again, I would often weep during preaching, so it wasn’t bottled up. That has been a key part of my healing.
You’re the founder of Great Lakes Outreach, a charity that works with local organisations in Burundi to preach the gospel and alleviate poverty. Tell us about how that organisation came about.
It’s funny because I started off out there under the umbrella of Scripture Union. After a few years I sent out an email to a few hundred friends, saying: “Guys I’m feeling overwhelmed. This is all the things we’re involved with: we’re involved in this orphanage and student ministry and Scripture Union and street kid stuff...could anyone just help me out?” And the response to the email was about 100 direct debits of £30,£40, £10 a month. I actually became an Al-Qaeda suspect because I had the stereotypical profile: hundreds of direct debits on my personal account! I think my record was taking out $78,000 in cash to fund various projects because there was no functioning banking system out there at the time. And so we got some fishy calls at home. Once they established that I was vaguely kosher, they said: “Could you be more transparent and set up an organisation?” That was the birth of Great Lakes Outreach in 2003.
So it was really just to stop you getting a criminal record?
I was never going to get a criminal record, but it was about being transparent and above board. Our vision is to identify the best local leaders of passion, integrity, gifting and vision for the transformation of the nation, and honestly, it’s just absolutely beautiful. Because Burundi is so poor it has so many problems, but some of God’s best troops are in Burundi, and all they need is resourcing, empowering and equipping to do unbelievably beautiful stuff. So, right now as we speak, 700 evangelists are out there for two weeks in 35 different teams, and they will be casting out demons and healing the sick. Witchdoctors will be burning their charms publicly, submitting to the highest power because they’ve literally been knocked over by the power of Jesus. And some [evangelists] will get beaten up, some will get put in prison – and I know that because we’ve done this for the last 14 years. On one occasion a witchdoctor was slain by the power of God, and then burned his charms in front of the whole village and 50 people on the spot gave their lives to Christ. In another incident, a young man was pronounced dead in hospital and his mum started wailing as his tubes were removed. He was covered by a sheet and one of my guys who came in felt led by the Spirit of God to speak life back into that body. He declared life. The man sat back up, well. In the hospital 40 people gave their lives to Christ. So there’s lots of really extraordinary stories.
Can you share some more of those miraculous stories?
One lady, when our team showed up, basically said: “F off.” She said: “We’re not interested in what you’ve got to say.” So they retreated respectfully, but then as they retreated, she said: “Oh, hang on, come back. I’ll let you talk to my village, but first of all heal this demon-possessed girl. ”So essentially, what she was saying was: “Don’t just talk a good game, show us the power.” Now, some won’t even believe in demons...some might say she was just mentally ill, which is what a secular, materialistic worldview would say. So, this girl, as they prayed for her, the whole village came to watch and they prayed over her in Jesus’ name. And then: “Bleugh!” – all these different guttural utterances came out of this precious young girl’s body, and she was set free. A mentally ill person wouldn’t have those deep guttural utterances, so that was a demon. She was set free, while on the spot, that lady who, a few minutes earlier was saying “F off”, along with another 20 people in that village, fell to their knees giving their lives to Christ. Beautiful.
A friend of mine, Agnes, was deaf, dumb, blind and was curled up into a ball like a vegetable for seven years. I’m sure loads of people prayed for her over those years, but on one occasion, a bunch of young people came and prayed over her in Jesus’ name, and her whole body uncoiled and she got her sight and hearing back. But the one thing that still hadn’t come was her speech. She was still mute, but she was like: “Surely the Lord isn’t going to stop there?” So, she joined the church choir by faith, and then three weeks later the Lord released her tongue to sing his praises and now she will not shut up; she’s a turbo-charged evangelist. She’s actually an ordained Anglican minister out there.
What has it been like to raise children in a conflict zone?
Well, it’s interesting, because we’ve just moved back to England this year and all of them want to go back to Burundi. I’m so glad that they all love Burundi and that they’re not going to be like those screwed-up missionary kids that go: “Oh, what did you do to us, bringing us up in a war zone?” They have built up great memories. We had incredible freedom out there; not freedom for them to be out at dark or to walk on the streets, even, but you know, they had a cross-cultural education; they speak French fluently. We’ve been able to travel around five countries in East Africa and see every sort of lion and elephant and rhino; I mean, people’s life dreams.
When I married my wife, I said: “Are you ready to be a young widow?” That was the proposal, and she bought into that. But the kids didn’t buy into it, so the heaviest thing was thinking: “Lord...is Lizzie going to get raped? Are they going to be killed, are they going to be traumatised?” The fact is, things can go wrong in England, but people won’t say: “You idiot, how could you do that?” And so I was always vaguely living under that potential accusation. And so, I’m just so grateful and say: “Thank you, Lord, that they’re safe, mentally on an even keel.” And again, it’s all grace, because you know, it’s not a given at all.
What’s your view of the UK Church? Why are we not seeing more people saved?
I think there’s some fabulous, hard-core gospel men and women who are busting a gut to be faithful, and so straight away I want to acknowledge that, but it is just harder. There’s no doubt we’re in a post-Christian culture, where there’s not that same openness at all. There’s cynicism. There’s fear. There’s scorn. There’s distraction. People haven’t got the time, they don’t want to give the time. So, it’s just a very different context.
I think the challenge for me coming back here is: I want to model and live an incarnational spirituality that is humble; to prioritise people over stuff...I was talking to a ministry leader here about the Scouts. We have people saying: “People don’t want to go to youth clubs.” That’s just wrong, there’s a waiting list of 50,000 people for the Scouts in England right now. Why are there 50,000 kids that can’t go to Scouts? Because there aren’t the leaders. Because we’re all watching box sets and sacrificing all our time at the altar of Netflix or Amazon Prime, or whatever it is. And I don’t want to slip into that. And that’s the challenge that I think people just don’t see...It’s insidious and dangerous. We need to be very awake, very alert. That’s why I feel the need to get out at the crack of dawn because...there’s a war going on. I’ve listened to literal bombs falling in Burundi and lots of gunfire, and yet back here in England I see bombs falling all over the place, they’re just different bombs, of comfort, relativism and distraction. And if we haven’t got eyes to see, then we will get taken out. So, ask me again in a year’s time: “How are you getting on, buddy?”
You know, the military metaphors in the Bible were there for a reason and we need to be signed up and disciplined. And that goes against my nature because I’m much more laid back in the natural. And, you know, I want to be lazy, but the stakes are high. We’ve got an urgent commission, an urgent mandate. We need to take it very, very seriously, because I know that no one wants to get to the end of their life and be sat there in a recliner with a shrivelled soul, thinking: “There was loads of stuff I think I just missed, I played it safe, I wasted so much time.” That’s not a compelling vision. Whereas the vision I’m painting right now, of urgency and passion and focus and worship and serving the King –that is very compelling. But it takes everything.
Click here to subscribe to Premier Christianity magazine for only £4.95 a month