John Burns has a ‘Heart to Serve’ in Africa

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Seven years ago, John Burns heard a call from God to do missionary work in Africa. For years, he did his best to ignore the voice in his head. After all, he worked full-time as a landscaper, had a family to take care of, and he hated to travel. 

“A big trip to me is going to Beckley,” says Burns, a resident of White Sulphur Springs. “Here God is calling me to go to Africa? I said, ‘Are you sure you’re calling the right guy?’” 

The calls kept coming. John knew in his heart he had a purpose in Africa. “It was eatin’ at me,” he confesses. “It worked on me so much it caused me to quit my job.” 

Burns began exploring what it would actually look like to go help people halfway around the globe. He met a Liberian community leader named Timothy on Facebook. They hit it off immediately, as Timothy was doing exactly the kind of work John felt called to do–digging wells, buildings homes, and supporting kids. 

Located on the western coast of Africa, Liberia is one of the world’s poorest nations. According to the World Bank, more than half of Liberians live in poverty. The average person in Liberia spends almost 70% of their income on food in order to survive. $2 per day is the average wage. 

“Timothy was so passionate about helping people, So I just went over there,” Burns says of his first trip to Liberia earlier this year. He spent 28 days on the ground. Along with Timothy and others, they dug three wells which provided clean water to more than 2,400 villagers. 

Plans are already in place for a return trip this coming winter. “It fueled my desire to help more people,” Burns says. “It’s a very humbling experience knowing you can help people and that you can make a difference.”

It takes a village

John wasn’t the only person in the Burns household who was reluctant to answer the call to Liberia. His wife Ashley and their two children, while very supportive of John’s call to service, had concerns. 

“My son kept saying, ‘But why you? Why do you have to go?’” John recalls. “It was a good moment to tell him there are people in the world who need help.”

Burns is quick to point out that while he may be the one going to Liberia, it has been a family and community effort to get him there. 

“We’re a two-income family,” he explains. John works as a landscaper for Bobby’s Lawn Care and his wife is a school teacher. 

They knew they would lose his salary for a month while he was gone to Liberia. It was a concern for them, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. “We kept praying about it, and I worked right up until the last day before I left,” he remembers. “So since I get paid every week for the work I’ve done the previous week, I still had a paycheck coming in for my family that first week I was gone.” 

But then came the second week. When no check was scheduled to come. Ashley told John when he called from Liberia one day that his boss had sent his normal check. John told her to call his boss, Bobby Sams, and remind him that he wasn’t working and shouldn’t be getting paid. 

“Bobby told her he was going to keep paying me for 40 hours a week while I was in Liberia,” says John. “Encouragements like that keep you going and remind you that God is really in this.” 

‘It broke my heart’

John knew Liberia was poor before he went, but an experience he had one day after a meal forever changed his perspective on life. 

One day for lunch, his hosts in the town where he was digging the well served him a chicken leg. He was grateful for the meat and thought he picked it clean. “I threw the bone out in the trash pile, and a little girl came and ate it,” he remembers. “It broke my heart.”

He replays that moment in his head often, and it drives him to do more to help those in need. 

“I told ‘em I was coming back, so I am.” 

John’s next trip is Jan 13-Feb 7. He will split time between Liberia and Uganda with Timothy. They will scout well sites, build two houses, pass out Bibles in local languages, and deliver toys for kids. 

“I saw thousands of kids last time, but not one toy of enjoyment,” he says. “A kid should have a soccer ball. It’s important not only to survive but to thrive.” 

The most surprising part of the experience for John was the joy of the Liberian people. “It’s easy to praise God in good times, but they didn’t have anything…and they were praising God every single day.” 

‘Heart to Serve’ is born 

After John returned home this past winter, he knew he needed a larger footprint in order to make a larger difference in the lives of Liberians. The first thing he did was initiate the paperwork to start a nonprofit ministry. 

“I’m just a dumb landscaper,” he jokes. “That was a daunting task.” 

But his persistence and passion paid off, culminating in the official creation of “Heart to Serve,” John’s nonprofit ministry dedicated to satisfying the call he hears…and the needs of his new friends. 

“Everything we raise goes to the projects,” John explains. He doesn’t take a salary and neither does Timothy. In fact, John still pays for his own travel and expenses, because he wants all the proceeds to go to the projects. Several sponsors have already stepped up to support Heart to Serve, sponsoring two wells planned for the next trip. 

“I can come speak at churches or groups anytime,” John offers to folks who want to learn more. 

“Liberia has changed my mindset of everything,” he says. “I see that little girl eating a chicken bone. It fuels me.” 

Those interested in learning more about the projects, the nonprofit, and John are encouraged to visit www.hearttoservemissions.org.

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