lan Knowles first met Pauline Aho when she was a student at Pioneer Valley Academy in New Braintree, Massachusetts. With a year of college behind him, Alan began working for Pauline’s father. Three years later Alan and Pauline were married.
They shared an interest in missions and outreach, so they enrolled at Mountain Missionary Institute in Harrisville, New Hampshire, where they learned the basics of lay evangelism and medical missionary work. They planned to be “missionaries at home” in New England.
When Alan got a call from his brother-in-law, Kim Busl, to work at Riverside Farm Institute in Zambia, he said yes, figuring they’d stay in Africa for three years at the most. Within the first week of arriving in Zambia, Alan started counting down the days until they could return home. That was 1985. He distinctly remembers 1,000 days turning into 999, but he doesn’t remember counting down after that.
The days turned into months, the months turned into years, and the years turned into decades. They raised their sons, Joshua and Caleb, on Riverside Farm. The boys got married, Alan and Pauline became grandparents, and Zambia became home.
“Africa became our home,” Alan reflects.
In the beginning Alan began spending one day each month helping small Zambian congregations build simple churches. At that rate he could complete maybe one church a year. In the 1990s Adventist-laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI) member and businessman Garwin McNeilus approached Alan and asked, “How’d you like to build a bunch of churches every year? Like maybe 50?”
Alan had already caught a vision for what a blessing it was for villagers to worship under a leak-free roof, so he was happy to get on board with the Roofs for Africa program. The idea was to install as many roofs as possible on structures already constructed by local congregations.
“My heart was really thrilled with the experience of satisfying the needs of our church brethren who didn’t have much hope beyond a thatched roof that started leaking within two years—and collapsed within five, with help from termites,” he recalls. But the new roofs tended to outlast the underlying structures, so they weren’t a perfect fix.
Years later brainstorming sessions involving Alan, McNeilus, and representatives from Maranatha Volunteers International, Riverside Farm Institute, and Kibidula Farm in Tanzania led to the idea of developing permanent steel structures that could be built in a day. Church members could finish walls, floors, windows, and doors in their own style, using local materials.
That was the birth of the One-Day Church Project, Inc., which really took off in 2008. Since then, Alan and his team of three or four permanent workers have built about 500 churches in Zambia, with help from local church members. He doesn’t anticipate worldwide demand for one-day churches dwindling for at least another 10 or 20 years. His church-building efforts take him to the deepest jungles at the farthest edges of Zambia, as well as around the world.
“At the end of the day, when the church building is finished, we gather the workers and church members together for a time of praise and thankfulness,” says Alan. “We give them greetings from the donors who supported their particular church, and then entrust them with this wonderful gift by having a dedicatory prayer.”
That’s when the church members begin singing, and everyone starts hugging and shaking hands. There are tears of joy, cheering and clapping, and prayers of thankfulness for what God has done in providing them with a church that will last. “A church that will last until Jesus comes,” as McNeilus says.
It’s satisfying work, but why, really, did Alan and Pauline stay in Zambia so long?
“I’m thankful for my wife,” says Alan. “She’s the one who makes it possible to stay. It’s really important that the wife can handle the change and stress and loneliness [of mission work], and missing her family, and that she knows that God is calling her.”
Together Alan and Pauline mentor student missionaries who come with short-term plans and leave with lifelong commitments. The couple “When we first got here, I was overwhelmed with the needs, and it just seemed as though I didn’t know how to even begin taking care of them,” Pauline admits. “But you just begin with what little you have and what little you know, and you share it. I started doing that. I started visiting people and getting acquainted with them, and then I realized how many orphans there were. So now I have a program in which I’m helping about 35 orphan kids go to secondary school. I have worship with them and give them Bible studies, and the Lord provides the funds to keep putting these kids in school. I also help provide clothes and medical care for orphaned babies being cared for by relatives.”
“What it has done for me is increase my faith,” she continues. “It shows me that all God wants is willing hearts. He can provide whatever you need to do His work. It’s amazing.”
Alan continues to work with the One-Day Church Project, focusing his efforts primarily in rural areas. He helps Riverside “pioneers” or Bible workers build churches and establish evangelism training schools in the remotest areas of Zambia, where needs are great and resources are few. Most of the pioneers ride bicycles or use oxcarts for transportation.
“You have to bring food for everyone,” Alan says, “because most of the people in those areas don’t have enough for themselves, never mind feeding guests.”
Alan especially remembers building one church where the workers were so amazed and thankful at the end of the day that they didn’t even go home that night. Their wives joined them, and they all sang praises deep into the night before falling asleep and spending the rest of the night in their new church.
“It’s the part that warms your heart so much you can’t wait to get to the next group and be a blessing to them in the same way,” Alan says. “What an outstanding message it sends to people in those remote areas—that people in the developed world care about them.”
Visit www.onedaychurch.org for more information about the One-Day Church program.
Visit www.riversidefarminstitute.org/depart_missions.htm to watch a fast-motion video of a basic church structure being built in a day. Local church members eventually add walls, windows, and doors, meeting in the new church structure right away. This article was published August 8, 2013.