One conversation with Brandon and Rachel Penkoff quickly reveals that these modern-day missionaries in Cameroon would understand why the first-century missionary and apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (1:3-7)
The resonating beat throughout their story is that of partnership. It began with Rachel and Brandon, each who had decided to be a missionary before meeting and marrying to pursue missions together. It’s provided the rhythm for their life in overseas missions as they’ve worked in their prospective fields of education and aviation, building relationships and connecting other believers. And it is this Christian calling to partnership which has allowed Songs for Saplings to grow roots in Cameroon.
Before the Penkoffs moved abroad, they attended the same church as James and Dana Dirksen and discovered the music of SfS. They loved the music for their twin girls and had even visited the Dirksens in Paris while they were recording SfS into French. In 2010, James told the Penkoffs that he would take them to Cameroon, and three years later he did just that. In 2013, after they completed their language studies in France, James escorted the Penkoffs when they made the move to Cameroon.
Their supporting mission organization is Wycliffe Bible Translators, who partners there in Gospel work with JAARS and SIL International. Brandon flies small airplanes, transporting missionaries and church workers to remote areas of the country and delivering translations of the Bible and the Jesus film in native languages. While English and French are Cameroon’s official languages, the Penkoffs stated that some 270 indigenous languages also exist.
Rachel devotes a lot of time to raising their three daughters, and she’s also worked as a teacher and literacy coordinator. However, it is clear that SfS has been on their radar since Day 1. What began with simply sharing the Gospel resource among friends has grown into so much more, due to what Rachel terms a “joint effort.”
According to the Penkoffs, “though the church in Cameroon is a young church and needs discipleship,” they are encouraged by how the Gospel is growing throughout the country in the midst of difficult circumstances. They said it’s not uncommon for their Cameroonian friends to be ousted by their family when they become a Christian, only to have the family members eventually become curious about their faith. Not all areas of the nation are friendly toward Christians, and it can be particularly dangerous in the northern part of the nation.
They are fortunate to have attended an excellent, theologically sound church in the capital city of Yaoundé where they reside. In the wider culture, however, children tend to be overlooked and ministry resources for children are not readily accessible. When her fellow Cameroonian Sunday School teachers initially inquired about helpful resources, she connected them with a curriculum developed by missionary colleagues. Along the way she thought, “SfS would be grand!” but was unsure of how to create entire lessons for children with the songs.
When people returned to church in early 2021 after the Covid pandemic, the head of the children’s program asked Rachel to integrate SfS as their curriculum. Rachel was hesitant to lead - not only because their family strives to support Cameroonians already in ministry, but also because the Penkoffs were going to begin a year-long furlough in the summertime. What Rachel envisioned as an occasional workshop turned into regular teaching with hand-made Question and Answer posters for each SfS song, including flaps that uncovered the accompanying Bible verse. Other Cameroonian teachers and another missionary couple sat in and learned while she taught, and she is encouraged to know these partners will carry on with the curriculum now that her family is back in the States for a season.
While Rachel worked on developing a curriculum for SfS and equipping other teachers, Brandon utilized his role as a pilot to connect people to further the availability and distribution of SfS throughout the nation. He views his job as “a partnership developer,” for he hears stories while he transports people and can help bring people together with similar goals. One evening Brandon gathered the following people to brainstorm about SfS: Joel, a Cameroonian flight coordinator with gifts in IT; Jonathan, another Cameroonian who is great with kids and musically talented; and Matt, an employee with SIL.
Brandon shared that the excitement was palpable as they discussed their ideas for SfS in Cameroon. Already, some hospitals play SfS on their close circuit televisions. This led them to think it is possible to transmit SfS on radio stations. Perhaps the most effective scenario is to upload SfS onto SD cards, as most people access and share music through their smartphones. And because SfS has not made copyright an issue, the music can be spread liberally through the nation!
Even though the Penkoffs are currently on furlough in the US, the work of SfS continues in Cameroon because of Gospel-centered partnerships they developed while living there. Brandon’s ability to network and connect like-minded people “enables guys like Joel and Jonathan to catch a vision and go with it.” Joel is already busy producing SD cards for the widespread distribution of SfS.
Rachel’s collaboration with another missionary couple and the head Sunday School teacher, Christine, resulted in the creation of teaching materials for fifteen songs on Volume 1 of SfS, and she expects the work to continue after her departure. She hopes one day for a fully developed SfS curriculum with visuals to assist others in teaching the songs to children. Rachel also delighted in hearing the children add their own African rhythms to the French versions of SfS and dreams of recording the songs with those beats.
Just as these children join their rhythms with the music of SfS to create something even more beautiful, so is the Lord joining uniquely made image-bearers in His work with SfS. And because He is the One who invites his people into relationship and service with Him, holding everything and everyone in His sure hands, all of God’s partners in the Gospel can affirm what Paul wrote: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) To God be the Glory, in Cameroon and beyond!