The night was deathly silent until a truck came rumbling down the dirt road.
Camping in the Tanzanian brush, Stan Bennett and the others on his mission trip saw the shadows of men hanging from the pickup, their frames outlined in the dark sky. By the campfire's glow, they watched as the truck came to a stop.
The steel sound of guns readying filled the air.
Bennett grabbed his phone and just before the battery died, sent a quick text message to his Gainesville pastor.
"They're back. Pray hard."
That was Jan. 29. His wife, Judy Bennett, didn't hear from him for the next five days.
The harrowing ordeal started hours before and was unlike anything Bennett, 56, had experienced in his seven years as a missionary in southeast Africa.
Still, he said it has only given him a stronger conviction in his work there.
Bennett, co-owner of the Southern Heritage Land Co. in Gainesville, has made seven trips to Tanzania and Kenya where he ministers to the Masai tribe.
With a story cloth split into equal squares, each depicting a tale from the Bible, the group from Calvary Road Ministries start at the story of creation and work through to the ascension of Jesus.
They break into four groups, walking into the wilderness in search of bomas, the Masai villages.
When they stumble on one, they ask to speak to the village's "old man." Only if the elder allows it do they enter and tell the stories, staying for a few hours before moving to another village and leaving the picture cloth behind.
Bennett has seen thousands of Masai accept Christianity in this way.
This trip had started like any other, with Bennett catching a plane from Atlanta on Jan. 22. For four days, he and his group walked from village to village, but on the fifth day, Bennett's friend and translator told him they were being called to the local police station.
"He said, ‘This is not good'. And I said, ‘Well, John, it doesn't sound good. But let's go see what's going on,'" he remembers.
In a small cinder-block building, the missionaries sat before a group of officials. It was 104 degrees in the shade that day, and the whitewashed room was oppressively warm as they sat through a four-hour interrogation.
"They were trying to make up stuff that we had lied on our visas," Bennett said. "That we were businessmen there doing business. Anything they could think of. And the bottom line I think was that they wanted money."
There was religious tension, too, Bennett said, and at one point he saw a local religious leader he believes was working with the officials.
After four hours, the men allowed the group to go, telling them they had to leave the next morning on a specific road.
Relieved the questioning was over, they returned to camp. But a few hours before sunset, the men heard a truck and a group of visitors approached demanding money. Their translator negotiated for two hours before persuading the group to leave. But Bennett worried they would return.
When night fell, they did, and Bennett sent that last text message to his pastor at Lanier Hills Church.
In Gainesville, his wife, Judy, waited for news. Her husband had told her they were detained and warned that a group of bandits was following them.
After her pastor told Judy about the last text message, she contacted the wives of others on the trip, reached out to the mission's sponsoring group and called an aid organization in Africa. Each tried to contact the missionaries and heard no response.
"I was not thinking the worst for a couple of days, but as it went on my mind started thinking bad things and I didn't want it to," she said. "But I knew that he was in God's hands and I felt really strongly that God would protect him, or if something bad happened to him, he was doing what he was called to do," she said.
Still, she said, the fear was paralyzing.
In Tanzania, Bennett, too, pulled on his faith as he sat by the campfire. Telling the story now from his Gainesville office, he sees the next moments as an act of God.
Just minutes before the truck arrived, a Masai leader had come to their campsite by motorcycle, wanting to welcome the missionaries.
As the men readied their AK-47s, Bennett quickly told the Masai leader about their dealings with them earlier in the day. The man rose, walked to the truck and began talking to the men.
"They were over there an hour," Bennett said. "And there were some raised voices and I don't know what he told them, but he convinced them to leave. And he came back and said, ‘No more problems for the night.'"
The next morning, the group headed out on a back road, knowing the robbers would be waiting on the main street. After a nearly eight-hour drive, they ended up at another village and set up camp, pitching their tents in the shadow of a church.
They ended their trip there, preaching to more than 900 people who had traveled to hear the stories.
Bennett said 740 accepted Christianity that day.
Now home in Gainesville, Bennett recounts the ordeal with surprising calm. It was terrifying, he said, but his deep belief in the work he does there and in God leaves him with no regrets.
"God tells me that this is what I'm supposed to be doing," he said. "I get as much out of it as the Masai people do. It charges my batteries. It makes my faith stronger. Because I see God at work over there."
He was humbled to hear that his church and much of his community was praying for his safe return.
Several state congressmen had even offered their assistance, Judy told him.
"One thing it did was it probably made a lot of people turn to God and pray that wouldn't normally pray," he said.
Bennett has another trip set for Aug. 17 and has no reservations in his decision to return.
The memories of his time there pull him back.
A few years ago, Bennett revisited a village he had been to before. It had been two years since he was there last, and as he entered the gates, the village's elder came running toward him on crutches, waving his arms.
The man pulled out the old story cloth Bennett had left with him.
"It was so black from the soot and he knew every (story)," Bennett said. "And he wanted me to tell them again. And he knew every panel and said them just like I had told it to him before. ... That's why I go back."