More than 900 people gathered Saturday at Hollywood Community Church for a memorial service that traced Michael J. Riddering’s journey from a South Florida church elder and soccer coach to a missionary in the African desert who lost his life in a terrorist attack.
He was a boat builder and lover of the ocean who found himself in land-locked Burkina Faso, where he ran an orphanage, dug wells, helped widows and tried to save souls. “He wasn’t a well driller but he dug 26 wells,” said Brian Burkholder, pastor at the Hollywood church. Riddering had never been a school administrator before but ran an orphanage and school for 400 children. He even performed minor surgery.
“If he were here today, he would ask what is it that God wants you to do,” said Burkholder. And whatever that might be, “then do it.’ Riddering, he said, was a man who “completely surrendered to God.”
The 45-year-old Riddering was killed in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on Jan. 15 as he awaited the arrival of another group of missionaries from the West Pines Community Church in Pembroke Pines.
Because he arrived early, Riddering and a local pastor decided to get a coffee at the Cappucino Cafe, a favorite of Westerners. As they waited, al-Qaida and Al-Mourabitoun militants attacked the cafe and the Splendid, a luxury hotel across the street. Thirty people were killed in the attacks and 56 wounded. While the pastor found a safe place to hide, Riddering was the only American who died in the attacks.
Before the tragedy, probably few in South Florida could place Burkina Faso on the map. It’s a poor West African country of 17.3 million people with an economy built on agriculture and mining. But it is the place, 5,217 miles from their former home in Cooper City, where Amy and Mike Riddering built a life after selling everything they owned, including his business, Ohana boats.
They became missionaries in the tiny village of Yako where they and their team cared for about 400 orphans and widows, created a woman’s crisis center and medical clinic and ran the orphanage and school built by Sheltering Wings, a St. Louis-based charity.
“Mike was a father to all the children who had no fathers,” said Brant I. Brooks, a friend of the Ridderings who lived in Burkina Faso from 2012 to 2015. “He taught these children how to love. He fought for them. He advocated for them when no one advocated for them. He went toe-to-toe with an entire government for these children.”
Until his thirties, Riddering was a pretty typical South Florida guy. He loved the ocean, fishing, boating; he married his high school sweetheart and they had two daughters Haley, now 24, and Delaney, 20.
There was a time, said his brother, Jeff Riddering, when Mike “didn’t feel a whole lot of love in his heart,” didn’t have a lot of friends or a community. But then he opened his heart to God, said his brother, and “God began to work in Mike in very big ways.”
Amy and Mike joined the Hollywood church and there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do or sacrifice for it, including cutting the grass, said his friends.
His two oldest daughters put together a slide show of his favorite photos that showed his transformation from typical family man to papa to African orphans to a man dressed in brightly printed African shirts who was well aware he lived in a red zone with al-Qaida active only 1 1/2 hours north of the village where the couple lived.
Still, Amy Riddering and the couple’s two adopted Burkinabe children, 15-year-old Biba and Moise, 4, plan to return to Burkina Faso at the end intend of the month.
“People wonder what I am going to do now. It’s simple — God did not only call Mike to Burkina Faso; he called me, too,” she said Friday. It was the first time she has spoken publicly about the Jan. 15 attack. “Our following God’s call and our work with orphans and widows is the most rewarding thing I can imagine.”
She called the 20 hours after the attack — when she didn’t know her husband’s fate — “complete misery.”
Jeff, Riddering, a pastor who introduced his brother and Amy to missionary work, was getting information from news outlets. About a day later, they learned from another missionary that Mike’s body was in the morgue.
Amy laid her husband to rest in Yako, Burkina Faso, because he said he wanted to buried in African soil, and Jeff Riddering officiated the service last week. “It was a beautiful thing to see the response of the Burkinabe people, who came in droves to honor not only the life that Mike had that he dedicated and sacrificed, but also the God that he honored,” he said. He estimates perhaps 5,000 people were there.
The decision to move to Burkina Faso came after the couple “realized that we are really not in control here and we just have to fully trust that God is going to take care of us and when we started to do that, things started to change in our life,” Amy Riddering said.
She noted that her husband used to say “that he trusted God so much that if God had him digging wells in Africa, that’s where he’d go.” He felt certain that God wanted him in Africa, but wasn’t quite sure what his mission would be. Prophetically during his first trip there, he learned there was $20,000 that had been set aside for a well-drilling project.
“I hope we all come out of here saying, ‘I want to be like Mike,’” said Pastor José Santiago as he opened the memorial service.