Givers

How a shared passion for Africa is healing a family

Alex Radler sat in a North Texas jail in a pair of $10,000 cowboy boots. What got him there was a case of “affluenza” and a series of remarkably bad decisions. What got him to where he is today was the love of his Heavenly Father and a love for Africa he shares with his earthly dad.

Michael Radler received the call from his son, in the middle of the night: “Dad, I got picked up on a DWI. Can you come get me?” Alex asked.

“No,” Michael said.

He meant it. He didn’t know if bailing his son out this time (it wasn’t the first) was going to do any good. He had to pray.

A familiar pain

Michael had been in a similarly helpless situation before – of praying for his son and waiting for God to show him what to do. When Alex was eight, he began experiencing headaches. No doctor seemed able to diagnose the cause. Alex would lay in his room in the dark, whimpering. Medicine barely helped.

When Alex was finally diagnosed with a condition called “pseudotumor cerebri,” the treatment was worse than not knowing had been. Over the course of four or five years, little Alex had 18 spinal taps.

Every time the doctors would do a tap, Michael says, they’d give a kind of warning: “This can be quite painful.” But Alex eventually required no meds. The doctor explained to his parents that the pain in his head was extreme enough to cancel out any pain from the needle in his spine.

Michael with his four young sons

It was exhausting for Alex and agonizing for his parents – who were trying to raise three more rambunctious boys at the same time. Michael says the thing that kept him going was a sense he had – the Holy Spirit was there during those spinal taps and there was a plan for Alex – not a vague plan. Alex would do something great.

Doctors said Alex would grow out of the condition, and he did. But, by then, he’d learned to use it as a crutch. And there were tensions in the family beyond just Alex’s condition. The boys didn’t witness a godly marriage, Alex says. His mom, feeling Michael was too dedicated to his work, eventually moved the kids to Florida, and Michael moved to Texas to be closer to his businesses. A few years later, the parents divorced.

Michael became a long-distance dad, traveling back and forth across the country on weekends so he could spend time with his boys. “During that time, God blessed me immensely from a financial standpoint,” Michael says. And despite the geographic separation, he was still deeply committed to raising his sons. He prayed that God would show him how they could use the wealth he was making for the kingdom. 

But being apart took a toll on Michael’s relationships with his boys, especially Alex, who began to pull away. Still, Michael called regularly to mentor his youngest son. Alex remembers one of these calls clearly. Michael walked him through the message of the gospel, ending with this, “There’s your worldly father, that’s me,” Michael said. “And then there’s your Heavenly Father; that’s who God is.”

They’d attended church when Alex was younger. His dad used to give each of his boys $20 for the collection plate, and they all understood that giving was important. It just wasn’t really clear why, Alex says, and theirs felt like a cultural Christianity, just checking a box. He remembers thinking in church, “What are we doing here?”

But Alex also remembers the exact date on which his dad told him about a perfect Father in heaven. It resonated with him: “I accepted Christ and sat down every night to be the good kid,” Alex says. He dug into Scripture.

Distance and wandering

Still, there was a void. As Alex’s social life grew in priority, Michael’s work responsibilities grew. Michael remembers many more conversations with his youngest son, but Alex’s interest in them, and in his newly forming faith, waned.

His brothers were his role models and closest friends. But they were always competing with each other. Eventually, they moved away to college, one by one. Two brothers chose universities closer to dad.

Michael was a great provider and gave generously to his children. Alex’s mother, having watched three boys go away to college, poured all her love into Alex. He manipulated the situation, he says.

He swapped his first car – a hand-me-down minivan – for a BMW-6 series. Then there was another car, and another. Over the course of two years, he acquired enough nice cars to drive a different one every day of the week. He partied too much and got in enough trouble to get expelled from his high school. He wasn’t allowed back on campus.

His friends were still in school, though, and on the weekends, he was the most popular among them. The party was always at his house, and the police were always waiting at the end of the street.

Alex’s social life became his focus. “On the weekends, I had all these ‘friends.’ But they were people who knew I could provide something,” he says.

From the outside, it seemed he had everything. “It provided a false sense of security and required zero interaction with Jesus,” Alex says.

“I felt like the world loved me, but I was being used by people and by my own insecurities,” Alex says. He doesn’t fault anyone for it.

Much of this was hidden from his father. When Michael came to visit,  Alex changed into “the regular clothes,” hid the cars, and reverted back to being “a normal teenager.”

But he carried this lifestyle – the one he hid from his dad – with him to college. Things didn’t really start to change until he received a convicting phone call from his brother, Graham, during his second year. Alex and his brothers had always been close, but in vying for their father’s approval, they were also extremely competitive. This set the stage for everyone trying to outdo each other.

But this call from Graham wasn’t about competition; it was about concern. Graham spoke for all three brothers: “When are you going to get your life together? We love you and care about you, but you’re acting like an idiot.”

“That conversation jolted me,” Alex says. “It lit a fire in me to be a productive member of the family and turn my life around.” Not long after, Alex transferred to Samford University, where he’d get an accounting degree.

“Let me show them I’m not throwing my life away,” Alex thought. And he did it. He got the accounting degree, proved to his brothers he wasn’t an idiot, and headed to Fort Worth to make money. The family business was oil, gas, and real estate. Surely, he’d find his way to success in one of these.

The Radler boys: Alex, Will, Graham, and Evan

Discovering Africa

About the time Alex was starting high school, Michael had remarried and started visiting Africa, where his wife was from. On a mission trip to Rwanda with a group called E3, Michael had an encounter with God he couldn’t shake. He was meeting with E3 team leaders from all over the African continent. A map hung on the wall with a pin representing where each person had come from. But he noticed the leader from Sudan was not there.

“Where’s the guy from Sudan?” he asked Nathan Sheets, E3’s president. “He couldn’t make it,” was all Nathan said. The next morning during his quiet time, Michael sensed God telling him to go to Sudan. When he shared this with Nathan, he received a flat “no.”

War was raging there, and Nathan was adamant. But the feeling never left Michael. After a peace agreement was signed between the northern and southern regions of Sudan in 2005, Michael traveled to the south with a small group of friends to understand why God was calling him there.

The country was still clearly a war zone. A cache of arms sat on the runway where his plane landed. But his time there only increased his certainty. “This is the place I’ve prepared you for,” he felt God saying.

Back home, he tried to make a plan, rally other philanthropists and non-profit leaders to come work alongside him, but he found few takers. They’d say, “Wow that’s great God called you, but that’s a chaotic country. We can get better ROI in this other country.”

“But these people really need Jesus!” Michael would respond. After 50 years of war, the need was staggering. The Radlers worked alone for years funding these water, health, and leadership-development ministries.

In 2010, NCF’s Joel Smyer was invited to join a trip with E3 and the Radler Foundation. Joel and Michael first connected on that trip. By the time Joel returned to the office, he already had a message to call Michael’s lawyers and discuss a non-liquid gift. Michael had already been thinking through the idea of an asset gift before restructuring his business. Before the year was over, the gift to his Giving Fund at NCF was made.

Joel became instrumental in giving them guidance, Michael says. The Radlers established a foundation in 2003, but now, when people come asking for advice about doing the same, Michael tells them how much money and time a foundation takes and then sends them to NCF. 

Michael (front) with Peter Reich (board member) and the water well drill crew in Africa

Passion and pride

On Michael’s first trip to South Sudan God placed three ministry focuses on his heart: water, health, and leadership training. The work was going well. But for a successful man, passion for good work can quickly turn to pride, Michael says. “We all have pride as an issue, but it’s probably my Achilles heel.”

Through Scripture, God had shown Michael that he would bless the work in Africa as long as he followed God’s will. “If you don’t, I will take it away,” Michael understood. And he went through a hard lesson that reinforced this.

In 2007, Michael entered South Sudan on a site-visit trip to begin planning what was next. He and a few friends were traveling and asking questions: “Where should we focus our attention, how can we be most effective, where is God telling us to work?”

When they met up with the rest of the team in Rumbeck (the country’s former capital), he began excitedly sharing his plans. Standing under one of the most beautiful night skies Michael had ever seen, he explained. “I’m going to do this. The foundation is going to do that…. I‘m going to make it happen…”

Then something came over him. “I can’t describe it,” he says. “I just stopped talking.”

Image: Unsplash

He remembers looking up at the sky, thinking, “Oh God, I’ve really messed up. I’ve offended you.” His friend, Nathan, was shaking his arm. “Michael, you’ve been staring at the sky for 30 seconds. You okay?”

Michael was not okay. He’d crossed a line with God. “I … me … nowhere in my plan was God,” he says. He went back to his tent.

That night, he became extremely ill. Over three days with fever, he dropped 20 pounds, and no one knew what was wrong. The team arranged an emergency medivac flight to Nairobi for help. He remembers the cool of the deck of the plane as it carried him.

Teammates prayed over him as he awaited medical care. He remembers coming in and out of consciousness and God clearly saying, “Michael, you can either stay here and do my work, or you can come home now.”

“I will do your work. I will stay. I will be obedient,” he remembers telling God. He recovered a few days later.

“I felt like I died for Christ at that moment.” Michael is sure this was the first time he really understood what that meant.

“Alright,” he had prayed. “I’m all in.” Michael’s faith was rapidly growing, but his son’s had a long way to go.

A year in South Sudan

Without a doubt, Michael’s experience in South Sudan had been life-altering. So, not long after, when faced with a son who needed a wake-up call, the idea that maybe Alex should spend some time in Africa sounded like a good one.

Once the dust settled from Alex’s DWI (his 4th arrest), the future looked dim. But, through discussions about how to move forward, it became clear that a year in Africa was exactly what was needed. So the idea was presented to the judge, who mandated it be a one-way ticket.

Alex landed in Nimule, South Sudan, and found himself one of three Americans on a team of 100+. His first three months, he was mad at God, he says, but he’d brought his Bible anyway.

Alex with teammates in Africa: Sam Kalama, Stephen Gesa, and Jon Parsons

“Every morning the expats lead Bible study with anyone who comes,” Steven Myles, who was overseeing the construction project, told Alex when he arrived. “You’re going to lead every three days. You’ll teach, and they’ll translate into Arabic and Ma’di.”

Alex hadn’t opened his Bible since he was 16. “You really want me to do this?” he asked.

“You have to do this,” Steven said.

His first Bible study was about the way light pushes away darkness (Matthew 5:15). “I was just reading my Bible verbatim,” with men translating on either side, he says. This became his routine for the next year.

“I started to see what God was doing,” Alex says. “I had to go from Ferraris and parties to living with no running water or power and no friends or family.” He had to get 8,250 miles away from home to finally understand what a relationship with Jesus was.

Alex in Africa, 2018

He thrived in South Sudan.

Two weeks before Alex was scheduled to leave, Michael arrived to check on the project he was so passionate about funding. Alex sat with the morning Bible study group and poured out his heart. “I was worried about going back to the U.S. not knowing if my faith was strong enough to resist what the world offered.”

He told the group he’d always compare himself to his brothers and their careers. He wasn’t living up to their standard of success. “I was the black sheep who had to be sent to Africa to get my life together” Alex says.

Michael wished everyone there could see the change he saw in his son at that moment. “I’m so proud of you, and I don’t ever want you to feel like you have to compare yourself to your brothers,” he said, standing before the whole group.

Michael thought back to when God told him Alex was created for something special. That day in Africa, he thought, “This is it!”

But it was time for Alex to come home. “Dad, I don’t know if I can,” Alex said. “It’s so simple here. I get up. I read my Bible. I worship God. I lead others. My whole life is built around my walk with our Savior. I know what the world is out there, and it scares me.”

“You’re changed,” Michael told his son. “You’re not the same man you were. Let’s do this together.” 

A new bond was forming between the two men. It centered around their passion for Africa and what it had done for their faith. Africa had been God’s plan, Alex realized. His personal life was completely transformed, and his relationship with his dad was being healed.

His father’s words of affirmation, and freedom from the comparisons to his brothers, resonated deeply. “That moment changed everything” Alex says.

Leaving to leadership

As Alex prepared to leave, war erupted.  Tanks rolled through the town, and Alex received multiple warnings: “Grab your go bag and be ready to go at any moment.”

He managed to get a flight out of Sudan. But on that flight, he recognized the onset of symptoms he’d experienced earlier that year – malaria. When the plane stopped in Uganda, he was taken straight to the hospital, patched up with IVs, and returned in time for his next flight home. Travel time remaining was 30 hours.

“Thank God I’m never coming back to Africa!” Alex thought at the time. He was ready to get back and make some money in business.

But that’s not exactly what happened.

The war breaking out as Alex left Africa led to evacuating students from the leadership academy Alex had just helped build. But God worked even this for good, establishing a new work for the Radlers in Yumbe, Uganda, the location of the second-largest refugee settlement in the world at the time. Yumbe is 73 percent Muslim. The refugee camp and surrounding community remains an operational focus of their work today.

It’s work Alex now runs.

By the time he returned, the organization, now called 4africa, was fully operational with a U.S. staff who’d overseen the establishment of water wells, health programs, and a leadership academy. Much of the mission had been accomplished, but it was time for it to transition from being solely a Radler-foundation project, and that’s where Alex came in.

The unconventional nature of Alex’s journey and discovery of generosity means he’s able to look at his work through the lens of the donor/philanthropist and the nonprofit. 4africa’s goal is not just to do “good” work, but to focus on root causes of problems in Africa’s most vulnerable communities. They work to provide sustainable solutions, so underserved places in East Africa – like South Sudan and Uganda – don’t merely survive, but thrive for generations to come.

Everyone recognized that Alex had qualifications no one else had. He understood the culture and knew what worked and where the roadblocks would be. He was good at strategy and planning. Radler Foundation’s previous executive director, B.J. Maloney – who now runs J.P. Morgan’s philanthropy centre – mentored Alex.

In 2018, Alex transitioned the organization to public charity status as partners came alongside to further the work in Africa. He travels there a few times a year and spends time with his family – which is now a little bigger.

Alex was married in 2016 and is now a father himself. Working together with his dad has brought a shared purpose and so much healing. “I have the best relationship with my dad,” Alex says. He and his wife, Chelsea, live in close relationship with Michael and his wife – and Alex’s brothers (and younger sisters too).

Alex is executive director of the charity they established – 4Africa; Michael is chairman. Though Michael has been to Africa 40 times, he sees his son carrying the work further than he ever dreamed. And Michael sees opportunities for new projects, as he transitions his giving from a foundation to his Giving Fund at NCF. Alex’s unique perspective on generosity and multi-generational giving led NCF’s Joel Smyer to invite Alex to join his board of directors.

Out of pain and prodigality, God has developed wisdom in Alex, and a special sensitivity to the relationship between wealthy fathers and their children. The joy he experiences in giving to Africa and working alongside his dad is something he hope other families will be able to experience too.

Alex is passionate about multi-generational giving. For more of his thoughts on how you can engage your children in generosity and build a legacy of giving, visit: www.4africa.com/generosity

All images courtesy of the Radler family unless otherwise noted.

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