In one West African Muslim nation that is open to Christian workers and missionaries, one sending agency is attempting to develop two distinct modes of working in that challenging religious climate. Eight hard hours by all-wheel drive vehicle from the capital city, the McIntyre family has been living in a modest house near the outskirts of a small village for over 15 years. (For the sake of security, all names used here are pseudonyms.) As the only Christians and Caucasians residing permanently in the region, they have spent their lives developing relationships among villagers and civil leaders in the town as well as in hundreds of other rural settlements scattered throughout the region. Because they are fluent in the regional language, they have established trusting friendships.
On trips to places accessible by motor vehicle or on long treks on foot to far more remote settlements, Thomas, the husband and father, and occasionally a short-term volunteer co-worker don robes and load packs with a basic change of clothes and carefully selected parts of the Bible printed in the local language. Once in the villages, Thomas and companion, known everywhere they go as “Followers of Jesus,” meet with acquaintances who’ve long ago become friends. They visit homes and work places, sharing meals and often lodging, as is the traditional national custom of hospitality. When those friends come to the McIntyres’ town, Thomas and family welcome them as well. Islam and Christianity share the virtue of hospitality, though McIntyres take their inspiration of Jesus in Luke 9 and 10 sending out the twelve and the 72 with the simplest of resources, instructing them to depend on the people in the villagers they visit for room and board.
Living as the tiniest highly visible minority possible there, the family lives carefully, respecting local culture and customs, all the time recognizing their very presence is unavoidably under scrutiny not only by neighbours, but also by government officials and local imams. Over the years the family has been able to weave networks of trust by making those regular visits to villages, sometimes as often as twice a year or as infrequently as once in five years because of lack of time or staffing.
Their sending agency has wisely given these missioners freedom to exercise Spirit-driven imagination and creativity, not reaping immediately anything historically called “a visible gospel harvest.” With great restraint and wisdom, these humble servants have not organized Bible studies nor planted churches. Instead they have become trusted members of various communities in the region, known in the markets and on the streets, greeted cordially by many through honest, open and simple living. They are not discouraged that their long-term strategy does not fit the Western expectations of immediate convert numbers. They fully realize that it may take generations to see fruit that will survive in this potentially hostile environment.
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While from the outside this ministry may not immediately appear successful to Western-oriented eyes, people who engage with this ministry soon see that this ground-breaking work is utterly necessary and virtually the only kind of work possible in this environment where the Gospel has never been presented in word and only rarely in friendship.
For years, this one isolated family has been supported generously, faithfully and with ever-growing comprehension by their sending agency, calling and sponsoring churches, and individual donors. Their patient, career-long labour of pioneer evangelism began and continues with trust that the one God of all is in some way, subtly at work in this region. Many Western missioners, yoked to agencies’ goals of quantifiable success, would have given up after a decade of trying to break the region’s spiritual hardpan.
More public Christian witness
Meanwhile, in this nation’s capital city, the sending agency’s other missionaries are crafting a different gospel model. There Antoine Kalebona and family are living in a large house that doubles as a meeting place for pastors, Christian school teachers and administrators. The Kalebonas know their neighbours and are at ease engaging in casual conversations on walks or while running errands. Though the capital’s majority population is Muslim, the city is more cosmopolitan than the country’s interior and is home to a large number of national Christian denominations as well as missionaries from many nations.
As a specialist in developing curricula, Antoine, himself an African national, mentors a growing group of Christian leaders who have surmounted denominational differences for the common goal of developing Christian day and public schools to improve the educational level of all citizens. Combining the gifts of those professionals with his own training and experience, Antoine has been able over the last five years to attract the attention of the nation’s Ministry of Education. Over time, Ministry staff’s curiosity has blossomed to welcome Charles as a trusted partner capable of teamwork with nationals to developing curricula that fit the country’s culture and aspirations.
While such work with a high-level governmental ministry may eventually produce fruit rarely seen in a Muslim nation, Antoine by no means concentrates all his gifts and energies on the powerful in his place of service. Not a few of the pastors Antoine accompanies have developed multi-faceted ministries of church planting and Christian day schools. During the time I spent with the Kalebonas I visited the same place three days apart and got a taste of both elements of mission work in this city.
Thursday morning Antoine drove me to a large city lot bounded by a concrete block wall. Before a security guard unlocked the gate to let us in, the multi-pitched thrum of children’s voices told us this was a school. Inside the compound three buildings lined the walls. The freshly painted dwelling in the back was the home of the recently married pastor of the congregation that meets in the lot’s largest building. The wrought iron crosses on the windows double as security features.
“Doubling” is a byword of this young ministry. The school classrooms and church sanctuary double as classrooms during the week and Sunday school classes on Sundays. The small building where the guard sleeps also stores school and church supplies. Not surprisingly, the pastor is the church’s planter and school founder-principal. French and Pular are used almost interchangeably in both school and worship.
Some 120 students attend this Grade 1 to 7 Christian school that has grown larger than its parent church plant, with many of the students coming from the local neighbourhood. So, while on Mondays through Fridays the large compound is pleasantly noisy with uniformed students and qualified teachers, the volume and attendance taper off on Sundays. Worshipers don’t wear uniforms or study grammar or arithmetic. Instead, songs, offerings, prayers and a bi-lingual sermon till the ever so gradually developing gospel fertility in soil not long ago hostile to Christianity. In a future issue we’ll offer readers a deep look into one Sunday’s worship in that tropical African capital.
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