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1 missionary & 4 friends, linked in prayer via computer, see faith sprout in Sierra Leone

EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 4-11, focuses on eight strategy coordinator missionaries and a church serving as a strategy coordinator, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The fourth of the stories features Lori Funderburk in Cote d’Ivoire. Strategy-coordinator missionaries play a key role in reaching the whole world with the Gospel, focusing on people groups and cities by studying cultures, learning languages and developing master plans for reaching every individual with the Gospel.

ABIDJAN, Cote d’Ivoire (BP)–The sound of a computer booting up echoes throughout the house. Lori Funderburk hardly notices the familiar noise as she sips her cup of tea next to the monitor and settles in to work.

Funderburk, an IMB missionary, lives in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, but works with the Banta Themne people group of Sierra Leone. She is the strategy coordinator for a unique team — a “virtual missions” team — whose members live around the world.

The computer and Internet make this type of team a reality as Funderburk uses e-mail to keep in touch. Today’s message to team members is a little different than usual. The ministry is coming to a close. So, she writes, “We have certainly had a purpose over these last six years, haven’t we?”

Funderburk recruited “ordinary” American housewives to be members of this virtual missions team. All five women — Funderburk, Mary Sanders, Earline Ellis, Lou Ann East and Donisa Page — once were members of the same church in New Orleans. Funderburk wrote letters asking them to join God in bringing the Banta Themne of Sierra Leone to faith in Jesus Christ.

“Are you praying?” she asked in the first letter. “If not, stop and do so now. I’m not good at statistics and numbers, but there are still lots of people who have little or no access to the Gospel.”

Funderburk then told the women about a small people group, the Banta Themne, who live in northern Sierra Leone and who had no known Christians among them. The women already were familiar with Sierra Leone since Funderburk and her family had originally been missionaries there. The family was forced to leave when a 10-year civil war broke out.

As strategy coordinator, Funderburk explained that this team was experimental. Missionaries cannot go to a lot of places because of war and rebel activity, but Christians still have a responsibility to find a way to minister to those people. From the very beginning, prayer would be the main means of ministry for the team. Members would communicate through constant letters and e-mail.

“It all seemed too simple,” Mary Sanders says from her home in Kingwood, Texas. “It isn’t a great sacrifice to pray from the comfort of my home. But, the fruit of concerted prayers is amazing — we are all missionaries.”

The team gathered information about the Banta Themne from Internet searches and interviews with people from Sierra Leone. Eighty-year-old Earline Ellis even bought a computer so she could do research from her Louisiana home. The first two years of the ministry was totally based on prayer and research.

Then the team enlisted nearly 3,000 prayer warriors. Sanders says there is no way to tell how many people were praying, since most of the prayer warriors read the weekly prayer points in their Sunday School classes. Churches from all over the United States helped by producing prayer brochures, prayer calendars and prayer cards. Sanders’ own church adopted the Banta Themne as their special people group for Wednesday night prayers.

“All I knew about the Banta Themne in the beginning was that they were completely unchurched,” Donisa Page says. “It’s hard to believe that through prayer I ended up loving and caring for a group of people that I would most likely have never met. Prayer is a mighty and powerful thing.”

While the stateside team focused on prayer support, Funderburk began encouraging a church in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to help reach the Banta Themne with the Gospel. The Funderburk family had been members of Hope Baptist Church there before the war.

“We cannot reach West Africans like West Africans can,” Funderburk says. “I knew there were people in Sierra Leone who could do this ministry with a little bit of encouragement and a lot of prayer support. They needed to learn they were the missionaries, and it’s their responsibility to reach the lost.”

Hope Baptist responded to the challenge. Church member Donald Conteh discovered the majority of the Banta Themne had been driven off their land by rebels and lived in a refugee camp for displaced peoples. Conteh became fast friends with a Banta Themne chief, and that opened the door for sharing the Gospel.

After the Banta Themne returned to their homeland, volunteers from Hope Baptist teamed up with Americans to prayerwalk through Banta Themne villages. They met Muslim village elders there who encouraged them to come back.

“Many people want Jesus here,” one Muslim elder told the team. “But they don’t know the way.”

Soon, Hope Baptist sent a home missionary to the area. As he traveled sharing the Gospel, he heard many people say, “We have heard of Christianity, but we didn’t think it was important because no one had come to tell us.”

In less than two years, more than 300 Banta Themne have left Islam and become followers of Jesus.

“The home missionary found an open door everywhere he went — he even preaches inside of mosques,” Funderburk says. “That’s only possible because of the years of prayer that prepared for this harvest.”

Now, six years after that first handwritten letter, Funderburk writes the final e-mail to her team and thousands of prayer partners. Hope Baptist Church has asked to totally take over the Banta Themne ministry. Such a request is the dream of every missionary — handing over the work to national brothers and sisters in Christ.

“I have been totally amazed at your faithfulness to pray for the Banta Themne,” Funderburk writes her team. “It has been an adventure that I will never forget and am glad God led you to this journey. I hope you realize what a part you played in the Banta Themne hearing the Gospel.

“How does it feel to know that you ‘prayed’ these unreached ones into the Kingdom?”
For more information on this Banta Themne ministry, go to http://www.peopleteams.org/banta/.