HARRISON, Ark. (BP)–Muted music serenaded the Saturday morning mall walkers. Neon store signs glowed: J C Penney, Claire’s, others. But shoppers also cast a wandering eye as they passed displays lining the mall aisles: a video of a NASCAR raceway, primitive African weapons and musical instruments, a woman wearing a Japanese kimono-style garment, other men and women in exotic dress.
“We’re calling it a ‘Walk Around Fair,’” said Royce Sweatman, director of missions for the North Arkansas Baptist Association. “For the first time in the United States, we’ve come to a public mall to increase public awareness of missions.”
Thirteen missionaries from the Southern Baptist International and North American Mission boards and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention presented their ministries to shoppers who wandered by at Ozark Mall in Harrison on Oct. 2. It was a unique effort to educate and expose North Arkansas to the various facets of Southern Baptist outreach worldwide.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Betty Gidden, coordinator of the event, confessed, “but it’s been neat to meet these people who have been [on a home or foreign mission field] and see they are just like you and me. We give our money and now we can see what they do and where our money goes.”
Scheduled opposite the local Harvest Festival in downtown Harrison, event organizers said the fair was “a boost for the missionaries and the community,” as Cindy Lennon, special events chairman for the Baptist association, put it.
Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 29, sponsored by 24 area churches, the missionaries visited local schools and churches. “I’m interested in getting to the kids,” Lennon said. “All the missionaries who visited the junior high schools were able to share the gospel within the context of presenting culture or language.”
Each missionary, housed in area homes, found the week’s activities meaningful. Sharon Nowlin, on furlow from Japan, spoke to an assembly of 100 sixth-graders. “It has been wonderful to be out and mingle,” she said. “The students asked lots of questions about the culture and Japanese religion.”
Robert Pinkston, who ministers in Mali, spent a day with seventh- and eighth-grade social studies students. “The students were very interested in the differences in lifestyle. They asked about this Muslim boy here,” Pinkston said as he pointed to a photo displayed with the array of ornately carved artifacts.
“He is 13 and has been beaten and threatened by this family for his faith,” Pinkston recounted. “He hides his Bible at our house and when he comes he secretly reads and prays. The kids couldn’t understand why the law could not protect this boy and why his family cared what he believed. I explained that Islam is their identity.”
This type of cultural sharing continued Saturday at the mall. Children of curious shoppers had the opportunity to dress in native costume, touch and hold Native American, African, Guatemalan and Japanese items. The missionaries shared God’s work in their fields with not only the public, but due to the light turnout, enjoyed catching up with one another.
“Most of the people stopping by are Baptists,” admitted Lynn Riley, a member of the Arkansas convention’s evangelism and church growth team, “but many of our own are not aware of what Southern Baptists are doing in our state and the world.”
Julia Ketner, ABSC mission support team leader, agreed. “Our convention supports nearly 10,000 missionaries worldwide. What other denomination has that kind of support? Our people need to know that,” she said.
Ketner was involved during the week’s community outreach through prayer walks. As the visiting missionaries and support teams visited schools, churches and hospitals, they stood either on the perimeter or walked the building and grounds, praying for God’s intervention. “We prayed at a church damaged by a torching,” Ketner said, “asking that they be ready for services on Sunday.”
Frank Stark of Raceway Ministries is no stranger to shopping malls, however. His ministry with NASCAR has taken him from car shows to shopping malls all over the country. “We had a big-screen TV playing the Super Bowl one year. Needless to say, we had a lot of visitors.”
“I’ve met more lost people than I ever thought I would,” confessed Eric Hiatt from Nome, Alaska. “I had a chance to share with a fellow because he was interested in bears and wildlife. I asked about his spiritual condition and he claimed to believe in a ‘higher power’ but had been ‘kicked around a lot in church.’ We’ve exchanged addresses and will be continuing a relationship by mail.”
A light turnout, two missionaries called away at the last minute, competition with a local tourist event and spectacular fall weather — all were obstacles Sweatman’s enthusiasm took in stride. “Sometimes when you’re on the cutting edge there are some things to rethink. It’s a good concept, though. We’ll try it at another time of year when the weather forces them inside,” he chuckled.
Elliot is a freelance writer in Rogers, Ark.