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Boat trip up African river taps church members’ prayers

SENEGAL RIVER, Senegal (BP)–Off in the distance, a dark speck slowly moves up the river. As it gets closer, children working along the shore drop their tools and run through the brush, yelling and waving wildly at the nine men sitting in the boat.

As the men pile out of the boat, a small crowd gathers to greet the visitors. They believe their village will be greatly blessed today because Allah sent these guests.

As Southern Baptist missionaries Brad Thompson and Ben Sustar talk with village elders, four missions volunteers from Arkansas stand in the background, praying.

What started out as a simple prayer partnership for New Hearts Church of Harrison, Ark., turned into a not-so-ordinary boat trip up the Senegal River.

The church adopted the Toucouleur (pronounced TOO-kuh-lor) people group of West Africa through the International Mission Board a few years ago. The board’s PRAYERplus and PeopleLink programs help Southern Baptist churches take the gospel to unreached people groups, the 2,161 tribes around the world — 1.68 billion people – who have no access to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

“The concept is great. If you are a small church you can get directly involved with world missions through prayer,” said New Hearts pastor Wayne Kelly. “There is no cost involved and you merely begin to learn what you can and begin to pray for your people group.

“An unreached people group is a wonderful opportunity to see what God can do through praying saints for people who are but a few faces on a profile card.”

The congregation educated itself about the Toucouleur and corresponded with IMB missionaries. They learned that 1.7 million Toucouleur live in West Africa and 98 percent follow Islam. The Toucouleur call themselves the “defenders of Islam” because they were among the first to be converted when Islam came across the desert from Arabia in the 11th century.

As the partnership between the missionaries and New Hearts Church grew, the church felt the need to visit the Toucouleur. In the second volunteer trip to Senegal in two years, Kelly and church members Pat Thompson, Billy Jack Burns and Todd Hunter saw firsthand how many of the rural Toucouleur live.

Traveling by boat during the day and sleeping under the stars at night, the volunteers and missionaries scouted out Toucouleur villages in northern Senegal and prayed for the people.

“Four days on the river, six villages, thousands of people, hundreds of camels, a few monkeys and even one crocodile: all because we wanted to pray for an unreached people group,” Kelly said. “What an adventure! These people are now our family.”

The unusual “prayer-boating” experience was a way to find villages that might be open to the gospel, Sustar said.

“We felt that traveling by boat would be somewhat similar to the people’s way of travel along the river,” he said. “We visited six villages. It seems like God opened the door into three of the six we visited.”

One village, called Ouacetake, welcomed the group with open arms. The name of the village literally means, “to lack nothing.”

According to village tradition, the people in that village migrated to the Senegal River in order to have an adequate water supply. The men from Arkansas prayed that villagers would receive Christ and never thirst again.

The team could see God working through their prayers as the village invited the missionaries to return, Kelly said.

“Everything we prayed for — from cloud cover to easing the heat to being able to talk with every chief in every village — was answered,” he said.

“The greatest thing I saw is that the task is huge and I do not believe traditional methods will work. It will take a supernatural movement of God to accomplish salvation among the Toucouleur,” Kelly said. “That’s why we were there, to pray for that supernatural movement.”

An old Toucouleur proverb says, “What you see being done is better than what you hear being said.” The volunteers prayed that the Toucouleur would see God doing great things.

“They need to see God’s love in action, not in words only,” Sustar said.

The team saw why prayer support is so important when residents of the next village were not welcoming or open to discussing religious matters. Though they saw no one come to Christ, they did prepare the unreached area for the gospel through their prayers.

“After preaching almost 25 years, I have found that prayer is the most tangible thing we can do,” Kelly said. “We can do a lot of tangible things on a mission trip, but prayer asks God to do the unimaginable. Prayer takes you down roads not on your map and to people not on your list.

“Prayer may mean you are a voice in the desert,” he continued. “Look at the world map and realize that there are hundreds, if not thousands of unreached people groups all over the world, representing hundreds of millions of people who are totally unreached for the Lord.

“The only way to attempt such a task as this is to pray,” Kelly said. “Will you pray for the Toucouleur? Will you ask Jesus for an unreached people group?”
— Search for prayer request for the Toucouleur of Senegal: http://www.imb.org/CompassionNet/PeopleGroups.asp.
— Learn more about the Toucouleur: http://www.byhisgrace.com/toucouleur/.
— Contact missionaries reaching out to the Toucouleur: [email protected].