EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 3-10, focuses on missionaries who serve in West Africa as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Several of the missionaries are featured today in Baptist Press; other stories will follow during the rest of this week.
SENEGAL, West Africa (BP)–Tom Smith gets discouraged sometimes — and he’s not ashamed to admit it.
As a missionary strategy coordinator, Smith and his wife Shirley face the daily challenge of reaching the Futa Toro (FOO-tah TOR-oh), a Muslim people numbering more than 2 million in West Africa.
It’s not just their size that gives Smith pause. It’s their far-flung locations and bewildering diversity.
The Futa Toro actually comprise two major subgroups of the Fulani peoples of West Africa: the semi-nomadic cattle-herding Fulbe (FULL-bay) and the more settled Tukulor (TOO-kuh-lor). They live in many clans and castes scattered throughout northern Senegal and parts of Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Mauritania.
“It’s easy to become discouraged when we see the immensity of the task and so few results, so few workers, so few believers,” Smith says, rubbing the sun from his weary eyes after a long day’s drive through the scorched back roads of northern Senegal. “Sometimes I wonder why God called me.”
At such moments, however, a divine voice speaks in silence to his heart: “You just do your part. Don’t worry about My part; I’ll take care of that.”
Other times, God sends encouragement and excitement through a changed, or or changing, life. Among them:
— Samba, an imposing young Fulbe man who wears flashy designer shades and a long dagger strapped inside his colorful robe. At first glance, he doesn’t look like a seeker of truth, but he can quote long sections of dialogue from the “JESUS” film word for word -– complete with dramatic expression. The Smiths think he already has become a believer in Christ, though he hasn’t yet declared it.
— Hawa, a housekeeper, who decided to follow Jesus after listening to cassette copies of all 100 lessons in the “Way of Righteousness” Bible storying series as she cleaned the home of Debbie Hawkins, a missionary on the Smiths’ Futa Toro team.
Hawkins now disciples her and several other women who are considering baptism. Hawa, a young widow, isn’t afraid to speak publicly of her faith in Christ, even though she has drawn the ire of the uncle upon whom she depends for shelter and community acceptance.
— Mamadou, a Fulbe elder who warmly welcomes the Smiths whenever they visit his family compound, where he sits in the sandy courtyard surrounded by his wives, children, sisters, nieces and nephews. He’s heard the Gospel for years from his missionary friends and other Christian workers. He has no objection to his children becoming disciples of Jesus. In fact, he’s not far from the Kingdom of God himself. But he hesitates.
“I have too many people behind me,” Mamadou explains –- too many relatives and clan members who would be drastically affected by his decision. If and when Mamadou decides to follow Jesus, however, he predicts this:
“I will bring hundreds with me.”
That’s a day the Smiths are living for -– and praying for. It’s why they transferred to Senegal in the 1990s from Sierra Leone, where they served as International Mission Board missionaries for five years (before that, they worked in Liberia for 10 years).
“We had a rewarding ministry in Sierra Leone but, because of the ongoing civil war there, we were confined with all the other missionaries to the capital,” Tom, now 55, says. “There was a church on very corner. We became more and more convinced that we needed to go to people who hadn’t had a chance to hear the Gospel.
“The needs are unmistakable all over West Africa, but this is the particular people God led us to.”
The challenges in reaching the Futa Toro abound. They’re staunchly Muslim, so persecution often follows baptism. Many Fulbe follow their herds from one place to another in an endless search for water and grazing land in the parched region. The Fulbe gather in tight clans that have little interaction with each other. The Tukulor, proud of their status as the first black Africans to convert to Islam, divide themselves into classes nearly as rigid as India’s caste system.
With all these clan and class divisions, “We’re really talking about two dozen or more unreached people groups,” Smith says. “That’s why it’s so important we pray that members from each group accept Christ.”
Individual Fulbe and Tukulor are coming to Christ. Perhaps 250 or more believers now live in the region, at least 100 of whom have been baptized. The biggest challenge is gathering them into disciple groups and congregations that will multiply into a church-planting movement.
That’s Smith’s top priority as strategy coordinator for the Futa Toro. He networks with other missionaries and stays on the lookout for ideas, connections and key partners -– such as Korean and Brazilian Baptist missionaries coming to Senegal.
“Word gets around that I’m the guy to talk to,” Smith explains. “We can’t do it by ourselves. It’s too big, too spread out, too complex for any one group.”
Brazilian Baptists have embarked on an initiative called “Radical Africa” that sends young missionaries to West Africa for two years. They study French in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, then go out among the people where they learn the local language. In partnership with the Smith, four of the Brazilians committed themselves to working with the Futa Toro. Earlier this year they moved to a Tukulor village.
Even with Christians partnering together, however, raising up a church-planting movement among the Futa Toro won’t happen without prayer -– and lots of it.
“This is a task only God can accomplish,” Smith says.
God regularly reminds him of that -– particularly on those discouraging days when it all seems overwhelming.