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Drive across the desert raises more than dust

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

SELLS, Ariz. (BP)–Fifty-plus drivers and passengers left various staging areas near Arizona’s Tohono O’odham nation one Saturday last November, following assigned routes through some 200 miles of a challenging landscape speckled with cactus, sagebrush and wild stallions south of Phoenix and west of Tucson.

Far from sightseers or surveyors venturing through a region where the desert sun can seem a curse rather than a blessing, where daily water is a life-or-death issue, these were Southern Baptists in prayer.

During their prayer drive, the teams stopped at small villages they passed through — hamlets of perhaps 35 to 50 aging adobe huts but no school, post office or grocery store — for prayerwalks down streets of hard-packed dirt.

Southern Baptists have started a fresh emphasis on praying for the people who live on a 4,500-square-mile nation larger than the state of Connecticut and who, until the 1980s, were known as Papago Indians.

“It’s obvious God is sending out a call to pray for the people who live here, and we’re seeing the results of their obedience,” said Tim Pruit, director of missions for the Gila River Baptist Association in Arizona. “A 5-year-old boy was led to the Lord on the prayer drive, by a 15-year-old.”

Members of churches in Gila River, Catalina and Estrella Baptist associations were invited to participate in the prayer drive led Rhett Currie, a church planting movement missionary based in Casa Grande, Ariz.

Per capita income in the Tohono O’odham nation is $3,113, lowest of all U.S. reservations; nearly 63 percent of the adults are unemployed. Nearly half have no telephone; nearly half have no vehicle. A third don’t have indoor plumbing.

But what they do have is community, Currie noted. His plan is to establish Bible studies in the villages where he knows people already have established relationships.

This is the way the International Mission Board starts work, and it’s applicable with the Tohono O’odham nation, Currie said, noting that less than 2 percent of the people are professing Christians, making them an unreached people group, about 18,000 of whom live on the U.S. side of the nation, with another 6,000 in Mexico.

Currie’s church-planting strategy is to find people who are willing to let their homes be used for a Bible study. They invite friends, neighbors and family members and together go through a seven-week study to help lead them to Christ. An 11-week discipleship study follows, after which time the group decides what they want to do next: continue as is, join with similar groups or organize into a church body.

“We can see there’s a tremendous need for new churches and new kinds of churches, where people recognize they are called to be ministers, kind of like the New Testament thing — not quite so focused on organization as on the body of believers,” Pruit said.

“What I believe is that God is working on the reservation in a mighty way,” Currie said. “They have the relationships built. They already have the ‘community’ needed to start in-home Bible studies, which they don’t have in the master-planned developments [in Casa Grande] where we’re also trying to start work. We just have to find the people who are seeking spiritual truth, seeking the Lord.

“As God raises up indigenous leaders from the group, we begin training them and they are the ones who continue to work with the group. We encourage them and come alongside them and mentor them as they reproduce…. They’re not only going to continue with their group but also to reproduce other groups.

“If we limit our church planting strategy to simply just the traditional model, we’ll never get ahead of the curve,” Currie said. “What we’re doing is following the Lord’s leadership and getting back to the New Testament model.”

Southern Baptists through the Home Mission Board — precursor to today’s North American Mission Board — sent missionaries to the Papago Indians in the 1940s and ’50s. Eventually work was started in Sells and Chu Chu but in recent years has faded out, though an adobe building still stands in one location.

Meanwhile, about 60 people attend First Papago Baptist Church in Sells, which at 2,000 residents is the largest town on the reservation as well as the tribal headquarters.

The idea for a prayer drive came up this summer, when Currie saw a convergence of prayer directed toward the Tohono O’odham nation.

Dick Vigstrom of Bakersfield, Calif., felt God tell him “out of the blue” last summer to pray for the Papago people and to learn about them. Through an Internet search, he learned that Southern Baptists seemed to be the only evangelical Christians with work on the reservation. He called the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention to learn more and was directed to Currie.

About the same time, Jay Juan, a layman serving as interim pastor at First Papago Baptist Church in Sells, said God told him to begin an emphasis on prayer. Juan initially felt it was to be for a 30-day period, but the congregation of about 60 continues to devote its Wednesday nights to prayer without the usual hymns or Bible study.

As for Currie, before he had heard it from anyone else, God also had told him this summer to start praying specifically for the Tohono O’odham nation.

There’s more.

Members from Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Jane, Mo., and people from sister churches in Shoal Creek Baptist Association for 20 years have driven to Cockleburr for a week of Vacation Bible School and one-on-one evangelism. In all that time, perhaps no more than one person has been baptized.

The Missouri church remained faithful to their commitment because God did not release them from it, said pastor’s wife Paula Maines. This summer, five people made professions of faith and started an ongoing Bible study.

Also, for the last four years, One Way Ministries of Alabama has led a weeklong crusade at the church in Sells, with limited success. But this year at least 60 people made professions of faith; 43 followed through with baptism.

Currie added up all that he’d been hearing: calls to pray given to individuals, First Baptist having been impressed to devote itself to prayer; the Missouri and Alabama mission teams reaping unexpected numbers.

“God said get a couple of prayer drives together,” Currie said. “To show us how He wants to do it.”

The prayer drive ended in Sells where, despite two deaths in the church family late in the week, members prepared a shredded beef and tortilla meal for those on the prayer drive. A time of corporate prayer closed out the event.

A second prayer drive is planned for March 19.

“It’s just great how God is working,” Juan said. “Through this Wednesday prayertime, our nursing home ministry opened up, which is something we have wanted to do for a long time. Our choir was struggling and they seem to be coming back. Sunday School [attendance] is getting better, and then it was awesome how Rhett called me out of the blue to say he was thinking about a prayer drive.”