SENEGAL, West Africa (BP)–A tear rolls down Jim Vaughn’s cheek.
The longtime Southern Baptist missionary in Senegal gets emotional when he thinks about Wolof (WUH-luf) friends who have rejected Christ -– and others who have embraced Him.
One of the latter, the son of a village chief, came to Vaughn after obtaining his father’s permission to be baptized.
“I’m afraid,” he told the missionary.
“Afraid of what?” Vaughn inquired.
“I’m afraid that if I go into the river to be baptized, I will die,” he answered.
So the young man chose a “safer” option: He had three men lower him 180 feet with a rope and pulley into a well -– the only other place in the sandy West African landscape where he could be immersed in water.
“If I die, I die,” he decided. “I must do all things to follow my God.”
That, Vaughn observes, is not the action of a fearful person.
“When I think about him, I’m convicted,” Vaughn admits, voice cracking. “Am I willing to do anything to follow my Lord? I can’t say yes. I haven’t had to.”
Wolof followers of Christ often must make such choices, however. They are bucking centuries of tradition, religion, family, community.
That’s what it takes to start a movement.
“Our desire has never changed to see a people group movement,” says Vaughn, who designed much of the Bible storying material used with the Wolof. “It’s more than just a few churches. It’s where the people, as they form their own Wolof groups, reach others.”
If such a movement begins among the Wolof, it will reverberate among many other peoples in the region.
“They are a gatekeeper in West Africa,” explains missionary Donny Cortimilia, strategy coordinator for the Wolof with his wife Tammy. “Nothing is going to happen without it happening with the Wolof. If the Wolof are evangelized, have churches and become church planters themselves, it’s going to affect all of Senegal.”
With as many as 5 million members, the Wolof people dominate society, agriculture, business and politics in Senegal, a growing economic and social force in West Africa. Many Wolof also have emigrated to Europe and to the United States, where up to 30,000 live in New York alone.
Millions more Senegalese are “Wolofized” -– so assimilated into the dominant culture that they have abandoned or forgotten their own ethnic languages and traditions.
Fewer than 100 Wolof -– perhaps fewer than 50 -– are Christians.
The Wolof came to what is now Senegal around the 11th century, about the same time Islam spread through the region. Most follow a form of Islam centered around three “brotherhoods” that influence religious, business and social life. It’s also permeated by magic, amulets and occult beliefs.
Tall, regal and proud, the Wolof long have mingled with other peoples – including the French, West Africa’s main colonizers –- without losing their strong cultural identity. They value hospitality, a rigid sense of honor, a vivid use of language -– and above all, community. The family, the clan, the group rule.
“It’s easy to say the largest barrier [to the Gospel] is Islam, but in many senses it’s tradition,” Donny Cortimilia says.
How to cut through the tradition?
“Our No. 1 strategy is prayer,” Tammy Cortimilia notes. “Our No. 2 strategy is making sure God’s Word is penetrating all corners of the people group. No. 3 is personal witness, whether it’s a missionary, a volunteer or a Senegalese believer. Everything we do centers around those things.”
To learn how to join in working to win the Wolof and other West African peoples to Christ, visit GoWestAfrica.org.