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Gospel spreads in Southeast Asia despite persecution, peril

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Words can’t describe what John saw that day under the blazing sun of Southeast Asia.

The student missionary was in a city, ministering to a group of refugees who had been fleeing from a band of Muslim extremists. Having lost everything they owned, the refugees were simply trying to survive, trying to stay alive. John was walking from person to person — shaking hands and introducing himself — when one particular man caught his attention. John tried to shake the man’s hand, but he couldn’t. The man was missing two fingers. Puzzled, John looked for the man’s other hand. There was none — only a nub.

Questioned by John, the man began telling the story of how he had been persecuted and had undergone excruciating pain — simply because he was a Christian.

Jihad warriors had cornered the man, asking him if he was a follower of Christ.

“His answer was, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian.’ They then cut off his thumb and finger,” John wrote in an e-mail interview. “Then they said, ‘You can either convert to Islam or we are going to kill you.’ His response was, ‘No, I am a follower of Jesus Christ.’ They then cut off his other hand. The man went on to tell me that for some reason, simply a miracle of God, the group left him there to die, but God spared his life.”

John did not know what to say.

“As I stood there and listened to the man explain the price for following Christ, I realized how little I, and many believers in the States, know about obedience and suffering,” he said.

Such incidents have been taking place for more than two years in the war between Christians and Muslims extremists. The Muslim extremists — known as “Jihad warriors” — have promised to drive out all Christians in specific parts of the country.

The war began months before John, a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, arrived there in 1999 as part of the International Mission Board’s Two Plus Two program — a program that allows seminary students to spend the final two years of their education on the mission field.

John’s mission field is enormous. He is assigned to an unreached people group consisting of some two million people — the large majority of which have never heard the Gospel.

Sadly, there are only 30 known Christians. John said he knows two of them.

Wherever John travels, he sees lost souls. More than 80 percent of the country is Muslim.

“My view of the world has changed as I’ve had the opportunity to see much of Southeast Asia,” John said. “Everywhere I go there are multitudes of people that are lost and have never heard the saving message of Christ. I think to myself, ‘How can I or any other Christian be satisfied with simply working for a living and not be involved in going and telling the peoples of the world about Christ? … I think that my time here has re-affirmed my calling to cross-cultural work.”

John said converts to Christianity are rare. The country is grounded in the Muslim faith, and those who do accept Christ are considered outcasts.

“When someone converts to Christianity they are often seen as rejecting the faith of Islam and the family structure,” he said. “One of our national partners converted to Christianity, and he was kicked out of his village, lost his wife and children, lost his family name, and [he] still has death threats.”

The man, though, refused to recant his faith.

“I asked him once if what he gained in his relationship with Christ was worth the price of losing his family and tribal connections,” John said. “His response was that even though there is still pain from losing his family, his relationship with Christ is worth much more.”

John has an apartment in the city, although he often leaves it behind in order to go out into the jungles and the villages. While there, he sometimes finds himself sleeping on a concrete or dirt floor. Some of the villages are easy to get to. Others are not. Motorcycles, four-wheel drives and even speedboats are required. Christian volunteers accompany him.

“Some villages I have to ride a motorcycle for four hours to get to, because a car can’t make it into the jungle,” he said. “Other places we have to use four-wheel drive trucks to make the trip. Even then you may get stuck for several days depending on the amount of rain [that falls] while you are there.”

Once in the village, he begins building relationships. Sometimes he prayerwalks. Other times he simply shares the Gospel.

“Witnessing to Muslims is not easy all the time,” he said. “Most of the time they are listening to me out of respect and not out of curiosity. This practice is OK for me because I know that it is God’s Word that is the power until salvation, and [that] it’s not going to return void even in this case.

“Most of the time, it’s required that you have a relationship with the person before they really are interested in hearing your beliefs.”

Of course, there are times when witnessing opportunities simply fall into John’s lap.

Several months ago, he was in an area that was supposedly hostile to Christianity. He was standing there, watching thousands of Muslims walk by, when people began asking him about the English language. They wanted to learn a few new words, so John told them one — Isa Al Masih, which means Jesus.

“Other times I have been out in villages, sitting on the floor eating … with the head of the village, and they will ask me what I believe about a particular topic,” he said. “This gives me an open door to tell a story from the Bible in the presence of all the people that are listening from the inside of the house and the outside.”

John will leave the country later this year, but he hopes to leave a healthy church behind. No Christian church exists among his unreached people group of two million people, although he is in the process of planting one.

“It is our hope and our prayer that many will come to a saving faith in Christ and an indigenous church will develop among them,” he said. “We hope to begin house churches that can rapidly multiply and a church planting movement will begin among our people.”

Upon graduation, John plans on entering missions full-time. John said the Two Plus Two program has definitely helped change his life.

“We are currently praying about the location and people group we will work with,” he said. “After being here for two years, I think it would be very difficult to return to the States and live a ‘normal life.’ Once you go and see how God is working all over the world, you are changed and can’t go back.”
Editor’s Note: Because of security risks, the name of the missionary featured in this story has been changed. The missionary, a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is serving in a country in Southeast Asia.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust