LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Along part of the Atlantic coast in Montevideo, Uruguay, a 25-foot-high wall lines the beach for several miles, protecting a boardwalk and adjoining street from ocean waves that crash ashore.
On a particularly stormy day in April, wave after wave pounded the wall with increasing fury, testing its strength. Occasionally, part of the crest of a wave would clear the barrier, splashing on the boardwalk and street, but most of the waves were turned back.
Ten students and faculty from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary discovered that sharing the Gospel to lost Uruguayans mirrors this experience. Working in Montevideo, the nation’s capital, the seminarians found that a wall of spiritual darkness resides in the heart of most Uruguayans, causing them to reject Christianity. However, there were exceptions where God had softened a heart and someone latched on to the Gospel message.
MINISTRY IN THE AIR
The seminary group left Dallas at 7:45 p.m. local time for Buenos Aires, Argentina, en route to Montevideo. Halfway through the 10-hour flight, most passengers were asleep in their seats, but not Laura Wishall, wife of Southern student Garrett Wishall.
Disturbed by a 14-month-old’s incessant tears, Laura moved up the aisle to see if she could help the child’s mother and saw that the woman was herself crying softly. Laura asked what was wrong and learned that the mother, five months pregnant with twins, was experiencing contractions.
Immediately, Laura notified a flight attendant and the woman was moved to the back of the plane. For the last half of the flight, Laura and seminary students Jessica Fields and Jennifer Miller cared for the 14-month-old as flight attendants and two doctors among the passengers tended to the woman. Upon landing in Argentina, the seminarians learned that the mother had lost one twin in flight; a few hours later she lost the second in an Argentine hospital.
As the first witness to the woman’s contractions on the plane, Laura had to give an official statement to Argentine police before she could continue on to Montevideo. Exhausted after a nearly sleepless night, Laura was grateful to rejoin her companions but said she was glad that she stepped up to help the woman.
“Even though it was a difficult experience, I know that God wanted me to help,” she said. “I don’t regret going up to help the woman even though it turned into a long ordeal with the Argentine police. I was confident that the Lord wanted me to help her.”
GEARING UP FOR ‘GAP’
After an uneventful flight from Argentina to Uruguay, the group was happy to see the smiling faces of hosts Paul and Pam Sheaffer in the Montevideo airport. The Sheaffers, missionaries with the International Mission Board, had been in Uruguay for a just over a year and during that time had conceptualized and founded the “Gospel Advancement Project” (GAP) as a strategy for reaching Montevideo.
Designed to accommodate short-term mission teams, GAP employs four elements or “waves” of ministry — prayerwalking, Scripture distribution, marketplace evangelism and an evangelistic event — in an effort to reach people with the Gospel. The Sheaffers also continually look for “people of peace”: native Uruguayans who could be instrumental in helping lead a spiritual revival in Montevideo.
Each GAP team receives a specific section or district of the city to target; the Southern group had a tough assignment: the Palermo district, known as the least evangelical section of the city. The Sheaffers hoped that the team’s work would stir enough interest to start a Bible study in the district.
The seminarians spent the first couple of days acclimating to Uruguayan culture and seeking to engage people in conversation on the beach via beach volleyball and soccer.
On Easter Sunday, April 8, they participated in a worship service at a local church near their district, singing two songs in Spanish and English. Jim Tipton and Laura Wishall shared their testimonies, with Tipton presenting his in Spanish.
The trip’s faculty director, associate professor of Christian missions Hayward Armstrong, preached at the service. Working from Acts 2, Armstrong — who served 27 years as a missionary in South America — celebrated the risen and exalted Christ who receives all who repent of their sin and trust Him for salvation. Armstrong also is the seminary’s associate vice president of distance education and innovative learning.
Sunday afternoon, half of the Southern group returned to the beach for more evangelism, while the other half went to the Old City with some of the church’s youth group to minister at a kid’s club. The Sheaffers’ 15-year-old daughter Kaitlyn, who served as a translator, said the children come from rough family backgrounds, with some of their parents being drug dealers or prostitutes. The club has increased from a dozen children to more than 30 and has spawned a weekly Bible study for the mothers, seven of whom have come to a saving faith in Christ.
Members of the youth group were the primary workers at the kid’s club and partnered with the Southern group in ministry several other times during the week. Southern student Daniel Winston* was amazed at the youths’ willingness to serve.
“These youth were from humble backgrounds, had fulltime school obligations and had just been on a weeklong mission trip to the interior of Uruguay, and yet they helped us several different times throughout the week,” Winston said. “To see lives so impacted by the power of the Gospel gives me great hope that the fruits of our ministry will be harvested by a generation anointed by God to bring glory to His name by reaching their own country for Christ.”
POLITE BUT POSTMODERN
The Southern group hit the streets April 9-10 for the purpose of prayer. Forming five teams of three people each, including translators, the group lifted up specific prayers for the neighborhoods they were assigned. Several members of the team noted the impact this intentional, focused prayer had on them, in addition to being key to Gospel ministry.
“Prayerwalking is essential to the preparation of the soil/soul for the reception of the Gospel,” Southern student Brian Simpson said. “It allows you to connect specific people and places to your prayers in an area, while also allowing for specific prayers for people and places which may hold particular opposition to the presentation of the Gospel. This could include other religious entities and practitioners like spiritists or Mormons, which were both prevalent in Uruguay.”
Wave two of the GAP ministry, Scripture distribution, encompassed the group’s time April 11-12. Armed with copies of the Gospel of John in Spanish, the teams returned to the neighborhoods they had prayed over and left gospels at every residence. The approach was simple: ring the doorbell, explain what the gift was and enter into conversation if people were willing.
Courtesy carried the day in most homes: Miller and Winston estimated that 70 percent of people responded with a quick “thank you and goodbye.” Winston said about one-quarter of his group’s responders refused the gift, while just a few demonstrated interest.
“One of the saddest responses I received over and over was ‘No thanks, I’m Catholic,'” Winston said. “It was painful to see that people who responded this way were almost scared of being influenced by the Bible, especially because their Catholicism was usually just a veil to hide their disinterest in spiritual things and was something they knew they could claim to keep evangelicals from trying to witness to them. There was so much religious confusion and fear that it seemed some had just given up.”
Why the wall opposing Christianity? Ana Santa Cruz, a Uruguayan who served as a translator, said prejudice against Christianity, not wanting to commit to God or a church and the belief that only women believe in God are some obstacles. She also pointed to an interest in mystical spirituality and the postmodern ideology of “whatever helps you find peace is good” as barriers.
Armstrong agreed. “An interesting blend of postmodernism and a syncretistic Catholicism heavily influenced by Afro-Brazilian spiritism gives Uruguayans a nonchalant, que será sera [whatever will be, will be] perspective on life,” he said. “They have no problems if others believe, and respect them for it, but they have moved beyond the need for belief in anything other than the here-and-now.”
Over the two-day period, the group distributed more than 4,000 Gospels of John. Each copy contained a contact card for the Sheaffers, telling people to call if they had questions or were interested in studying the Bible. Though genuine interest seemed minimal, before the team left a few people had already called or e-mailed the Sheaffers expressing interesting in the Bible study.
SOWING THE SEED
The students spent time in various neighborhoods on Friday, April 13, or on the boardwalk by the ocean known as the Rambla, engaging people in conversation for sharing the Gospel. While no immediate decisions for Christ resulted from the effort, the seminarians and translators had several extended conversations with people about the Gospel.
That evening, the group hosted a family festival at a popular sports club. Throughout the week, they had handed out invitations to the evangelistic event and the Sheaffers were pleased when 35 people, including adults and children, showed up once the doors opened at 8 p.m.
Ring toss, putt-putt, bean bag toss, crafts, face painting and plenty of caramelos (candy) greeted the children. The group served a meal as well, but the event centered on theatrical depictions of Bible stories and the Gospel message. Halfway through the evening, the seminarians acted out several Bible stories from the life of Jesus to narration from a children’s Bible, to communicate the Gospel through visual and oral means.
Near the end of the evening, the group performed a drama to the Third Day song, “I Deserve,” which Jennifer Miller said depicts the compelling nature of sin that creates separation from God and leads to death, and Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice in paying this penalty.
Following the drama, Alejandro, a Uruguayan seminary student, gave a Gospel presentation and the event concluded with door prizes.
The next morning, the seminarians learned that four people had professed faith in Christ following the Gospel message the night before. In the weeks following the departure of the Southern team, Alejandro and the Sheaffers have hosted a Friday night Bible study twice. The first week only two people came, but the next week five adults and four children attended. One woman professed faith in Christ and Paul said two others who attended are non-believers who are interested in studying Scripture.
Paul Schaeffer noted that several other people have expressed interest in attending the study, but scheduling and location have been hindrances. Currently, the Sheaffers are looking into finding a permanent location for holding Bible studies and discipleship groups. “We need to remember that the work in Uruguay is slow and one person at a time,” Schaeffer said.
In the midst of widespread opposition, God appeared to bring down a few spiritual walls in Montevideo during and after the Southern trip. Sowing the seed of the Gospel, Ana Santa Cruz noted, is all Christians can do.
“We’re in this world as Christians to spread the truth,” she said. “This is our duty because nobody else has experienced God’s love and in consequence nobody else can tell people about this but us. We have to pray for God to show Uruguayans their condition as sinners and to show them that something is missing in their lives.”
*Name changed for security concerns.