MALI, West Africa (BP)–In a small Bambara village, light from a lantern cuts the dark of night. Tea is passed around. Village men have waited months for this conversation. Occasionally, one or two other men join the growing circle -– visible only when they come into the light. Excitement is palpable; all know the importance of the night. They need more nights such as this one.
This village is like countless others in Mali. Villagers here suffered severe famine last fall -– eating anything they could find, unsure if they would eat the next day. Harvest did not come soon enough. But this village not only starves for food -– it needs the Bread of Life.
“There will be some persecution,” one village believer says. “A person needs a level of spiritual understanding to resist temptation -– to be able to stand.”
Each believer already has come a long way. Their village claims Islam as its overall faith, but animism drives its way of life. Yet when these villagers came to know the Good News through a series of Bible stories relayed orally, the stronghold of traditions began to waver.
Every believer recounts vast changes since he accepted Jesus Christ. One man was released from anger. A few quit turning to magicians to help solve problems. Several became faithful to their wives. One believer reports he no longer sacrifices chickens to get “protection” for his fields.
While each new believer shares amazing changes through faith in Jesus, they fear former religious practices will overcome their newfound faith without additional Bible training. Of 19 men who initially claimed Christian conversion, only five remain committed. Animistic and Muslim teachers, they say, are good teachers with clever arguments.
“[The teachers] are able to take a new believer not capable of defending his faith and turn him back to one of these other religions,” one believer says. “I want people to get enough training to be able to defend themselves and stand against this effort to turn them from their new faith.”
Steve and Susan Roach, International Mission Board strategy coordinators for the Bambara people, say biblical training is necessary not only for this group of new believers, but for all Bambara people. In fact, it’s their plan. They say building a strong church in this village -– one that can take the Gospel to neighboring villages -– is easily in sight.
Steve recalls how one believer in the village said, “We cannot go back to what we were, but we don’t know how to go forward.” Steve knows if these men have proper discipleship training, they can make a huge difference –- not just in this village, but in the surrounding area.
For many reasons, Steve says, this particular village is strategic to the spread of the Gospel. First, it’s still devoid of Islamic influences although the village claims Islam as its overall faith. Believers here fear greater Islamic practice because village leaders have invited an Islamic school to come in. But for now, Islamic influence is minimal since the imam, or Islamic religious leader, is the village drunk -– although Islam forbids the use of alcohol.
“They’re not as steeped in Islam as they are in animism, their traditional religion, and typically it’s easier to reach people in traditional religion than in Islam,” Steve says.
Secondly, this village is surrounded by hundreds of other villages not yet touched with the Gospel. No village is more than seven kilometers from another village. Bambara believers easily could spread the Gospel from one village to the next with no dependence on missionaries.
“We want to see the Gospel go to the ends of the earth on foot and donkey cart,” Susan says.
Mali is a new field for the Roaches, who transferred from civil war-torn Côte d’Ivoire, and the Toura people with whom they worked. Now they have begun working among the Bambara. Mali is roughly the size of the southeastern United States, but two-thirds of the nation is mostly desert. Bambara make up about 32 percent of the country’s 13 million people. About 4 million Bambara live in 32,000 villages in an area two-thirds the size of Texas.
“If we could win half the Bambara speakers in Mali to the Lord, we could start 25,000 Baptist churches of 200 people each,” Steve says. “That’s bigger than the average-size church in the States. And, that’s just half the Bambara.”
The Roaches hope believers in this particular village will be the ones who, in turn, start other churches. Steve makes regular visits to the village to teach these believers chronological Bible storying, a method they can easily use to share the Gospel with others.
“My heart is to leave training and the methodology of training that Africans can do without white people’s money, without white people’s presence,” Steve says. “I want to teach them how to do it. I want to encourage them.”
The lessons the Roaches learned in four years among the Toura already have helped their work with the Bambara. The most pertinent lesson: To give them the Gospel without passing on a dependence on missionaries. From the beginning, they have equipped new believers to be the ones teaching Bible stories. That way, if missionaries have to leave the area, the Gospel remains.
But training takes time, and the Roaches hope to place another IMB missionary couple in a city close to the area to help with the work.
“You understand the people,” Steve says of an outsider living among the villagers. “You know what they’re facing. You know … the little cultural things that affect them day by day.”
Until those new missionaries arrive, the Roaches waste no time in training these young believers who are aching to hear more of their Savior.
“[The believers] meet together, but not regularly,” Steve says. “I would not call them a church. I think they could become a church -– maybe a germinating church -– but without any help, the group out here will die.”
But on this particular night of Bible training, the new believers’ questions and interest show promise. Steve leads the men through Scripture seeking biblical principles for cultural things they face every day: idol worship, how they treat their spouses, abstaining from Muslim traditions and their responsibility to the Great Commission.
“I’ve always been impressed with [this village],” Steve says. “I’ve always sensed in my heart it’s somewhere we need to work.”
And so the work begins.