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LifeWay’s Amazon mission challenge: ‘Don’t skip a house’

TEFE, Brazil (BP)–With a sweep of her weathered hand, Mariana motioned for Kenny Spurlin and his Brazilian translator to follow. They slipped past a row of stilted houses built above the Solimoes River, which, along with the Rio Negro, meet to form the world’s longest river –- the Amazon. Two young children played with tethered goats while pigs, chickens and threadbare cattle jockeyed for a place to escape the afternoon sun. At the end of the path, just beyond a curious shanty with a generator and a satellite dish, Mariana ushered her guests inside her one-room home.

“I want to receive Jesus as my Savior but am afraid,” she said in the soft staccato of Portuguese. “My husband gets drunk and breaks things. He accuses me of having relations with another man. I am afraid he will hurt me.”

Spurlin, a corporate services employee with LifeWay Christian Resources, repeated the same simple truth he had just shared with two dozen adults in the village schoolhouse. “Jesus will never leave you or forsake you,” he said. With tears streaming down her face, Mariana prayed to receive Christ as her personal Savior. Spurlin then prayed with the middle-age woman for her husband and family.

A few minutes later, her sister-in-law -– the sister of the abusive husband –- also prayed to receive Christ. “The unconditional love of God is an amazing thing,” said Spurlin, one of 11 volunteers from LifeWay who took part in a 15-day evangelism trip to Amazonas, one of the largest states in northern Brazil. Throughout the trip, the team covered 350 miles of river, visited 42 river communities, shared the Gospel with 974 people and saw 320 profess faith in Jesus Christ.

Since 1997, LifeWay, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, has sent 798 employees, retirees and other volunteers on 50 mission trips to 25 countries, resulting in 67,681 professions of faith and 170 new church starts. For employees, LifeWay provides time off with pay and covers half of the travel costs.

Rob Tudor, a manager in LifeWay’s information technology department, led the LifeWay team, and International Mission Board specialists Victor and Janice Nickerson directed the team’s efforts. The Nickersons have served in Brazil 17 years and coordinate the work of 28 other Southern Baptist missionaries in six Brazilian states that cover the full Amazon basin. The IMB workers have a vision to evangelize the Amazon basin and plant churches that are reachable by boat within two hours of any village.

Many of the villages profess a form of Christianity but stress works-based salvation. So Victor Nickerson challenged the LifeWay team to do two things: “Share the old, old story of Jesus and His love, and don’t skip a house.” That guidance led to numerous visits that team members are convinced were divine appointments:

— Racing ahead of darkness to return to the houseboat, three LifeWay employees, a translator and a guide happened upon a fisherman and his young son sitting alone on a small dock. Stopping to present the Gospel, the team led the man and his son to Christ.

— In the village of Santa Fe, a school teacher was reading a Portuguese Bible to his students but didn’t understand what it meant; he invited LifeWay volunteers to speak to the class, and when they presented the Gospel, the teacher and every student prayed to receive Christ.

— Two volunteers discovered a 79-year-old man, sick and abandoned by his family, lying outside his shanty. The volunteers gave him medicine for his stomach and a drink of water, then presented the Gospel; misty-eyed, he placed his trust in the Lord.

The LifeWay team traveled the river on the Marco Polo, a houseboat owned and operated by Amazon Vision Ministries. AVM’s Derek George and his wife Donna played an active role in the evangelistic efforts. Each day the LifeWay team, along with translators and Brazilian volunteers, loaded into 17-foot johnboats and set out for villages along the river. In addition to fast currents, the river environment provided additional challenges, most notably biting insects and intense heat. A thermometer on the stern of the Marco Polo registered a temperature of 128 degrees one afternoon.

More than 11,000 tributaries feed the Amazon River, which stretches 3,900 miles across Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil. The river ranges from one to six miles across at low stage and up to 300 miles across during the rainy season. It has 1,500 documented species of fish and sports such unique creatures as caimans, piranhas, and gray and pink dolphins.

There are 33,000 villages along the Amazon River, more than 20,000 of which have not been evangelized, according to the IMB’s Nickersons. They have rich and unusual names –- Tamaniqua, Ginipapo, Capoti, Cruzeiro, Nova Canaa and Boco de Tupe -– but share a common need, according to Tudor, “To hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

“One of the main challenges of this trip is the logistics — finding a way to reach the people,” Tudor said atop the Marco Polo as it headed downstream toward Tefe near the end of the trip. “But God made the effort worthwhile. He provided a great team, wonderful translators and guides, and He brought more than 300 new believers into His Kingdom.”

Remaining 2005 LifeWay mission trips include Foz, Brazil; Bangladesh; Japan; Santo Domingo; and Tanzania.

    About the Author

  • Rob Phillips