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Missionaries brave spiritual warfare, sacrifice for Senegal

EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 3-10, focuses on missionaries who serve in West Africa as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

SENEGAL, West Africa (BP)–Something bad always happened on Tuesday.

Not necessarily disastrous –- just bad. Something distracting or debilitating enough to make it hard for Elliott and Pat Nichols to get to the village.

Tuesdays were the days the Southern Baptist missionary couple had set aside to drive from the town where they live in northern Senegal to a Wolof (WUH-luf) village in the area. The village chief had given them permission to come every week for a year to teach 52 chronological Bible stories. Each story builds on the previous one to lay the foundation of God’s salvation from Genesis to Revelation.

But when each Tuesday rolled around, either Elliott or Pat -– or both -– would wake up with sore shoulders. Or splitting headaches. Or aching stomachs.

“I have gotten out to the village and been so sick I actually had to lie down on the ground,” Pat says.

Sometimes they would lie inside their home, a former Islamic school, fighting a paralyzing exhaustion that pressed down upon them like the fever heat of Senegal.

Other times, mechanical problems would cripple their truck’s engine during the drive to the village. If they turned back for home, the engine would begin running smoothly. If they wheeled around in the direction of the village, the engine problems would start again.

They wrote it all off as coincidence for a while -– until it became obvious spiritual forces were at work.

“We don’t believe there’s a demon under every tree,” Elliott says. “But on Tuesdays it was just not natural. We realized this was an attack of the evil one.”

That realization -– along with God’s power over darkness and the prayers of Southern Baptists –- gave them new determination to persevere.

Why would the devil be so concerned about the telling of some Bible stories in a tiny Wolof village?

Maybe because the village chief invited the Nicholses to tell the stories with his blessing -– in the courtyard of his own compound.

Maybe because superstition, fear and darkness have permeated the area for millennia.

Maybe because the Wolof are the dominant people in the region. Up to 5 million Wolof live in Senegal and Gambia. They are proud, assertive and overwhelmingly Muslim. Fewer than 100 Wolof believers follow Jesus as Lord.

Even on days when Elliott and Pat shared the stories in the chief’s bustling courtyard with no apparent problems, it often seemed no one was listening, much less learning the stories to share with other Wolof. Villagers came one week and asked lots of questions, then disappeared for weeks after. Children ran around laughing and playing.

“Some days I was thinking, ‘Why do we even bother?’” Elliott admits.

One day during a review of key Bible stories, a Wolof man made several mistakes as he recounted names and events. No surprise there.

“But in every detail that wasn’t correct, the women would correct him as he was telling the stories,” Elliott says. “I was fighting back tears. All the time I’d been saying, ‘It’s not worth it. They’re not listening.’ But they were listening. That was one of the greatest moments.”

An even greater moment came when they finally finished telling the stories and showed the “JESUS” film to the whole village.

Some villagers sat silently at the end of the film. Others wept. The chief, who was walking with a cane after suffering a stroke, stood up and hobbled over to Elliott and Pat.

“Today is the best day in my life and in the life of my people,” he told them, his eyes shining.

No one in the village has publicly followed Jesus -– yet. But it will happen soon, Elliott and Pat believe.

“It’s God’s timing,” Pat says. “We just keep plugging away.”

That was the climax of their first missionary term. They will build on it during their second, telling God’s stories and trusting Him to draw new believers and extend His Word among the Wolof.

Despite their desire to share, however, they didn’t go to Senegal to tell the Wolof about the Gospel. They’d never even been on a volunteer mission trip before they became missionaries. They didn’t go there to lead the Southern Baptist missionary team assigned to the Wolof, though they do so effectively.

Nor did they go because they are African American -– though that has opened many doors for them into African culture and Wolof families.

Elliott and Pat went to Senegal in 2001 for one reason: to obey God.

“I’m here because this is the place God has called me to be,” Pat explains about her presence in West Africa, one of the toughest regions for missionaries. “I can think of a lot of places I’d like to be, but you have to be obedient to the call God has placed on you, and God has a place for all of us.”

Elliott, now 50, agrees. But it took him awhile to come around.

Pat sensed God’s call while serving as Baptist Young Women director at their church in Anchorage, Alaska. Elliott had a good job and great prospects, however. He couldn’t see giving it up for missionary service -– particularly while they were raising their two children.

He was walking down the hall one day at work when God spoke to him. Elliott recalls: “The Lord said, ‘Do you trust Me? If you trust Me, then do it.’ I came home and told Pat, ‘Pack the clothes; we’re leaving.’”

It took 12 years to reach the mission field. They went back to school, then to seminary in New Orleans. Elliott served as a pastor for several years. Their children, meanwhile, reached adulthood.

After they were appointed missionaries, many more challenges awaited them in Senegal. Learning the Wolof language. Getting used to the heat. Coping with the expectations of the Wolof people, who assumed the African American couple would automatically understand their culture since they share the same skin color. Fending off spiritual attacks.

Has their journey been worth it?

Ask the many Wolof women Pat now calls her “girlfriends” –- women who know she cares about their struggles and dreams.

“There have been a lot of ‘hallelujah’ moments,” Pat says. “Like the day I was out with the ladies and we were sitting underneath a tree on a mat, just talking, and I realized this is why I am here…. This is the season in my life where God wants me to be.”

Ask the residents of that Wolof village, who welcomed back Elliott and Pat with hot tea and celebration when they returned to Senegal earlier this year.

“The light is back!” the village’s singer/dancer exulted in a spontaneous performance.

The chief’s 100-year-old mother, a tribal “medicine woman,” smiled broadly and declared: “My children have come home.”

The women and girls crowded around Pat. One friend gripped her hand tightly during the visit. The men and boys circled Elliott, laughing and talking.

The chief’s watery eyes shone, though he was so weak from illness he couldn’t rise or speak above a whisper. Elliott knelt beside him, touched his hand and prayed for his healing, prayed that he might have the opportunity in this life to trust Jesus as Lord.

The chief nodded, closing his eyes. A ray of sunlight pierced the shadows of his room, illuminating the sunken folds of his face.

He looked content.
Prayer requests for the Wolof:

— Ask God to give Wolof believers boldness and passion to share their faith with others and that a church-planting movement would emerge among the West African people group.

— Ask God to send messengers to help spread the Gospel to the Wolof in Senegal and other parts of the world, including thousands of Wolof in New York City.

— Pray that the Wolof will find the true source of peace, Jesus Christ. “Bakkan jamm lay laaj,” the Wolof say, translated, “The soul aspires only to peace.”

— Ask the Lord to use Wolofs’ belief in dreams to put Jesus in their minds and a longing for Him in their hearts.

— Pray that the shackles of spiritual bondage to folk Islam and local superstition will be broken among the Wolof.

— Because many Wolof have heard the Gospel through the method of Bible storying, ask God to sow His Word among them and reap many believers.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges