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Missionaries reach W. Africans lost in Paris

PARIS (BP)–Semba* has two wives and five children, but he hasn’t seen them in nearly 20 years.

At the end of a long workday, Semba relaxes in his dingy, single-room flat in the Paris suburbs. Six other West African men crowd around him, their eyes trained on his television. They’re watching the JESUS film.

Texas native Craig Kendrick stands in the doorway, chatting with the group. He’s dropped by for a follow-up visit after passing out copies of the JESUS film to Semba’s neighbors. Kendrick asks the men what they think.

“If somebody dies, He can say ‘Rise!’ and they’ll do it,” one says. It’s the first time most of them have heard the story of Jesus. That’s what Kendrick wants to change.

He’s the leader of Team West Africa in Paris, a group of Southern Baptist missionaries committed to sharing Christ and planting churches among the more than 500,000 West Africans living and working in the City of Lights.

At the moment, Kendrick’s team is focused on reaching the Soninke. Topping 200,000, they are the largest West African people group in Paris, followed by the Pulaar, Bambara and Wolof. Each has its own distinct language and culture. But no matter what tribe they come from, nearly every West African is here for the same purpose — money.


Semba is Pulaar. He came to Paris more than 30 years ago looking for a job. Now 55, he works as a window washer for 250 euros a week — a pittance by European standards. Yet the money buys a month’s worth of food for his family left behind in Senegal.

“If I wasn’t here my family couldn’t live,” Semba said.

It’s a common story. Most West Africans here work solely to support families in Africa, and many do it illegally. But with no visa and little education, opportunities are limited. From construction to sanitation, West Africans do the jobs no one else wants.

“They’ll take anything, and they’ll work hard at it,” Kendrick said. “These guys aren’t here to integrate into French society. They’re here for the survival of their family.”

When they’re not working, West Africans gather in rundown apartment buildings called foyers. Built by the government, they provide immigrants with cheap housing out of the public eye. Hidden among the city’s back alleys and side streets, foyers function as microcosms of West African society.

Residents dress in brightly colored robes called boubous. The menu is strictly West African fare, usually a spicy stew served with rice or yams. Between shifts, friends might relax in a foyer’s courtyard, where men peddle ears of corn roasted over coals in a rusty tire rim. After dark, cinderblock hallways echo with the beat of West African music or the whispers of faithful Muslims directing prayers toward Mecca.


It’s here, inside the foyers, that Kendrick’s team does most of its evangelism. Many foyers are multistory buildings, each housing hundreds of immigrants. On paper, rooms sleep two to three men, but with so many illegals, the reality is closer to six to eight. Armed with a backpack loaded with copies of the JESUS film, Kendrick distributes them door to door. Some men take them; others don’t.

The missionaries use the JESUS film as their primary tool for sharing the Gospel because it bypasses two big hurdles — illiteracy and language. Though most West Africans in Paris speak at least some French, it’s often not enough for Kendrick to effectively share Christ. His team is learning Soninke but can’t master Pulaar, Bambara and Wolof too. Translations of the JESUS film in each language help bridge the gap.

“The fact that it’s in their mother tongue is very enticing to them,” Kendrick said. “We often hear stories of five to 10 men watching a video at a time.

“Then, when we come back to do follow-up, they say, ‘I don’t have it anymore. I sent it to Africa. It was so moving to me. It’s the first movie I’ve ever heard in my language, and I’ve sent it home so that my whole town can see it.'”

Over the past three years Kendrick’s team has given away more than 10,000 copies of the JESUS film, but they couldn’t have done it without the help of Southern Baptist volunteers. In a single day a volunteer team can saturate an entire foyer with the Gospel, a challenge that could take Kendrick’s team more than a week.


Follow-up also is a critical part of the evangelism process. A few days after distributing the JESUS film at a foyer, Kendrick’s team returned to talk with the recipients. They started by asking simple questions that led to a conversation about Christ. The men often have questions for Kendrick, too, usually revolving around Jesus’ role as God’s Son. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet.

Though Kendrick’s strategy for taking the Gospel to West Africans is relatively straightforward, physically getting inside the foyers can be anything but that. His team has wrangled with everyone from the French authorities who administrate the apartments to imams and witch doctors who live there.

“We don’t go into any building without saturating it with prayer,” Kendrick said. “A foyer is a very dark place spiritually.”

Most West Africans are syncretists, combining elements of traditional African religion (animism) with Islam. The Soninke are particularly grounded in their Muslim faith, a result of Quranic schools in their communities for hundreds of years. But regardless of the depth of an individual’s commitment to Islam, witch doctors remain the people West Africans depend on out of fear.

“They’re afraid to leave Muhammad, and they’re afraid to leave the diabolic power they’ve seen from their witch doctors,” Kendrick said.

Despite these barriers, the Lord has allowed Kendrick’s team to set foot in more than 50 foyers, finding favorable responses to the Gospel in at least 40. And it’s just the beginning.

Kendrick’s vision is to evangelize all West Africans in Paris by 2015. Southern Baptist volunteers will play a critical role in reaching that goal, as will national partners.

Kendrick now is working with a handful of West African Christians to build a discipleship group of 12. He believes this could be the catalyst for the first West African church in Paris.

“That’s my prayer,” Kendrick said. “Jesus had 12 and they changed the world. If God can grow this group to 12, I know that through His Word, these guys will be the beginning of a church planting movement among the Soninke people.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. Learn more about becoming a volunteer by contacting the International Mission Board at 1-800-999-3113.

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  • Don Graham