PARIS (BP)–Murat* glances up from the pair of trousers he’s hemming as a jingle of bells disturbs the dull hum of his sewing machine.
Tied with red thread to the door of his one-room alterations shop, the bells alert the 53-year-old Turkish tailor to customers. Murat smiles with surprise as he recognizes the people filing through his door. They aren’t customers. They’re Christians.
On this bright summer day in Paris, a missions team from First Baptist Church in Rogers, Ark., has come to visit their friend. A year ago, volunteers from the church led Murat and his family to Christ. Today they’ve returned to reconnect and check on Murat’s walk with the Lord.
The trip is part of the church’s commitment to spread the Gospel among the Turks of Paris. First Baptist is a strategy coordinator church, a congregation that’s taken responsibility for evangelizing a people group with no full-time Southern Baptist missionaries working to reach them. The church is partnering with the International Mission Board to plant churches among the city’s predominantly Muslim Turkish population.
France is home to more Muslims than any other nation in the European Union — between 5 million and 6 million — mostly North and West Africans. Though there are no definitive statistics, the IMB’s Global Research Department puts the number of Turks in France at more than 200,000. Few know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Like many Turkish immigrants, Murat came to Paris more than 20 years ago looking for a better life — and found it. But now he may be forced to return to Turkey if he can’t secure the papers needed to continue working in France.
The sadness in Murat’s brown eyes betray just how heavily the matter weighs on his heart. He sums up his troubles to the volunteers with a single question: How will he support his wife and two girls if he can’t work? Wes George, First Baptist’s pastor, offers some reassuring words.
“We have peace in our lives because of Jesus,” he tells Murat. Ayse,* one of the church’s national partners, translates for George.
After a moment of awkward silence, Murat’s wife, Nursel,* responds to the pastor’s remark. “I am a follower of Jesus,” she proudly proclaims. But Murat offers only a distant nod.
Sharing the Gospel — and seeing progress — can be slow business, especially when doing it from half-a-world away. But the strategy isn’t that different from starting churches in the United States. It’s all about networking and friendship. For the crew from First Baptist, that can mean something as simple as knocking on doors in a Turkish neighborhood or chatting over a cup of thick, black coffee at a Turkish restaurant.
In order to create and maintain those friendships, the church sends an average of three volunteer teams to Paris every year. It’s a big, expensive operation, even for a 4,000-member church like First Baptist. But the rotation is critical to the ministry’s momentum both in Paris and back home in Arkansas.
Church member Gary Peevy spearheads the ministry.
On this particular trip, Peevy led a Turkish restaurateur named Mustafa* to faith in Christ. Mustafa is a friend-of-a-friend the team met through their translator, Ayse. Peevy seized the opportunity to share the Gospel with Mustafa one evening while the team ate dinner at his restaurant.
“I was taken aback by how little he knew about Jesus,” Peevy said. “So we went back to the beginning — Adam, Eve, sin and separation from God, all these things just to explain the need for a Savior and who Jesus is.”
“What do I need to do?” Mustafa asked when Peevy had finished sharing.
“You’ve got to ask for forgiveness,” Peevy told him before leading Mustafa through the prayer of salvation.
“Mustafa just looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I understand for the first time, and I realize the need for this,'” Peevy said.
Stories like this are becoming more common as the church’s ministry among the Turks matures. But they haven’t had to go it alone. A number of First Baptist’s most fruitful contacts have come through their partnership with the IMB. Volunteer teams are given names of Turks who’ve answered ads for free Bible correspondence courses. The ads run in newspapers and on websites across Europe, but until First Baptist chose to adopt the Turks there was no one to do face-to-face follow-up in Paris.
While sharing the Gospel with seekers is an obvious priority, First Baptist’s volunteer teams also see encouragement as an essential ministry. Paris can be a lonely place for foreigners, especially for the city’s handful of Turkish Christians. With no church to bring them together, many simply don’t know any other believers and have no one to pray, worship or fellowship with.
Yakob* is a Kurdish Turk who also was connected with First Baptist Rogers through the IMB’s Gospel correspondence ad. He came to France with his wife and daughter as a refugee after the Turkish army burned their village. They now live in a government-run camp outside Paris with more than 100 other Kurdish refugees. Yakob believes he is the camp’s only Christian and has so far kept it secret for fear of persecution. Not even his wife knows about his faith in Jesus.
“They’re struggling to get by on the meager support the French government gives them, so all the families pool their resources and help each other,” Peevy explained. “Yakob’s afraid that if he starts to talk about Jesus they’ll turn their backs on him and he’ll lose that support.”
Peevy and George spent several hours studying the Bible with Yakob in hopes of providing him some comfort and confidence through Scripture. They also taught him about the importance of baptism, a public profession of faith that Yakob has been reluctant to make.
“His words are, ‘It’s like an explosion inside my heart,'” Peevy said. “He wants to tell everyone about Jesus, but he’s afraid to. Yakob’s desire is to be baptized back in that refugee camp. He’s working to overcome his fear. He wants his wife to see the baptism and wants it to be a witness to her and others.”
Whatever success the teams have shared in Paris has been mirrored by growing support for First Baptist’s missions ministry back in Arkansas.
“At the end of the day, I want our people to see opportunities to see themselves as missionaries, whether praying or giving or going or all three,” said John Caubble, the church’s missions minister and former IMB missionary.
That attitude is part of the missions-minded culture the senior pastor is continuing to develop at the church. Besides the Turks of Paris, the congregation also has adopted a second people group in South Asia.
“I’ve desired to be on the ground floor of seeing a people group that is unreached and unengaged come to a place where they know Jesus,” George said. “Our vision on the front end of this thing was that we’re going to be laboring here for a long time, and our children would go to be the first missionaries.”
Tony Lynn is a Southern Baptist missionary who helps coordinate the IMB’s work in Paris and serves as a contact for First Baptist. He said the church is a great example of the powerful way the Lord works through volunteers.
“It shows that we can take on a God-sized task, come with a prayerful spirit and share our faith for the purpose of developing a church. Even a Southern Baptist church 4,000 miles away in Arkansas can make a difference. Big or small, all you have to be willing to do is make it a priority in your ministry to engage the lost,” Lynn said.
Peevy said the team is looking for leaders among the Turkish believers in Paris.
“We don’t want to build an American church among the Turkish people in Paris,” he said. “We want it to be a Turkish Christian church. We’re sensitive to those God is bringing to us. Pray for the Turkish believers to reach out to their own people. That’s how a church starts.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.