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Prisoners, refugees in Zambia give eager response to gospel

MWEMBESHI, Zambia (BP)–The ministry team arrives at the prison about 9:15 a.m. Already 200 men have packed into the 20-by-20-foot room. Hymns and choruses in the Nyanja language rise out of the dilapidated building and waft over the dusty fields.
Mwembeshi Prison is a large, open-air facility about 20 miles west of Lusaka. The unit’s 350 minimum-security prisoners live and sleep outdoors. Long days of hard work quickly reduce their clothing to rags. It’s a hard life, and the prisoners know they need help.
“I preached from Luke 4, where Jesus said he came to ‘set free the captives’ who are held in bondage by sin and spiritual oppression,” said Kevin Rodgers, who serves with his wife, Suzie, as an International Service Corps missionary through the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.
When Rodgers asked the prisoners if anyone wanted to repent of his sins and trust Christ, more than 50 men stood to their feet. He was worried that some had misunderstood, so he explained this offer was only for those who had never prayed a prayer of repentance and faith.
“Instead of people sitting down, a few more stood to their feet,” he said. In three trips to the prison this year, about 140 men have trusted Christ. Rodgers expected to baptize about 100 men in April.
“Each time we go, we see a great harvest of souls because the men are so hungry for hope and peace,” he said. “These prisoners want to be set free from the chains of sin, and they have discovered only Jesus can do that.”
Rodgers saw the same hunger on a trip to the Meheba refugee camp, which sprawls over 50 square miles of northern Zambia near Zaire. The camp’s 32,000 refugees are divided by country of origin: Zaire, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda — a roll call of civil war and genocide.
He made the grueling 500-mile drive with one of his students from the Baptist seminary in Lusaka who was himself a Rwandan refugee. The student, Gerard Habimana, knew Rwandans at Meheba who wanted to start a Baptist church.
Their team arrived at the Rwandan camp only to discover that three other camps had heard of their visit and sent delegates to ask the preachers to visit them as well.
“We were overwhelmed,” Rodgers said. “Some of these people had walked more than 15 miles one way to beg us to come and start a work in their area. But we could only be there for the weekend, so we just didn’t have time to reach all these people.”
The team held two services in the Rwandan camp, and 25 people made decisions for Christ. They also were able to hold a service in a second camp, made up of Angolans and Zaireans, where 15 were saved. New churches were organized in both camps.
“These refugees want to know who can bring meaning out of the madness of their lives,” Rodgers said. “Only Jesus can do that.”
Though he left a pastorate in Widener, Ark., to lecture at the seminary in Lusaka, Rodgers found the needs in the prison and refugee camp irresistible.
“I’m a preacher, evangelist and church planter at heart,” he said. “Suzie and I have a desire to go where God leads us and a desire to go where we are most needed.
“Zambia is responsive to the gospel, but the prisons and refugee camps are even more responsive. Because of their circumstances, they have a great hunger for the gospel. But it’s not easy to go to an African prison or refugee camp, especially for an American. So the very people who want most to be set free from sin are not hearing the gospel message.”
Rodgers is struck by the immense opportunity.
“This is truly a place where the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few,” he said. “There is an overwhelming need for people to come and preach to these responsive people.”

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  • Mark Kelly