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Seafarers is international ministry for Brazilian couple

EDITORS’ NOTE: A series of eight features begins today in Baptist Press in conjunction with the March 2-9 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, which kicks off the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering emphasis in Southern Baptist churches across the country. The goal for this year’s offering is $53 million.
MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–The International Seamen’s Center buzzes with activity when ships are in port. One group might be gathered around the big-screen TV watching a soccer game — or playing on the field outside. Others might be gathering for a ride to the local Wal-Mart, while still others chat over refreshments with local volunteers. But for Aias De Souza, director of the center, the focal point of the evening comes as everyone is asked to gather in the chapel.

During one such service, De Souza asked representatives of four nationalities — as well as one of the teenagers volunteering that night — to read John 3:16 in their native languages. “Isn’t that a wonderful message,” he said as the last one finished.

“I wish I had a better message than that one, but I have been in this place for the past 22 and a half years and tell that story every day,” he said. “God’s love: We don’t always understand it, because we don’t even know how to love ourselves.”

Thus begins a presentation of the gospel finely tuned for the seafarers, most of whom do not have a relationship with Christ but are willing at least to listen because of the kindness displayed by the local Christians.

It’s a classic modern-day application, De Souza said, of a methodology employed by Jesus himself.

“He always met the physical need first,” De Souza said. “Meeting the need creates a relationship that affords the opportunity to present the gospel.

“Our welcome is to the center,” he added later, “but most important, it is a welcome to unite with the family of God.”

De Souza and his wife, Gecina, are featured missionaries during the 2003 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 2-9.

Their path to the southern port city actually began in the late 1970s when De Souza — a seminary professor in Brazil — was completing his education at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Neither Aias or Gecina had any particular interest in staying in the United States, but when the call came to consider leading the work of the seafarer’s center De Souza felt he should at least see if that might be where God was leading.

They agreed to the position, but with the original intent of staying only two years. “We did not even buy furniture,” he said. When a position did not open up in Brazil, however, De Souza began to sense God might want them there for the long-term.

“Since I did not like what I was doing, and did not like the city, I said, ‘Lord, we cannot work in this situation. Either you move me or change my attitude,'” De Souza said. “And he did. He changed it.”

Since then, the De Souzas have not looked back — becoming respected leaders in the community and growing the seaman’s center’s ministry and influence.

In a sense Aias does the work of an international missionary, but with the added opportunity of having impacted 128 nations over the years. He often visits seafarers on the ships, giving them Bibles and inviting them to the center.

When they come to the center the men are given opportunities to make private phone calls at a reasonable cost. They can unwind with a game of soccer or basketball, or just relax in a family environment with volunteers and other seafarers. And when the conversation does turn to Christ, they tend to listen. More than 10 professions of faith are recorded each month, on average.

De Souza told of one man from El Salvador who accepted Christ and later came back seeking baptism. But he suggested the man be baptized in his own country instead as a witness to his family. The last time the man visited the center, De Souza said, six of his seven children and his wife had all made commitments to Christ.

Another time seven members of a Chinese crew accepted Christ at one time. On still another occasion, four Venezuelans responded, returning the next day to learn more about following Christ.

“We reach those guys,” De Souza said. “They go back with the Bible, with the gospel, with a new life, and they are going to multiply that gospel and that new life with their family. And that family would multiply with many other families. And consequently we are doing a tremendous work to propagate the gospel with millions of people.”

But the motivation is not only the seafarers themselves. The ministry also gives local volunteers international missions experiences on a regular basis that awaken them to the needs of the world.

“I came to the conclusion that if I was here just to present the gospel to seamen, I was going to go crazy,” De Souza said. “I cannot do this by myself. And the second question was how am I going to involve the churches in what I am doing? I keep this in mind: I’m doing this to proclaim the gospel to the lost and to provide a mission opportunity for the churches.”

Churches agree to sponsor specific nights at the center, often one night each month. Gecina coordinates the refreshments provided by each. They interact with the seafarers, thus learning about how they can play a part in proclaiming the gospel around the world.

“We tell them the ministry center is a lab, especially for the children and the teenagers,” Gecina said. “We have seen people leave from here and go to serve as a missionary, go to seminary, or serve in missions trips just because they grow up seeing what we’re doing with internationals. We also encourage them to bring their children, because the seamen miss their children and love to see these others.”

Another aspect of De Souza’s ministry is indirectly related, as director of language missions for the Mobile Baptist Association. The ministry began in 1987 as an outgrowth of an increasing number of refugees after the Vietnam War. Seven language congregations have since been started for Hispanics, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Koreans, Chinese and Arabs. A language school teaching English to internationals also has been a key ministry opportunity.

De Souza finds opportunities for evangelism using some of the same principles he has honed at the seaman’s center, forging relationships that earn him the right to share Christ.

One day, for instance, he found himself in the home of a refugee family whose sink had been backed up for a week. Because he wasn’t much of a handyman, De Souza considered calling professional help. But he sensed an opportunity to form a personal relationship through the messy work that followed. The next day when he returned, the father gathered his children on the floor and said, “Do everything he tells you.”

“That’s the reward,” De Souza said. “Now I could speak to the Word of God with them in a level they understand as part of my relationship with them. I’m not just the one that comes and tells them what to do [as an authority figure].”

Roma Dravis, a longtime volunteer at the center and a member of its supervisory committee, said that from her own experience in management what she notices about De Souza is his skills at working with people — both the volunteers and the seafarers.

“Dr. De Souza has a good balance between leadership, authority and discernment,” she said. “… He’s an encourager. And he’s very open to say, ‘OK, you help me with this and you help me with that.’ He’s very talented in obtaining agreement from all different parties, either from the churches, the seamen or the Port Authority people. It takes a person who’s very balanced.”

The results, she said, are in the steady stream of lives that are changed as a result.

“I’ve seen more people saved here than I have in a lot of Baptist churches,” she said. “These people are hungry for the gospel. You’re not having to ask them 48 times to accept Jesus. He presents a simple evangelistic message, and these people are open to hearing it.”

She also cited the dedication of a man who will often arrive early in the morning and not leave until late at night, along with a wife who will both allow him to be gone and participate on a regular basis herself — despite working fulltime elsewhere.

From De Souza’s perspective, he simply trusts God to meet the needs and has never been disappointed.

“I never had a need on this mission that the Lord did not supply in these 20 years,” he said. “I say, if this is the Lord’s plan, he is going to supply it in some way. … I think we get into a lot of trouble because we want to solve things ourselves.”
The Big Picture
— Aias De Souza is one of six North American Mission Board career missionaries working with seafarers, along with about 100 Mission Service Corps missionaries and Campers on Mission volunteers.
— Southern Baptists operate 14 international seafarer’s centers around the United States, Canada and U.S. territories. The North American Mission Board has missionaries and/or chaplains at another 20 centers that are not owned by Southern Baptists.
— For more information on the International Seafarer’s Center in Mobile, visit www.internatministries.org. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BEFRIENDING SEAMAN and GLOBAL REACH.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson