SENEGAL, West Africa (BP)–Jenny Barker is not a typical summer missionary. With colored streaks in her hair and a tiny rhinestone stud in her nose, she’s an artist confident that “the Lord can use that for His glory.”
That’s why the student from Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri packed up her paintbrushes and trekked to sub-Saharan Africa to take her heart-changing art to a place where most have never heard — or seen — the truth of Christ.
“I feel closest to God when I’m painting,” Barker said. “It’s really worship for me, and it’s amazing I can use it for His name and glory and purpose.”
For two months, she painted and sketched in Senegal to reach out to the Lebou — a people group of 1.5 million, nearly all of whom follow an animistic version of Islam.
Women in colorful African print dresses lounge on straw mats on a sandy porch in the hot afternoon, sipping traditional hot tea. They’re listening intently to a 40-minute cassette of the Creation to Christ story in their own Wolof language, but there are visuals, too.
Barker has created her own canvas. She’s attached a coarse cloth onto a piece of cardboard and a friend is acting as a human easel. As the tape begins, Barker dips her brush into the latex paint and sweeps out a circle — the beginning of the world.
“My art helps me cross the language barrier,” Barker said. “It’s an easy way to tell a story.”
As the narrator continues, Barker brings to life a dozen Bible stories: a man and a woman, a giant boat of animals on raging waters, a sacrificial lamb, a star in the sky. In the middle of it all, she paints a cross — the focal point of the story the women are hearing for the first time.
Barker finishes her painting just as the cassette concludes.
“Rafit Na!” the women exclaimed in Wolof.
“They’re saying it’s beautiful,” Barker said.
But she hopes the women are not talking about just the painting.
During two months there, Barker sketched Bible stories for children, painted wall murals at a Baptist center and brightened up the interior of some missionaries’ homes. She hopes the images she leaves behind will bless onlookers long after she’s gone.
She also enjoyed living with a Muslim family, using her everyday life to illustrate Christ to them in a new way.
“We just spend time with them and look for opportunities to share Bible stories or Scripture with them,” she said. “This has been a good steppingstone for what I hope to do in the future.”
After she graduates from college, Barker wants to embark on a two-year journeyman term overseas.
“I have a passion for art and for international missions,” Barker said. “God has just worked it out so nicely where I can do both. I’ve learned more often than not, your passion will fit somewhere. God gives you a gift and you should give it back to Him. It might not be as you planned, but the Lord is still going to use it for His purpose.”
Students can use their passion to serve Christ as summer or semester missionaries in West Africa, serving as guitarists, dramatists, sports enthusiasts or just hanging out among Muslims to learn their language and share Christ. Check out volunteer requests at gowestafrica.org.
Emily Peters is a regional writer covering West Africa for the International Mission Board.