NEW YORK CITY (BP)–Harried New Yorkers brush past the street vendors without so much as a second glance at the knockoff watches and pirated videos the vendors offer. New Yorkers in Times Square are always in a hurry, the vendors will tell you. Only tourists stop to look, and they don’t really want to talk.
So the peddlers are surprised when one woman does stop to talk with them — and astonished when she speaks in their native Wolof, the language of one of West Africa’s largest unreached people groups. About 3 million Wolof live in Senegal and Gambia. An estimated 30,000 Wolof immigrants live in New York City, most trying to earn money that will be sent back to Africa.
The Wolof are a hospitable people who observe a form of Islam mixed with traditional religious practices. They value relationships highly and will stop whatever they are doing to talk to a visitor — even if it means losing a sale to a wide-eyed tourist excited to find a “Gucci” wristwatch for only $10.
A knot of Wolof vendors quickly encircles Tracey Dunnavant, a former missionary to West Africa who has come to New York to prayerwalk among the city’s Wolof immigrants and ask God to open the door for the gospel among them. Though missionaries have worked among the Wolof in West Africa for years, only about 50 have opened their hearts to the good news of God’s love, and many of those keep their faith a secret for fear of persecution.
Dunnavant carries on an animated conversation with the peddlers for several minutes. They are immensely curious to learn why a white woman speaks their language with the accent of a West African bush villager. She takes the opportunity to explain how God called her and her husband, Ben, to go live among the Wolof and tell them about God’s love. The group listens in rapt attention.
Suddenly a battered Lincoln Continental pulls up to the curb, and the Wolof rush over to the car, leaving Dunnavant standing alone and open-mouthed on the corner. The young men take turns leaning in the window, greeting the man in the back seat, pressing his hand to their foreheads to receive his blessing. The American who speaks their language is quite forgotten in the excitement.
The man in the car, it turns out, is a marabout (MARE-a-boo), a Muslim religious leader believed to have spiritual insight and almost-magical powers to turn events in favor of his followers. He has come to New York from Touba (TOO-ba), a city in Senegal that is home to the Mouride (MOOR-eed) Brotherhood. This Muslim sect dispatched the peddlers to America to earn money that will help finance Mouride programs and the great mosque in Touba, one of the world’s largest and most lavish.
These peddlers have pledged their absolute loyalty to the marabout, and most of what they earn will go to him. In return he gives them his blessing, and they hope to earn merit that will cause Allah to look more favorably on them. Deep down, they know it’s a vain hope that good deeds will outweigh their sin. No one has ever told them Jesus died to pay the price of their sin and give them God’s favor for free.
Tracey Dunnavant’s 10-member prayerwalk team spent five days greeting the street vendors and praying for them, giving “Jesus” videos and gospel cassettes to those who were willing to receive them. They also talked to Baptists in the city about reaching out to the Wolof and other unreached people groups represented there.
Missions strategists hope immigrants who accept Christ in America’s cities will take the message of God’s love back to their homelands, where God’s Spirit can move powerfully among their family and friends. Cooperation in reaching the Wolof in New York City not only could advance God’s kingdom overseas, it also might energize and mobilize New York churches in bringing their own city to Christ.
God is clearly at work through the prayerwalk:
— Team members meet several dozen Wolof, who are excited that these Americans care enough about them to stop and talk. One young man gives them his name and address and invites them to visit his home. Ben Dunnavant actually meets a young man he knew when he lived in West Africa.
— Another team member knows an estranged friend lives in the city and hesitates to look her up. She challenges God: “If you want us to make contact, let me run into her.” Even in a metropolitan area of 18 million people, God is up to the challenge. When the young woman and a second team member ask directions from a jogger on the street, the jogger turns out to be the long-lost friend. Besides that, the friend is now a lawyer who often works with Wolof people on immigration issues.
— A week later, a prayer team begins visiting Wolof villages in Senegal and finds an unprecedented openness. When they explain they have come to pray for the village, they are warmly received and several marabouts, who ordinarily would oppose the Christians, allow them to pray in the name of Jesus, who is counted among Islam’s prophets.
— A little later, a man in Senegal who teaches people to speak Wolof says he just can’t get over the fact that Americans would travel so far at their own expense to pray for the Wolof and for the people at the school where he teaches. He says he recognizes the Christians have something he wants, and believers lead him to open his heart to Christ.
“There are many members of unreached people groups here in the United States,” Tracey Dunnavant says over lunch at a tiny restaurant that, in classic New York style, serves Chinese and Spanish food. “They may be resistant to the gospel overseas, but here they are more accessible and more open. We want people to realize they can help touch these unreached people groups right here in the United States.”
She paraphrases Romans 10:1:
“My heart’s desire and my prayer to God for the Wolof is for their salvation.”
The names of the former missionaries to West Africa have been changed to protect present and future outreach to Wolof people there.
For information about 2001PRAY, a movement to saturate the African continent with massive intercession on Aug. 3, 2001, e-mail [email protected]
Additional photo posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo title: THE UNREACHED ON OUR DOORSTEP.