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Vodka unlikely ally for witness to Muslims

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support more than 5,600 Southern Baptist missionaries as they share the Gospel overseas. This year’s offering goal is $175 million. The 2009 Lottie Moon offering theme is “Who’s Missing, Whose Mission?” It focuses on overcoming barriers to hearing and accepting the Gospel in various parts of the world and the mission that the Great Commission gives all Christians to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The 2009 Week of Prayer for International Missions is Nov. 29-Dec. 6. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org/offering.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Carl Stroller* doesn’t drink vodka. But his ministry might not be the same without it.

Stroller and his wife Amy* are Southern Baptist missionaries who left their hometown in North Carolina 10 years ago to share the Gospel with a Muslim people known as the Lezghi (pronounced lez-gee).

More than 600,000 Lezghi live among the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, located between the Black and Caspian seas. Most are poor by Western standards, surviving as farmers or shepherds. Though their culture is Islamic, the Lezghis’ belief in God is deeply rooted in animism (spirit worship). Many have heard Jesus’ name but know Him only as a good man who did good things.

In rocky soil like this, Stroller says sharing the truth about Christ requires patience to build strong relationships. When he’s not involved with community development projects, — like teaching English — much of Stroller’s time is spent talking about God over a bottle of vodka.

Alcohol, like animism, is tightly woven into Lezghi society. Sharing a drink with a neighbor, friend or co-worker is an everyday event — at meals, on the job, after work. Russian influence has made vodka the Lezghis’ liquor of choice, not to mention the fuel that fires rampant alcoholism.

But the Lezghis’ desire to drink does have a single redeeming value — it presents Stroller with the chance to explain why he doesn’t.

“To decline drink is always an odd response for them,” Stroller says. “They can’t believe that somebody wouldn’t want to drink, but it often leads to an opportunity to … share your testimony and what the Lord has done in your life.

“The funniest thing is what they consider to be alcoholic and not alcoholic. I’ll decline vodka … and they’ll bring beer or wine. Then it’s back to my testimony of why I don’t drink.

“If I don’t have an opportunity to share … it’s because I didn’t take the opportunity.”

But opportunity doesn’t necessarily indicate openness to the Gospel, and sharing is no guarantee of salvation.

Despite a decade of work among the Lezghi, the Strollers can’t confidently say they’ve led a single person to saving faith in Christ. It’s been a difficult journey, filled with hardship, bitter disappointment — even betrayal.

“Initially we thought that these people only needed to hear the Gospel and then they would start coming to faith. We never anticipated them being so obstinate to the Good News,” Stroller says. “Though spiritually minded, they don’t typically express much interest in the Gospel. Their eyes have truly been blinded.”

Stroller remembers sharing the Gospel with a young Lezghi man who appeared to accept Christ but later began asking about the “benefits” of being saved. He eventually discovered that the young man’s conversion was motivated by a TV news story about churches that were allegedly bribing people to become Christians. Once the man realized his profession of faith wasn’t going to pay, he renounced Jesus and ended his contact with Stroller.

Amy tells of a similar experience. Several years ago she shared Christ with a Lezghi woman who was married to an abusive alcoholic husband. Amy, along with several local believers, tried to help the woman. She claimed to accept Christ and even went so far as to be baptized. But Amy soon realized the woman was using them — lying to the church and borrowing money she had no intention of repaying.

“All the other neighbors that I had evangelized in the past had heard that this woman had become a Christian,” Amy says. “They thought she was an accurate model of a believer, and they wanted nothing to do with Jesus. She gave them reason to reject Christ.”

But situations like these don’t tell the whole story. God has blessed the Strollers with some successes among the Lezghi, including starting a small house church that’s grown from a group of five to 15 people. Persecution has since forced the church to split in half to attract less attention, but it continues to grow in spite of the Lezghis’ coldness to the Gospel.

“How do we overcome [hardship]? By remaining faithful to the task,” Stroller says. “We remain obedient to the command of our Lord to make disciples of all nations. We believe He meant the Lezghi people when He gave that command — that’s why we are here.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.

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  • Don Graham