SBC Life Articles

Shining the Light…

Dusty streets trail off into narrow paths winding between tightly packed houses. Children scamper after a dog that has stolen their ball. A young woman stirs a pot over an open fire while a baby sleeps peacefully in a sling on her back. In a nearby mechanic's shop, a hammer rings out an unsteady beat on a piece of iron.

This is Zongo, one of eighty-nine "cartiers," or districts, in Cotonou, Benin, a city of a half-million and governmental capital of this small West African country. For twenty-five years, Southern Baptist missionaries had labored patiently here, sharing the good news of freedom in Christ with people long enslaved by the dark powers of voodoo and traditional religions. Progress had been slow but steady.

When Alejandro and Bertha Ortiz arrived as first-term International Mission Board missionaries in 1994, they had one question on their minds: "Where do we start?"

"Pray and wait," came God's answer. He was getting ready to do something dramatic.

"The Lord impressed us to pray for all of Cotonou," says Alejandro, 42. "So we got together every week for three months to pray. We had a big map of the city, and we prayed for every neighborhood by name." Also, church leaders were challenged to blanket each district in a prayerwalking effort.

"As we prayed, the Holy Spirit began to move in unexpected ways," Alejandro recalls.

…in the City

A member of one of the city's nine churches started a prayer group in his home and started sharing Jesus with his neighbors. Another organized a Sunday School class for neighborhood children. A tailor Alejandro met on the street opened his shop for a weekly Bible teaching time. Inmates who had accepted Christ in prison suddenly were released, and returned to their villages to share the gospel among unreached people groups.

Bible study groups started popping up all over the city.

God started to make His presence felt. "We never know how the Lord is going to open doors, so we pray and wait," Alejandro says. "But God is working all around us. We just need to open our eyes and see it and make the adjustments we need to make."

In Cotonou's Grand Market, missionary Karen Bartlett handed a merchant a tract along with payment for a purse she left for repair.

"What's this?" he asked.

"I'm a Christian. It tells about Jesus Christ, who is my Savior and Lord," she replied.

"Have you come to tell me the truth?" The man introduced himself as Alieu Lowe, a Muslim. He told her he had wondered whether the Muslim's Allah is the true God. "I prayed God would send me someone to tell me the truth," he said.

Karen led the man to faith in Jesus. But he was unable to keep his promise to attend church the next Sunday because he became sick Saturday. Concerned, Karen returned to the market Monday. There, in the bustle of thousands of shoppers, she bumped into the pastor of the church Alieu had wanted to attend. She took the pastor to Alieu.

Alieu was awe-struck. "I couldn't go to church, so God sent church to me!" he cried out.

In the Yovo Market, where rows of tin sheds stretch out in every direction, Alejandro and a West African co-worker were sharing the gospel with seven men recently. Bertha walked up to four others nearby and started talking about Jesus. Two others in the next booth climbed up to peer over the wall. Soon, five were praying a sinner's prayer, including one hanging over the partition.

"God is doing something wonderful in the markets," says Bertha. "People see the Bible in my hand and they ask me, 'What God do you worship?' You can sense their spiritual hunger. Everywhere we go, people are willing to listen to the story of Jesus. It's wonderful."

…in the Prisons

God also opened doors for the Ortizes to minister in Cotonou's prisons. One of the first inmates saved was released soon after his decision to follow Jesus. He returned to his village — a Last Frontier people group with no access to the gospel — and shared his newly found faith with his Muslim family and friends. Eight people accepted Jesus.

Others saved in prison will make an impact even on neighboring countries as they are released.

Bertha has a special burden for prison ministry. Her father, who led her to the Lord, was saved in prison. "That's why I keep going back to prison to share Christ, because that's how God touched my father. And like He did with us, God will not only save these people, He also will save generation after generation of their children."

God has moved in a powerful way to touch inmate hearts with His love. One very sick man in the Muslim section of the prison was surprised when Christians brought him medicine. That act of kindness — and the witness it gave to the love of Jesus — turned him toward the Savior. Nine more Muslims accepted Jesus through a resulting Bible study group.

Their bold stand for their faith is often costly. When one Muslim professed faith in Christ, another inmate complained, and the new Christian was beaten and isolated in darkness for three days. Others have been made to sleep standing up in the overcrowded cell blocks or had their food rations taken away by other inmates.

"It touches my heart to hear them sing praise songs when I know some of them won't have anything to eat that day, that some of them are sick, that many of their families have disowned them. Yet they let the light of Jesus shine in their lives," says Alejandro.

…Seeing Lives Changed

Outward misery, of course, is relative. Most Americans would be touched to watch Beninese — whose average income is just $380 a year — as they celebrate their faith.

At the Zongo preaching point, you can hear their celebration all the way out on the street. Curious passers-by peer through the heavy steel doorway into a dimly lit courtyard between an auto repair shop and a house. Amid piles of sheet metal and old tires, two dozen people are laughing and clapping and singing. A half-dozen greasy mechanics punctuate the West African rhythms with a drum, a rattle, and a makeshift bell — a large wrench struck with a metal bar.

"We lift up Jesus; we step on Satan," they sing. Another chorus picks up an African allegory about a rat (Satan) who can't come in for fear of the cat (Jesus).

The crowd quiets as a young man steps to the front. "My parents tried to stop me from following Jesus," he says. "They refuse to give me anything to eat. But I am determined to follow Jesus. Please pray for my parents."

A woman stands: "I was very sick so I went to the doctor. He examined me and told me he didn't know how I was still living. We prayed, and God healed me. Praise God!"

The testimonies set off a fresh round of jubilant choruses, but eventually Alejandro Ortiz steps up to preach. The group has doubled in size by now. Alejandro tells of an alcoholic who beat his wife and children. He recalls how the man mocked God when confronted with his sin — and was killed in a bar fight only four hours later.

"God knows your sins," Alejandro tells the congregation. "But He loves you and wants to forgive you and change you and deliver you from everything. He wants to give you everlasting life. Don't leave life without hope like this man. Now is the time to be reconciled to God."

This congregation is a new preaching point, one of twenty started in the past year in a country where Baptists had averaged one new church every five years.



Prayer Resources

Missionaries Need "Real-Life" Prayer (Code: IP-REAL). A missionary tells how to pray for missionaries.

• PrayerLine stickers (Code: IP-PLINE)

Praying with Power for Foreign Missions (Code: IP-PRAY)

PRAYERplus: Pushing back the darkness of The Last Frontier (Code: IP-PLUS). Learn how to pray for a Last Frontier people group. Learn about missions.

To order these prayer resources, contact:
Customer Services
International Mission Board
P.O. Box 6767
Richmond, VA 23230-0767
fax (904) 254-8980
or call (800) 8866-3621
e-mail: [email protected]

"There is a lot of potential in Cotonou," says Alejandro. "There are established churches and trained people. We feel this is just the beginning of great things the Lord is going to do through the churches.

"Jesus said to do the work of the Father while the day lasts. This is the day God has given us to bring people to Jesus. We must take advantage of that."

    About the Author

  • Mark Kelly