FROM THE STATES: Texas, N.C., Ariz. evangelism/missions news; 'God gave us a harvest -- more than we ever dreamed of'

Today's From the States features items from:

Southern Baptist TEXAN

Baptist State Convention of North Carolina

Portraits (Arizona)

Alba church finds Sonjo people responsive

to Gospel in region considered hostile

By Rob Collingsworth

ALBA, Texas (Southern Baptist TEXAN) -- In the fall of 2011, International Mission Board President Tom Elliff issued a challenge to the churches of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Presented with the statistics relating for unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs) across the globe and their need for the gospel, SBTC churches from across the state responded with enthusiasm.

Lake Fork Baptist Church in Alba answered that call. After becoming aware of the IMB's Embrace initiative, Pastor Perry Crisp and Missions Pastor Bob Stephenson began praying to discern the direction the Lord was leading their church.

"We began to go to Embrace conferences and did a lot of online searches, looking at the IMB website to read about different UUPGs," Stephenson said. "The unique thing about it was that as my pastor and I began to pray about it, we didn't share any information with each other about where God was leading us. We just continued to pray."

As the two sought direction from the Lord on Lake Fork's budding missions initiative, a common theme began to emerge in each of their hearts: East Africa.

"One day the pastor came into staff meeting and wrote a people group number on the board," Stephenson explained. "It was the Sonjo people of the Temi Valley in East Africa, the same people I had been praying about."

At that point, the people of Lake Fork Baptist Church wholeheartedly embraced that UUPG, voting unanimously to adopt the Sonjo people in August of 2012 as a part of the IMB Embrace initiative and the broader gospel mission.

"Since that time, our missions giving has increased," Stephenson said. "Our congregation has given over and above their usual tithes and offerings to help with material needs, travel and Bibles for the believers in the Temi Valley."

Although the area was originally deemed too difficult to reach and the people considered too hostile, Stephenson said that they have found just the opposite to be true. While the trip to the Temi Valley is certainly arduous (consisting of a two-day flight and a 10-hour drive over unpaved roads), the people of the Sonjo tribe have responded overwhelmingly to the gospel.

"We got there and found out that they were a very loving people. We found some people of peace and had a great vision trip," Stephenson said. "God gave us a harvest -- more than we ever dreamed of. More than 1,000 people came to know Christ on our first trip."

Thirteen members of Lake Fork Baptist Church have traveled to the Temi Valley so far over the course of four mission trips, and according to Stephenson, most of those people are awaiting another opportunity to return. The church's fifth trip to East Africa will be this month.

"The spiritual growth of the Sonjo people has been amazing," Stephenson explained. "They are studying the Word and applying it to their lives. On our last trip, six of them went with us to another village to do evangelistic work. God used them to lead many of their own to Christ. They have learned to tell the 'Creation to Christ' story, they are holding their own services, and each of the churches is increasing in numbers."

In addition to significant numerical growth in the churches, Stephenson also notes the stories they have seen of individuals who have experienced the power of the gospel.

"On our very first trip and our very first day of evangelizing among the Sonjo, a young man named Joseph walked with one of our teams and translated the gospel into the language of his people," Stephenson said. "Between huts Joseph asked questions. He had recently heard about Jesus and prayed to receive Jesus while on business outside of the Temi Valley, but he had not learned much about his new faith.

"While walking between huts that day, he asked, 'What is Baptist?' Our pastor gave a quick answer: 'Baptists are people who believe the Bible, only the Bible and all of the Bible. And we believe baptism is by immersion for those who choose to follow Christ. It testifies to Jesus' death, burial and resurrection.'

"Joseph nodded and continued walking to the next hut. After translating and seeing another family pray to receive Jesus, we resumed our walk to the next hut and Joseph asked if he could be baptized," Stephenson recalled. "Our pastor assured him that he could be baptized that very day. As they continued along the path, Joseph made a statement that answered our prayer.

"He said to our pastor, 'We need a church. We need a pastor. I want to be that pastor.'"

Joseph was baptized that day in a river that was ankle deep in water. "Before our pastor could join him in the river, Joseph used his hands in the sandy bottom of that river to dig his own baptismal grave. When our pastor baptized Joseph, the water was still too shallow at Joseph's head and his nose was still above water. Of his own accord, Joseph turned his head so that he was completely immersed. He is now the pastor of the very first Baptist church in the Temi Valley."

When Lake Fork first began their Embrace initiative with the Sonjo people, there were a reported 3,800 UUPGs across the globe; according to the most recent statistics, however, that number is down to around 3,030.

"The three main ingredients for embracing a people group are prayer, prayer and prayer," Stephenson said. "God is still in the business of reaching out to those unreached people groups, and our prayer is that other churches would catch the vision."


This article appeared in the Southern Baptist TEXAN (texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Rob Collingsworth is a TEXAN correspondent.

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Deaf youth retreat

impacts lostness

By Buddy Overman

SOPHIA, N.C. (Baptist State Convention of North Carolina) -- During the final worship time at this year's Deaf Youth Retreat at Camp Caraway, a young man named Duanta announced to everyone his profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

"He signed, 'I am Duanta. I have been a thief and a rebel. Today I give my life to Christ,'" said Donnie Wiltshire, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) consultant for special ministries. "He was crying. He was overwhelmed and felt like it was something he needed to say to everyone."

Duanta's testimony was a powerful moment that spoke truth into the lives of other campers.

"Several other youth, touched by the sincerity of Duanta's confession, likewise professed faith in Christ," Wiltshire said.

Every May, deaf middle and high school students from across the state attend the retreat. The primary purpose of the event is to provide youth an opportunity to respond to the gospel and to help Christians grow in their walk with Christ.

"The Deaf Youth Retreat has a strong evangelism and disciple-making emphasis, and all the typical things kids do at a camp such as swimming, playing games and sports activities, but they also have numerous times of worship, devotions and prayer," Wiltshire said.

An important feature of the camp is that youth are mentored by deaf adults. Most campers are from hearing families and rarely interact with deaf, Christian adults. This, combined with the other aspects of the retreat, provide a complete Christian camp experience.

"When we have this event, these young people are able to see Christ in their counselors, have worship experiences, see testimonies from deaf adults -– so they encounter Jesus all over the place," Wiltshire said.

Meeting a Need

For youth such as Duanta, the annual retreat might be the only time during the year when they have an opportunity to respond to the gospel. Thus, the retreat is essential for reaching the deaf community for Christ.

"Many of these kids have no church they are a part of during the week," Wiltshire said. "Our annual camp is one of our strategies for impacting lostness in the deaf community."

About 36,000 North Carolinians are culturally deaf, which includes people who were born deaf or became deaf early in life, attend or were educated at a school for the deaf, and who communicate primarily through American Sign Language (ASL).

The culturally deaf are one of nine affinity groups listed by the International Mission Board. Affinity groups are large concentrations of people who share similar origins, languages and cultures. Often, the most important aspect of ministering to a people group is to communicate the gospel in their heart language. The heart language for the deaf community in North Carolina is ASL.

About 100 North Carolina Baptist churches are engaging the deaf community, the majority of which aim to mainstream deaf people into the life of the church through interpreters. Only 10 deaf congregations are active statewide.

"If deaf people have a choice, typically they will choose to be a part of a deaf congregation. Those are largely found in the metropolitan areas," Wiltshire said. "The vast majority of deaf people in the state have no place close by where they can really be part of a Christian fellowship."

Wiltshire said North Carolina Baptists can engage the deaf community in a number of ways, but they must begin with a commitment to understand the culture.

"It takes a long term commitment and a cultural understanding of how they think and live, and then reaching them in relationship," he said.

The BSCNC offers training throughout the year to help churches minister to the deaf community, including ASL training for interpreters.

Wiltshire encourages all North Carolina Baptists to prayerfully consider how they can engage the deaf community with the gospel. One way churches can help is by increasing their gifts to the Cooperative Program, which helps fund the annual deaf retreat and other ministries aimed at impacting lostness among North Carolina's deaf population.

"The lifeline for our work to reach deaf people in North Carolina is the Cooperative Program," Wiltshire said. "Support for the Cooperative Program allows us to offer these kinds of ministries to reach people who are often overlooked."

The 2014 Deaf Youth Retreat will be held May 2-4 at Camp Caraway. For more information, contact Donnie Wiltshire at dwiltshire@ncbaptist.org.


This article appeared in the Biblical Recorder (brnow.org), newsjournal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Buddy Overman is a writer for BSCNC communications.

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Internationals reaching

internationals in Arizona

By L.A. del Puerto

MESA, Ariz. (Portraits) -- The valley was aglow in a white mist of rain, which poured incessantly to quench the desert sand. It was a wet Sunday morning in the monsoon month of July. And as the mist arose from the ground, as if to swallow cars, humidity quickly thickened.

But neither the heavy downpour nor the threat of humidity would stand in the way of a small church in Mesa.

Inside a one-story building, a worship team was cranking out loud music, and with the help of percussion and an organ, a beautiful rhythm suffused the air. Many of the members were on their feet and they were dancing away, embracing the full meaning of the Psalmist, who said, "Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp."

Pastor Yaw Poku, a 50-year-old church planter, was thumping his feet and raising his arms -- sometimes ahead of the worship leader. The members sang familiar hymns, but sometimes to a slower beat of reggae. The worship was boisterous and alive.

Welcome to International Baptist Ministries, which started in Pastor Poku's garage five years ago and which had seven members back then, including the pastor's two children.

"Look at today," Poku says. The gathering has grown into a vibrant church with roughly 70 members.

The importance of Poku's ministry is readily apparent this Sunday, when Margaret Adusei, originally from Ghana, and her three children attend for the first time and find a familiar anchor.

"You feel the presence of God," she doesn't hesitate to proclaim to the congregation when asked to speak.

Poku and his church have been reaching out in the East Valley to migrants from Africa and the Caribbean (his wife, Vidalia, a medical doctor, is from Freeport, Bahamas) — and succeeding.

Ken Belflower, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention's church planting facilitator, says workers like Poku fill a hole in God's mandate to his followers to make disciples of all nations. Language can be a barrier in that quest, and a person who is intimately familiar with a culture and knows that culture's language can surely help break down that barrier, he says.

Unable yet to stand on its own, Poku says help from the ASBC has been indispensable to his church. Through Cooperative Program funds given by Southern Baptist churches, the convention provides monthly financial assistance and ongoing training.

"The church cannot [fully] support me yet," Poku says, adding that is why the assistance he gets from the convention as a church planter is crucial. The support extends beyond finances.

In his role as church planting facilitator, Belflower offers encouragement, personal consultation and coordination of resources provided through the Cooperative Program by the ASBC and North American Mission Board. Valley Rim Association and partnering churches offer further support.

The ASBC recently extended a hand to the church's back-to-school outreach program, Poku says.

The pastor regards the convention as an indispensable partner, explaining that he would like the convention to help his church make a move — to a bigger place, since the children's room is getting too crowded for the growing ministry.

Indeed, the church's goals are big. Poku eventually wants to plant a church in the West Valley, where there is an even bigger migrant population from Africa. He wants the church to "grow appendages." It has been reaching out to its community in Mesa. On July 20, the church distributed more than 200 backpacks to neighbors.

"We want to have a hospital mission, a prison mission and an orphanage mission," Poku says. "We need the convention to help us."

Poku long ago put his complete trust in God — as evidenced by his life's trajectory. He once taught math and physics to college students in Ghana, where he also served as a church secretary.

He felt the urge to serve and landed in Chicago, where he attended Moody Bible Institute and where he met Vidalia. They got married, and he followed her to Pennsylvania. In the early 2000s, they found themselves in Arizona.

Poku and his wife break into laughter as they recount how two people from two sides of the world ended up in the desert state of Arizona proclaiming God's wonders to migrants from their old homes.

"That's God's humor," Vidalia says.

L.A. del Puerto, a freelance writer living in Glendale, is a member of Valley International Christian Church, Peoria.

Get Involved

-- Pastor Yaw Poku says the key to planting a church is lots of prayer. It's in the middle of uncertainty when God often reveals his certainty. "Be most prayerful," he says.

-- "Look for sustainability," Poku tells pastors who want to plant churches. The goal is to find anchors for the church that won't wither away in the face of challenges, which he warns will be plentiful.

-- Church planters who seek support from the convention go through a rigorous application process, Belflower says. The ASBC currently supports 35 churches financially, but it also helps more than 83 church planters statewide, he says. Ultimately, the convention's goals are for churches to be self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating, he adds. For information about church planting in Arizona, contact Belflower at kenb@azsobaptist.org.


This article appeared in Portraits, news magazine of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention (azsobaptist.org). L.A. del Puerto is a freelance writer in Glendale, Ariz.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: From the States, published each Tuesday by Baptist Press, relays news and feature stories from state Baptist papers and other publications on initiatives by Baptist churches, associations and state conventions in evangelism, church planting and Great Commission outreach, including partnership missions. Reports about churches, associations and state conventions responding to the International Mission Board's call to embrace the world's 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups also are included in From the States, along with reports about church, associational and state convention initiatives in conjunction with the North American Mission Board's call to Southern Baptist churches to broaden their efforts in starting new churches and satellite campuses. The items appear in Baptist Press as originally published.