FROM THE STATES: Texas, Fla., Mo. evangelism/missions news; 'I think there is something special about people at a Baptist church'

Today's From the States features items from:

Southern Baptist TEXAN

Florida Baptist Convention

The Pathway (Missouri)

Amarillo church's ESL ministry makes it

a destination for internationals

By Staff

AMARILLO, Texas (Southern Baptist TEXAN) -- For many, fulfilling Christ's Great Commission means global travel.

But for some -- like Ann and Nolan Clark of Amarillo's Paramount Baptist Church -- Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth can be across the back fence or in a classroom next door.

For nearly two decades, the Clarks have spearheaded the church's ministry efforts aimed at those for whom English is a second language -- or ESL in shorthand. It's international missions, right in the church's backyard.

"That's exactly what we consider it, our mission," Ann Clark said. "Some other people have said that we did not go to them, so God sent them to us to share the Gospel. We feel like that's our responsibility: To help them learn how to live here and as they learn the language, to be able to share Christ with them."

This year, 304 students are enrolled in 26 morning and evening classes at Paramount, representing 27 countries and 17 languages. Over the years, some 2,500 students representing 72 ethnicities have been students in the ESL effort at the church.

Over the course of a year more than 100 church volunteers keep the ESL ministry humming.

The story began in 1995 with one Chinese couple and a Bible study in the Clark home.

"His wife would not come because she felt that her English wasn't very good," Ann Clark said.

That sparked an idea. Ann Clark began searching for an ESL class in nearby Canyon and in Amarillo, but couldn't find one to fit the woman's schedule. Ann Clark then learned of ESL training through the North American Mission Board. She took the course, then began an ESL class at First Baptist of Canyon. Two years later, the Paramount initiative began.

Paramount and Amarillo mirror the rest of Texas, said Terry Coy, director of missions for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. About 35 percent of Texans, more than one-third of the state's population, speak a language other than English. Sixteen percent of Texans are foreign born, Coy said.

"When immigrants arrive in the United States, one of the first things many of them want to do is learn English," Coy said. "They know learning English will speed up their ability to get a job, a driver's license and admission to higher education, and tap into other advancement opportunities.

"Churches have a unique opportunity to serve people in a practical way through ESL and to introduce them to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the process," Coy said. "The result can be new disciples of Jesus and new churches planted."

The Paramount ministry moves beyond teaching English, the Clarks said, helping ESL students with everyday challenges, from help with getting utilities turned on to trips to the doctor's office to American citizenship. Paramount conducts citizenship classes annually. 

As part of the teaching, instructors search for Scripture that connects with everyday life, Ann Clark said.

"Each teacher within their class shares a Bible verse that relates to what is being taught. Sometimes you really have to look to find a verse that relates to going to the doctor or things at a school or shopping to buy a coat. When you find the right one, then that helps those students know that God is interested in every part of their life. That's been a blessing to me, to stay in Bible study and find verses that they can connect with for their own life." 

She added: "It's made us more aware of how important Bible study is in our own life. You can't share something with somebody else that you don't know and experience yourself. So it's very important for us to stay in Bible study, not just teaching but learning every day too. That connects with something we do in our classes every week. We have a time when we have refreshments and a short devotional where Christ's message is presented."

At Paramount, about 20 percent in the ESL classes are married couples. But the lessons taught in those courses impact families, which in turn can reach across the world.

Nolan Clark recalled one couple in the class, the parents of a young boy who is now grown and active in the Baptist ministry on his college campus. 

"The influence on the family carries over when you help them learn about English and learn about Christ," Nolan Clark said.

As for the global reach, Ann Clark remembered a student who was traveling to Iran to visit family with her Bible in tow.

"She and her husband became Christians after they came here," Ann Clark said. "When she went back to visit her family, she took a Bible with her. But she knew she couldn't take it into the country. So somehow she got it into the airport waiting room and left it there, praying that someone would pick it up and read it."

Conversions to Christianity among those from Muslim or Buddhist backgrounds are deeply rooted, Ann Clark said.

"Especially in the Muslim community," Ann Clark said. "They have to consider the ostracism of their families and sometimes the threat of death. It's something they take very seriously when they decide to follow Jesus."

The ESL ministry at Paramount has enriched the life of the church, Pastor Gil Lain said. The church recently added an Arabic-speaking pastor whose goal is to reach Amarillo's Muslim community. "This will go hand-in-glove with our ESL."

"ESL allows us to do mission work with people from other countries in our own city," Lain said. "Paramount is extremely involved in international mission work through our giving, praying and going. There have been years when we sent around 100 people to five or six different countries.

"Through ESL, we have well over 100 members touching the lives of over 300 people from 25-30 different countries each semester," Lain said. "So what ESL does is help us follow Christ's command to reach people all over the world."

Their work with internationals has reminded the Clarks of the simplicity of the gospel.

"One thing that has really impacted me is that we tend as Americans to make the gospel very theoretical and detailed. But when you start working with these internationals and start trying to explain it in simpler terms, we realize that the gospel message is very simply stated by Jesus and it can be comprehended by anybody if you just explain the simple things that Jesus taught," Nolan Clark said. "That to me has been kind of a change in my life -- to go back and look at the very basics of what we believe and why we believe those and make them very simple. It's really about love and caring and relationships."

That Christ's love transcends any language barrier is at the heart of the ESL ministry, Nolan Clark said. Cultural and linguistic walls tumble as relationships are built over time. Some of the students are refugees, some have endured persecution. As a result, trust is in short supply.

"Go back and think of the first tenet of Campus Crusade for Christ's Four Spiritual Laws: 'God loves you,'" Nolan Clark said. "That's one of the main things we try to teach and demonstrate to our students is that God loves them. Once they realize that God does love them, then they're ready to move on to understanding how they can have that love and have eternal life."

Relationships matter most in effectively conveying that message, the Clarks said.

"We should follow the example that Jesus gave us of meeting the needs of people first," Ann Clark said. "Sometimes their needs are so great that they can't hear what you are saying when you tell them that Jesus loves them. We have to show them that we care about them first and develop a trusting relationship with them before we can share the plan of salvation."

And of course, the Clarks said, the greatest reward comes when one of the students comes to faith in Christ and experiences God's love firsthand. Ann Clark told the story of a young Middle Eastern woman who had moved to Amarillo from another Texas city where she had attended an ESL class at a Baptist church.

"The people at the Baptist church in the other town were so nice to me," she told the Clarks. "They helped me and accepted me and made me feel welcome. I didn't think I would ever find that kind of people again. You accept me the same way. I think there is something special about people at a Baptist church."


This story originally appeared in the Southern Baptist TEXAN (texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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God's all-knowing plan seen in

desperate life of Karen pastor

By Barbara Denman

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Florida Baptist Convention) -- At 14 years of age Thu Lai Mu and his family were forced into the jungles of Burma, now Myanmar, to escape a repressive, military-led civil war and ethnic cleansing that ended in killing, torture, rape and forced labor of their Karen (pronounced kuh-ren) people group.

"Because we were the minority group, they wanted to wipe us out," said Lai Mu, making them flee their beloved ancestral homes.

When discovered hiding in the jungles, the family again fled for their lives to Thailand where they were held in a crowded refugee camp along the Myanmar-Thailand border. For 15 desolate years, Lai Mu endured the camp's primitive conditions in makeshift huts fashioned from bamboo and leaves, with no plumbing or electricity and scant food.

"It was difficult," Lai Mu recalled. "We were surrounded by barbed-wire fence. If we go outside, the police considered us as illegals, and we would be sent to prison or back to Burma."

Their life looked pretty bleak, admitted the young man. "We were a persecuted people. We faced years of persecution." 

The Burmese people had been converted to Christianity through the ministry of Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson, who served in Burma for almost 40 years in the mid-1800s. And as an outgrowth of that missionary witness, Lai Mu found a new hope while in the refugee camp after accepting Christ at age 16.

Through United Nations oversight, the refugees were able to attend school, which Lai Mu took advantage of and continued his studies for five years at a Bible college.

And he waited and prayed. "God was preparing me in that time. I asked God to lead me in His will. I did not know that he would lead me here." 

Three years ago, Lai Mu and members of his family were resettled in Jacksonville where a growing population of Karen live in low-income apartments on the city's south side. And even through the difficult transition in a strange new culture, he continued to see God's constant guidance in his life. "God is good," he often says.  

Jacksonville was tapped by the U.S. State Department as a resettlement city for Burmese refugees, which included several people groups, as well as the Chin and Karen. The Karen are the largest concentration of refugees in the city, and its language accounts for the second most spoken language in the Duval County School program, behind English.

Lai Mu, now 32 with a wife and child, serves as pastor of the Karen congregation of Jacksonville's Southside Baptist Church, the only Karen-language-speaking church in the Florida Baptist Convention.

Each week, between 250 and 300 Karen refugees, mostly young adults and children, pack a room at the south-side church to worship and study the Bible in their own language. Many wearing traditional garb, the Karen fill every available chair in the room to listen to Pastor Lai Mu preach from God's Word.

His arrival in Jacksonville was "an answer to prayer" said Southside Pastor Gary Webber, at a time they were looking for someone to lead the congregation.

The planting of the Karen church began when Southside discovered the large concentration of refugee families during a Backyard Bible Club held at a nearby apartment complex. There they found a group brought to a strange land by refugee resettlement agencies and overwhelmed and bewildered by the urban foreign culture.

Compelled by their needs, Southside started English as a Second Language classes specifically to minister to the group.

From these ESL classes grew a new church.

As an outgrowth of the ministry, Southside members began meeting the multiple needs of the Karen community: translating for baffled non-English-speaking parents at schools; accompanying them to doctor and hospital appointments; and navigating them through a maze of immigration and government bureaucracy. The church provided citizen classes which helped the refugees understand the norms of the American culture and laws, and recently began a Pre-kindergarten class to prepare the preschoolers for school.

"Our heart for the Karen people just opened up," said Webber, who was called as pastor of the church in 2008. "As we began ministries the Karen began recognizing Southside as a place they experienced love and acceptance."

The Christian refugees began attending worship services and events at the church, even if they could not understand the words or make conversation. As their numbers grew, a worship service in their own language was provided for the adults while the children who were speaking English in school were assimilated into Southside's Sunday school classes.

In the process, while the church ministered to the Karen people, a renewal took place at Southside, an inner city church experiencing turbulent times and a downward cycle.

"As we sacrificed ourselves, God just wanted to pour out blessings. We found a renewed heart for ministry and a new understanding of being a church," said Webber. 

At first, the Karen church elected men from within to preach and lead. When Lai Mu came, both the Karen church members and Southside leaders saw his quiet servant leadership skills. 

He was tapped as pastor and in a partnership forged between the Karen church, Southside Church, Jacksonville Baptist Association and the Florida Baptist Convention, the congregation became Florida Baptists' only Karen language church plant.

The state convention provided start-up funds and church planting assistance said Rick Lawrence, Florida Baptist church planting field missionary. Lai Mu currently participates in church planting peer learning groups jointly sponsored by the convention and association. 

Much credit must be given to Webber's mentoring of the young pastor, said Lawrence, crediting the older pastor with guidance, encouragement and support of the younger man.

Since Lai Mu took the helm, the church has grown by more than 50 percent and new believers have been baptized. He spends as many as 12 hours a day meeting the needs of the Karen refugees, joined in this ministry by Southside member Laura Miller, who works tirelessly on their behalf.

"God is very powerful and we are blest because we found Southside," said Lai Mu. "God prepared this church for us. It is a blessing."

"I pray to God, if He wants me to lead this people, it is your will, give me more wisdom. I pray God will do His will."

In God's infinite wisdom, Lai Mu's desperate journey has brought him to the place that He had prepared him for, helping his people cope with physical needs while thriving spiritually in a place they could never have imagined.


This article appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness (gofbw.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention. Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.

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Missouri & Atlixco, Mexico,

churches forge partnership

By Vicki Stamps

WASHINGTON, Mo. (The Pathway) -- Thousands of people who need Christ live in Atlixco, a city in the Mexican state of Puebla. Faith Baptist Church in Washington and Rios de Agua Viva (Rivers of Living Water) Church in Atlixco have formed a partnership to meet that need.

"We want to instill a desire in my people to show Christian love like Jesus," Mario Ramirez, pastor of Rios de Agua Viva, told members of Faith Baptist Church during a visit to Missouri, Feb. 23. "It should be a priority regardless of age."

Ramirez spoke from Luke 18:18-30.

"You make the difference, and it is the best way to spend your short life here," he said. "So many things can get our attention, but we know God will never let us down. And whatever we are facing doesn't compare to what Jesus did."

At the end of the service, Pastor Fred Broome of Faith Baptist asked the Faith church family to come up and pray over Ramirez. "Pray for Mario," Broome said. "Pray for strength and compassion for the people."

In September, Broome led a group of five to Atlixco on a vision trip to get to know the people of Rios de Agua Viva.

"After spending one week in Atlixco, Mexico, there was no doubt that God had woven our hearts together with the people," Broome said. "We grew to love them, and I am delighted that we not only made a great missions partner, but true friends and co-laborers for Christ."

During the week in Atlixco, the Faith team met in the homes of the Rios de Agua Viva congregation.

"These were evangelistic meetings," Broome said. "The church members invited family and friends to the meetings, and 22 people gave their lives to Christ during the week."

Faith plans another visit in April.

"We're planning now what the team will do when they come," Ramirez said. "They will help with evangelistic visits, youth, workshop training and sharing conferences for different generations."

Rick Hedger, international partner mission strategist for the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), is working with the Puebla and Tlaxcala Baptist Convention to match Missouri churches with churches in Mexico. He said the goal is to strengthen existing churches, as well as to evangelize and start new churches.

He said the initiative is part of Vision 2020.

"We're praying for 10,000 baptisms, 100 new missions becoming full-fledged churches by the year 2020," Hedger said. "We do not pay salaries or for the building of buildings. We want to come alongside and lock arms with them to share the gospel and to disciple new believers, because that is what Christians do."

Hedger said he has many opportunities for churches to partner with Mexican churches in this area. For more information, call Rick Hedger at 573.636.0400, ext. 316, toll free at 1.800.736.6227, or email him at rhedger@mobaptist.org.


This article appeared in The Pathway (mbcpathway.com), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Vicki Stamps is a contributing writer for The Pathway.

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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.

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