WEEK OF PRAYER: Prenatal classes catalyst for new churches

EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Nov. 30-Dec. 7 with the theme of "One Sacred Effort -- Find your place in God's story" from Matthew 28:19-20 (HCSB). The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in tandem with Cooperative Program gifts from Southern Baptist churches support approximately 4,800 international missionaries in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. Gifts to the Lottie Moon offering are received through local Southern Baptist churches or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources to promote the offering. This year's goal is $175 million. William and Nancy Potter,* the focus of this story, from Oklahoma, are among the featured missionaries in this year's Week of Prayer.

(See sidebar story "Missionary nurse learns power of prayer" below.)

SOUTHEAST ASIA (BP) -- The young woman gingerly crawls off a motor scooter, grateful for the ride. Last month, Kalliyan Seng* could make the two-mile trek from her home on a bicycle. But now that she's nine months pregnant and could give birth at any moment, it's harder to pedal that distance.

The woman steadies herself, then slowly walks inside for a weekly pregnancy health class. She's greeted by community health workers and IMB missionary Nancy Potter.* Women in various stages of pregnancy or post-pregnancy surround the ensemble chatting.

Potter looks around the crowded room and smiles. If someone had told the missionary nurse from Oklahoma a few years ago that churches in this part of Southeast Asia would start as a result of pregnant women learning to be healthy, she might have scoffed. Most of these women do not even have a third-grade education. Their families live on less than $1 a day. Some are malnourished and sick. Yet, God uses these women as catalysts for spreading His Word.

"I'm not sure if it started with the women because when you are pregnant, it's nine months of uncertainty, or what," Potter says. "But if you look at how most of the new village house churches started, it's through women. One came to faith and then started praying for everyone else. Other women then join her and they pray for their husbands."

The reason Seng came today was really to ask everyone to pray for her husband. She prays that she will deliver a healthy baby and that this will lead her husband to ask questions about her newfound faith.

Like most attending the prenatal classes, Seng did not know anything about Jesus. The former Buddhist came to learn about giving birth and how to take care of her baby. In this poor rural area, death is a common reality when giving birth. Some of the highest maternal mortality rates are here. Five women die every day during childbirth, according to a 2013 United Nations report. Surviving childbirth isn't even an end to the fears for these young mothers. For every 1,000 births, around 50 children never see their first birthdays.

For years, Potter and her husband William* held malnourished babies, wondering how long the children would survive. They cringed every time they heard of mothers squatting in an unsanitary bamboo home to give birth. Their hearts broke when these women died without hearing the Gospel.

So the Potters, who have medical backgrounds, created a simple curriculum to teach about healthy prenatal and post-pregnancy care. Now, they see around 250 healthy births a year.

The Potters can live and work here because of the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, Southern Baptists' way of coming together to fund missionaries overseas.

Local Christians teach the health classes on everything from washing hands to burping babies. Each lesson ends with a biblical truth and prayer. This approach combines aspects of a discipleship and church planting program called Training for Trainers (T4T) with human needs.

"The first time we tried this, I couldn't get anyone interested in going [to villages] with me," Nancy Potter remembers. "All it took was one time for that first generation of believers to catch the vision. Now, … we disciple and train the leaders and they go to the next village. They communicate at a deeper heart level. What we are seeing now is a real acceleration of the Gospel."

Seng, like most of the new believers, came to faith after the health workers repeatedly visited her home the day after classes as "follow up." When a "house of peace," or a family interested in learning Bible stories and letting others join them, is found, a small group is formed.

Sovaan and Maly Lim* opened their tiny home to a small group when Maly was pregnant. Local Christians came each week to pray, sing praises to God and teach a Bible story. Maly came to Christ one year later. Sovaan remained a drunkard and gambled away the family's money … but he kept watching and listening.

Maly and the other women wanted to bring their husbands to Christ. So, Potter incorporated lessons on "how to be a godly wife." Then, the women gathered every day, praying for their husbands to come to faith.

"Even up to four months ago, I didn't think we'd ever have any men in our small groups," Potter says. "But then, the husbands saw their wives' countenance change. They saw healthy babies where in the past there was only death … and that provided a natural presentation of the Gospel from their wives."

Then, one by one, the men came to Christ -- including Sovaan.

William Potter says, "We are seeing baptisms almost every month now. Most (churches) started as a result of the pregnancy health classes and local believers going out and sharing the Gospel."

Sovaan breaks out into a big toothy smile. Jesus is now his favorite topic of conversation. In fact, he and Maly just finished inviting everyone in the village to come to their house for church. At a T4T training, they were challenged to share with neighbors.

"I learned about the Words and Truths of God at the training," Sovaan says. "Now, it's our turn to take this lesson and teach to the people in our village … then we will go share in the next village."


Missionary nurse learns power of prayer

SOUTHEAST ASIA (BP)-- A crowd gathers around the bamboo-strip bed to watch the community health nurse in action. The dirt-packed courtyard is never this busy or interesting. Even the men gambling under the mango trees stop what they are doing to investigate.

Before Nancy Potter* can even examine the sick woman, a desperate mother pulls her squirming 15-year-old daughter through the crowd. She stands the squealing girl in front of the IMB missionary, with eyes that appear to be silently pleading for help.

People in this Southeast Asian village believe the teenager, Tuong*, is demon possessed. She runs up and down the paths naked and has random fits of screaming and convulsions. Most steer clear of the girl, but today they squeeze in closer to see what the nurse practitioner will do. One neighbor reaches out to calm the scared teenager. A local believer, Maly Lim*, whispers a few soothing words, then nods for Potter to begin.

“When did the symptoms start?” the missionary from Oklahoma asks in an attempt to rationalize the girl’s odd behaviors.

She peppers the mother and daughter with questions about the girl’s general health and nutrition then proceeds to discuss spiritual matters. The family is like most in this part of Southeast Asia; they have a deep fear of spirits and death, and practice an animist form of Buddhism. The nurse’s nose crinkles as she thinks through a clinical diagnosis.

Finally, Potter looks to Maly and gives a verdict.

“The only thing we can do right now is to pray for her by name,” the missionary says, digging out a worn, spiral notebook from her bag.

Maly pats the mother’s shoulder reassuringly and slowly spells out the teenager’s name. Maly is no stranger to the Potters’ prayer notebooks. She and her husband, Sovaan,* have had their names entered multiple times. In fact, her name first appeared a few years ago when Maly met Potter at a pregnancy clinic. That was long before Maly and her husband became Christians. It was a very different and trying time for both women. They were struggling in their own worlds.

Maly was nine-months pregnant and found a lump on her breast. Her husband drank and gambled away their money. The young mother had no way to feed her two children, get cancer treatment or take care of her unborn child. She saw no hope and was simply waiting to die.

Potter had hit a crossroads in ministry. For eight years, she and her husband William,* both funded through Southern Baptists’ giving through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, tried every approach possible in reaching the rural villages surrounding them -- preaching, water projects, food relief and community health clinics. They were doing “good works” through these human needs projects but hardly anyone came to faith. Potter lay awake at night wondering what to do differently in their ministry.

But then it happened … the turning point they’d been waiting on. It came in the form of a simple question -- one that changed the lives of both Maly and Potter.

“Why didn’t you pray for him?” a local Christian asked the missionary after they visited a sick man.

Potter stopped in her tracks, realizing her mistake. “I didn’t even know his name!” the missionary recalls. “God knew his name and his spiritual needs. I only knew his physical problems.

“If I’m honest, I always saw myself as a hard worker but not a prayer warrior. I just thought that I’d send emails home and have everyone else pray,” the missionary admits. “At that moment, though, I knew that I needed to work just as hard at praying as I was at meeting physical needs. I needed to pray for people by name. ”

There was one slight problem with the new plan. Potter admits she is horrible at remembering names. By the time a pregnant Maly waddled into the village health clinic, however, the missionary never left home without a notebook.

The Potters and local Christians spent hours each day praying for Maly and the other names in the notebook. The combination of meeting human needs, teaching Bible stories and praying by name began to reap a harvest. People were coming to faith, being baptized and churches starting.

“The increase comes from knowing every single name in that group,” Potter says. “We know where they are spiritually and physically. We are on our knees every single morning devoting prayer for them. That’s when we see huge strongholds fall and a lot of miracles.

“Sometimes it can take years of praying, though,” Potter says. “For Maly, she struggled … she struggled hard.”

Maly explains that when she couldn’t feed her children, Christians planted a garden next to her small village home. Community health workers checked on the mother as she went through chemotherapy. Maly survived the cancer but that didn’t stop the prayers coming her way.

For about a year, Potter and Christians from another village listened to the woman’s struggles, adjusting their prayers along the way, until one day, Maly accepted Christ as her Savior. Soon after, Maly’s husband left her and the children in a drunken rage. She asked Potter to put Sovaan’s name in the book. They prayed for the man together.

“God has done great miracles for my family,” Maly says. Her husband returned home and became a Christ follower four months ago. Now, the couple is training to lead a church that meets in their home.

Tears well in Maly’s eyes as she thinks about the number of neighbors who do not know Jesus. She knows Potter will pray for those recorded in her notebook, but Maly must do her part, too. She doesn’t need a “cheat sheet.” These are her neighbors … her friends. She not only knows their names; she knows their needs.

Maly knows that Tuong and her mother are desperate and scared of the spirits. So, the Christian prays for their family by name. She walks the dirt path winding through the village to their home. She listens to their struggles, cares for their needs, tells them stories of Jesus and … prays.

Soon, the teenager, thought to be crazy or demon possessed, can hold normal conversations. She’s no longer running through the village in fits. Instead, Tuong sits still, listening to the sermon at the house church. She sings praises to God. The entire village is amazed by the miracle, but Maly just smiles. She expected nothing less.

Now, Tuong has a story to tell and she knows how to pray.

Praying by name

“Praying by name” is a catch phrase the Potters use to explain that they've learned to pray for specific needs and struggles. As a result, people in their area of Southeast Asia have come to Christ, been baptized and are starting churches.

The Potters ask you to join them in their prayer efforts and make a difference in spreading God’s Word.

-- As more people come to Christ in this part of Southeast Asia, spiritual attacks are on the rise among young believers. It is not easy to live their faith in a Buddhist community. Families disown them. Villagers will shun them. In the beginning, Christianity can be a lonely path. Pray for extra strength and faith for these young believers. Pray for their numbers to increase and eradicate the loneliness and persecution.

-- Maly asks that you pray for the small group meeting in her home. She wants her entire village to come to Christ. Her husband Sovaan adds that they will need more room when this happens and asks that you begin praying now for a bigger place for them to meet, such as somewhere outdoors with a shaded covering. He doesn’t want to turn anyone away who might be interested in the Gospel.

-- Training for Trainers (T4T) teaches Christians to share their faith immediately. Pray for new believers to feel bold in their faith and share with their family and friends. Pray that some of these believers will take their faith beyond their own village, even beyond the borders of their country. Pray for a revival.

Hear Maly and Sovaan Lim’s testimony at vimeo.com/95757581 and how they now work with the Potters to reach people with the Gospel.

*Name changed.

Susie Rain is an IMB writer/editor living in Asia.
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