FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- A previously unreached people group in southern Madagascar received the Gospel eagerly from a team of students and faculty from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, with 180 people professing faith in Christ.
Heeding International Mission Board President Tom Elliff's call for Southern Baptists to "Embrace" the world's unreached, unengaged people groups, Southwestern Seminary has endeavored to reach the Antandroy of Madagascar for Christ.
The Antandroy received their name -- literally, "People of the Thorns" -- from the cactus plants and thickets native to their homeland.
The Southwestern team began by sharing the Gospel in the city of Toliara during the trip in late December and early January, focusing their efforts on two pockets of Antandroy people in the university and among "pousse-pousse" drivers (similar to rickshaw drivers in Southeast Asia). Among both groups, the Southwestern team saw God move.
During the second week of their trip, the team journeyed into the heart of Antandroy territory, driving an average of 10 mph over a rough 300-mile dirt road that is impassible for much of the rainy season, which was just beginning.
Along the way, they prayed for the villages they passed and shared the Gospel when possible. They finally arrived at their destination in the town of Ambovombe, which missionaries called the "Wild West" of Madagascar -- an appropriate place for a missions team from Texas, said Keith Eitel, dean of Southwestern's Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions.
Ronnie*, a student in the College at Southwestern, saw proof of the Antandroys' readiness to hear and receive the Gospel while preaching the Gospel on the streets of Toliara, a city on Madagascar's southwest coast. When 20 men and women responded by professing faith in Christ, the new Antandroy believers immediately asked Ronnie to help them find a church where they could grow in the faith.
Cody*, another student in the seminary's undergraduate college, recounted the responsiveness in villages surrounding Toliara when sharing the Gospel with IMB missionary and Southwestern Seminary graduate Adam Hailes as well as a pastor from the island. Hundreds of people would gather around the team to hear the message of Christ, and many of them professed faith and provided contact information for follow-up.
"People would come up to us to talk about Christ," Cody said, adding that people's hearts were opened through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit. "The missionaries said it had never been like that before, that the people had never been so open."
Such an open embrace of the Gospel among the Antandroy "is an indication of the ripeness of the timing of God," Eitel said. While some Antandroy people have been touched by some form of Christianity, much of this is now mixed with pagan practices.
The Antandroy have no Bible translations in their dialect, and less than 2 percent of the people are evangelical Christians. Moreover, until recently, no one has made any strategic efforts to embrace the Antandroy with the Gospel and plant churches among them.
IMB missionaries with aid from Southwestern Seminary now are beginning to reach the Antandroy amid significant changes in their society, Eitel said.
"There is a cultural shift that is happening," Eitel said. "And as the Antandroy are emerging out of the obscurity and the isolation that they've lived in, their culture is morphing -- by their own design. And what we're seeing is that, historically, where this has occurred elsewhere in Africa as people emerge into the modern and postmodern world, it is a ripe time for the introduction of the Christian faith because that gives them a global connection. It gives them a sense of enduring worldwide religious substance to their belief."
Eitel told of a young Antandroy man who was "right in that transitional generation." While listening to a seminary student present the Gospel, the man showed cynicism even about the existence of God. So, after the student shared, Eitel approached the young Antandroy man.
"I went up and sat down beside him," Eitel recounted, "put my arm around him, and I said, 'My friend, you are the first African I think I have ever met who is willing to say that he does not believe there is a God. I just wanted to meet you, because you're unusual. I've never known an African who doesn't believe there is something that he calls God."
As their conversation progressed, Eitel asked the man why he doubted God's existence.
"And then [the young man] said, 'I have nothing against your message or against you. May I really just tell you why I feel this way?'" Eitel said. Then, the man told Eitel how his younger brother had become an evangelical Christian and afterward he lost his sanity and died.
"I've never gotten over that," the man said. "I have grieved over that."
"So you think that is somehow God's fault," Eitel replied.
Since the Antandroy man admitted that his younger brother had been joyful as a Christian, Eitel added, "There could be a thousand reasons your brother died.... Don't blame the God who gave him that joy for his loss of life. Instead, celebrate the redemption, and don't ignore that that same God wants to be in your heart."
At this point in their conversation, Eitel noticed an older man who had been intently listening, and he asked him whether he would like to follow Christ.
"He raised his hand and said, 'Yes, I do,'" Eitel recalled, adding that the man immediately surrendered his life to Christ. Then, the cynical Antandroy man prayed with Eitel and expressed interest in learning more.
Art Savage, associate director for global mission engagement at Southwestern, also believes "the time is right" for taking the Gospel to the Antandroy. He recounted how, soon after leading a young man named Merci to Christ, a crowd of 20 to 30 people gathered around them. After sharing the Gospel with the group, Savage asked if anyone would like to step forward and follow Christ.
Immediately, an elderly man in the back of the crowd pushed his way forward.
"I will be the first," he said, raising his hand. "I want to follow Christ."
Then another person called out, "I will be the second," and another one called out, "I will be the third." That day, dozens of Antandroy men and women professed faith in Christ.
As another team prepares to return to Madagascar this spring, Southwesterners are praying that God will add to these numbers and continue to bring forth a harvest among the "People of the Thorns." In the meantime, Hailes and other missionaries to Madagascar have begun follow-up and discipleship efforts with those who made professions of faith.
*Names withheld for security reasons. Benjamin Hawkins is senior newswriter for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews
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