A life cut short continues reaching souls in Mozambique
Student missionary Jeremiah Johnson and local pastor Antonio Sobrinho had been sharing the Gospel in Amade's rural fishing village on April 12, 2010, and had led him to faith in Christ. On their way back to town, Jeremiah and Sobrinho lost control of their motorcycle and crashed. Johnson, 21, was killed and the pastor injured.
Johnson, from Royal Palms Baptist Church in Phoenix, was serving as a semester missionary through the Hands On initiative for college students and young adults sponsored by the International Mission Board. Johnson used futebol (soccer) to provide an opening for sharing the Gospel in villages among Mozambique's Moniga people. After the futebol games, Sobrinho or another local pastor would preach, then Johnson shared his testimony, which he had memorized in Portuguese.
Many Mozambicans were curious about the purpose of this foreigner visiting their villages, including former cult member José Sunte.
"We heard that a white man came with a motorcycle, but we didn't know what [he] wanted," Sunte said.
Sunte and his father belonged to a cult, Sokela, in the small village of Munddimwi. Meaning "to contribute together," Sokela focuses on burial rites to honor the dead.
"To many people, it is the only thing they know," Sunte said. "We follow the ways of our parents."
But his father's Sokela religion didn't offer much solace to Sunte. "My life was spent away from home, drinking, speaking bad about people, not being nice to people," he said.
When Johnson and two local pastors shared the Gospel with Sunte, he immediately decided to follow Jesus. He became the leader of the new "preaching point" –- a place to gather and share the Good News –- in the village.
When his father died, Sunte refused to become the Sokela cult leader, and animosity spread toward the few Christians whom Sunte was leading. Villagers kept their distance from the small group of believers because Sokela members had spread a rumor that the Baptists didn't acknowledge the dead or provide funerals for them.
The news of Johnson's death, coupled with community pressures, caused Sunte's faith to falter. But IMB missionaries John Dina and Jessica Riemersma, both also from Royal Palms Baptist, continued to visit the village to disciple Sunte and the other believers. They finally saw a breakthrough in January 2012 when more than a dozen people decided to follow Christ within weeks of hearing the Gospel preached at an elderly villager's funeral.
Then, almost two years after Johnson's death, villagers gathered by the Indian Ocean to witness Sunte become the first of 10 baptized believers.
"I want God's Gospel to reach all the people in this neighborhood...," Sunte said. "Personally, I want for God to work in me like He worked in Jeremiah's life -- help me take the Gospel to other areas where there is no Gospel.
"All of this is from a seed that Jeremiah left here. God sent the rain. Now it has given fruit."
'Where does it stop?'
Johnson often called himself a "seed burier."
"I'd never heard that term 'a seed burier' before, but that is what Jeremiah did," said Dina, who served as the young missionary's supervisor. "He was just sowing seeds -- burying seeds, as he would say -- for the Gospel in Mozambique.
"So where does Johnson's influence stop or where does it start? Where's that chain of people coming to Jesus through his life?" Dina reflected. "... It hasn't stopped yet. That I know."
Orlando Avelino, one of the pastors who shared the Gospel alongside Johnson, said he wants to be like the young man from Arizona. "I would like to have his heart. God is the only one who can do this," Avelino said. "I would like to have the courage of Jeremiah in sharing God's Word."
For Johnson, that courage developed from struggling with what it meant to live out the Christian faith.
In 2009, Johnson decided to go on a summer mission trip to Mozambique with Royal Palms Baptist, which has had an ongoing partnership to reach the Moniga people with the Gospel.
Riemersma, who led that summer missions team, knew Johnson to be a party person and said she "never honestly thought he would ever go to Africa or ever be a missionary."
His parents also were surprised when Johnson told them he wanted to go on the mission trip.
"I began to pray that God would do a work in Jeremiah's life that would make God so real to him that he would never again question following the Lord," said David Johnson, Jeremiah's father, who serves as director of the Arizona Campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
God answered David's prayer while Jeremiah was playing soccer with a group of children on a Mozambican beach.
"During this time, God spoke to Jeremiah and said, 'Who will tell these children about me?'" David Johnson recounted. "God put it on Jeremiah's heart to go back to Mozambique to reach this people group through sports evangelism."
Riemersma noticed an immediate shift in Jeremiah. "On that volunteer team, the Lord really changed [Jeremiah] and changed his life and changed his faith," she said. "He made faith his own. He made following the Lord his own and from that point on, Jeremiah was a different Jeremiah than I'd ever known or seen."
Riemersma was sitting in her apartment the day her father called with the news of Jeremiah's death. At the time, she was preparing to head to Mozambique for a two-year commitment as an IMB missionary.
"I had applied for the job and been accepted for my dream position in Quelimane, Mozambique -- the same place Jeremiah was serving," she said. "I had to come to grips with, 'If I serve here, then what if God is calling me to die as well?'"
Riemersma wrestled with her emotions but her determination to share the Gospel in Mozambique did not falter.
"How are my actions today going to affect the eternity of another person?" Riemersma asked herself. "Is me telling this person about the Lord and His love for them going to change eternity? Or am I going to sit in front of the TV ... or do something that's not eternally minded and someone else goes to hell because I wasn't obedient?"
In August 2011, after almost a year of serving in Quelimane, Mozambique, Riemersma decided to continue teaching God's Word in some of the outlying areas where Jeremiah began his ministry.
"It's cool to see how God has just from a few seeds and a few people's lives taken that work from something small ... to a group that is producing another group to that [second] group now producing another group," Riemersma said. "Just seeing the Lord's hand in all that has been really awesome to be a part of.
"My friend Jeremiah with his one life changed a whole people group. The work he started here has changed the way people are believing, the way people are approaching life here in Quelimane and these surrounding areas," said Riemersma, who completed her missionary term in the summer of 2012.
Baptism services are being held in Mozambique where previously there were no followers of Christ. New "preaching points" are continually being established by believers among the Moniga people. Two Christians are now translating biblical materials into their language. Mozambicans are leading the multiplication of churches.
Arizona Southern Baptists have provided funds given in Jeremiah's memory to purchase about 20 bicycles and a half-dozen motorcycles to help pastors take the Gospel to remote locations. Four teams of Arizona pastors traveled to Mozambique in the past two years to teach basic biblical doctrine to local pastors and train them to evangelize and plant churches.
"Jeremiah's life and death has made a great impact on lives both in Arizona and Africa," David Johnson said of his son.
"Our neighbor across the street came to know Christ after Jeremiah's memorial service. Jeremiah and I had been praying for him for a long time, and I baptized him in our swimming pool," Johnson said. "A young man in our church surrendered to the ministry as a result of Jeremiah's death because he was touched by Jeremiah's life.
"Our own lives have been transformed as well. One thing Jeremiah told me before he died was that he wanted to get me to come to Africa. He did -- four times over."
Martha Richards is a media producer for IMB. For more on Jeremiah Johnson, including words from a letter opened after his death, visit Commission Stories. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).