Seminarians take the Gospel to Montevideo, Uruguay during spring reading days

Communications Staff — May 9, 2007

Along part of the Atlantic coast in Montevideo, Uruguay, stands a 25-foot high wall. Lining the beach for several miles, the wall protects a boardwalk and adjoining street from ocean waves that crash ashore.

On a particularly stormy day in early April, the waves pounded the wall with increasing fury. Wave after wave crashed against the wall, testing its strength. Occasionally, part of the crest of a wave would clear the obstacle, splashing on the boardwalk and street, but most of the waves were frustrated in their attempts to clear the barrier.

Ten students and faculty from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary discovered that sharing the Gospel to lost Uruguayans mirrors this experience. Working in Montevideo — Uruguay’s capital city — from April 6-14, the seminarians found that a wall of spiritual darkness resides in the heart of most Uruguayans, causing them to reject Christianity. However, there were exceptions where God had softened a heart and someone latched on to the Gospel message. The group went in search of these exceptions.

Ministering in the air

The child had been crying for hours.

The seminary group left Dallas at 7:45 p.m. local time headed for Buenos Aires, Argentina in route to Montevideo. Halfway through the 10-hour flight most passengers were asleep in their seats, but not Laura Wishall, wife of Southern student Garrett Wishall.

Disturbed by the 14-month old’s incessant tears, Laura moved up the aisle to see if she could help the child’s mother and discovered that the woman was herself crying softly. Noting the woman’s pregnant belly, Laura asked what was wrong and discovered that the mother, five months pregnant with twins, was experiencing contractions.

Immediately, Laura notified a flight attendant and the woman was moved to the back of the plane. For the last half of the flight, Laura and seminary students Jessica Fields and Jennifer Miller cared for the 14-month old as flight attendants and two doctors among the passengers saw to the woman. Upon landing in Argentina, the seminarians learned that the mother had lost one twin in flight and a few hours later she lost the second in an Argentine hospital.

As the first witness to the woman’s contractions on the plane, Laura had to give an official statement to Argentine police before she could continue on to Montevideo. Exhausted after a nearly sleepless night, Laura was grateful to rejoin her companions, but said she was glad that she stepped up to help the woman.

‘Even though it was a difficult experience, I know that God wanted me to help the woman,’ she said. ‘I don’t regret going up to help the woman even though it turned into a long ordeal with the Argentine police. I was confident that the Lord wanted me to help her.’

Gearing up for GAP; Easter celebration

After an uneventful flight from Argentina to Uruguay, the group was happy to see the smiling faces of hosts Paul and Pam Sheaffer in the Montevideo airport. Missionaries with the International Mission Board, the Sheaffers had served in Uruguay for a little more than a year and during that time had conceptualized and founded the Gospel Advancement Project (GAP) as a strategy for reaching Montevideo.

Designed to accommodate short-term mission teams, GAP employs four elements or ‘waves’ of ministry — prayer-walking, Scripture distribution, marketplace evangelism and an evangelistic event — in an effort to reach people with the Gospel. The Sheaffers also continually look for ‘people of peace:’ native Uruguayans who could be instrumental in helping lead a spiritual revival in Montevideo.

Each GAP team receives a specific section or district of the city to target and the Southern group had a tough assignment: the Palermo district, known as the least Evangelical section of the city. The Sheaffers hoped that the team’s work would stir enough interest to start a Bible study in the district.

The Southern group spent the first couple of days acclimating to Uruguayan culture and seeking to engage people in conversation on the beach through the mediums of beach volleyball and soccer.

On Easter Sunday, April 8, the seminarians participated in a worship service at a local church near their district, singing two songs in Spanish and English. Jim Tipton and Laura shared their testimonies at the service, with Tipton presenting his in Spanish.

Hayward Armstrong, associate vice president of distance education and innovative learning, associate professor of Christian missions at Southern and the faculty director on the trip, preached at the service. Working from Acts 2, Armstrong — who served 27 years as a missionary in South America — celebrated the risen and exalted Christ who receives all who repent of their sin and trust in Him for salvation.

Sunday afternoon, half of the Southern group returned to the beach for more evangelism, while the other half went to the Old City with some of the church’s youth group to minister at a kid’s club. The Sheaffers 15-year-old daughter Kaitlyn, who served as a translator, said the children come from rough family backgrounds, with some of their parents being drug dealers or prostitutes. The club has increased from 12 to more than 30 children and has spawned a weekly Bible study for the mothers that has seen seven come to a saving faith in Christ, she said.

Members of the youth group were the primary workers at the kid’s club and partnered with the Southern group in ministry several other times during the week. Laura and Southern student *Steve Jones were both amazed at the youth’s willingness to serve.

‘These youth were from humble backgrounds, had full time school obligations and had just been on a week long mission trip to the interior of Uruguay and yet they helped us several different times throughout the week,’ Jones said. ‘To see lives so impacted by the power of the Gospel gives me great hope that the fruits of our ministry will be harvested by a generation anointed by God to bring glory to His name by reaching their own country for Christ.’

Uruguayan culture: polite, but post-modern

April 9-10, the Southern group hit the streets for the purpose of prayer. Forming five teams of three people each, including translators, the group lifted up specific prayers for the particular neighborhoods they were assigned. Several members of the team noted the impact this intentional, focused prayer had on them, in addition to being key to Gospel ministry.

‘Prayer-walking is essential to the preparation of the soil/soul for the reception of the Gospel,’ said Southern student Brian Simpson. ‘It allows you to connect specific people and places to your prayers in an area, while also allowing for specific prayers for people and places which may hold particular opposition to the presentation of the Gospel. This could include other religious entities and practitioners like spiritists or Mormons, which were both prevalent in Uruguay.’

Wave two of the GAP ministry, Scripture distribution, encompassed the group’s time April 11-12. Armed with copies of the Gospel of John in Spanish, the teams returned to the neighborhoods they had prayed over and left gospels at every residence. The approach was simple: ring the doorbell, explain what the gift was and enter into conversation if people were willing.

Courtesy carried the day in most homes: Miller and Jones estimated that 70 percent of people responded with a quick ‘thank you and good bye.’ Jones said about one-quarter of his group’s respondees refused the gift, while just a few demonstrated interest.

‘One of the saddest responses I received over and over was ‘No thanks, I’m Catholic,’ Jones said. ‘It was painful to see that people who responded this way were almost scared of being influenced by the Bible, especially because their Catholicism was usually just a veil to hide their disinterest in spiritual things and was something they knew they could claim to keep Evangelicals from trying to witness to them. There was so much religious confusion and fear that it seemed some had just given up.’

Why the wall opposing Christianity? Ana Santa Cruz, a native Uruguayan who served as a translator, said prejudice against Christianity, not wanting to commit to God or a church and the belief that only women believe in God are some obstacles. She also pointed to an interest in mystical spirituality and the postmodern ideology of ‘whatever helps you find peace is good’ as barriers. Armstrong agreed.

‘An interesting blend of postmodernism and a syncretistic Catholicism heavily influenced by Afro-Brazilian spiritism gives Uruguayans a nonchalant, que será sera [’whatever will be, will be’] perspective on life,’ he said. ‘They have no problems if others believe, and respect them for it, but they have moved beyond the need for belief in anything other than the here-and-now.’

Over the two-day period, the group distributed more than 4,000 gospels of John. Each copy contained a contact card for the Sheaffers, telling people to call if they had questions or were interested in studying the Bible. Though genuine interest seemed minimal, before the team left a few people had already called or emailed the Sheaffers expressing interest in the Bible study. It appeared that a few waves might be breaking over the wall.

Sowing the seed: marketplace evangelism and family festival

Friday, April 13, the students spent time in neighborhoods, or on the boardwalk by the ocean known as the Rambla, engaging people in conversation for the purpose of sharing the Gospel. While no immediate decisions for Christ resulted from this effort, the seminarians and translators had several extended conversations with people about the Gospel.

That evening, the group hosted a family festival as its evangelistic event at a popular local sports club. Throughout the week, they had handed out invitations and the Sheaffers were pleased when 35 people, including adults and children, showed up for the event.

When the doors opened at 8 p.m., ring toss, putt-putt, bean bag toss, crafts, face painting and plenty of caramelos (candy) greeted the children. The group served a meal as well, but the event centered on theatrical depictions of Bible stories and the Gospel message.

Halfway through the evening, the seminarians acted out several Bible stories from the life of Jesus while Santa Cruz narrated from a children’s Bible. Southern student Lewis Mann said the purpose of the dramas was to communicate the Gospel through oral and visual means.

Near the end of the event, the group performed a drama to the Third Day song, ‘I Deserve,’ which Miller said depicted the compelling nature of sin that creates separation from God and leads to death, and Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice in paying this penalty.

Following the drama, Alejandro, a Uruguayan seminary student, gave a Gospel presentation and the event concluded with door prizes.

The next morning, the seminarians learned that four people had professed faith in Christ following the Gospel message the night before. In the weeks following the departure of the Southern team, Alejandro and the Sheaffers have hosted a Friday night Bible study twice. The first week only two people came, but the next week five adults and four children attended, Paul said. One woman professed faith in Christ and Paul said two others are definitely non-believers who are interested in studying Scripture.

Paul noted that several other people have expressed interest in attending the study, but scheduling and location have been hindrances. Currently, the Sheaffers are looking into finding a permanent location for holding Bible studies and discipleship groups; Paul said prayer on this matter would be appreciated. He said follow up requires patience, but was encouraged by the progress.

‘We need to remember that the work in Uruguay is slow and one person at a time,’ he said. ‘With this in mind we will continue to work on follow up and trying to find a better location for our study.’

In the midst of widespread opposition, God appeared to bring down a few spiritual walls in Montevideo, Uruguay during and after the Southern trip. The group went to sow the seed of the Gospel, which Santa Cruz noted is all Christians can do.

‘We’re in this world as Christians to spread the truth,’ she said. ‘This is our duty because nobody else has experienced God’s love and in consequence nobody else can tell people about this but us. We have to pray for God to show Uruguayans their condition as sinners and to show them that something is missing in their lives.’

*Name changed for security reasons.

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