RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- Marvin knows what it's like to walk along a dusty street in Mali in the sweltering heat. Unemployment is high in this West African country, and young men pass the time sitting beneath shade trees beside the road, talking and drinking tea.
Marvin regularly prayed for guidance when, for instance, he would approach a group to begin a conversation. Together, they would sit in the shade and discuss religion as Marvin used Bible storytelling to share the Gospel with the men.
Marvin and his wife LaNette are Southern Baptists who served in Africa from 1986 until their retirement this summer. They moved to Mali in 2002, where Marvin was responsible for International Mission Board personnel on people group teams while also engaging in urban outreach.
Mali is one of the poorest nations in the world, where residents live on about $2 a day. Bamako, the capital and largest city in Mali, has a population of nearly 2 million that is rapidly increasing. It is estimated to be the fastest-growing city in Africa and sixth-fastest in the world. People from surrounding villages flock to Bamako seeking a better life through education and jobs.
Downtown Bamako is congested and polluted. The city lies along the banks of the Niger River where fishermen make their living. Agriculture is an important commerce and it isn't uncommon to see cattle crossing the streets. But the most important industries are the manufacturing and service sectors; the city thrives in crafts and trade.
About 90 percent of the country considers itself Muslim, but Malians also are deeply rooted in African traditional religion. Marvin noted that this is a strongly relational culture. In order to connect with people, Christian workers must slow down their pace of life and spend time establishing friendships.
"The culture is complex as far as relationships go, and there are a lot of dos and don'ts," Marvin said. "Building relationships is of primary importance if you're going to communicate an important message."
That is especially true when trying to reach people in urban centers with the Gospel. It takes a long time for people to consider becoming a Christian, Marvin said.
Though people are open to talking about religion, they are cautious about turning their back on Islam and converting to Christianity because persecution is expected when a follower of Islam chooses Christ. New believers run the risk of being shut out by their families, which makes their lives extremely difficult since Malians are so relational. Families and friends strongly depend on each other. If people need money, friends will loan it to them. If they need a job, their family will find one for them.
"This approach helps to tear down the barriers to the Gospel that prevent many Muslims from even listening to the message of Christ," Marvin said.
In addition to witnessing through storytelling, Marvin worked with three Baptist churches, encouraging them in their faith and training leaders and pastors in sharing their faith. One of the churches has grown from seven to 25 active members.
Missions leaders are praying for more Southern Baptists to come to Mali -- and for Southern Baptist churches to partner with them -- to continue the work Marvin and LaNette were doing to spread the Gospel in the African country's urban centers.
Laura Fielding is a former summer intern with the International Mission Board.
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