CENTERTON, Ark. (BP) -- He was so small, so quiet and so humble. He didn't even come up to my shoulder. And yet to me, Sahaji* was larger than life.
"Here he is!" IMB representative Clifton Melek* exclaimed, patting Sahaji on the back. "Here is the first baptized believer since you began praying for the Bedia five years ago."
Tears flowed down the faces of our missions team from First Baptist Church Centerton in Arkansas. This young 20-something Indian man from an unengaged, unreached people group represented so much to us ... God prevailed and the Spirit broke through the Bedia's resistance to the Gospel in South Asia.
When our church adopted the Bedia in 2007, there were no known believers. Now, I stand watching eight Bedia being baptized. Amazing!
The road to get here has been long. Avery Willis, an Arkansas native who had served as a missionary in Southeast Asia and a senior vice president with IMB, told our church in 2006 that 639 people groups with a population of at least 100,000 are considered "unreached" (less than two percent Christian) and "unengaged" (no ongoing evangelical effort underway to reach them with the Gospel). I had no idea what adopting or embracing unengaged, unreached people groups entailed at the time, but I knew our church would never be the same.
The beginning years (2006-2007)
Picking a geographic area of the world to engage was easy for us. A family from our congregation served in South Asia. Selecting a people group, though, was much harder. How do you choose when so many need to hear?
Willis recommended the Bedia, so I immediately began researching this people group numbering more than 100,000. I learned that the Bedia people kept small farms. I knew our Arkansas church would relate to this, but from there, the similarities ended. The Bedia practice a form of religion that mixes Hinduism with ancestor and demon worship. I learned there were no known baptized believers, no church, no Bible in their language and no one trying to lead them to Christ.
Then, we prayed as a church for the Bedia. I felt God at work. He knit our hearts to these people before we ever met them.
In 2007, I went to India on a vision trip. I met with an Indian pastor who also wanted to reach the Bedia. I discovered that he met his first Bedia within weeks of when our church started praying for them.
The Indian pastor mapped out 70 Bedia villages in the surrounding jungles. We went to meet some of his co-workers living among this people. The travel to get there was grueling -- bumpy roads and then hiking jungle paths.
It was on one of these paths that I met my first Bedia. I was so excited that I took his picture; he became the "face" of the Bedia for our church.
I'll never forget that first night sharing the Gospel there. The entire village of 80 came to hear the Good News. It was overwhelming to stand there and know that they were hearing the name of Jesus for the very first time.
We left that village and hiked back out to our car. And there, stretched out across the road, was a large, black snake. Our driver was terrified. The dead snake was a warning -- some did not appreciate our presence.
It was a real reminder that the Bedia are among the last people groups on earth to hear the Gospel for a reason.
When I returned to our church, I recounted the joy of sharing Christ and explained that we were up against demonic oppression and persecution. On March 4, 2007, 250 people committed to pray daily for the Bedia until the first baptism and first church was planted.
We had no idea how long it would take, 20 or 25 years. All we knew was that no other group in the world was focusing on the Bedia of South Asia. It was our responsibility to do whatever it takes to reach them.
So, FBC Centerton began praying for a people group on the other side of the world.
The lean years (2008-2011)
Correspondence with our ministry partner, the Indian pastor, proved to be frustrating at times. There were long periods of no communication. There was little word of encouragement on the advancement of the Gospel there, yet our church continued to pray. It's all we could do.
One time, we learned of two Bedia families contemplating baptism. We prayed but it never happened. The village elders exerted pressure, saying that if these couples converted to Christianity, they would not be allowed to marry off their children or benefit from the community rice fields. One couple completely backed out. The husband of the second family insisted that he would follow Christ in baptism, until his wife scooped up their children and threatened to jump into the community well.
It was a discouraging time. We prayed but did not really know what was happening, so I decided it was important to go back. Our church needed first-hand accounts to spur their prayer efforts.
There was an ever-present sense of spiritual bondage during this 2009 visit. We heard story after story about demons, and no one seemed open to the Gospel. Two years after we adopted the Bedia, there were still no professions of faith, no baptisms and no churches.
We returned home, not sure what to do. It did not appear we were moving forward. There was a lot of persecution in 2010, causing our ministry partners to leave the Bedia villages. The church continued praying. We committed to this and we trusted God, even if we didn't know where to go from here.
I consulted with an IMB administrator from South Asia about our stalemate. He said a new missionary family had begun serving in the same geographic area. What a blessing and an answer to our prayers. We could partner with some of our own missionaries supported by our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
There was very little Bedia news from January 2010 until September 2011. And then God moved in mighty ways -- or at least, that's when our church saw God moving.
When I connected with Melek, an IMB representative, we heard a side of this story we didn't know. He told his discipleship training students about our church praying for the Bedia for five years. Immediately, everyone pointed to other students and said, "He's Bedia! He's Bedia! He's Bedia!"
We found out that not only were there five baptized Bedia believers in Melek's class, they were training to become pastors and missionaries.
We were stunned! God had been working this entire time. We prayed for years that the Gospel would reach our people and it did.
We had to go back to India and see this for ourselves. That's when we met Sahaji and a host of other Bedia believers. Sahaji took us to his village to attend church. Around 100 people crowded into a small 10-by-20 room, while more spilled out the door and peeked in the window.
We worshipped with OUR people for the first time. As we heard the first Bedia praise and worship song, we cried. I preached and when Melek offered an invitation, eight Bedia professed a new faith in Jesus. I was given the honor of naming the very first Bedia church, "Bedia Victory Baptist Church."
This service was on March 4, 2012 -- exactly five years from our church's commitment to pray for the Bedia.
While we see the unmistakable hand of the Lord in this celebration, we know there's still a lot of work to be done. There is no Bible or even Scripture in their language. Only a handful of the Bedia population, just over 750 or less than 1 percent, have come to Christ. They are still considered unreached and live in one of the top 40 persecuted countries in the world.
The road for embracing an unengaged, unreached people group is a long and rocky one, but one that is worth taking. FBC Centerton must diligently continue our prayers and minister alongside the Bedia believers so that 100 percent of our people come to know Him.
Our journey continues. Will your church join us by embracing a different unengaged, unreached people group? There are more than 3,000 people groups still waiting to hear His name.
Through the International Mission Board's Embrace initiative, you and your church can take the Gospel to one of these groups. To learn more, go to call2embrace.org. See related video.
Stuart Bell is pastor of First Baptist Church Centerton in Arkansas.
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