I was sitting on a rickety wooden bench, enjoying some sweet tea and grilled goat meat, a common meal for a traveler looking for restaurant fare in rural Chad, Africa.
This was not my first visit to this rural Chadian farming community. I had met a young man here a few weeks prior, and he was curious what I—a white American who spoke his language—was doing in the middle of proverbial nowhere in the bush of Chad. I had told him that God had given me a love for his people, the Fulbe, and that I was called to learn their language and their culture so that I could share with them what I know about Jesus. He was curious and wanted to hear more. Like the majority of the population, he was Muslim. And as a Muslim, he had been taught about a great prophet named Isa (Jesus), but what he had been taught was a very incomplete and deceptive concept of what Jesus is really all about.
We spent several hours together, talking about Jesus, reading about Jesus, comparing the teachings about Jesus in the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book) to what the Bible teaches. And he still wanted to hear more. So we made an appointment for another visit.
Now, as I grabbed some lunch at a roadside butcher stand, a cacophony of smells, sights and sounds permeated my senses. Behind me was the hide of a goat—likely the goat I was savoring at that moment—stretched out and drying under the sun. My nose twitched. Around me was a flurry of activity, people bustling about, bartering the sale and purchase of wares at their weekly open air market. But my eyes and my mind were mostly focused on what was happening across the sandy street in front of me.
Twenty young boys between the ages of 8 and 12 were huddled together, squatting on a large mat. Some of them clutched flat wooden boards, ornamented with a handle in the shape of a crescent moon, the symbol of Islam. On these boards were excerpts from the Qur’an, written in black ink. The boys were all talking at once, reciting Qur’anic verses in the Arabic language, the language in which any good Muslim must recite their holy book. Most of these boys do not know the content or meaning of these recitations, but the expectation is to learn to recite, regardless of comprehension. Walking among these boys were two men, the “marabou.” These teachers each held a whip in their hands, and would threaten to whip any who failed to recite the lessons properly. It saddened me deeply to see these boys cowering in front of their teachers, raising their voices in recitation of something they did not understand. But they do it because of a false notion that this is what Allah demands of them in order to merit his mercy… maybe.
For a Muslim, there is no assurance of Allah’s favor… only a shallow hope that they might be shown mercy on judgment day—IF they are obedient enough to the law of Islam.
My thoughts returned to the young man with whom I had just met. The gospel of Jesus had been clearly presented to him, in his own language, in the quietness of his own home. And he found joy and hope in the message. He was eager to learn more! What a contrast! I was reminded of the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts chapter 8, who was met on the isolated Gaza road by Philip, the evangelist.
Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man answered, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” Like the Ethiopian, many people in the world are God-fearers. They believe in a god, and they seek truth. But they have been deceived into believing a lie.
According to the Joshua Project, over a third of the world’s population is considered “unreached” with the gospel. This means that they do not have a Christian witness in the context of their culture and language. They do not have a church. They do not have a Bible they can read. They do not have a Christian friend through whom they can hear the gospel. They will likely die without hearing it.
Romans 10:14-15 asks us the question, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” In this same chapter, verse 17 states, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
As I downed the last of my meal and prepared to leave, one of the boys paused from his recitation, peered over his board and looked at me… and smiled. I smiled back as I got on my bike to return home. Pedaling away, I was overwhelmed with a sense of joy but also sadness. Joy in the privilege of sharing the gospel with a man who otherwise may never have heard it. Sadness for the many others, like that boy, with whom I may never have the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus.
Who will go to him?
Dan Venberg is Mission Mobilizer and Recruiter for Lutheran Brethren International Mission.