DAPAONG, Togo – Despite the merry gatherings of Thanksgiving in the United States, Burt and Suzanne Schmitz remain in northern Togo of West Africa to spread the gospel to the Moba people.
Doing missions in a relatively newly evangelized population, everyday is filled with insurmountable challenges and reasons to be grateful. The media doesn't embrace their achievement with great interest but God watches and remembers every bead of sweat they have dropped for the sake of his people.
Each day, villagers come to their home, looking for help with problems they face. Burt and Suzanne pray for God's wisdom in discerning which people genuinely need help and are thankful they are able to meet some of the needs because of Southern Baptists' generous giving through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
"Many times the people want money but they don't in fact really need help," Suzanne said. "That's why we pray over it and make sure God is impressing that person on us."
She explained that most times they help people who cannot afford necessary medical attention elsewhere in the village. If someone brings the Schmitzes his medical record with a prescription included and God has impressed that person on Burt and Suzanne's heart, then they will help the person purchase the appropriate medicine. That same day, the person must return to the gate with a receipt or the actual medicine as proof that he spent the money as intended.
Their main focus in Togo is leadership development among the Moba so that indigenous churches can multiply. Of about 293,000 Moba in the region, less than half are literate. Typically, someone will be designated leader of a new church simply because he can read the Bible.
"We can't get very many people to commit to Christianity," Suzanne said. "Trust is a very hard thing for our people to do. They don't trust one another because everyone wants to be number one, but they don't want their brother to do better than them."
Ancestor worship is dominant among the Moba, and the Schmitzes are challenged to communicate the emptiness of the practice to the people and point them in the direction of God himself through Jesus Christ only. The Moba recognize that there is one God who created everything and is omnipotent, but they believe he is far-removed from the dealings of man. The Moba believe that the way to influence God is to communicate with him through their ancestors, which leads them to believe that anything good that happens is because of the work of their ancestors and not God alone.
"First we tell them it's not biblical," Burt said. "We go to places in the Old Testament that refer to worship and show them that what they're doing is wrong. It's through a conviction of the Holy Spirit that the issue is dealt with. As new Christians learn more about God being a jealous God, they move from a point of worshiping the ancestors to worshiping the one true God. After receiving Christ, they realize they've been tricked by ancestor worship."
Because so few Moba are literate, Chronological Bible Storying is an effective evangelistic tool.
"They love stories. When we do stories, they pass them back and forth throughout their village during the week until we come back and tell them another one," Suzanne said.
Only some portions of the New Testament have been translated into the Moba language, so the Schmitzes rely heavily on storying and on-the-spot translating. They also work through interpreters to convey the Scriptures to the people.
Burt said he hasn't kept a specific count of how many Moba have come to know Christ during their time there, but he knows that when they arrived in 1996 there were four Baptist churches in the region and now there are 11 churches and three "preaching points." Other evangelistic Christians are working in the same area and have also begun churches. The Schmitzes work with other Great Commission Christians to expand the reach of the gospel among the Moba.
If there is such a thing as a typical day, Burt said, they will either stay home and have people they know come to visit or they will travel to other villages in order to conduct leadership training. When they stay home, they tend to the beggars outside and also have people come inside for further fellowship. This helps to develop relationships in which Christ can be shared.
The couple travels to a number of villages primarily to lead a Bible training center for potential leaders and pastors. Some are as close as five miles while others are as far away as 40 miles. Burt explained that it usually takes two hours to travel the 40 miles either by way of a Honda motorcycle or a four wheel drive truck. Through storying, they teach church leadership, discipleship, evangelism and pastoral counseling, all with the goal of equipping indigenous churches to flourish and plant other churches.
Some challenges the Schmitzes face are adjusting to the weather, which is generally hot, Mississippi summer weather, Burt said, and overcoming the inconveniences that come with not being a native speaker of the language.
"Speaking Moba has been difficult. It became a written language less than 20 years ago, and there are lots of misunderstandings," Burt said.
He also said they deal with problems like unsafe water and the difficulty of shopping for needed supplies.
"Most of our groceries are at least a day's drive away," Burt said. "We must plan in advance to be gone on shopping trips for three or four days."
But despite the challenges, Burt and Suzanne are sure Togo is where God wants them. Burt grew up in Mississippi and joined the Navy. It was while in the military that Burt heard God calling him to missions. Suzanne grew up in San Diego and as a young girl watching missionary slides knew God was calling her to go overseas and tell of his love someday.
Burt and Suzanne met while he was stationed in San Diego, attending the church where she was raised. They were married in 1985, and moved to Mill Valley, Calif., in 1992 so that Burt could attend Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in preparation for the church planting they hoped to do outside the United States.
Suzanne explained that the former Foreign Mission Board sent them a stack of requests for positions all over Africa. She and Burt read through the stacks and prayed about the positions separately. When they reconvened, they discovered that Togo was the country that God had impressed upon both their hearts. In August 1995, the couple was appointed career missionaries to the Moba people of Toga and Ghana.
As they continue today, faithfully completing the work God called them there to do, they ask that Southern Baptists pray for them to continue to have wisdom in discerning authentic needs when villagers come to their gate daily. They also ask for prayer that as they try to train leaders, the truth will become real in the leaders' lives, not just something without meaning in their hearts or comprehension in their minds.
As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, the Schmitzes will be thankful for the invaluable times they've seen a Moba grasp the reality of the gospel.
By Albert H. Lee