Northern Lights pierce Islam's iron curtain
WESTERN EUROPE (BP)--Jonathan Hillman needed a miracle. God sent him a porta-potty truck.
The 25-year-old from First Baptist Church in Guymon, Okla., watched as police tried to ease the congestion of cars bottlenecked at the mouth of one of Europe's busiest seaports.
Hillman was among a team of Southern Baptist volunteers handing out packets of Gospel materials to cars passing through the port's gates. Most of the drivers were North African Muslims headed for countries across the Mediterranean. Traffic backups like this were an answer to prayer because they bought volunteers time to offer the packets to every car.
Unfortunately for Hillman, the police were making headway. Traffic had started moving again, and cars were close to speeding past volunteers. He knew it might be the only chance for some to ever hear about Jesus.
From nowhere, a porta-potty truck lumbered into the circle that funneled cars through the port's gates and came to an abrupt stop. Horns blared. Within minutes, the truck undid more than an hour of diligent traffic direction by the police. Packets in hand, volunteers went back to work.
Hillman is one of hundreds of Southern Baptists who've taken part in Project Northern Lights to spread the Word of God across North African nations where sharing the Gospel is a criminal offense.
"Very often we take for granted the availability of God's Word in the free world," said Dave Webber,* the Southern Baptist worker who runs Project Northern Lights. "The Muslim world has a very high wall around it."
The 39-year-old former pastor from Florida has spent several years serving in Northern Africa and the Middle East with his family. Home to the world's second-largest desert, the Sahara, North Africa also ranks among the planet's most spiritually barren places.
"Governments across North Africa absolutely prohibit the distribution of the Bible," Webber explained. "It is not illegal to own one, but it is illegal to give someone else one. The sentence for a first offense [in one North African country] is five years in prison and over $300,000 in fines."
It's no surprise, Webber added, that such threats make the Bible and other Gospel materials virtually impossible to find in-country.
Instead of risking life and limb to distribute God's Word inside North Africa, volunteers focus on the more than 18 million North Africans living and working in Europe. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of these immigrants flow through southern Europe's ports -- most returning to North Africa to visit family. Ferries carry the travelers, their cars and hopefully, the Gospel, across the Mediterranean.
But the project's strategy hasn't gone unnoticed, partly due to the sheer volume of material it distributes. More than 20,000 Gospel packets are given away at the ports every summer. Each includes a green, pocket-sized, French-Arabic New Testament, as well as a JESUS film DVD and other evangelical literature. Distribution totals over the project's 11-year history top 200,000 packets, making it the single largest source of New Testaments in North Africa.
"This project makes the front page of newspapers in several North African countries," Webber said. "There is often instruction for people not to receive the packet."
He added with a grin, "That usually makes them want it all the more."
Receptivity at the port ranges from 20 percent to 60 percent day to day, a difference Webber credits to spiritual warfare rather than the stereotype that Muslims are hostile to the Gospel.
"Typically the response at the port is far more favorable than people would imagine.... Even if they disagree with what we're doing, they're usually very polite."
Several years ago, a North African man passed through the ports and was offered a Gospel packet by a Northern Lights volunteer. He took it home where he studied the New Testament and watched the JESUS film.
The man was considered a hajj, a title given to those fulfilling one of Islam's five pillars by completing a pilgrimage to Mecca. He had not only traveled to Mecca once as required by the Quran, but four times -- even bringing his wife along for the journey -- a mark of esteem among Muslims.
"His testimony is that after two years of examining the claims of the Gospel, he prayed to receive Christ and was baptized," Webber said. "When I travel across North Africa, I hear, 'A family member was going through the port and brought me a gift. They had no idea what it really was, but they gave it to me ... and I began to look into it and discovered that this is the truth of God's love for me.'"
Angie Jackson,* 26, is an IMB journeyman from Florida who serves on the Northern Lights' staff. She remembers offering a packet to a North African woman who surprised Jackson by telling her she was already a Christian.
It turns out the woman received a packet at the port the previous year. She didn't pay much attention to it until one evening while cooking dinner. Her children were bored and needed something to occupy them. She remembered the DVD -- the JESUS film -- that came with the packet and, on a whim, decided to play it.
As the kids watched, she cooked. But they kept calling her to come watch with them. Eventually she gave in.
"It got to the part where Jesus was being beaten and was about to be crucified," Jackson said. "Her children were weeping and screaming at the television, 'No! Don't hurt Him! Don't hurt Him!'
"But she kept watching and looking at her kids, back and forth. Finally, she noticed that she was crying too."
When the movie ended, the woman and her children prayed to receive Christ.
"It's because of this video, because of this packet, that my [children] are believers today," she told Jackson. Then the woman asked if she could have another packet.
"This time she was giving it to a friend," Jackson said.
There are even stories of North Africans being led to the Lord right in front of the port's gates. Team members have witnessed some 225 decisions for Christ at the port since the project began, starting with the very first person ever offered a packet, Webber said.
BOLDNESS NOT REQUIRED
But none of this would be possible without the sacrifice of Southern Baptist volunteers.
Project Northern Lights depends on a steady stream of volunteers to drive its massive Gospel distribution effort. Teams are needed for each of the eight, 10-day sessions scheduled throughout the summer. Webber and his staff provide training. Volunteers are not required to have knowledge of the language or prior evangelism experience.
"Before volunteers ever go out to the port they spend a day tuning up their hearts and learning how to do distribution," Webber said. "So they're prepared spiritually and they're prepared in distribution techniques and strategy.
"We teach them to say four very simple phrases: 'Hello. This is a gift for you. It's free. It is the Gospel.'"
Boldness isn't required, but a broken heart is.
"The most important thing for volunteers is that they're broken to the will of Christ -- to be who God wants them to be and to do what God has called them to do.
"Volunteers are what make this project go," Webber said. "God is calling people to come. And as people are obedient to go, not only will they be blessed, but the lives of many others will be blessed as well."
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. Gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions help pay for the printing of the New Testaments as well as provide support to Southern Baptist personnel around the world. Learn more about Project Northern Lights by calling the International Mission Board at 1-800-999-3113. See a multi-media presentation related to this story at commissionstories.com.