Wading into the rushing waters of the jungle river, Sarah looked back at the bank filled with members of her Indigenous tribe. She was about to make a bold statement — one that not only transformed her life but could change eternity for the Embera people of Colombia.
She nodded to International Mission Board missionary Travis Burkhalter to proceed.
“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I baptize you,” the missionary said in Sarah’s language before lowering her into the river, raising her to her feet and offering a warm hug.
Sarah, the first known follower of Christ among her tribe, couldn’t stop smiling as she explained her decision with the community. This moment was years in the making. In fact, you began specifically praying for this three years ago.
Travis and his wife, Beth, have served with the IMB in Central and South America since 2010. In those years, their Spanish language skills improved, and they conversed easily with most people in their city of Medellin, Colombia. Then, the couple felt a clear calling from the Lord to serve among Indigenous people groups. Three years ago, they asked you to pray for gospel access that led to gospel belief for those who fled violence in their home region to live in the city.
Access came through a ministry Beth established, the Embera Bead Project, to help the internally displaced Indigenous families living in poverty pay for rent, food, medical care and other daily needs. The project sought to break a cycle of poverty by providing jewelry workshops where the Embera can make a fair wage and acquire new skills to increase their quality of life.
While the Embera Bead Project provided access to the people, Travis and Beth knew the greatest problem was lostness, and the only solution was the gospel. They knew the greatest need was to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. They spent months sharing Bible stories with multiple Indigenous people groups in Spanish with no results.
When you give, you help transform lives. Will you give today so that more have access to the gospel?
They noticed a huge communication barrier. Most did not understand Spanish. They were culturally and linguistically unique despite having lived in Colombia their whole lives. Because of this, the stories from the Bible were completely unknown to most.
“They had never heard the creation story, never heard of Adam and Eve,” Travis explained. “We are convinced they need to hear the [gospel] in their heart language to fully understand.”
The Embera language is unwritten. Learning it was a task that took years. There were no resources to help the Burkhalters, other than the foundation set through their Spanish language schooling years ago. So, Travis developed his own lesson plans and trained a language helper, a friend from the Indigenous group who spoke a little Spanish. Every day, Travis traveled into the organized crime-controlled neighborhood where his friends lived and met in his car. It was the safest place in the community of drug addicts and violence.
The language acquisition was not pretty but it worked. Travis chose a theme, like family or work, recorded the conversation on his phone and wrote out pronunciation keys to study later. He memorized words, listened to hundreds of hours of recorded conversations and practiced with people at the bead project.
“It’s a daunting task, but I’m extremely motivated because I know souls hang in the balance,” Travis admitted when he asked you to pray for his language skills almost two years ago. “As you are faithful to pray and give, I will be faithful to work hard and persevere until they all hear.”
Travis and Beth committed to be steadfastly present among the people and places they are called to as they seek to fulfill their part in the Revelation 7:9 vision.
Travis dug in and studied the language harder. As he learned, he slowly taught Sarah Bible stories. The more she learned, the more she understood the truth of what Jesus had done for her. Finally, she expressed her belief in Christ and desire to follow Him.
Sarah’s baptism in the jungle river isn’t the culmination of your prayers. It’s just the beginning. Your prayers make a difference among the Embera people. You prayed for gospel access that led to gospel belief. Now, there is a native speaker, Sarah, who is being discipled. Pray as she shares among her own people, bringing more to a gospel belief that results in lives transformed. As you pray, also consider giving so more can hear the good news.
God has made our purpose clear. Together, we seek to take the gospel to every language. We give ourselves to this mission every day.