I had an enjoyable evening recently in Athens visiting with a group of retired missionaries who had devoted much of their lives to delivering the gospel to Uruguay.
So successful were they and their predecessors that the International Mission Board was able to pull most missionaries out of Uruguay two decades ago when the churches they started had grown strong enough to stand on their own.
What a great testament to these wonderful people who essentially worked themselves out of jobs.
I wrote of these retirees that they’re older now with graying hair and laugh lines, but that they haven’t lost their passion for serving the Lord. About 25 of them gathered inside the Sabor Latino restaurant in Athens, reminiscing about the good old days of preaching and teaching in cities and towns in the South American country of 3.5 million people.
It felt like a family reunion. In fact, that’s exactly the way two of the missionaries, Joe and Jeanie Benfield of Athens, described it.
The Benfields hosted the reunion that drew people from throughout Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. These are people who built lifelong relationships with one another – relationships that draw them together from across the country every two years.
“These are our brothers and sisters,” Jeanie Benfield said of the family-like bond they share. “Our children grew up together, so for them it’s like a reunion of cousins, aunts and uncles.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of Uruguay’s population now self-identify as Protestants. While that percentage is low by U.S. standards, it eclipses many of the countries where the International Mission Board is now focusing its efforts.
In fact, Christians account for fewer than 1 percent of the population in some areas of the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.
In 1997, the IMB adopted a “New Directions” strategy for reaching every people, tribe, and language group in the world. As part of that strategy, Southern Baptist missionaries who had been so successful in spreading the gospel in Uruguay and other South American countries were redeployed into other parts of the world.
David Coppedge, a former IMB missionary who worked as a church planting catalyst in Uruguay, described the missionaries he served alongside as some of the hardest working and most committed Christians he’s ever known.
“At one time, Uruguay was considered one of the most unreached countries in South America,” he said. “The foundation for the gospel was laid in Uruguay because of what they did.”
These are modern-day heroes who claimed an entire country for Christ. I’m grateful I had an opportunity to visit with them.
Roger Alford is editor of The Christian Index. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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