THAILAND (BP) -- The small groups whispered around the classroom -- students at a seminary in Thailand and their American visitors -- sharing about their families and other facets of their lives.
After prayers flowed in different languages, the students reached out to hug Joseph Lyles. This isn't the normal way to say thank you in Southeast Asia. But after spending three days with the mission team from Fort Foote Baptist Church, the Thai seminarians showed their thanks "American" style. The Fort Foote pastor wiped away a tear and noticed there wasn't a dry eye in the room.
"I wasn't expecting this ... for us to become a little family, for a bond to develop," said Lyles, pastor of the predominantly African American congregation in Fort Washington, Md.
"When one of the young men called me 'brother' ...," Lyles started to say, touching his heart and pausing to gather his emotions, "I just never imagined that we could connect to Southeast Asians. I thought they were so much different than us.
"Honestly, we just came here out of obedience, to support our missionary, and now my world is turned upside down."
Fort Foote is not new to missions. The church sends teams to Africa and the Caribbean. They reach out to their surrounding community in the Washington, D.C., area. But then God called Sandra McIntyre* out of the congregation to be a full-time missionary in Southeast Asia with the International Mission Board.
Lyle knew the church was going to be stretched.
"I must confess that it was a sacrifice to come to Southeast Asia instead of Africa," Lyles admitted. "We came because we made a commitment to support our missionary."
McIntyre is one of 27 African American IMB missionaries serving around the world. She, too, realized that Fort Foote members would be stretched in their worldview, to see that there are lost people God wants to reach in regions thousands of miles from Maryland.
Fort Foote's vision trip introduced the team to mission work in a medium-sized Southeast Asian city. The volunteers participated in seminary classes, shared the Gospel with sex-trafficked women in a red light district and told Bible stories at a Buddhist boys' school.
Bridgett Brown, a substitute teacher and caterer, said her favorite part of the trip was being with people in an Asian culture and seeing how her team's skills transferred so effortlessly to that context.
When Ann Palmore, a retired school administrator and the church's minister of missions, addressed a class, she was awed by how the future missionaries couldn't stop taking notes.
Gerald Robinson, a pastor and executive director of the missions-oriented Know the Truth ministry, was told by one student that she wanted to be just like him -- to teach others to go on mission and show God's love.
"Being able to share the Word of God through classroom studies and activities has been a wonderful experience," Brown said. "I can't believe the kind of connection we made with everyone we met. The women in the red light district visited with us. The seminary students loved on us more than we did on them. I wish everyone could experience this."
Lyles nodded in agreement, saying the mission trip to Southeast Asia had been an eye-opener. He warned other pastors that if they didn't want to change or be challenged they might not want to go on a mission trip -- but then added they'd be missing out on God's plan if they don't go at least once. The world is hungry and thirsty for Jesus, Lyles said, and "you'll never truly know it until you experience it."
"It's exciting and a little bit unnerving to think of going somewhere else, a place that's so different than us. But, the people will capture your heart," Lyles said. "I know that I must go back to Southeast Asia, I have some unfinished business -- I need to share the Good News. "
Susie Rain is a writer for the International Mission Board living in Southeast Asia. To learn more about how African American churches can play a key role in reaching not just people in Africa but throughout the world, contact Keith Jefferson, IMB African American missional church strategist, at 804-219-1422. To subscribe to the bi-monthly e-newsletter Black Missions Link, go to Black Missions Link.
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