Mission Lab

UUPG challenge sent church on 2-year prayer journey and an ambitious climb

Calvary Baptist in Tyler followed God’s providence in identifying their unengaged, unreached people group (UUPG) before making their first contact last fall in the mountains of Southeast Asia.

February 24th, 2014 / By: Kay Adkins / comments

UUPG challenge sent church on 2-year prayer journey and an ambitious climb

An IMB guide with experience in Southeast Asia (left) and Fred Smith (right), pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Tyler, talk with a villager during the church’s first trip to engage the people group.

TYLER—Last October, a team from Calvary Baptist Church traveled to a rural town halfway around the globe, trusting God to lead them to an isolated, unengaged and unreached people group (UUPG) for whom they had been praying for more than two years.

But the Tyler church’s international journey really began in summer 2011. Pastor Fred Smith read a news article that noted the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s challenge to Texas Southern Baptists to embrace and engage 1,000 of what was then about 3,800 UUPGs worldwide—a number that has shrunk to a little more than 3,000 UUPGs today, the SBC’s International Mission Board reported in January.

“I called the SBTC and they told me the challenge had just happened and that more information would be coming,” Smith said. “I started praying and watching for more information to see what this meant.” Soon after, a team from the church attended the IMB’s Embrace Conference in Cedar Hill to learn more about the process of embracing a UUPG.

Calvary Baptist, a church that runs about 120 in attendance with an annual budget of about $200,000, was already actively pursuing missions, providing financial and prayer support to three International Mission Board missionaries in three different countries. As they began to research UUPGs, they began to look at groups located in regions surrounding the IMB missionaries they were supporting in Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

“After about four or five months, we had narrowed it down to Southeast Asia, and we saw that there was a triangle of UUPGs around our missionaries there. We looked up each group on the UUPG map and began to pray,” Smith explained.

Smith and his ministry partner and wife, Lisa, said scant information was available about the group they eventually felt led to engage. From the Joshua Project site, joshuaproject.net, they learned that their UUPG had once been enslaved and that their emancipation had occurred less than 100 years ago. The UUPG then dispersed into mountain regions to escape maltreatment by their former oppressors.

“We were excited that we might have an opportunity to take the gospel to them so that they could also be set free from slavery to sin,” Fred Smith said.

In January 2013, wanting to find a way to get more information about the UUPG and how to connect with them, Fred Smith called the IMB office, not knowing whom he should ask for, or what he should ask. He selected an option from the IMB’s automated response system. Then he began to explain his query to the person who answered.

“Hi, I am looking at doing a 12-week sabbatical in our UUPG country to take some classes and do research on a UUPG with the aim of bringing a group from my church,” Fred Smith told the man who answered. Smith then explained more about the UUPG the church felt led to reach.

He was about to be amazed by what he called the first “divine encounter” related to this vision. The IMB missionary on the phone responded: “You’re not going to believe this, but I have been a missionary to that region. You can come with me, and I can drive you to the doorstep of your people group and drop you off.”

Smith, awed by God’s intervention, invited the IMB missionary to come to Tyler and share with the congregation more about the people group and what it would take to engage them. Nine months later a group of six from Calvary Baptist, and two IMB missionaries were together for Calvary’s first vision trip in their UUPG country. Because so little was known of their UUPG at this point, Lisa Smith confessed, “I fully expected to make the long journey, and never be able to find the people group we wanted to reach.”

But God had arranged another divine encounter. Upon arriving in the township that would be the group’s base camp, team member and Calvary’s family ministry coordinator, Phil Baker, recounted, “The first thing we saw was a police officer who looked at us with a ‘what are you doing here?’ expression. Here we are, obviously at a place where no tourists would typically come, and certainly no white people. Some of us are over six feet tall—tall, giant white people.”

Their IMB guide explained to the officer that the group was interested in seeing the rural areas and needed a place to stay. Baker watched the officer’s demeanor change from being skeptical, to being friendly, much to the relief of the group. 

Baker said, “One of the things we had been told to pray for was that we would meet a person of peace—a person open to the group or open to the gospel.”

He said he believed God had answered that prayer.

The officer was pleased to lead them to a local hotel. They met the innkeeper who thought the group should check out the facilities before they paid their $2.50 per night in American currency to stay there. 

Baker and the others “had never imagined this kind of a set up” in which the restroom facilities were quite a distance from the rooms, down an open-air walkway, past a semi-dry pig waste area, down some steep stairs that led to a narrow path through a gate, and finally to the restroom building itself. Smith described the sleeping accommodations as cardboard boxes serving as mattresses, “hard and filthy” and “not for the faint-of-heart.”

Despite the rough accommodations, the group accepted them gratefully. They were invited by the innkeeper to the lobby area for some pears and green tea. To their amazement, also enjoying some refreshments in the lobby was a group of six indigenous people in colorful clothing—members of the UUPG for whom the team had come.

“So within five minutes we had met six people from our people group. It was an incredible blessing,” Fred Smith said. 

The native group had come into town and were delayed in returning to their village because of a health problem with one of the men, which was why they were at the hotel.

The native people invited the Calvary team to sit with them, men at the men’s table and women at the women’s table. One of the female Calvary team members knew a common language spoken in the region and was able to assist in communicating with the women while the IMB missionary guides translated at the men’s table.

Lisa Smith said, “They made sure we felt welcomed and they provided us with food. We discussed general topics, like food. We asked about their children and they asked about ours.  We admired their dress.” 

The natives also provided directions to their village in the mountains inhabited by Calvary’s UUPG, and they offered to cook a meal for the team while they were in the village, as long as the team could provide the food.

As the Calvary group experienced more of the town, their eyes were opened to spiritual influences present, such as the many Buddhist and Hindu idols visible. After midnight they listened as villagers set off firecrackers intended to ward off evil spirits. 

“They were afraid, and part of their spiritual training, which includes ancestor worship, is to set off fireworks,” Fred Smith explained, speculating that the presence of Americans in the village had evidently caused some to be alarmed.

He said, “We knew it was a dark place, but it is very different when you go into a dark place. It made us realize that we must fast and pray daily. We prayed for a Lydia, or a Cornelius—someone open to the message. We prayed that God would go before us.”

The next day, the Calvary team and the IMB missionary guides loaded into their van and began the strenuous journey into the mountains to find the village and the village people they had come to engage with the gospel of Christ. Following the directions given to them, they drove the van as far as the rugged road would permit, then they hiked on foot into the village.

Baker noted that they were able to recognize the people belonging to their UUPG when they saw them because of the group they had encountered at the hotel; women traditionally wear a recognizable head dress and sash. 

He added, “One thing that really surprised me—up until then it had been very vague—we had just seen pictures when praying for them. But when we met, as soon as I saw them, I thought, ‘I love these people. I care about them, and I want to be involved in ministry to these people.’” He compared it to his family’s experience of adopting a foster child, noting that the moment he saw his soon-to-be-adopted daughter he immediately loved her. “Through God we have an enormous capacity to love them,” Baker explained.

Now that the Calvary team has found one village inhabited by their UUPG, they are strategizing how to connect with them.

“We decided the best thing is to get our own missionaries on the ground there,” Fred Smith said. “We want to send a missionary couple to our region at that base camp to organize our mission trips.” 

Lisa Smith speculated that teams of two might be less alarming to the local residents and might have a better chance of building relationships and learning about the needs. Language will be a challenging barrier to overcome, as their UUPG speaks a language that has not yet been fully documented. Some of the younger generation speaks a more familiar dialect, but Lisa Smith said the older generation speaks only the minority dialect.

Fred Smith said his current missions philosophy is one he picked up from another pastor: “We used to go hundreds of places one time. Now we will go to one place hundreds of times.”

In a trembling voice, Lisa Smith reflected on a key reason for being a part of reaching UUPGs worldwide, recalling the prayer of one of their church elders before they went on their vision trip. 

“In his prayer he said that one day, when we are all in heaven bowing before God on his throne, we will be able to look over the crowd of people there, and we will see our people group—there, with us, also bowing before the Lord. That is just awesome.”

For information about UUPG’s worldwide and how to get involved in reaching them, visit embrace.imbresources.org and joshuaproject.net.