Below is an interview with Modou Sanneh, head pastor of the Reformed Evangelical Church of Gambia, on the advance of the Kingdom of God in Gambia. The interview was conducted by Rashida Bah.
Q. What is the state of missions in Gambia?
MS: There is yet to emerge a mature monolinguistic church among any people group. There are Mandinka, Fula, Jola, Balanta, Wolof, Aku, Serer, Manjako, Serrahule, Jahanke and others. There is no “people group church” teaching in these languages to reach the cultural hearts of these people. The work is much and the workers are still few.
The most concentration of church planting missionary agencies is in the Greater Banjul area, but the majority of the population is in the rural areas, which are harder to reach or live in. There are few indigenous workers trying to plant churches among the Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Jola and Manjako, and most recently work has begun among the Balanta. I believe that this gospel must become part and parcel of this country.
Q. What was your life like before God called?
MS: My father died when I was six years old, so I had to stay with different families. It was a struggle for survival. My quest for independence led to my adopting a principle never to give up in the face of obstacles. Even though I did not understand it then, my Muslim grandfather told me the very last time I saw him alive that “God has a plan for you.” I was about eighteen years of age then. It means a lot to me now, to believe that somehow God shared his plans for my future with my grandfather.
Another thing of great help was and is my interest in languages. I can speak Jola (my mother tongue), Wolof, Mandinka, Fula and some French. My language capacity helped me work on the first translation of the New Testament in Mandinka.
Q. Could you share some of your early experiences as a missionary?
MS: In 1979, my wife and I moved into a Mandinka settlement in obedience to the Great Commission. The place was dedicated to a snake spirit. In trying to move with wisdom, I took kola nuts to the elders and adopted the Alkalo as my “father” in that town. We engaged in community development for them. With the Bibles and a hoe I would weed with them, asking them, “Why do we remove weeds? Sin is like weeds and God wants to weed out sin from our lives. Jesus is the weeder to take sin away permanently.” The people could relate to this description easily. We did medical work and explained both physical and spiritual cleanliness.
Our method is to allow people to watch our lives. I was there for a three full months before preaching one word. By this time, a stable relationship had been built. We lived and preached from an old house in the middle of the village. This made it hard for them to ignore our message and us. The Alkalo heard the gospel fully. He sat for two years as I taught. Even the Marabout came to hear. The chapel built in 1992 is miraculously still standing. Another church planting effort came out of that church and another church has emerged elsewhere from this second church.
Q. What is the plight of “closet Christians”?
MS: There are far fewer people openly practicing Christianity than those who are secret believers in Christ. There is persecution and threats on lives and livelihood and this makes it difficult for many to openly confess faith in Jesus. The significance is not in the numbers but in the inroads we make to the unreached people. Not every one is opposed to the gospel. When I go to the mission field with the Bible, the people willingly receive copies to read.
Q. What is the focus of the present advance?
MS: Indigenous preaching in local languages is on the increase as opposed to using English as the medium of expression. This is proving effective and Gambians are beginning to change their view of Christianity as a “Western religion.” There are opportunities to teach through national media (television, radio, newspapers), but very few missionaries have the resources to sustain ministry through media.
Q. What are some specific needs of missions in Gambia?
MS: Two of the most important things are moral and financial support of converts. When a convert comes to faith in Christ, he or she ceases to be cared for by friends and family for things like feeding, accommodation and school fees. He or she is seen as an outcast.
It is now the responsibility of the church planter to take in the convert for discipleship, care and protection. The community and relatives will persecute him and try to draw him back either by persuasion or by coercion. In Africa, to be “lost” to one’s family is to lose touch with your very existence.