Everyone is scurrying around in the neighborhood. Horns blared, trying to move traffic forward. Mothers would pull their children to school across the sidewalk. Old men sat in groups, sipping coffee and loudly discussing last night’s game. It was a typical urban scene in the United States, except few spoke English here.
The mission team at Immanuel Baptist Church in Magnolia, Arkansas, expected things to be different in Brooklyn, New York than in their small southern town. Nothing prepared them for culture shock, however, when they emerged from the subway into this Brighton Beach community known as “Little Odessa” — the US hub for Central Asian immigrants. The signs were in Russian Cyrillic. The food looked and smelled different.
It was as if they had just entered another country.
Ben Coulter breathed in the unfamiliar spices of food stalls and grinned broadly. The pastor watched as the mission team, made up of college students and families from his church, mingled along the boardwalk and beach.
Their goal was to meet people from Uzbekistan and provide access to the gospel that knows no geographic or social boundaries.
These are essentially diaspora missions.
Diaspora means the movement, migration, settlement or dispersal of people away from their indigenous homeland. This Brighton Beach community has immigrants from Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Reaching internationals like these who have never heard the good news was exactly what Coulter envisioned when Immanuel embraced the Uzbeks as his ethnic group.
More than 100,000 Uzbeks live in the United States, nearly 28,000 in Brooklyn and fewer than five in Magnolia, Arkansas.
“What started out to reach an Uzbek student in our backyard became a burden on an entire nation,” Coulter said.
how it started
When Alex Pokusaev migrated to Immanuel Baptist a few years ago, most of the congregation had never heard of Uzbekistan.
The Southern Arkansas University student was 7,000 miles from home and curious about everything.
“I didn’t grow up with any faith,” Pokusaev said, noting that he was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church by his father while his mother was nominally Muslim. “When Ben[Coulter]and my roommate invited me to church, I was like, ‘Why don’t you try something new?'”
The Uzbek student questioned anyone in the congregation who stopped to chat about the Bible. The gospel message was a concept he had never heard before and wanted to understand.
Coulter knew he had to speak to someone experienced in mentoring ethnic Russians in order to actually reach this student.
He called Jamie Naramore, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s intercultural strategist. It wasn’t the pastor’s first such call from southern Arkansas. The Coulter family and others at Immanuel are regular hosts to SAU international students and faculty from 30 different countries.
The church is also home to nine different nationalities. The pastor learned early on that there was no reason to “reinvent the wheel of ministry” when there are others around the world who can train and mentor him on what needs to be done.
Many state Baptist congregations, such as Arkansas, work with the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board to reach out to diaspora peoples in the United States. The Diaspora Missionary Collective also includes Send Relief, Woman’s Missionary Union, SBC Executive Committee, Seminaries and Local Associations. Terry Sharp, IMF Conferences and Networking Director, helps facilitate collaboration, training and resource sharing.
“God sent us the nations. So we’re trying to meet them right here in the United States,” Sharp said. “This may be the only time they hear the message of the gospel. They could be the ones taking it home, to places missionaries can’t go.”
Sharp pointed out that social media allows the estimated 45 million foreigners and immigrants in the United States to stay in touch with family back home.
Pokusaev did not have to travel to Uzbekistan to find a way to access the gospel. When he made the decision to follow Christ, he shared the information with his mother through social media and personal conversations.
The church prayed for his mother’s salvation and in the process developed an even bigger heart for the Uzbeks. Eventually she too became a follower of Jesus and joined a local church. As they celebrated that answered prayer, their hearts broke when Pokusaev asked, “What happens to those who have never heard of Jesus?”
reach the nations
The question that plagued the college student spurred action by the Church.
Since less than 1% of Uzbeks claim Jesus as their Savior, Immanuel Baptist pledged to work with them in Arkansas. But they wanted more.
“God gave us a heart for Uzbekistan. Alex (Pokusaev) was in the United States for several years. No one ever sat down and taught them the gospel before they came here,” Coulter said. “Our church recognized that God brought unreached people groups to us…not just Arkansas, but the United States.
“We couldn’t stop wondering how many Uzbeks didn’t know Jesus,” he continued. “We had to do something about it.”
It was natural for the small church to bring a mission team to the US Center for Central Asians in Brooklyn.
Because of Pokusaev, the church was already trained to engage Uzbeks. Their passion for reaching out to this community only grew stronger with every experience and person they met.
As Rebecca Castro walked along Brighton’s seafront with the mission team, she saw hopelessness in the eyes of the elderly sitting on the seafront. Because of the language barrier, she could not speak to them, but she could love and pray for them. This was the first step in building relationships within the community for the next team to build on.
The experience reminded her of being towed to international missions as a teenager.
In the years since, she has never felt that God was calling her to move to another country or even to give up her career as an engineer. Now, looking into those eyes, she realized that this was her calling – to reach the nations that are coming to us.
“It’s not about one person or even one church doing everything. We all work together and glorify God,” Castro said. “When we’re a part of it, the Holy Spirit moves and great things happen.”
God’s influence on the diaspora will be featured at this year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, December 4-11, 2022. Visit imb.org/lottiemoon/ for downloadable prayer weeks and Lottie Moon offering materials.
EDITOR’S NOTE – This story was written by Sue Sprenkle and originally published by the International Mission Board.