The Forgotten Island
by John Becker and Patrick Nabwera
The team members were experienced at church planting, not seamanship—especially not in these locally made fishing dhows, with their slanting, triangular sails. That’s why they had entrusted their lives to experienced African sailors who bravely fought the raging wind and sea.
But even these veteran sailors were unable to guide the dhow back to the African mainland. Instead, a powerful wind pushed the team to a small island, where the boat ran aground.
The islanders had witnessed the whole struggle at sea. As the weary group staggered up on the beach, the curious islanders emerged from their humble huts to welcome the travellers, quickly stoking a fire to warm them. The wind finally calmed as they sat beneath the coconut trees in the pale light of the moon.
One of the islanders noticed Toshi’s guitar and gestured to him to play. Toshi promptly led the group in a simple but beautiful song. Sensing that the time was ripe, Ken pulled out a flashlight and began telling the story of salvation.
“God loves you and has prepared a way of salvation for you!” he told the islanders, as his colleague, Albert translated. “In the beginning Allah created the heavens and the earth and all that inhabits the earth. He created man and woman, and all was good.”
As he spoke, Ken illustrated the story with laminated pictures. The locals were intrigued and enthusiastically listened into the night. How beautiful this story was to their ears. Finally it was time to rest, but not until all had enjoyed a late night snack of corn meal cakes and spicy fish stew.
The next morning, Ken, Toshi and Albert gathered their gear and headed for the dhow so they could finally get back to the mainland. That was when Kuja, one of the island elders, spoke up.
“You must come again and share more with us,” said Kuja.
“We would be delighted to return,” said Ken. “What is the name of your island?”
“Ndogo is our island,” said Kuja.
Ken quickly consulted his list of the 12 Uislamu islands, as identified by the tribal chief. Ndogo was not among them.
He wondered: had the chief intentionally omitted Ndogo or simply forgotten it? Chances are he had chosen not to mention Ndogo, which had a bad reputation and was gradually eroding and disappearing into the sea.
Ken began to believe that their arrival on the island was no accident. The castaways felt they were reliving a modern African version of Acts 16, where the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and Silas from reaching their intended destination and brought them to Macedonia. God had apparently set a course that led to Ndogo, an island inhabited by devout Muslims.
The castaways felt they were reliving a modern
African version of Acts 16.
Ndogo had not been on the list of islands, but now that the group had reached this forgotten island, they had an open invitation to return. As their boat sailed toward the African mainland, Ken felt the Lord nudging him and saying, “If you don’t go back, who will?”
Before the Council of Elders
The discovery of Ndogo Island came during a third short-term mission trip to the area. The first two trips had helped confirm a call to reach the Uislamu and precipitated the forming of the small team—Albert, Toshi and Ken.
The third trip had begun with these three men—each from a different part of the world—sitting together on worn-smooth rudimentary stools as coconut trees swayed in the balmy breeze. They had come to seek permission to share God’s message of salvation with the people of these islands near the African coast. They felt their hearts pounding as they explained the purpose of their visit to Chief Msee Wakuu and the tribal elders.
Albert, an African national believer, was fluent in the trade language and served as one of the translators for this important meeting. When the team was deciding whether to come to the islands, he and his wife Sarah had expressed their concerns to their foreign teammates.
“We are full of faith that God’s love will be received by these Muslims, but you must know that previous attempts were met with serious threats of being killed or thrown into the sea!” Albert said. “All past attempts have been fruitless.”
The Uislamu were descendants of ancient Arab traders who had intermarried with African women. They wanted nothing to do with the diluted, paganized form of Christianity that was present on some nearby islands. They feared it would hurt their young people. Though Islamized for centuries, the Uislamu people were led by a tribal chief and retained traditional African customs, such as ancestor worship and witchcraft.
Toshi, an Asian missionary serving on the mainland, had researched several unreached people groups, including the Uislamu. He had been instrumental in organizing prayer walks and an impromptu outreach in the main town, where several Uislamu responded favourably. That encounter had led to this visit.
Chief Msee Wakuu and the elders listened as Albert introduced his companions.
With Albert translating, Ken told the leaders about Allah’s love for their people and his way of salvation. As Ken spoke, the elders made positive gestures of affirmation, but the chief remained stoic and silent until he finally spoke his piece.
“I open my islands to you,” he said, gesturing with his hands to encircle the surrounding coastlands. Pointing to Ken with his chin, he further explained, “And I want you to take this message to all of the Uislamu Islands.”
Thrilled at this news, with eyes wide open and pen in hand, Ken asked, “How many islands are there? What are their names?” Chief Msee Wakuu counted off each island by name, with 12 strikes of his finger into his opposite palm.
Ken, Toshi, and Albert quickly thought through a strategy for visiting the islands. In addition to prayer support, they would need story sets, translators, transportation from local fisherman with sailing dhows, and provisions. The plan called for Toshi to lead the group in a song at each island, and then for Ken to tell the simple story of God’s plan of salvation using laminated picture cards.
But as they sailed back to the mainland the next day to put the plan in motion, the storm and shipwreck deposited them on Ndogo. God had providentially brought them there and moved the islanders to invite them to return. Would they respond?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- The response of the Ndogo islanders opened the door for longer-term involvement. What resources would need to be in place to support long-term ministry on the islands? What next steps would you take?
- Before visiting the various islands, the team had received permission from the tribal chief. What role do community leaders or other influencers play in your ministry? What role would you like them to play?
- Albert, Ken and Toshi had different backgrounds, as well as varying gifts and talents. What challenges are likely to emerge in a multi-cultural team? What strengths? If a new person were to join you in ministry, what gifts or skills would be most helpful? Why?
Forming a Team to Return
As Ken returned to his home in Asia after the third short-term trip, he was haunted by God’s question to him as they had sailed from the forgotten island: “Who will go?” He and his wife Jill had seen God do amazing things in and through their growing congregation far away in another island nation in Asia. They were experienced church planters, but this was a special time in their missionary career. Prayer and fasting had fuelled a dramatic transformation in the church. The congregation had prayed urgently over many hours, days, weeks and years: “Dear Father, we are desperate for you. Reveal your heart to us. We ask for your heart!”
God had answered, extending His love as He grew the church’s heart for the nations. The people responded by sending missionaries, praying for unreached peoples, and pursuing like-minded organizations for partnership in mission. They began supporting Toshi and focusing their attention on unreached people groups in Africa, as well as on encouraging local African pastors towards mission. The church had “adopted” the Uislamu people, committing to long-term witness and service among them.
Now, Ken opened his heart to the church’s leaders: “Here is an unreached Muslim people group asking us to come to them with the gospel,” he said. “We are not quite ready to send a team from our church, but we can’t sit and do nothing! How can we serve these island people?”
“We are not quite ready to send a team from our church, but we can’t sit and do nothing! How can we serve?”
The leaders committed the matter to focused prayer. After much time in prayer, the church leaders sensed God’s clear direction to form and mentor a long-term team of Africans to live and work among the Uislamu. Together with Toshi, they invited Albert and his wife Sarah, along with another African believer named Lydia to form a residential team. They sent another Asian missionary to join them—Sora, an experienced nurse.
It took six months for the team to return to Ndogo. There they were welcomed like long-lost friends by islanders wearing bright smiles and saying, “As-salam Alaykum. Welcome!”
“We did not expect you to come back,” said Kuja, the island elder, “but here you are!”
Nearly 200 islanders gathered to hear the team share the message of Allah’s love.
“We have come back as promised because God’s love for you burns in our hearts,” said Ken, who had joined the team for this momentous occasion. “We are here to share God’s love with you.”
The islanders welcomed the team’s return as a divine sign that Allah had not forgotten them or their remote, eroding island.
Preaching Christ in Context
The team members were based on the mainland, where they could regularly travel to the various islands. Ken planned to mentor the team from Asia while making frequent visits. Toshi, who was exceptionally relational, would be the local advisor. They discovered that two Bible translators, Mike and Ashley, were living in the same town and were already deep into the Uislamu translation of the Bible.
The team soon settled into a routine of language study, island visits, and organized outreaches. They recruited two believers from Ndogo to help with the translation work.
Ken was eager to create simple tools to reach the islanders, and team members helped him adapt materials he had used successfully in Asia. Within a few weeks, they had produced booklets called “The Jesus Story.” The team also decided in advance to give a name to the new community of island believers that they were trusting God to establish: Njia Ya Kweli, or The Way of Truth.
The team knew the islanders were unique people who required a unique approach.
“People want to follow Jesus,” Ken told the team, “but we should not make the path to salvation more difficult by requiring them to cross unnecessary cultural barriers.”
On the islands, team members were clear about their identity as followers of Jesus but kept a distance from the local churches in order not to be wrongly associated with them. This became a challenge for the team on the mainland, because the local churches desired the team’s attention. Albert proposed a solution.
“If we plan to be on the islands during the weekends, we will avoid the pressure of the church services,” he said. Albert’s plan enabled team members to maintain cordial relationships with local churches without becoming distracted from their primary calling to serve the Uislamu.
On Ndogo, Sora and Lydia began a weekly health clinic and Sarah started outreaches to island children. Seeing the team’s activities, Kuja begged an additional favour.
“Please do something for our children,” Kuja pleaded. “There is no school on Ndogo and the government isn’t interested in making one because our island is disappearing!”
The team accepted the invitation and empowered a local man who had once been a school principal to begin teaching classes under a tree. Families embraced the school, and as more islanders sent their children to classes, two new schoolrooms were built. This schoolhouse made a powerful impression on the islanders, and was also noticed by administrators on the mainland.
“Thank you,” said the mayor in his speech. “You do what you say you will do, in a short time and without corruption.”
The team members were grateful for the school’s success, and for their growing relationship with the islanders. But they saw that the school had the potential to distract them from their primary calling to plant churches.
The team had good tools, growing relationships and good reputations, but progress was slow. As the team struggled to make disciples and raise up churches, Ken and Jill began to wonder if they should move from Asia to Africa to join the team on location. Would joining the team be helpful—or would it communicate a lack of trust and confidence?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- The school strengthened the team’s reputation but also posed a potential distraction from its primary purpose. What would you do in such a situation?
- Ken helped form the initial relationships but had more recently been advising and supporting the team of non-Westerners from afar. Now he and Jill are considering joining the team in residence. If you were Ken and Jill, what factors would you consider in making that decision? If you were one of the national workers, what input would you offer them?
Knowing they were not there to run schools, the team members worked diligently to hand off leadership of the school to the local people, so that the team could keep its focus on the work of raising up the church.
Meanwhile, Ken and Jill worked to hand over leadership of the Asian church to its local leadership. They felt the Spirit clearly directing them to relocate to Africa to join the team and reach out to the Uislamu full time. After a year they made the move.
It took time, but the expanded team began to see the fruit of its efforts. Albert and Ken met with Kuja and 20 of the island men to study the Scriptures. Many of the men prayed to receive Christ, and some of them expressed the desire to be baptised. But baptisms might cause a stir in the community. Ken considered their options.
“We have three options as far as I can see,” said Ken. “We can wait until we have hundreds of people wanting baptism. No amount of Muslim opposition could stop such a groundswell.
“Second, we can baptise converts quietly, at night for example.
“Third, we can find a contextually appropriate form of baptism and proceed openly.”
Ken was convinced that the issue could not be skirted. Some Muslims had reported seeing Jesus appear to them in dreams in which he told them to go to the believers and ask for baptism.
As the team members were debating the options, a crisis forced them to make a quick decision. Several of the new converts were accused of sexual promiscuity. The crisis required an immediate, public response—leading them toward the third option. Ken and Albert drew a line in the sand.
As they sat barefoot on mats among the men, who wore their embroidered prayer caps, Ken said, “The way of truth is not about studying, it is about repenting and following. The way Jesus told us to demonstrate our repentance was through being washed in baptism!”
The islanders were ready to act.
“There’s the water,” they said, pointing to the sea that surrounded their island. “Let’s go now!”
“Not yet!” Ken replied, surprising some of the team members. “If you are truly going to repent of the sin of adultery, you need to declare your sin not only here but also to your wives. Let’s take time for you to visit each home and share the gospel with your wives and children and invite them also to join you.”
“There is no way my wife will ever follow Jesus,” said one of the men.
Another agreed. “My wife is hard into Islam and witchcraft.”
“I understand,” said Ken. “But let’s go visit them anyway.”
Ken and Albert devoted the next two weekends to prayer as the men followed through on this challenge. Thank God, every single one of the wives agreed to follow Jesus, too.
The men were shocked and grateful, and scheduled the next weekend for a communal “ceremony of washing.” The team wondered if anyone would come. They prayed, “Lord, will you now secure your people here on Ndogo? Wash these people with your Spirit and transform their lives.”
More than 90 islanders showed up to be baptised.
Kuja and his wife led the way. As he took to the water, Kuja publicly confessed, “I believe in the forgiveness of Allah through Isa. I repent of adultery, immorality, witchcraft, and my own works of righteousness.”
The following weekend, another 35 islanders from a nearby village underwent the ceremony of washing.
The church was growing on Ndogo and life was improving in tangible ways for the islanders. At this point, Ken and Albert focused on developing a small group of island leaders.
“We are only here with you for a few years,” said Ken, “so you have the responsibility to take the gospel to your people and beyond. There are other people waiting to hear the gospel that God has laid on our hearts.”
Kuja and the others took this challenge to heart, embracing two primary principles.
“Number one is this,” they heard the team say. “What you learn today you should put into practice today. And number two is this: You should go and teach someone else today what you have just learned.”
You should go and teach someone else today
what you have just learned.
This is how the Njia Ya Kweli movement became viral, spreading organically as the islanders began visiting their friends and family in other places. Ken and Albert intentionally placed leadership and decision making in the hands of the Uislamu while they equipped the core group to train emerging leaders from the other islands. The worship gatherings featured a consistent structure that allowed continuity throughout the movement.
First, the men of various ages gathered, socializing outside the meeting rooms. The leader would then greet the group, “As-salam Alaykum.” Then the singing started. Men who did not know the songs stood and clapped along. Next, a person appointed by the leader prayed. The group then said the Lord’s Prayer together, with open hands and palms facing up. Next came a time of spontaneous and simultaneous prayer, followed by the reading of a Psalm, a request for a personal testimony, and reports of the spread of the faith throughout the islands.
The teaching portion of the gatherings began with a review of the previous week’s lesson and continued with a sermon on a Scripture passage. Following the lesson, believers discussed the lesson and shared one thing they were going to do in obedience to the message. Finally, everyone broke bread and shared communion at the Lord’s Table.
Local leaders continued to take ownership of the faith community and established five pillars on which the movement was founded. These became their communal creed:
- Love Allah and man.
- Call on Isa to be saved.
- Listen to Isa’s voice and obey.
- Come together to worship.
- Tell others about the way of truth.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Baptism is a key activity when working among traditionally Muslim communities. It can be a powerful witness and also can lead to immense backlash or misunderstanding. Do Ken’s options make sense to you? In what circumstances might you consider each of the options?
- Waiting to baptise publicly until a large group of believers is ready;
- Quietly baptising believers immediately, perhaps at night;
- Baptising immediately and publicly, using forms that limit cultural misunderstanding.
- Sin among new believers carries great potential for growth—and destruction—in the life of a young church. How prepared are you to address this? What principles will guide your decisions in this area?
- The local movement had a name, a set of core values, and a recognizable order of worship (liturgy). What benefits—or limitations—result from developing or adopting recognizable forms and identity markers? How do you and those you work with think about such issues?
A Sudden Setback
The Njia Ya Kweli community earned an increasingly positive reputation throughout the islands, and Chief Msee Wakuu remained a faithful advocate, joining in on the group’s meetings and bestowing legitimacy upon the Njia Ya Kweli movement.
But others weren’t so happy about the group’s growth. Haji, a politically powerful imam, became jealous of the movement’s local following and spread rumours about its people.
“No one is going to the mosque anymore.”
“Everyone wants to follow Isa, not Muhammad!”
Haji and his fellow imams even organized a huge community meeting to apply pressure on the converts. The imams were pleased when many islanders were eager to speak up at the gathering, but Haji’s pleasure turned bitter as each spoke in favour of Njia Ya Kweli.
This popular resistance was too much for Haji, who unilaterally condemned the members of the church-planting team.
“They are no longer welcome to come to my island,” said Haji, who was both the senior imam and the most powerful government representative on one of the islands. The team was prohibited from engaging with the residents of that island for three years. Ken and the other team members were glad that they had worked to develop local leaders, but they wondered how the movement would fare during the coming years.
Jesus-Followers, but Not Infidels
The Njia Ya Kweli believers sought to live out their faith in a manner that honoured Christ but did not necessarily alienate them from their Muslim neighbours. In many ways, the believers were an anomaly to the broader Muslim community. Though no longer practicing Islam, they did not separate themselves from their neighbours, which allowed them to engage in outreach and witness. On the other hand, they followed a new set of beliefs and way of life that could not be accepted as Islamic. The Njia Ya Kweli believers were not considered infidels, like pork-eating, alcohol-drinking Christians. But they did not participate in daily ritual prayers or fast during Ramadan.
The Njia elders regularly discussed these cultural challenges at their meetings.
“Should we make Christmas part of our celebrations?” asked one of the elders at one meeting.
The other elders searched the scriptures before answering.
“Celebrating Christmas would make us look like those who make idols of tradition,” said one elder. “It will hinder our witness. It is not a sin to celebrate Christmas. Neither is it a sin against the Scriptures to avoid it. Therefore, for the sake of our outreach in the community, we should not do it.”
The believers’ desire to remain near their Muslim friends and continue as a part of Uislamu cultural life led them to voluntarily organize the local celebration of Id al-Adha, which honours Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son. They thought that commemorating God’s provision of an animal for the sacrifice would be a perfect way to redeem an annual Muslim festival for outreach, and to make reference to the Lamb of God’s ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world.
But even as these efforts proved successful, the believers faced daily challenges about how to express their new identity. Kuja shared one such experience with his fellow believers.
“I used to slaughter chickens in the name of Allah,” he said. “Nowadays, I do not. Today my friend came to eat with me, but before he ate he asked me who slaughtered the chicken. When I told him it was me, my friend refused to eat with me.”
Despite such challenges, most people felt that the Njia Ya Kweli believers were blessing all the Uislamu islands. Chief Msee Wakuu supported the Jesus followers, though he refrained from publicly expressing that support due to local Islamic pressure.
“Everyone wants you back on Haji’s island,” the chief told Ken during a visit, “But there is nothing I can do. Haji is too strong.”
Stemming the Tide
In contrast to the burgeoning Njia movement, the physical island of Ndogo continued to waste away. Fierce north winds and waves had picked up their pace, hitting the eroding island with a relentless persistence. The islanders were distressed—where would they live when the waves fully covered their island?
Ken wife’s Jill was convinced that God would provide. “Ken, we must call for a special time of prayer and fasting,” she said. Inspired, the elders sent word throughout the island. Men, women and children prayed and fasted as they marched around the island in a procession, pleading with the Lord to display His power.
To their amazement, the north wind stopped. In the days that followed, the erosion halted and in some places, the island even gained new land—enough for some people to move their houses to. The lifespan of Ndogo was extended by three years.
A Lasting Legacy
During that time, the believers were able to plan an orderly departure, and the team devised an exit strategy to fully transition leadership to one of the local leaders. These plans were hindered when three of the key Uislamu leaders fell into sin, their failure plain for all to see. The entire island of Ndogo was ripe with gossip over the scandal.
The team and the islanders prayed much about the new leadership as they sought the Lord and read the scriptures. Having to abandon their original plan, they could now see clearly that Jesus did not appoint one to lead the rest. Quite the contrary! And so they followed Jesus’ example and charged the island leaders to lead together. This counter-cultural leadership style proved to be just what was needed. The local leadership team would be stronger than any one single leader.
During a final meeting with the Njia Ya Kweli leaders, Ken exhorted them. “You know we promise to visit you regularly,” Ken told them. “You are in our hearts and we are one with you. You are the Uislamu, and you now know the way of truth.”
Kuja was one of many who testified to the impact of the team’s ministry.
“I used to play around with other women and neglected my family,” he said. “But when I heard about Isa, I left those things and began to care for my wife and children. Now I am sharing the way of truth with my people.”
A year after the team’s departure, the tiny island of Ndogo disappeared into the sea. The islanders joyfully departed, spreading themselves and the gospel among the other islands. Even Haji eventually gave in to the pressure of his people and formally welcomed the Njia community back to his island.
Ken and Jill have made annual visits to the islands and the Njia Ya Kweli leaders, just as they promised. They have seen the now-fully-indigenous movement grow to include 8,000 “washed” believers meeting in 150 Njia churches and another 200 house fellowships/gatherings. The children’s ministry now includes dozens of Njia Ya Kweli “madrassas,” to train spiritual leaders for the Uislamu people. And the movement has been extended beyond the Uislamu to two other unreached people groups.
Ken reflected in his journal: “What I know is simply a gift of God and His choice and timing for the Uislamu. When I stand to minister to these people, I feel almost physically a flow of love from my spirit into their spirits. Even though I am going through translation, there is no interruption, and I am speaking directly into their hearts and they are feeding right off my spirit. And if you were to ask them, ‘Why are these foreigners with us?’ They will tell you, ‘It is because they love us!’
“That has been the key—the fruit of our Asian church’s time spent soaking up the love of God all those years before. We were worshipping Him and waiting on Him, and allowing Him to fill our hearts with His love for the people He was calling us to…And I can honestly say that Njia Ya Kweli is a community of love, for the Lord, for His people and for our neighbours who are still in darkness.”
Some fruitful practices you may note in this story:
As a leader, be ready to highlight the following practices during the discussion. Research has shown these practices to be correlated with fruitfulness across a wide variety of ministry situations among Muslims.
- Society 4: Fruitful workers mobilize extensive, intentional, and focused prayer.
- Society 7: Fruitful workers build positive relationships with local leaders.
- Believers 5: Fruitful workers help believers find ways to remain within their social network.
- Believers 14: Fruitful workers deal with sin in biblical ways that are culturally appropriate.
- Teams 4: Fruitful teams employ the various gifts of their members to serve the task.
- Seekers 2: Fruitful workers pray for God’s supernatural intervention as a sign that confirms the gospel.
- Leaders 2: Fruitful workers mentor leaders who in turn mentor others.
- Leaders 3: Fruitful workers encourage leadership based on godly character.
- Faith Communities 3: Fruitful faith communities practice baptism.
- Faith Communities 5: Fruitful faith communities are committed to one another as extended family, practicing the biblical “one another” commands.
- Faith Communities 6: Fruitful faith communities redeem traditional festivals and ceremonies.
- Faith Communities 11: Fruitful faith communities involve their children in worship and ministry.
John Becker, husband and father of four, has spent the past 20 years inviting Muslims to follow Jesus. Having spent most of this time in Africa and Europe, he loves working together with others to see new communities of faith emerge.
Patrick Nabwera, husband and father of two, has been involved in cross-cultural outreach to Muslim communities in Africa for the last 20 years. Patrick is committed to training and mentoring fellow Africans into the same vision.