RICHMOND, Va. — Carl
Stroller* doesn’t drink vodka. But his ministry might not be the same without
Stroller and his wife, Amy,*
are Southern Baptist missionaries. Ten years ago, they left their hometown in
North Carolina to share the gospel with a Muslim people known as the Lezghi
More than 600,000 Lezghi
live among the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, located between the
Black and Caspian seas. Most are poor by Western standards, surviving as
farmers or shepherds. Though their culture is Islamic, the Lezghis’ belief in God
is deeply rooted in animism (spirit worship).
Many have heard Jesus’ name
but know Him only as a good man who did good things.
In rocky soil like this,
Stroller says sharing the truth about Christ requires patience to build strong
relationships. When he’s not involved with community development projects —
like teaching English — much of Stroller’s time is spent talking
about God over a bottle of vodka.
Alcohol, like animism, is
tightly woven into Lezghi society. Sharing a drink with a neighbor, friend or co-worker
is an everyday event — at meals, on the job, after work.
Russian influence has made
vodka the Lezghis’ liquor of choice, not to mention the fuel that fires rampant
But the Lezghis’ desire to
drink does have a single redeeming value — it presents Stroller with the chance
to explain why he doesn’t.
“To decline drink is always
an odd response for them,” Stroller says. “They can’t believe that somebody
wouldn’t want to drink, but it often leads to an opportunity to … share your
testimony and what the Lord has done in your life.
“The funniest thing is what
they consider to be alcoholic and not alcoholic. I’ll decline vodka … and
they’ll bring beer or wine. Then it’s back to my testimony of why I don’t
“If I don’t have an
opportunity to share … it’s because I didn’t take the opportunity.”
But opportunity doesn’t
necessarily indicate openness to the gospel, and sharing is no guarantee of
Despite a decade of work
among the Lezghi, the Strollers can’t confidently say they’ve led a single
person to saving faith in Christ. It’s been a difficult journey, filled with
hardship, bitter disappointment — even betrayal.
“Initially we thought that
these people only needed to hear the gospel and then they would start coming to
faith. We never anticipated them being so obstinate to the Good News,” Stroller
“Though spiritually minded,
they don’t typically express much interest in the gospel. Their eyes have truly
Stroller remembers sharing
the gospel with a young Lezghi man who appeared to accept Christ but later
began asking about the “benefits” of being saved.
He eventually discovered
that the young man’s conversion was motivated by a TV news story about churches
that were allegedly bribing people to become Christians. Once the man realized
his profession of faith wasn’t going to pay, he renounced Jesus and ended his
contact with Stroller.
Amy tells of a similar
experience. Several years ago she shared Christ with a Lezghi woman who was
married to an abusive, alcoholic husband. Amy, along with several local
believers, tried to help the woman.
She claimed to accept Christ
and even went so far as to be baptized. But Amy soon realized the woman was
using them — lying to the church and borrowing money she had no intention of
“All the other neighbors
that I had evangelized in the past had heard that this woman had become a
Christian,” Amy says.
“They thought she was an
accurate model of a believer, and they wanted nothing to do with Jesus. She
gave them reason to reject Christ.”
But situations like these
don’t tell the whole story. God has blessed the Strollers with some successes
among the Lezghi, including starting a small house church that’s grown from a
group of five to 15 people. Persecution has since forced the church to split in
half to attract less attention, but it continues to grow in spite of the
Lezghis’ coldness to the gospel.
“How do we overcome
(hardship)? By remaining faithful to the task,” Stroller says.
“We remain obedient to the
command of our Lord to make disciples of all nations. We believe He meant the
Lezghi people when He gave that command — that’s why we are here.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham
is a writer for IMB. Every penny given to the
Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is used to support more than 5,600 Southern
Baptist missionaries as they share the gospel overseas. This year’s offering
goal is $175 million. The 2009 Lottie Moon offering theme is “Who’s Missing,
Whose Mission?” It focuses on overcoming barriers to hearing and accepting the
gospel in various parts of the world and the mission that the Great Commission
gives all Christians to “go and make disciples of all nations.” For resources about the
offering, go to imb.org/offering.)