Vodka unlikely ministry ally
Don Graham, Baptist Press
December 04, 2009

Vodka unlikely ministry ally

Vodka unlikely ministry ally
Don Graham, Baptist Press
December 04, 2009

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

(pronounced lez-gee).

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.

IMB photo

Most Lezghi of the Caucasus Mountains survive as farmers or shepherds, growing what they need to eat and selling anything left over.

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

been blinded.”

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.”

*Name changed


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.)