The small strip of Alabama that touches the Gulf of Mexico is like a gateway to the world, according to Gerald Burch. Every year more than 500 ships pull up to it and drop their anchor for a day or so.
It’s an open door to a lot of diversity — and it’s a door that’s only getting bigger. In September, Alabama lawmakers approved a project to make the Port of Mobile’s shipping channel deeper and wider — something that will allow for more and bigger ships.
To Burch, who serves as director of international ministries for Mobile Baptist Association, that sounds like a massive opportunity.
“We’re excited about the work the Lord has us in,” said Burch, who began serving in this position in early October.
Before starting his work there, he and his wife, Brenda, served for 37 years as International Mission Board missionaries in Asia, so he said he knows how to relate to internationals.
But it’s still a “sharp learning curve,” he said. “I’ve never done seamen’s ministry.”
He’s surrounded by people who have though — Mobile Association isn’t new to ship outreach. Their Seafarer’s Ministry has been taking place since 1970 when they first opened the International Ministries Center.
The center offers internet access, fellowship, food, recreation and other services to seafarers. It also offers free Bibles and is staffed by volunteer chaplains who occasionally are invited aboard the ships to lead Bible studies.
“It used to be that the ships would come in for three to five days, but sometimes now they only stay a day,” Burch said. “So we’re looking for more volunteer chaplains to help us reach out to more.”
Thomas Wright, executive director of missions for Mobile Association, said with all these opportunities to reach internationals, it’s never been easier for Christians to be obedient to Acts 1:8. He believes one reason God brought the nations to Mobile’s doorstep is to stretch churches and individuals outside of their normal comforts and conveniences.
“Every believer in every church now has an opportunity to share Christ across cultures,” he said. “Each congregation can engage members to step out of their comfort zone to make an eternal difference.”
‘Bridge to the lost’
Wright said 73 language-culture groups make their home in Mobile County and more than 100 language groups are studying on the city’s university campuses.
“Thankfully many believers here are asking how to communicate across cultures,” he said. “They find the New Testament demonstrates many ways to build a bridge to the lost so they can hear about Jesus. The outreach begins with making a new friend.”
That can sometimes be difficult in tight-knit communities, but Mobile Baptists are trying to find ways to reach out. They have an International Language School to teach English skills to internationals, and local Baptist Campus Ministries are working to reach international students with the gospel.
Mobile Association also has Korean, Laotian and Vietnamese churches now — and is hoping to start more among different language groups.
“We are starting churches and Bible studies so every person can hear, understand and respond to biblical truth,” Wright said. “Each of these opportunities are more effective when churches make the effort to work together.”
Kristy Kennedy, an associate in the office of associational missions and church planting for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said English as a Second Language ministry is thriving in Mobile.
“Mobile is slightly more diverse (than the rest of Alabama) due to the number of refugees that move there and because it is a port city,” she said. “That provides many opportunities for ministry.”
But the entire state has international ministry possibilities, Kennedy said. “Alabama is ever growing due to our universities. Many internationals come here to get an education. We as Alabama Baptists should take advantage of our opportunities to share the good news with the many visitors to our state who have never heard.”