The drive down Kentucky Highway 166 is like a trip back to my childhood. The two-lane road, surrounded by miles of open farmland and lined with cozy ranch-style homes, is so similar to those in my Arkansas hometown that I experience a sharp pang of nostalgia. It’s the kind of place where directions include phrases like “turn where the Wilsons’ barn used to be” and neighbors are all on a first-name basis—a place where time moves a little slower and relationships, like anything of value, are built to last.
I arrive at Liberty Baptist Church in Fulton and step out of the car into the cold, gray drizzle. Immediately, I’m shepherded inside a fellowship hall by an older gentleman named John, who sports suspenders and a winning smile. “We’re glad you could make it,” he says, wrapping me in a bear hug. I laugh, surprised by the greeting. Inside, boxes destined for the food pantry sit along one wall of the large metal building; down another, toys and sports equipment sprout helter-skelter from storage bins.
The room is abuzz with activity as men unfold tables and chairs and set them up in neat rows. In the kitchen, a small army of women joke and swap stories as they set out trays of sliced fruit and cookies alongside carafes of freshly brewed coffee. The previous June, this group decided to send their Vacation Bible School mission offering to In Touch Ministries to help create Messengers for the Ticuna—a people group living along tributaries of the Amazon River. And now almost two dozen church members have come to hear news of how their gift is impacting people thousands of miles away.
“Everyone was excited about giving to the Ticuna project because we had a rainforest theme,” Jeanne Cole, the VBS coordinator, tells me, “especially the children.”
One of those kids, Bradley Burkeen—a lanky, sandy-haired 9-year-old with a sweet Kentucky drawl—is there to meet me. “The teachers told us a Messenger is like an iPod with the story of Jesus on it in the language they speak,” he says. “I thought that was really cool.”
Bradley had become a Christian only a few months before VBS began, but he knew one thing: If he’d needed to hear the gospel, so would the Ticuna kids. He began scrounging for change in car doors and couches, much like the other 32 children at the church that week—mining coin purses and piggy banks like some kind of pint-sized forty-niner. He even made use of the gold dollar coins his father keeps to use in vending machines each night at the factory where he works.
All told, the children and volunteers collected enough for 10 Messengers. And in a city where 34 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment is nearly three times the national average, this kind of giving isn’t just laudable; it’s lavish.
But generosity is the default setting in this church. Though average Sunday attendance hovers around 80 people, they provide for one another and their town in ways typical of a church twice that size. The members of Liberty Baptist feed the hungry and visit shut-ins around the county. They also evangelize door to door and reach out to drug addicts, though police have advised against it for safety reasons. They’re a living picture of Hebrews 13:16: “Do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” And as passionate as these people are about serving those in the local community, they’re equally driven to help the Ticuna—a culture half a world away—however they can.
“Bradley came home each afternoon from VBS full of questions about the people in the Amazon,” says his mother, Jennifer Burkeen. “He’d say things like, ‘It’s hot there, Mom, just like it is in Kentucky. We have air conditioning, but what do they have?’ or ‘We always get our food from the grocery store, but how do they get stuff to eat? Do you think they’re hungry?’ I could tell he was really putting himself in their shoes, thinking about what life must be like for them.”
Other things stuck with him after VBS was over as well—things like the scriptures they memorized during Bible study and recited as they played games and made crafts. “I remember John 3:16 best,” he says, pushing his glasses up on his nose and focusing his eyes on something distant in concentration. He rifles off the words: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” And when he finishes, he beams and says, “God gave us Jesus so we could go to heaven where my Papaw is. We should give so others can know about Him, too.”
I take a Ticuna Messenger from my back pocket and ask if he’d like to hear what his favorite verse sounds like in the tribe’s language. He nods excitedly, and after a few tries, I manage to skip forward to the Book of John. When those life- giving words come out of the tiny speaker in my hand, all the people gathered around the table applaud, and Bradley’s face breaks into a huge grin. “That sounds like some language from outer space or something!” he says, “I don’t understand a word they’re saying.”
Few in the world can, but that’s not the case for the Ticuna tribe or for the God who created and loves us all. Today, because of the bountiful sowing of 33 children and 30 volunteer workers in Kentucky, the Ticuna can hear all about what Jesus sacrificed for them. They, too, can know what their heavenly Father gave so that each and every one of us can rejoice forever when we reach heaven—the place where we’ll celebrate in a language we all recognize. Every single word.