LUSAKA, Zambia (BP)--The president of Zambia recently acknowledged his faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized in a public service, Southern Baptist missionaries report.
A crowd clapped and cheered as President Levy Mwanawasa (mwah-nah-WAH-sah) rose from the water in an outdoor baptistery behind a Baptist seminary chapel building in Lusaka, Zambia's capital. The event drew hundreds of people, including public officials, leaders and pastors from the area and neighboring countries.
"This baptism was an incredible occasion for the Baptist witness to many people who we have not had in church before," said Troy Lewis, a Southern Baptist missionary in the southern African nation of more than 10 million people. "They heard the gospel of Jesus Christ."
On the day of his baptism, Mwanawasa shared his spiritual journey before a packed chapel service. He told listeners he had been "struck" by Jesus -- similar to the Apostle Paul's experience on the road to Damascus. Mwanawasa, a successful lawyer and former vice president, took office in 2002. Respected for his reputation for honesty, he was known as "Mr. Integrity" even by his political opponents before his election. Now in his mid-50s, he survived a near-fatal car accident in 1992 but insists he is in excellent health.
Mwanawasa remembers attending a Baptist school as a boy, but his relationship with Christ began to transform when he started attending Twin Palm Baptist Church in Lusaka in 2003. The small church meets at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zambia in Lusaka.
As he came week after week with his "entourage," the church tried to maintain business as usual -- but it wasn't easy.
"All of us here were immensely excited about this," Lewis said. "Our excitement and prayers increased when he returned to church again and kept coming whenever he was in the country."
The president began asking questions about the Christian faith and how he could join the church. Church members answered his questions and ministered to him during difficult times. After Mwanawasa began attending the church, his mother died from injuries caused by a fire. He also lost his two brothers. One died unexpectedly of illness; the other was murdered.
Mwanawasa soon shared how Christ had moved in his life -- and that he wanted to be baptized. Franklin Kilpatrick, missionary in Zambia for 35 years, helped disciple Mwanawasa during this process. Kilpatrick and his wife, Paula, are members of Twin Palm Baptist Church.
"The impact is not just in Zambia; this could have an impact on an international level," said Kilpatrick, who is temporarily on U.S. assignment. "He could impact a lot of leaders. He is in a position of influence, and people need encouragement."
The Kilpatricks were originally concerned about drawing too much attention to the event. Local missionaries tried to remain low-key about Mwanawasa's decision. But the news quickly spread all over Zambia -- and to other parts of the world. Others have commented on how the president's life has changed. He already has invited friends and leaders from around the world to attend church with him.
Paula Kilpatrick is excited about what God has planned for the future. "We feel like the story is not over," she said.
The president is just one of many spiritual success stories in Zambia. Last year, 116 Baptist churches were started, bringing the total number of churches to 985 -- plus 124 mission congregations. Some missionaries believe Mwanawasa's baptism is an exclamation point on what God is beginning to do in the country. Lewis encouraged Mwanawasa during a celebration lunch at the statehouse after his baptism.
"I shared with him that we had been praying for him after he came into office, that Zambia would have a leader who had Jesus as his Lord," Lewis said. "And in him coming to Christ and being baptized, God had answered our prayers.
"I told him that we praise God -- and will pray for him to continue to be a president who sees leadership as serving the people rather than lording it over them."
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon