By Nicole Owens
In 2013, as the warm August rains swept through western Uganda, Doctors Paul and Helen Shepherd were wrapping up their second short-term stint at Kagando Hospital. They loved the people and the vibrant work of discipling medical staff, and they returned to their home in the UK certain God was calling them into full-time mission service.
But where and to whom, exactly, was God leading them? It would’ve been simple, even logical, to return to work at Kagando. Equally appealing was the prospect of serving with fellow missionary friends who were soon heading to Angola.
Back in the UK, however, these very same friends unearthed a startling statistic that stopped both couples in their tracks: only three percent of missionaries live among unreached people groups. An overwhelming 97% labor where the church already exists. While work in all of these contexts can be valuable, the Shepherds and their friends wondered if perhaps God was calling them to places of urgency, where the gospel has not yet taken root.
Unreached peoples and places are a catch-22: no one serves there because no one’s already there to pave the way. Cross-cultural mission relies on a vast web of connections fueling relationships, community, longevity. Many missionaries first serve in a short-term role alongside established workers on the field. Once there, they fall hard for the bright chaos and the people. When they transition into long-term work, they’re most likely to return to this place that has snagged their affections, that already smells and bustles like home.
By contrast, the landscape of the Great Unknown, where many of the least-reached folks on earth reside, seems murky and shapeless. No stories trickle out of these regions, no rudimentary hints of what life or ministry might look like. Nobody goes because nobody’s gone before them.
The Shepherds’ friends, and then later Paul and Helen themselves, went back to their respective mission leaders with a gutsy question. “You know the needs on the field,” they said, “so if you could send us anywhere, where would you send us?” In response, their friends were rerouted to a place steeped in Islam, while the Shepherds were told of an unreached people group in Uganda.
Though Paul and Helen had never heard of Kotido Town or met any of the Jie (a sub-tribe of the Karimojong people), when AIM asked them to serve in Karamoja, they readily agreed. And so they leapt into the unknown, without a lick of language or existing relationships, and found that God had faithfully gone before them. Despite a reputation for toughness, the Jie have been gracious and helpful, enfolding Paul and Helen—and especially their children—into the earthy rhythms of Kotido life.
In this region, known to be the poorest in Uganda, the Shepherds could easily spend every clamoring minute of each day attending to medical needs. “But what we really want is to see the gospel go out,” Paul explains. “We want to see people get saved; we want to see churches grow and thrive here. We want to see the Karimojong go from an unreached people group to a reached one.”
This is the heartbeat of AIM, because we believe it’s the heartbeat of God. May we continue to follow Him into lands wild and uncharted, bearing the lambent hope of the gospel.