MASERU, Lesotho As the woman lies dying, a spiritual struggle begins.
The woman's body has wasted away. Her organs are shutting down. Sweat beads on her emaciated face. She smells like death.
Babs Dial, a missionary with the International Mission Board, leans over the woman and whispers to her about the love of Jesus Christ.
The woman's mother, a witch doctor, interrupts: "She does not want to hear that."
Dial persists and asks the woman if she understands what Jesus did for her. The woman nods.
Does she want Jesus to be her Savior?
"No, she is dying," the witch doctor insists. "She wants to hear happy things."
The woman's eyes flutter. She nods once more.
"The way people measure value in this world, she has absolutely none," said Alan Dial, Babs' husband. "The combined wealth of her entire family would not pay for a bag of groceries. But she's passing into eternity. Does it matter? Yeah, it matters."
The Dials know just how much. For six years, they labored in the tiny African country of Lesotho to bring salvation to a people for whom time is running out.
The Dials went to Lesotho, in Africa, in 2004 from Tallahassee, Fla., to work among the mountain Basotho people, who languish in the grip of death. They are desperately poor, often lacking basic food and clothing. Nearly a quarter have HIV/AIDS, by official estimates, but the Dials think it may be closer to 60 percent. They have been in villages where everyone has the virus.
The Basotho also are poisoned by the stinging, oily smoke from the fires they build inside their huts.
"Almost all of them have some degree of tuberculosis or other chronic pulmonary disease," Alan said. "Their eyes are always red and watering, and they all cough."
Hungry and sick, their bodies ravaged by AIDS, the Basotho perish in droves, most before the age of 45. Fewer than 2 percent know Jesus as Savior, Alan said, and their people group is becoming extinct.
"We cannot get to them fast enough to give them the Good News about Jesus before they die," Alan said.
That knowledge fuels the Dials' urgency. By foot, horseback or truck, by themselves or with volunteer teams, the couple has trekked to countless villages with the message of the Gospel.
At each village, the Dials ask the chief's permission to share with the people. Almost all the chiefs are eager for their people to hear about Jesus Christ. One chief who wasn't a Christian welcomed them anyway.
"He said, 'Christians don't beat their wives, steal their neighbors' animals or get drunk,' so he wanted [his people] all to be Christians," Alan said.
"We heard him tell his people they needed to change, that the way they were living was not working," Babs added.
The Dials spoke to the villagers about AIDS and orphans, trying to change the destructive way of life that fills so many Basotho graves. They told Bible stories during town meetings, showed the "JESUS" film and went home to home, talking about Jesus.
The grip of African traditional religion, which is steeped in ancestor worship, makes for rocky spiritual soil. The Basotho coordinate everything in their lives from marriage to funerals to naming their children with clan witch doctors. They have little concept of sin and believe that no matter what they have done, they simply go to be with their ancestors when they die.
"Clinging to that, being taught it and living it day in and out, is a tenacious thing that keeps [the Basotho] from surrendering to 'the white man's God,'" Alan said.
More sinister forces also oppose the Dials. Alan remembers a harrowing spiritual attack while he was showing the JESUS film to a room packed with 400 high school students.
"During the crucifixion scene, just as the nail was put in Jesus' hand and the hammer struck the nail, the most blood-curdling scream I have ever heard in my life came from the middle of that crowd," Alan recounted.
The crowd passed a girl over their heads to the Dials. She was stiff as a board, lying in the crucifixion position, screaming hideously, with terror in her eyes. The couple prayed over her for 20 minutes until she stopped screaming and went limp. She had no memory of what had happened.
With opposition from demonic forces and tribal religion, bringing the Basotho to Jesus takes patience.
"It takes a while for them to come to Christ, but they are coming," Babs said. "They're not coming in masses."
The rate at which the Basotho are perishing means the need for workers to spread the Gospel is urgent. Health problems with Alan's back will probably prevent the Dials from going back to Lesotho after stateside assignment to join another missionary couple and local pastors who continue the work. It is a heartbreaking reality for the Dials, who have given their hearts to the Basotho.
"When we came down the mountain before leaving, I just wept, because I knew I wouldn't be back," Babs said. The Dials plan to serve in another area where Alan will have access to ongoing medical care.
Alan's voice burns with the passion of a man who knows the people he loves are dying. There are not enough missionaries, money or resources, he says. If something is not done, the Basotho will be only a memory of a people who perished in their sins.
"Somebody has to go tell the story before they die."