This year I celebrated the tenth anniversary of the rather dubious distinction of being blacklisted (refused entry as a ”risk to national security”) by the country where my family and I had served as part of the Interserve fellowship for nearly a decade.
One of our core commitments as a fellowship is to work alongside national believers, equipping and empowering them to be light and salt in their community. Among other things, this ensures that the task can continue long after we have left. I thought it appropriate on this tenth anniversary to review how well that is happening in the community we were a part of.
Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I, along with our 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, moved to an impoverished third-world city. Not unlike many Interserve Partners, I thought I was well equipped with professional expertise (a 4-year agricultural science degree, 3 years of doctoral studies and 4 years of postdoctoral research). But 10 months later I found myself sitting in the dirt of an inner-city garbage dump (also a primitive industrial area and home to thousands of people), selecting some crude pottery. I had begun to work with a Dutch entrepreneur (let’s call him Pieter) who thought he could build a business and ministry in the midst of such squalor. My part was to be the world’s most highly qualified pot inspector!
So began a most unexpected decade-long adventure. Pottery became a path to friendships with people in communities across that country whose faith and worldview were utterly unlike mine. In the process, we exported hundreds of containers of pottery, brought substantial income into some of the poorest communities, and shared about the wonderful hope we have in Jesus with many of those people. We had the opportunity to demonstrate by our daily life the goodness and mercy of our wonderful Lord and Saviour.
We also often got it wrong, and the people we worked among were often liberal with the truth. Indeed, like any genuine friendship, we all needed to give and receive forgiveness quite regularly. But, like many friendships that endure hardship (even self-inflicted hardship), those friendships became all the more precious as those moments of grace, given and received, somehow welded us together.
Perhaps no-one had to do more forgiving than the group of young Christian men who we employed on a daily basis to help us with the work and who participated with us in the ministry. This was no charity: long days, often travelling for hours on dangerous roads, working out in the open, hard physical work under a hot sun – but always alongside the people who made the pottery. Over the years, these young Christian men grew with the business and took over much of the day-to-day operations. They shared fully in our ministry but also took initiatives, establishing their own business and even starting their own ministry.
After nearly a decade of living and working intensely with these young men, Pieter and I were suddenly no longer permitted to re-enter that country. Overnight, something that had filled our lives so completely was gone. It’s now 10 years since we were unable to return and I have been so encouraged by the way those young men have continued to build on our rather shaky foundations. So I wanted to tell you about each of them – let’s call them David, Michael, Stephen and Josh.
When we left, David was already our Operations Manager and Pieter and I decided that hewas the person to take over the business. He bought the business from us and we continued to provide working capital (on which we charged interest). The business has continued to function and provide a basis for David’s day-to-day engagement with those majority-faith communities across the country. David continues to employ both Christian and majority-faith people and last year was the best year for sales turnover in 10 years. He has had to contend with the impact of the Arab Spring chaos and the global financial crisis before that. Yet this business has survived and continues to generate significant work for impoverished communities.
David and Stephen together decided to also respond to the situation of women in that community by starting small micro-finance projects. All of this may not seem remarkable to you, but the subtext is that this is a society where there is an invisible but very strong separation between the majority and minority (Christian) faith communities. The Christian community sees the majority as their persecuting oppressors. So the idea that Christians might consider the vulnerable and needy among the majority faith worthy of care and concern is a revolutionary mindset.
Michael has also not been still in the 10 years we have been away. He and his wife (who has specialist skills in the care of children with disabilities) started a centre for children with disabilities in the village where our business was based. In this culture, as in many countries, to have a child with a disability is a matter of significant personal shame; such children are frequently hidden in homes, neglected, living without dignity or opportunity.
Michael and his wife currently have over 100 children at the centre and they have trained local women from the village (many of them mothers of the children) to provide the children with high-quality care and education. Last year, a 6-year-old girl, the daughter of a local religious leader, was brought to them because she had never spoken. One day, after six months with them, she began speaking whole sentences. As a father I can only imagine the impact this had on that girl’s family. This is a profound witness of what it means to follow Christ. I don’t know if this was a miracle or simply the result of placing the child in a stimulating environment, but just the fact that a Christian would choose to care for the child of a religious leader speaks volumes to that community about the Jesus we serve.
Stephen was for me always a bit of surprise. He never really seemed to like working with us (it might have been something to do with the fact that every day was a bit like boot camp!). He was often late for work and not very reliable in participating in the ministry we were doing. Yet, after we left, he turned himself to sharing his faith full-time with people from the majority community. Not only did he get involved in this work himself (which in that region is a dangerous thing to do), but he also trained others and equipped them with skills to run their own businesses (as he did) so that they could support themselves in their ministry. Stephen also travelled to adjoining countries to share his faith and to encourage and equip Christians there to do the same.
Ironically, perhaps the most gifted businessman of the group was Josh. When Josh started working with us, he had a full-time job with the government. These jobs paid a pittance but were highly valued for the security and benefits they afforded. I remember asking Josh how, as a Christian, he felt about being paid to work full-time but only doing two hours work a day (the rest of the time was spent reading the paper and drinking tea). He said, “Well, if I did more, then there wouldn’t be enough work for everyone else!” Despite coming from this socialist utopia (!), Josh quickly grasped the capitalist principles of commerce. He built his own business while we were there, first sourcing then producing key inputs for our business. Even before we left he had established a substantial factory employing many people. Today Josh is a significant trader in that area and the profits from his work go, in part, to support
the ministries which others are involved in.
The six of us met up last year. It was lovely to be together again, to catch up on each other’s news and share the challenges we face. These men clearly saw their work and ministry not as an end in itself but as a faith response to Jesus’ work in their lives. Pieter and I felt very privileged to have had a part in their stories.
Of the four billion people living in Asia and the Arab world, more than half do not know a single Christian. In the last 20 years, Interserve Australia has sent just over 200 Partners who together have clocked up about 1600 Partner
years. If we were to single-handedly befriend, share the gospel with and disciple all those who had never met a Christian, we’d have had 25 seconds for each one! So we came up with a bright idea – or recognised it as such in retrospect, which is how most good mission is done! This is it: we disciple some people and they disciple people and together we seek to make Jesus known. We empower the local church so that they are equipped and motivated to bring the goodness of Christ to every community.
If there is a message in my story, it is that if we – a relatively small group of Christians in Australia – want to share the gospel with more than 2 billion people in Asia and the Arab world who have never even met a Christian, then doing it in partnership with local believers is the way to go!
Scott* and his family have served in Business as Mission ministries in the Arab world and Asia.
*Names have been changed.