Why not

God had planted a question on our hearts … could we go long term?

After a half-hour bus ride past the stinking palm plantations, we walked a couple of kilometres to the local supermarket in the midday sun with the humidity soaring. As we walked around a deep dirty drain, I remember the exact spot where we asked each other, “could we do this long term?” We were serving for four months in Malaysia at a school for people with disabilities as part of our honeymoon. As newlyweds, God planted this seed and over the next four years He gave it life. He did this through his Word, through people He brought into our lives who had served in that part of the world, and through revealing to us the need to go to the unreached.

Sometimes we concentrate so much on asking, “why us?”, but maybe a different way of thinking is, “why not?” Why not go and serve alongside those who don’t live in a safe and materially blessed society as we do. We feel that God has given us 30 years of abundant blessings, so why not now use these blessings to bless others.

When we returned from serving short term, we were disheartened to hear it would be at least a two-year journey before we could depart to serve long term. However, we now see that this time of preparation is invaluable as He reveals His call and purpose, and will potentially save us from making many cultural blunders!

God has led us to West Asia. When we were in Melbourne for Partner orientation, we asked our host where she had served. We were amazed to hear that she had served in the country we were currently considering! We plan to spend the first year language learning and from there use our professional skills to serve refugees and children with disabilities.

Even before we arrive in the country we see fruit in the way God is shaping both us and our church family. We are seeing our local church engaged in kingdom work outside of Australia. People are now involved and excited to see the unreached have the opportunity to hear of His love.

God has also changed our hearts and is teaching us to put our faith into action as we move out of our home, pack up our belongings and rely on His provision. A wise Partner advised that during the challenging process of support raising, “keep your eyes fixed on West Asia and the support will come”. We have learnt to rest in Him.

Adam (IT/project management) and Penny* (special education) have just left Australia to serve the church in West Asia.

*Names have been changed.

Hope after border crossings

The world took notice of one lifeless child on the beach, and responded with tears. Yet thousands of refugees continue to make desperate border crossings in hope of something better. The UNHCR estimates 4.8 million Syrian refugees have flooded into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This region, known as West Asia, is buckling under one of the gravest humanitarian crises in modern memory.

The onward journey is complicated and slow at best. As time stretches on, poverty and ill health become problems, and despair sets in. Many have given up hope.

But there is hope. In West Asia, a small local church with a big heart is reaching out to refugees, with amazing impact. They began with blankets, mattresses, baby formula, and gas stoves. The refugees were astounded – no one else treated them like these ‘Bible people’ did. As numbers increased, a refugee centre was opened, and they now provide regular food relief and programs for over 5,500 refugee families.

The church knows they are in this for the long haul. They want refugees fleeing violence and strife to find love in Jesus' name and, by God's grace, faith in Him. Multicultural Interserve teams have been serving alongside this local church for over twenty years.

Two new Australian Interserve families are departing this year to join the refugee work of this church. These families bring skills in trauma recovery, special-needs education, IT and project management, and experience with asylum seekers in Australia. Experience tells us that as Interserve workers apply these skills, we will see innovative solutions developed. The smartphone-based system for managing food distribution at the refugee centre, for example, was created by an Interserve worker.

These two families are committed to long-term service –to making West Asia their home, and being attentive to what God is doing there. We believe that this kind of investment in long-term workers – who themselves are invested in a local body of believers – is the single most effective, sustainable and innovative contribution we can make.

This project has been submitted as part of the Mission Travel “Giving Back” campaign. If you are a Mission Travel client, you can help by voting for this project at missiontravel.com.au/givingback.

Brendan and Penny* have just departed for West Asia. Joel and Erin* are raising support. If you would like to be a part of their support team, you can give online using the supporter code 2059 or contact us for more information.

These families are not superheroes. They are ordinary Christians who are responding to the world’s need and God’s call to serve.

*Names have been changed.

God give you strength

God give you strength

I look at myself in the mirror, in the bathroom at the refugee centre where I help out. I’ve come in here to hide away a little, to step out of the fluster and hustle for a moment. As I dab at my sweat-smeared makeup, I think to myself that anger is a funny emotion.

We arrived this morning to an overwhelming scene of about 60 (mostly Syrian) women crowding the courtyard, all manner of children in tow. I am one of only two English–Arabic speakers on team today and after a morning of translating with my very limited Arabic, and repeatedly saying “I’m very sorry, but we can’t help you with anything else”, I’m quite a variety of angries.

I’m angry with the crowd for making me so overwhelmed. I’m angry with myself for getting flustered; for having money but not being able to hand it out to one and all. I’m frustrated with my limited Arabic, which drops in capacity the more stressed I become. I’m annoyed that all I’m thinking right now is how much I hate disappointing people … How is this suddenly about me?!

Sometimes I’d be caught in a sea of hands, tapping me on the shoulder or tugging on my arm, while I try to answer questions about when they might be seen, or whether we can provide more assistance, or would I please tell the manager about their seven children, and husband in prison in Syria? On this crazy first Monday of a month (the busiest day when new registrations are taken), the women crowd around the registration table, determined to be heard. “Please, sit down!”, the other translator urges, as eager faces lean in, wanting to make sure they are all getting fair treatment.

By the end of four or five hours I don’t want to talk to anyone, preferring to sit in a corner with my eyes tight shut. The last of the women have been assisted, as far as possible. When I got home later I spent a little while in the foetal position, then unwound over language homework and TV. And despite all of the flusters and splutters of the day, the thought I return to is not about anger, frustration, injustice or exhaustion. It’s about the sacredness in Arabic greetings.

Syrians in particular are a very polite people. At the end of virtually every interview with a refugee who was asking for assistance we couldn’t provide, they would stand and say “Thank you” or “Peace be with you”. And as they left, with frustration fading from their eyes, they would simply say, “God give you strength”. It’s a frequently used line, but each time it is said the words make the normal sacred and remind us both of the bigger picture. And as I respond with the set reply, the words teach us to offer grace to each other.

Some, understandably, will still leave angry or hopeless. But I’m comforted to remember that it’s God who gives strength, and God who loves more than I ever could. And I am humbled that these most vulnerable of people are the ones reminding me.

Hannah* is a recently-returned On Tracker who served in West Asia.
*Names have been changed.

Surprised by Kurdistan

“You’ve been WHERE?” is the most common response when I talk about what I did last January. “Iraq,” I repeat. “But in the north,” I add quickly, “where it’s very stable and safe.” I don’t want them to think I’m a complete nutter.

“So what was it like?” is usually the next question.

“Cold,” I reply. “It snowed.”

They look surprised: “Snow in Iraq? You’re joking!”

But snow in Iraq was not the only surprise that our missions team faced. There was the hospitality of the Kurdish people; their resilience in the face of decades (no, centuries) of persecution; their stories of survival under gunfire and gas bombs; their willingness to move forward with enthusiasm; their desire to learn English. Then there was the massive rebuilding that is taking place. For us there was the fun of being a team of ten Kiwis and Aussies, together in a totally new and surreal environment; walking through a foot of snow across an old mine-field; meeting the Iraqi President’s wife in a swanky restaurant; drinking tea in a refugee camp; having dinner in a Chinese brothel (actually a Chinese restaurant, but the large red lanterns and ‘Love Bar’ sign apparently had a deeper meaning!). We went tenpin bowling and rode dodgem cars with our students; we had meals in their homes and met their families; we talked with them about God and shared stories of Jesus. These were just some of the amazing experiences that we were privileged to enjoy. The unplanned side-trips to Jordan and Israel only happened because the airlines messed up our itinerary, but I suppose you have to take the bad with the good!

We had been invited by an Iraqi university to teach a conversational English course. When we arrived, the university put us up in a nice hotel, arranged visas, transport, classrooms and students. Our team worked in teachingpairs with classes of about ten students, teaching four hours a day. Our course was a big hit, with its fast-moving and interactive menu of games, activities, debates and roleplays. The students (including college and university lecturers, with doctorates) had not come across anything like it before, and some even drove an hour or more from other towns to join us.

The positive reports filtered out. A TV crew even showed up at our graduation and we were featured on the regional news. Apparently not many foreigners come to do this kind of stuff. Nor do they take the opportunities to connect with the students outside of the classroom as we did.

We not only showed the film from the C.S. Lewis book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, but we also broke into small groups afterwards to talk about its meanings. We prayed for, and sometimes with, our students. We connected with the local Christians. We laughed a lot with our students, but cried too as we toured the museums of their sad history. We ate and drank and danced. By the end of the three weeks, we were exhausted.

“Please, will you come back again?” the students asked us, and the university officially invited us to return next year.

So it’s on again in January 2012. If you have a love for Jesus that you are not ashamed to talk about, a desire to serve people, and a willingness to trust God in a challenging situation while working with a spectacular team, we’d love to hear from you.

Bernie works with Culture Connect, an Interserve ministry to people of non-English speaking backgrounds in Australia.

If you would like to join the 2012 mission team to Kurdistan, please contact us on 0800 446 464 or email talk2us@interserve.org.nz Limited spaces are available. Training and orientation will be provided.

Matt:

The Kurds were very open to talking about spiritual matters in general. Because they come from a broadly Muslim background, almost everyone believes in God, which makes discussions about spiritual matters easier. We were asked questions about Christianity, and also discussed their faith with them. The Kurds have been treated really poorly throughout history, and many of them reject Arab culture on principle. This means there is more freedom and willingness to question Islam, entwined as it is with Arab culture.

The most unforgettable night happened in our hotel’s restaurant. The food was spectacular: we had ‘shish kebabs’ where the meat was actually skewered on swords and set on fire. We were having such a great time that the security guards, who were carrying assault rifles, were giving us suspicious looks. Then we discovered the reason behind the heightened security: Hero Ibrahim, the first lady of Iraq, was eating in the restaurant. When Bernie asked if our team could take a photo with her, she agreed, and so I now have a photo of myself with the President’s wife.

Matt, 24, is from Christchurch.

Jeremy:

Because we didn’t want to teach six days a week, day six was designated as ‘field trip’ day: the class would take us out somewhere to help us understand their city and their culture, and they had to practise their English in a practical environment.

One place they took us to was known as ‘The Red Building’ – the ex-headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party in Sulaymaniyah. Until 1991 it was a place where the locals were tortured and disposed of by the regime of that time. It is now riddled with bullet holes – a way that the locals vented their grief after the hell they were put through. Inside the burnt-out shell of the building is a museum of models and photos of the treatment that went on in that place. Outside are captured Iraqi tanks and artillery. The experience really helped us understand a little more of the Kurdish psyche.

We also went to the Kurdish town of Halabja, which gave me more of an understanding of the tension between the two main ethnic groups here in Iraq. On 16 March, 1998, Iraqi aircraft launched a five-hour chemical bomb attack on Halabja’s residential areas, killing 5,000 people and injuring around 7,000 to 10,000 more. Our guide was one of few survivors. The windows of his truck were up when the gas hit the ground and so he was not harmed, but all those who were sitting on the back of his truck died within seconds. Due to these attempts at ethnic cleansing in the North, there is so much bitterness and unforgiveness. So many lives changed due to grief which hasn’t healed.

Jeremy, 27, is from Auckland.

Remarkable Turkey

Turkey is not just an odd country on the other side of the globe; it is a remarkable land struggling with its social, political and spiritual identity.

There are tensions between its overwhelming Muslim population and its secular tradition; its desire to join the European Union and its place in leadership in the Islamic world; and its stunning economic development and its lingering internal conflict and poverty. Like almost every country, Turkey is a nation full of contradictions, where one can experience the image of God in the love of people and the joy of hospitality and then encounter the full fury of the Fall in the abuse of women, the ongoing civil conflict and the blatant injustice to minorities.

Turkey is rich in Biblical history. Haran (where Abraham’s father died), Mount Ararat, the seven churches of Revelation, and the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, are all in Turkey. The Cappadocian Fathers, most notably St Basil, articulated the doctrine of the Trinity in Turkey and the majority of the early church councils took place here. The apostle Paul was born in Tarsus in Turkey and travelled extensively here on his missionary journeys.

But the Biblical history is in the remote past and irrelevant to most of today’s Turks. Turkey has a population of nearly 75 million people, and fewer than 70,000 of them are Christian. Of those, the majority are nominal Armenians, Syrian and Greek Orthodox or Catholics, and those communities are all in danger. The local government of Mardinis is trying to claim part of the property of the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery. The only seminary for Greek Orthodox priests has been kept closed by the government since 1972 and their community is now numbered at less than 3,000 souls.

On the other hand, the small Muslimbackground Protestant church has been growing slowly and steadily since the mid- 1960s. The constitution of the Republic guarantees freedom of religion and the Turkish courts have upheld numerous challenges to this through the years. There are now dozens of legally recognised Christian meetings and, unlike most Muslim-majority countries, Turkey allows its citizens to change their religion and permits Muslim converts to Christianity to meet freely for public worship.

While the church in Turkey is among the oldest in the world, dating back to the church in Antioch as described in the book of Acts, the modern Protestant church only began in the 1960s, after a small number of western evangelists started distributing literature and making the good news known among Turks. Progress was very slow and difficult in the early decades, but perseverance paid off: the Bible was translated, small house fellowships were started, books and videos were made available in Turkish and the convert church began. By the late 1980s there were an estimated 200 Muslim-background converts in the country and about the same number of full-time expatriate mission workers.

In 1988 the government decided that things were getting out of hand. They concluded that these 400 people, half of them Turks and half foreigners, must be up to something dangerous because their actions were mysterious and made no sense. So they deported the foreigners and arrested the national believers, in the hope of stopping the work while it was still young. However, thanks to prayer from around the world, all of the foreigners who were deported returned and all of the nationals who were arrested remained true to the faith – and the church began to grow. There were difficulties, but slowly the government and society began to recognise the rights of people to consider a different faith, and in 1990 the first legally recognised church meetings began, testing the Republic’s stated freedom of religion.

One of the biggest issues was that for Turks (and most people in the world), religion is closely tied to social identity and ethnicity. “Turkish Christian” is viewed as an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms – Christians are the people of the Crusades; the immoral people who swim at the Turkish beaches; Armenians, Greeks or Europeans; and therefore they are the enemy. They can’t be Turks. Turks are Muslims and Christians are Foreigners. Even if they’re citizens of the Republic, they are still foreigners: they are different, they are dangerous. Or so the popular thinking goes. Turkish converts still sometimes ask, after they’ve been baptised, whether they are still Turks.

There has always been pressure on the Christian community here in Turkey, from the pogroms of the late 1800s to the abuse of the minorities during WWI and then on through the population exchanges of the 20th century and the various atrocities. In recent decades the small Protestant community has also undergone attacks – stones thrown at buildings and the occasional unjust court case – but in April 2007 things escalated significantly when three Protestants (two Turks and a German) were brutally murdered in the city of Malatya because of their evangelistic activities.

The murders in Malatya have changed everything. Society is now aware of the convert church as it never has been before. Ultra-nationalists are horrified that the church exists, but sincere Turks of goodwill are equally horrified at the abuse heaped upon the small church. The church itself has responded with anger and alarm, but not with fear. There is a confidence in the church that God is in control, and a determination to stand up in society and claim the rights of citizens, much as Paul did before Agrippa. The Turkish church leaders have a fresh appreciation that the issue is theirs and is not to be left to foreigners.

Today we have over 4000 Muslim-background Turkish Christians living in varying degrees of safety and acceptance in their families and communities. We have a growing number of small fellowships and there are significant efforts to help people grow in Christ as individuals and as communities of believers. We also have a growing understanding in society that things must change, that xenophobic attitudes are not fitting for a modern, secular republic trying to join the European Union.

In addition to the 4000 or so actively participating in fellowships, there are many thousands who have attended and subsequently left, or who have heard the Gospel but been afraid to respond. Every month there are stories of people who have chosen to follow Jesus but who have no idea how that can happen. They may have listened to the radio, watched a television programme or visited a Christian website, but the closest fellowship is hundreds of kilometres away and they don’t know what to do next.

The church in Turkey is now working on growth in two directions – horizontal growth (increased numbers) and vertical growth (increased depth). Discipleship is a key issue here because the prevalent worldview is so very different from anything taught in the Bible. The change is hard and people need individualised help. There are also deep social problems that must be addressed by the church: injustice, poverty, abuse, corruption, and the trafficking of women. All of these are appropriate issues for the followers of Jesus to address.

Turkey is blessed by a heritage of unity from the early foreign workers. There is a council of church leaders that meets regularly to discuss common issues, not with ecclesiastical authority, but as brothers and sisters working to pool their gifts and resources for the advance of the kingdom. This council has identified seven priority areas: prayer; holistic discipleship; children, youth and families; evangelism and church planting; leadership development; social action; and media and the arts.

All things are possible for God. We have seen phenomenal growth, that has taken the church in Turkey from nothing just a few years back to the gloriously insignificant position in which we find ourselves today. Four thousand out of 75,000,000 is a rounding error. Even when we include the nearly 70,000 members registered with mainstream churches, Christians make up less than 0.1% of the population. It will take a miracle for the church to survive and a hundred miracles for it to grow. That’s why we know we must start and stop with prayer, for this is the work of the Holy Spirit. Please pray with us for this country and consider joining us in the labour: there remains so much more left to do!

The author works as a tentmaker and in business as mission in Turkey. He and his family have lived in Turkey for over 20 years.

New Doors in the Middle East

The convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles was coming his way. Amazingly, it was almost exactly to the minute that he had sighted them the previous week. They were making towards one of the wadi valleys at the foot of the mountain range behind him. As luck would have it, the last fork in the track took them to the wadi right below him. He was in the perfect position to observe their activity.

Drawing to a stop at a point in the track where only the reckless would drive further, the group began to emerge from their airconditioned cocoons. The sound of closing doors and distant voices drifted up to the spy’s hilltop shelter. Greetings were exchanged; some folk were clearly old friends while a few others, passed around in a circle of introductions, were obviously new. The whole process was almost obscenely rapid by local standards. But, even in the late afternoon, the sun still had considerable power and people were restless to move up into the shaded steeper parts of the valley.

It was the first time the spy had seen them this close. He was confused. He had thought he would be able to categorise them immediately into one of the expected social strata he was accustomed to in his country. Instead, the variety staggered him. Wishing he had a camera, he quickly scrabbled for a notebook to capture the details: Arab, Asian, African and European. Almost a third were his own countrymen, cheerfully removing national garments to reveal shorts and T-shirts. There were even a couple of national women in modest clothing suitable for hiking. His keen eye, used to supervision of his sister’s social activities, appreciated that they came in cars with other women.

Amongst the others there was a wide range of nationalities – many he would not expect to see together. In the fragments of speech that rose up to him, he could detect British, American and South African accents, along with various Asian ones, and some others he could not identify. The wide range in ages, too, was perplexing: some people were clearly of retirement age, others were in their thirties, and there were even some teenagers and children.

After tightening bootlaces and adjusting day packs, the group seemed ready to go. One voice rose over the others; the spy observed the speaker point generally up the wadi and, after just a couple of sentences of instruction, the group moved off. How he wished his own briefings could be so quick. The spy realised that, from his vantage point, he would have them in sight for some time. This allowed him time for some deeper reflection. What on earth could bring such a disparate group of people together like this? There was certainly no militaristic discipline to the march. Some leaped ahead like gazelles over the rocks (he was pleased to note that the majority with this skill were his own countrymen), but others were clearly struggling with the difficult terrain and were being guided by more experienced members.

As the people wove their own tracks up the wadi valley, he noticed that conversational groups seemed to form and reform without regard to nationality, gender or age. It was a sharp contrast to the strict gender segregation he had been brought up with. However, he felt strangely undisturbed by the sight. Even at this distance he could observe the body language of respect and deference among the group. Hands that would probably never join together in any other situation were held out in offer – or receipt – of help over difficult parts of the track. The spy wondered why he could not summon any moral outrage at the sight. Even the contrasts of the wider scene began to speak to him. Here among the ancient fossilised rocks was a trickle of happy human life. Was this a new form of community emerging from the hard and rigid traditions he and his people had lived with for centuries? What were the possibilities?

Among the last traces of voices fading in the distance was the occasional gleeful shout of discovery. Had the spy been closer, he would have heard some of the people marvelling at the ‘creation’ around them. Again he would have been puzzled. His experience with politically correct textbooks and media had led him to believe that the whole Englishspeaking world could only relate to a godless ‘nature’.

Just on dusk, the spy was roused by returning voices; he was able to see by the clusters that there was still no distillation of the group into expected social categories. As people eagerly gathered around a small cool box at the rear of one of the vehicles, the spy raised his binoculars again. At last – something to report! What illicit substance were they getting out of it that led to such cries of delight? Disappointingly, however, the box just contained chilled, damp facecloths, that brought great refreshment to the hot and weary hikers.

Waiting until after the last of the group climbed back into their vehicles and drove away, the spy finally unfolded his cramped limbs, grimacing in discomfort as he did so. He was puzzled by what he had observed, and suspicious of the unusual camaraderie and acceptance he’d witnessed within the group… but also strangely drawn to it. There was no other option: he would return.

New ways…

The Middle East is a region of great contrasts. In some parts, there are established churches with history and traditions going back well before anything we can relate to in the West. In other countries, there is barely a handful of national believers, and none meeting together.

Levels of acceptance and persecution can vary greatly as well. In one country, the local international schools can hold a Christmas Carol Service that will be well attended by parents of all faiths, yet there could be great repercussions if you passed out invitations in a local mall for the same service.

In many Middle Eastern countries, churches are tolerated in carefully established compounds (only one or two do not permit any buildings related to the Christian faith). Tolerance is always combined with a degree of surveillance, though; some is quite obvious, such as taxis that sit near churches but never take passengers, while other monitoring is done electronically or through a network of informers.

In the permitted buildings, there is generally good freedom to express the full range of Christian faith, and even evangelism is allowed – but only within the church walls and only towards non-Muslims. So a difficult situation exists for people who want to introduce Muslims to the Christian faith.

On the one hand, we would like to say, with Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” On the other hand, we also have to say, “Sorry, but you can’t come to church with us as you will immediately be marked and could get us into a whole bunch of trouble!”

All over the Middle East, people are having to learn, and perhaps relearn, what the essential elements of spiritual life together are, and how they can be experienced outside a church building. The ‘from house to house’ of the New Testament is taking on a renewed meaning for many believers. As we learn to make do without a ten-piece worship band or a six-point sermon from the pulpit, we’re discovering that personal testimonies of the work of God in our daily lives are coming more to the centre.

And when the physical door into a church building (or even a house church) is not available for new or potential believers, we have to construct new doors. We have to find neutral ground where people of all backgrounds can get together without having to learn the rules of one culture or another; places where aspects of Christian life in community can be seen without a religious context.

The spy on the hilltop is fictitious (we hope!) but the events he could have seen are actually repeated every week in this part of the Middle East. We’ve also tried art exhibitions, coffee tastings, exercise groups, marriage enrichment courses, parenting courses, craft groups, music quiz nights and a myriad of other activities that don’t have a ‘church’ label but do involve a keen core of Christians wanting to make their life accessible to others. In some of these, communities are forming that include people from the local culture, and, as relationships are built, invitations are then offered to other activities.

It is difficult to rate progress or results. It would be fair to say, however, that there are now quite a few local people comfortable with an alternative community in some part of their week: people who feel they belong enough to bring along friends, or who are comfortable enough with the moral tone they observe that they now bring along wives and daughters. Many have heard or observed Christian perspectives on various world and local issues. Yes, it is fragments and pieces rather than a full meal, but some can still taste the Kingdom of God in these events: one of our new friends speaks of these times as a dream that he does not want to wake up from.

In this style of ‘church’, there are no altar calls or challenges for intellectual commitment and conversion. We cannot count any fruit that would make statisticians happy. In fact, it seems back to front compared with the traditions of our evangelical upbringing, where belief (making a commitment to Christ) leads to community (joining the church). However, in the New Testament, Jesus often called people to follow (to join community) before He called them to believe… and we take comfort in that as we continue to build communities that honour Him.

Ben and his wife, Alice, are NZ Partners who have been serving in the Middle East for over twenty years.