Loving my neighbour

Once again, Sarah rather unconvincingly tells me, “I know the universe is looking after me.”

In our first year here, whenever we looked out our kitchen window to the apartment building opposite, we would see a couple smoking together on their balcony. In excitement at the prospect of making friends in a new land, I thought, “If this lady spends all day at home, then we should be friends.” When I was buying vegetables from the truck in our street, I finally met Sarah. She is a migrant from Ukraine with an Orthodox background and she married a local man five years ago.

Perhaps I was a nosy neighbour but one day it occurred to me that Sarah and her husband no longer spent time together on the balcony. When Sarah and I were walking together in the local forest, she was pretty down and began sharing deeply about the difficulties in her life. “My husband is drinking heavily again and says horrible things to me. We haven’t spoken properly for weeks.” I listened and the only thing I could do was reassure her that she is valuable. I promised I would pray for her and her marriage.

A week later I caught up with Sarah and asked her how things were going. She explained, “When I got home after our walk, my husband was not home and didn’t come home that night. So, for the first time in a long time I prayed to God for help.” She was surprised God answered her prayer: the next day her husband returned home with a renewed commitment to stop drinking.

Sadly, three years on, things haven’t improved. Sarah now finds herself in a desperate situation as her husband is an alcoholic, verbally abusive and now in a relationship with another woman. Their marriage has fallen apart. Sarah is living in this country with no friends except me, is unemployed and has a very limited ability to communicate in the local language. Her husband has filed for divorce, but she is totally dependent on him for money and a place to stay. Her only other option is to return to the war zone in Ukraine where her dad lives.

Seeing her desperate situation, I did what little I could: cooked food for her when she had none, gave her bedding when her husband took all the furniture away, and took her to the city law association to apply for a free lawyer. She has had a tough life and my heart breaks for her. Some things have fallen in place. Sarah now has a lawyer and she often claims, “Oh, I know the universe is looking after me.” To which I respond, “I believe it is God looking after you. He loves you.”

I sometimes feel frustrated that Sarah won’t acknowledge that God’s love is the reason that I care about her. She mystically believes that it is the universe who loves her. However, I must remember that even before I acknowledged Him, God also loved me.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Recently, Sarah once again exclaimed, “The universe is looking after me!” But this time she paused and then said, “Or, as you say, God loves me.”

Penny lives with her family in West Asia long term.
All names have been changed.

Getting out the gate

One of the pitfalls of living inside the walls of a large Christian facility, surrounded by dedicated Christian brothers and sisters, is the comfort, safety and isolation it affords. It is easy to be consumed with making the things inside the walls run smoothly. The activities of daily life in our Christian bubble can become an end in themselves, and we find ourselves insulated from the “other world” that is just beyond the gate.

This cut-off feeling has been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown. All the meaningful face-to-face relationships that were cultivated during our first year in the UK have have slipped slowly into the background. Zoom and WhatsApp just don’t cut it. The culture of the neighbourhood we are living in does not function well via the internet. So, to a large extent, we are indeed stuck behind these walls.

We’ve used the time to strategise. How can we engage more with people in our neighbourhood? What new opportunities have arisen during lockdown that could increase connectedness? Are there other gatherings we can organise that will attract people and encourage deeper friendships? As we contemplated these questions, we realised that many of our ideas are attractional: how we can draw people to us. But we need to remember the lessons we learned during our years in cross-cultural ministry.

At the start of our cross-cultural experience, we read dozens of books about mission strategies; we went to conferences that inspire vision and build faith; we studied history, anthropology, culture and language: all important pursuits. However, none of it was meaningful until we started meeting people face-to-face. Only then were cultural barriers broken down, misunderstandings and hesitations overcome, and new friendships formed. We made a point of going outside the gate as much as possible: going to the market, frequenting the same shops, stopping for cups of tea, home visits at times of sickness and loss, attending celebrations and invitations for meals. There is no substitute for face-to-face time with people.

It’s the same strategy that Jesus taught his disciples. When he was sending the twelve out to spread his Kingdom message, he prepped them by saying, “Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave” (Matt 10:11). He repeated this strategy almost word for word to the seventy-two in Luke 10. “Get out among the people,” is basically what Jesus was saying. God’s business is the people business!

Jesus’ strategy can be summed up in three tiny words: “As you go…” (Matt 10:7). No options. No negotiation. “As you go,” is what he said… and there were no arguments from the disciples! Jesus literally dispatched them… he pushed them out the door and into the community. Now, I’m sure they had the same apprehensions you and I have when we’re pushed out of our comfort zones. They would have felt comfortable inside the gate with Jesus—learning from him, watching him perform miracles, organising the crowds, doing whatever he said—just a long as Jesus was the front man. But this time Jesus shoved them out the gate all alone, “like sheep among wolves,” to encounter people on their own.

A few months ago, before this lockdown happened, we were out walking in our area looking for a God-opportunity. We had no plan but had committed our time to Jesus and were praying as we went. We came across a rag-n-bone yard, a very unlikely looking place, and were prompted to go inside. We met the guy in charge, a man with deep emotional needs. He invited us in, we drank tea, and eventually prayed with him. We returned a second time and met the others who lived at the yard: a motley crew, yet very friendly and open. On our third visit we started a Bible study in their little shack.

Another day we were called on to help a neighbour assemble her Ikea bookshelves: not a task anybody relishes but it increased our connectedness! At a later date, we organised a community meal and the same woman came with her children, her grandchildren, her sisters and their families. We ended up with 17 guests from one extended family! Fast forward a few months, and she and Liz walk together every day in the park. Often other ladies spontaneously join them. A walking group has started simply because we pushed ourselves outside the gate and got face-to-face with neighbours.

Jesus challenges us to get out the gate! We are convinced that ninety percent of fruitful ministry happens outside the front gate. Other pressing tasks and important activities will always jostle for attention and we can strategise behind the walls until the cows come home. However, when we follow Jesus’ way and get out among the people, there’s no telling what will happen. His business is the people business.

Allen & Liz live at a community house, in a major city of the UK.

Ambassadors of love

I first met Ankur when his marriage was struggling. My main aim was to help him to get to know Jesus and serve him physically, as needed. Little did I know how much the Lord was stretching me in my love. I was able to pray with him and support him when the marriage ended.

A little while later he developed seizures and discovered that a brain lesion was causing them. Because of this he lost his job. Through many phone calls and face-to-face meetings I discovered Ankur was owed years of leave entitlements and superannuation. During this time I told Ankur about the story of the persistent widow. We discussed how God is so much better than a crooked judge, and that we should keep praying and not give up. His face brightened as he realised that God is good and would look after him. Eventually we were able to negotiate a settlement where his employer gave him a payout of all that he was owed.

Ankur continues to struggle with his health and employment, and I have taken him to the hospital and doctor’s appointments. For a long time the medication wasn’t working, but we continued to pray. He has also been evicted and needed to find other accommodation. Together we have read through parts of Genesis and many stories of the gospel and discussed them. Through all this, Ankur has come to realise that Jesus is the Lord of the world, and that he loves him.

A breakthrough came a few weeks ago when we were reading the passage where the Pharisees criticise the disciples for eating with hands that are unwashed. This is a very relevant passage because many South Asians believe that avoiding meat is associated with purity and closeness to God. Jesus says that nothing outside of us can make us unclean by going into us. Rather, it’s from within our hearts that evil desires come and make us unclean.

Ankur said, “Whenever I go to the temple, they only talk about outside cleaning: cleaning hands, removing shoes, clean food… But don’t talk about the heart. Only Jesus talks about the heart.” Then as he read further, it struck him, “This is me. How can I have my heart cleaned?” I told him, only Jesus can clean your heart, and he died for all your sins (‘paap’) on the cross. Ankur has struggled with feelings of revenge on his former boss. And I have had to firmly refuse to take any part in revenge. After a while he is sorry and repents. And each time I have reminded him that Jesus can clean his heart, all he needs to do is pray. He keeps wanting to go and pray in a church, but he knows that Jesus can forgive him, even from home!

What I have learned is that sharing Jesus with migrants is a long-term process, requiring lots of time, patience and love. Thank God that Ankur’s seizures are now under control with some new medication and he is loving Jesus more and more. He once told me, “I haven’t seen Jesus, but I think you are Jesus.” I had to vigorously correct him, but it reminded me that we are the visible ambassadors of Christ’s love. There are many times when I wanted to give up, and other believers have helped him too. He knows that when no one else was there to help him, followers of Christ were the ones who cared for him. And now he thanks Jesus for sending us to him.

“We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8–9

Clive works with CultureConnect, Interserve’s ministry to migrants in Australia.
Some names have been changed.

Host/Hostess

South Asia, Hospitality, 1-11 months, 12-23 months, 2+ years / Job ID: 1454

This organisation cares for Christian workers on the field. They run a guest house to provide a place where people can come and rest pray debrief and attend seminars.

The job would be to take bookings make sure rooms are ready for people when they come be hospitable and be willing to pray talk and encourage people if they need it make sure meals are cooked by the cook and do some cooking and cleaning if needed oversee the workers collect finances at the end of peoples stay use the gifts that God has given you to help others.

A couple who are called by God to help and encourage with the gift of hospitality.

God went ahead of us

It all started when a friend told me that she had an idea. It was late 2012 in a Melbourne suburb where a church hosted a free food distribution point for those in desperate financial situations. Most of the people coming were asylum seekers from countries such as Sri Lanka, Iran and Afghanistan who had no work rights here. Maybe we could meet more of their needs if we got to know them better? Together we came up with the idea of inviting them inside the doors of the church where we would offer cups of tea, nuts and dried fruit and help them practice their conversational English.

The church was happy to support the idea and good connections with the local ministers’ fellowship led to offers of prayer and practical support from other pastors and members of their congregations. We were absolutely delighted with the amazing, warm hearted and friendly responses from asylum seekers. We sensed that God had gone before us and had something special in mind.

As the program grew we decided to extend the informal English classes and launch more formal, regular classes. At that stage, the asylum seekers were not supported by the government in any way to learn English. Many were bored and really wanted to learn. The response to our proposal by the community was very enthusiastic!

We formed a partnership with the local ministers’ fellowship and cross-cultural workers from a range of organisations including Interserve’s CultureConnect. It was fantastic to see the unity. A missiologist was invited to devise and launch the new program. Volunteer teachers were recruited to teach at four different levels. There was overwhelming interest from asylum seekers and the number of students quickly surged to well over a hundred. The church felt they had reached their capacity but still the students kept coming! A few other churches from the ministers’ fellowship also started English classes from the overflow.

At the same time there were many asylum seekers asking questions about the Christian faith. At a time of personal upheaval and trauma they were open to God in new and exciting ways. By the grace of God, I was able to start Bible studies with several students. One particular Bible study grew to 20 participants, all from Central Asia. After several years, members of this Bible study formed their own church and one of them became their full-time pastor. This church still operates today.

The English classes in the main church continued for over four years. The numbers eventually declined as asylum seekers in the area obtained visas with earning rights, became more settled and the local library and other organisations began to provide services for them. One church still retains the program we began.

What a privilege it was to reach out in practical love to generous, warm-hearted asylum seekers. Lifetime friendships were formed. Most of all we praise God who had gone ahead and led us to take hold of the wonderful opportunity we had to reach out to these people. Each asylum seeker is cherished by God, whose Son Jesus offers eternal life through the cross He bore for them as He did for us.

Robert is a CultureConnect Partner helping churches in Melbourne to reach out cross-culturally.
Names have been changed.

Priorities

We as servants of God carry and display His splendor ("You are my servant, in whom I will display my splendor." – Isaiah 49:3) and people will be attracted to it.

During my time here I reflected a lot about how big of an honor and responsibility it is to carry God’s splendor, especially when we’re so busy and people will come to us all at once sometimes, so how do we find balance in between?
In one of my busiest months here, around November, I was rushing here and there, coming home late, a lot going on in my head, and very often my landlady would be waiting for me willing to have a very long chat and during that time I kept thinking about all the things I still had to do or the time I could be resting and unwinding a little…
But it turned out that in those chats she was really open to hear my opinion about faith, seeking advices and prayer! So I praise God for showing me, in those moments, what is really important and what should be prioritized.
I still struggle to find the balance between it all, but I try to always keep the mindset that people are way more important than any task you may have.

Speak up for us

Each week I visit refugees who are being detained in the Immigration Detention Centre. Having left their country in fear of their lives, they now live in a country which does not recognise them or give them any legal rights. My fears pale in comparison.

When I visit my friends, I must first register my name and passport details. If we make a mistake on the form, don’t have the correct information about the person we are visiting or wear the wrong clothes, we are not allowed inside. People are banned from visiting, or being visited, for often unexplained reasons. It’s the kind of place where the lower your profile, the better. But visitors are able to bring fresh food, toiletries, clothes and books; and having a visitor means you are allowed to leave your overcrowded cell for an hour, talk to someone from the outside, and perhaps even hear news from your family. A visitor can pray for you. It is a reminder that you have not been forgotten.

One day, I went to visit my friend’s husband who had been detained for more than a year. I had my passport, correctly completed forms and correct clothes, but I was not allowed to visit. He and some others were in the punishment room where (I later found out) he was shackled and beaten. For over a month my visits were denied. Eventually I saw one of his friends who had also been punished. Both he and my friend were now back in their normal cell but, though he was allowed visitors again, my friend was still on the visiting black list.

This continued for a number of months. I had tried, through other avenues, to find out what was going on but the more I learned, the clearer it became that it would be best not to interfere. It sounded like he had been set up, that officials were involved and that interference would only make matters worse.

Then one day, while I was visiting someone else, my friend came to the visiting area! Somehow he had been allowed out. Communicating during a visit is very difficult—it’s a shouting match across two fences, trying to be heard above everyone else’s conversations and pleas for help. But it was very clear that my friend wanted me to ask the chief police commander why he was still on the black list.

I like to say my language is good enough to get me into trouble but not good enough to get me out of trouble. I really did not want to make it worse for my friend. Then I remembered the words of another detainee: “Your visits and food are appreciated, but what we really need is someone to speak up for us, to be our advocate”. Isn’t there a Bible verse or two about speaking up for the rights of the weak and vulnerable? (“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8)

I prayed for courage, that the commander would listen and understand and be kind. God gave me courage but as I approached the commander, I did not really believe my efforts would succeed.

But that day I learnt that God is bigger than my fears and weak language skills, and certainly bigger than my lack of faith. The commander was surprised when he learnt of my friend’s situation. He went straight to the registration desk and removed his name from the black list!

I wonder what other, greater things God could do through us if we had the courage to trust in him more.

Cat is involved with a number of discipleship and outreach ministries. She’s serving with her family long-term in South East Asia.

All names have been changed.

Fearless generous hospitality

I’m an Anglo Aussie who grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney. Suburban life can appear deceptively safe because we rely on material comforts to keep bad stuff under control. In my early married life with my generous Malaysian husband, I grew in my understanding of God’s faithfulness and I learned not to withhold good to my neighbour (Proverbs 3:28).

Fear comes at times of change and challenge.

My husband’s medical practice was located in our own home and he was on call all hours, so we were accountable to our community. Crime was sometimes close by and maintaining grace was at times difficult. As we read 2 Corinthians 4, we were convicted that God wanted us to stay in our current home and to live in a way that clearly revealed the death of Jesus in our lives so that his life would be visible through us.

One year later my husband died suddenly in his sleep while we were on holiday as a family in Hong Kong. During the early years of widowhood my life was a matter of surviving one day at a time. I often thought that the most fruitful I could be was to live to old age and be like Anna in the temple, praising God.

But God has now given me sisters in Christ to walk alongside. Their example reminds me that all that I have belongs to the Lord. God has given me the privilege of giving in ways that have connected my heart to his kingdom and invited me to invest more of myself.

One of my new friends wavers between anxiety about the future and striving to live well. She has been drawn to Jesus, however, through her experience of having another Christian friend who acted with integrity and care toward her while she was vulnerable.

Hope in the powerful name of Jesus is light in darkness—it breaks the bonds of fear.

While walking through Punchbowl in Sydney dropping in flyers for our church’s neighbourhood holiday kids club, we met a Muslim Arabic family having a picnic on their front lawn. They invited us in to spend all afternoon eating and enjoying a relaxed time together. Our relationship has become friendship and we genuinely enjoy the warmth and laughter of their home.

I often wonder how fruitful for the kingdom it would be if every home that called Jesus ‘Lord’ could be as fearless and generous in their welcome of the stranger as this family has been to us.

Lydia is a physiotherapist and a CultureConnect team member living in Sydney.

Names have been changed.

A refugee comes to stay

What would you do if your dad put a gun to your head and said, “If you don’t want to follow the faith of our family, I will kill you”?

This is the story of a homeless 23-year-old Iraqi refugee who came to stay with us one night. He had been sleeping on a bench at the local bus station for the past two weeks, but that night he came home with us so that, for at least for one night, he could have a home-cooked meal, a shower and a warm bed. Now he wants to help others by serving at the refugee centre where we volunteer. This is his amazing story of encountering Jesus …

“I first started seeking God by attending a local school in Iraq. However, I was turned off by the violence that was promoted, so I returned home dejected and eventually decided to become an atheist. Then, I became aware of a Christian in my city who encouraged me to honestly pray, ‘God, if you are real, then show me’.

“What followed changed my life … I had a vivid vision of Jesus carrying the cross. In such pain He was struggling, and I ran over to help Him. But He wouldn’t let me carry His cross. He just smiled at me with an unforgettable smile which I can still see today and said, ‘I’m carrying this for you’.

“A little later, I was hanging out with my friends who were talking about horrible things when someone leaned into my right ear and said, ‘Your name is now John and you need to leave these people’. I turned around but no-one was there. I knew at that time God had spoken to me and I needed to turn away from my sin and the bad influences in my life. But I knew this wouldn’t be an easy road, as my dad leads a pretty ‘dark’ group. So when my dad found out about my new faith, he pulled out his gun from his pocket and held it to my head.”

John did the only thing he could think of to save his life. He bought a plane ticket and fled from his family. He went from being part of a wealthy family to being homeless and jobless in a city of five million people, with no support. Although we could not provide John with everything he needed, we could encourage and pray with him.

Adam (IT/project management) and Penny (special education) serve the church in West Asia long term. They have two children.

All names have been changed.

Finding love without strings

Nour is one of the new faces at our art group today. “I love drawing”, she says, “but I never get time to do it at home”. Her tangled black curls bob with each stroke of the pencil, with each sip from her tiny glass of tea. And she begins to share about the life she left behind.

Once, she was a law student in Syria. She was prevented from finishing her degree, first by her abusive husband, then by the war. She recalls the bombs falling as she fled with her two young children. In this new city, which is both haven and hostile, she must now raise these children as a single mother. Nour has no job. She speaks little of the local language here. Until recently, she felt scared to leave her home. “It’s hard”, she says, in what must be the biggest understatement of this refugee crisis.

With her children now in local school, Nour is finally finding time for herself. She heard about the art club through the refugee centre where she gets occasional help with food and clothing. Here, she has found that time to sit with her pencils and a cup of tea. She’s found other women who know what it is to run and hide and raise children alone.

But she tells us she’s found something else. One day, some of those women bring Nour a cake for her birthday. She smiles awkwardly through the singing and then proceeds to cut generous slices for us. As we’re eating, she says to us, “It’s different here. There is joy that comes out of you that is so different”.

We marvel at this because so often we feel ordinary and small in the face of the extraordinary needs of refugees. But maybe what Nour has glimpsed in the art room is the extraordinary love of God who cares for her. A love without strings attached, which grows in community, and which is stronger than bombs or language barriers or fear.

Erin is serving long term in West Asia. She is passionate about melding art and loving community for therapeutic and kingdom-building purposes.

All names have been changed.