The Great Physician

2020 has been a very challenging time for the world. All of us have found ourselves in a different situation than we anticipated at the start of the year. Personally, it has brought a sudden halt to my work. Worldwide border restrictions have left me unexpectedly outside of my country of service. But along with the frustration, it has given me a chance to reflect on the past two years since I went overseas to work.

I had been living in an Asian city on a high plateau. After a period of language study, I started work as a doctor in the obstetrics and ultrasound departments of a local hospital. It was a really challenging start but I began to learn that to be accepted in a local context requires patience, humility and a healthy respect for the people and systems that surround you. As my relationships improved, so did the opportunities. Despite my basic language skills, I was invited to begin formal clinical teaching.

God had given me a vision to bring learning opportunities and up-to-date skills to people who lack access to them so that they, in turn, can better serve their own people. It is also my desire that healthcare workers may come to know Jesus, the Great Physician, and serve patients with the compassion that reflects His love for the world. As the initial months passed by, I found myself busy doing all the much-needed “good” things. Most of my days were occupied by acquiring general and medical language, preparing lessons and getting to know my colleagues and the culture of the hospitals. I was also learning about day-to-day clinical work in that context. As time passed by, I found little time to do anything else. While the response to my teaching was good, I had neither the time nor language ability to talk about the deeper issues of faith.

As I got more involved in the day-to-day working environment, a different set of challenges become apparent. Why is a stillborn baby treated with less care than a live birth? Why is life-saving treatment delayed while waiting for the family to make necessary phone calls to find the money to pay for it? Why is terminating a pregnancy the only option offered when certain maternal or fetal risks become known? Why is general decision-making done so differently to what I know as best-practice? Should we not treat a person, dead or alive, with or without money, with dignity? Should we not as healthcare workers give patients balanced advice regarding their choices? The underlying issues behind these questions are complex and I began to see that the foundations have something to do with how we view the value of a person. I believe that each person—each patient—is created in the image of God, valuable and priceless, and this affects how I treat them. But how can I show this to my colleagues?

One day, a lady doctor whom I had been working with asked me if I was someone with faith. I was surprised with this unexpected question as I had not yet had any direct conversations about matters of faith. I asked her the reason for her question. She had noticed an incident where a patient’s decision had upset me. From my reaction, she concluded that I must be someone with faith. We discussed the issues surrounding it, particularly the value of every life. That day I realised that I can begin by helping one person change one aspect of their worldview at a time, even though I’d like to change everything at once! This was exciting. It is possible, with the help of the Great Physician, to point others to Him through our daily choices and conduct.

We need evidence-based medical practices to improve patient outcomes. But just as importantly, we also need to model through our daily work the compassion and love that the Great Physician has for each life. Go, love the world, just as Jesus does.

Hannah is an obstetrician living and working in Asia.
Names have been changed.

Gods love overcomes fear

We live in a 4,000 year old city, along with 25 million others. Pollution fills the air like a grey soup and the economy is in a permanent struggle to keep ahead of population growth. Yet the noise and chaos brings a captivating vibrancy to the place we call home. Hanging over this society are deep divisions between rich and poor, women and men, and between Christians and Muslims resulting in brokenness, mistrust and violence. As a minority, Christians often focus on self-preservation and separate themselves from the majority Muslims.

Eight years ago, corruption, injustice, poverty and lost opportunity drove the Middle East into revolution. In the midst of this, my family was seeking God and felt called to business for transformation. We were convinced that business has the potential to impact the financial, social and spiritual aspects of people’s lives. We soon found ourselves wearing aprons, serving coffees and baking cakes for our new, tiny coffee business!

Since then, it’s been a journey of hard work, stress, miracles and joy! Our business brings together people from marginalised backgrounds and provides a safe space for training and discipleship. We are now a community where we work, learn, laugh, eat and pray together. Sounds nice? Maybe, but the journey doesn’t always feel nice. In fact, it’s REALLY HARD.

One of our team, Ash, joined us from a slum area with dreams of being an accountant. I recall his extreme discomfort when I took him for his first visit to a bank! He was brought up in an environment where violence was normal. His father beat his mother and his brother followed in his footsteps. Ash would have made a perfect drug lord. He was angry most of the time and was always ready for a fight. There would have been many fist fights with other team members if I hadn’t physically held him back.

We strive to model and operate by Godly principles including love, grace and forgiveness. This was difficult for Ash’s colleagues whom he often offended and frightened. Yet today, Ash is part of the management team of two men and two women, after insisting for a long while that business is only for men. He is now dependable and supportive of all of his colleagues. His faith has grown and it’s become normal for him to discuss matters of faith with both Christians and Muslims.

Mary is another team member from a slum area who battled with her family to get a basic education and find work against her parents’ wishes that she only prepare for marriage and children. Mary is an evangelical Christian which is unusual here and we were excited by the potential of her working with us. However, Mary’s behaviour towards her colleagues was far from salt and light. Her deep insecurities and fears poured out on her colleagues in the form of verbal abuse, bitterness and unforgiveness while showing a completely different side in our Bible studies. I was frustrated!

We came to a moment of confrontation when I was prepared to fire her. However, that same morning my wonderful wife and business partner told me that God had been speaking to her about how we should be growing in love for our team. Ouch! Love is an interesting concept. 1 John 3:16 talks about giving up our lives for our brothers and sisters. Who is our brother and sister? What does giving up our lives mean? 1 John 4:18 also tells us that there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

I suddenly realised that fear was in the way of God’s love. I was challenged to allow God’s love to remove my own fear. Only then could I really show love to Mary. Only then can I help Mary start to overcome her fears and the destructive force they were having on colleagues. It starts with me!

Striving to constantly grow in God and demonstrating His love is hard work. But we have seen enormous joy and fulfilment in seeing God’s transforming love impact lives through our business.

Jacob and his family live in the Middle East, working in business for transformation.
All names have been changed.

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.

Tell people about our suffering

"Will you love Muslims the way I love them?" She turned around, to the girl behind her in the pews. But she hadn't said anything. When she heard the voice again, 15-year-old Patricia knew it was God who called her.

It's hard for me to find her. Somewhere in the famous community center on the Chris Lebeaustreet in Amsterdam is the office of Road of Hope, the organization Patricia Silva Barendregt started three years ago to help refugees integrate. After twenty minutes of wandering around I find her hidden in a small, musty office on the top floor. Except for a simple desk and a discarded laser printer, it’s bare and empty. But soon the Brazilian refugee worker colours the room with her cheerful voice and lively anecdotes.

Am I going to die?
Since the moment God spoke to her, the Arab world has had an almost magnetic attraction to her. Even though she had never actually met a Muslim before. "Where I lived, in northern Brazil, there were no Muslims. I was pretty scared, actually. ‘No God, I can't do this. Isn’t there a lot of persecution in those countries?’ But I was also curious. I started writing letters with missionaries in the Middle East. What's it like living there? What's the climate, the food, the people? Is there really a lot of persecution? Am I going to die?"

Hollywood image
There wasn't much room for doubt. Convinced of her vocation, Patricia went to study theology. She immersed herself in the world of Islam and left for Egypt through a missionary organization. She remembers her arrival well. Everything was different. Everywhere she looked, she saw women wearing headscarves. It turned out to be an excellent conversation opener. Not that the passionate Brazilian seems to really need it, during the interview she talks with a flair that Moses would have been jealous of. "Then I sat on the bus next to two girls with a niqab and asked in Arabic: 'This is so different from where I come from, how do you wear it and what do you do with your make-up?' 'We can teach you', they said. That's how I became friends with a lot of women."
"One day I went home with one of those girls. When she had changed, I didn't recognize her at first, without covering. We became good friends. "You're the first Christian in my life I've talked to", she said. Many Muslims have a Hollywood image of Christians, as if they are often drunk and violent. "But you're so quiet," she said to me. "You dress like us, you're almost a Muslim.” I'll take that as a compliment, haha!"

you belong with us
Two years later Patricia came in contact with refugees fort he first time in her life, when she was transferred to war-torn Sudan. She lived and worked in a refugee camp, ate the same food and drank the same water. "I think I've had diseases I don't even know the name of."
Irresponsible, according to the the missionary coordinator, who ordered the team to stay outside the camp. The team refused. "The people in the camp said to us, 'You are the first foreigners who really live with us, you belong with us'. If we left, we wouldn't be much different from other foreigners coming and going."

road of death
Patricia couldn't let go of the distressing situation of the refugees. In 2014 she came to the Netherlands to study International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Focussing on development issues. Her goal: Iraq. To help refugees, especially from Syria, on their way to a new future. It became Amsterdam. Love caused a small change of direction on the missionary route of the young missionary when she met her husband in the capital. That and a probing visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where she did research for her master's thesis.
Patricia remembers very well the first woman she spoke to in the camp. "She had those beautiful green eyes that I will never forget. As I walked out of her tent, she grabbed my hand and said, 'Please, tell people about our suffering, about what it is like to live as a refugee. That's where the idea for Road of Hope was born. Refugees describe their flight as a road of death."

He's there
Back in Amsterdam Patricia refused to be happy for a while. "I had all those images in my head of people suffering from conflict, rape and violence. Then I can't be happy, can I?" After months of crying, bad sleep and intense conversations with a Red Cross staff member, she began to experience some rest again. "That man said: 'All the faces you have seen and keep coming into your thoughts: God knows them all. He is there. Don't forget that.' It gave me peace. I didn't have to be there. I can also help the refugees who are here. But not alone. That's why I started sending letters to churches in Brazil to support me. I noticed that they were praying for me: I could sleep again and I was doing better. In June 2016, Road of Hope was founded."

Patricia started by counseling three refugee families. Now her organization plays an important role in the work of Amsterdam refugees. Since this autumn, Patricia and her organisation have joined Team NL, the work of Interserve in the Netherlands. There she shares her knowledge and experience about working with immigrants. She also offers On Trackers from Interserve, who will be sent out for a short time, the opportunity to gain experience with cross-cultural work in her own country.

A Brazilian woman. Called to show God's love to refugees in Amsterdam. Intrigued I leave Road of Hope: God's roads are indeed higher than our own.

NOTE:
A short documentary about the work of Road of Hope can be watched at http://bit.ly/roadofhope.

STREAMERS:
"Many Muslims have a Hollywood image of Christians, as if they're often drunk and violent."
"I think I've had diseases I don't even know the name of."
"You are the first foreigners who really live with us, you belong with us."
"I had all these images in my head of people suffering from conflict, rape and violence. Then I can't be happy, can I?"

Photos available at the Dutch office.

Listening with respect

I see myself more as a Jack-of-all-trades than a specialist. I spent more of my working life raising children than in my profession of medicine, returning to family practice and then counselling as they grew up.

In my new country, I work in ‘support’. I do not run any projects myself. ‘Support’ for me may mean collating clinical data, making cushions, dolls and straps for disability work, applying for grant funding, updating health training materials, training locals in counselling and offering child development and parenting support. There is no ‘ordinary week’ for me. Some work is fun, some engaging and exciting, some frankly boring but necessary.

There are highs and lows. Here is one low from the start of my work: I was finally going to do something useful and I was excited! After a year of cultural and language learning, I was going to assist a local NGO with health promotion and a women’s shelter. I had carefully prepared my first training presentation and I arrived twenty minutes early, ready to set up and start on time. The room was in use, so I waited. With five minutes to go, I showed my face at the window. When it was time to start, I knocked on the door. A colleague came out. She said that the person before me was still talking. I waited for forty-five minutes. The team then came out and asked me to give my presentation another day, as now they did not have time for my training!

We now live in a relationship-based culture, not a time and task-based culture. I knew ‘flexibility’ was important for living and working here. I just didn’t know how flexible. Your duty is the person in front of you and other commitments go on hold until they leave. I have learned to call the day before I run training, and to schedule sessions at the start of the day so it starts approximately on time. That is, after the mandatory relationship-building cup of tea and chat.

I have continued to work with the same wonderful ladies for the last five years. They sat patiently while I attempted to teach in a new language. It was a relief to all of us when they offered to allow me to train in English, with one of them translating. They always encourage me and tell me how much they value me, which makes it hard to get good feedback for improvement! I think it took three years before my health training took root. I think it also took about that amount of time before they really trusted me.

Here are some of the highs:

I was asked to work as a counsellor in a medical clinic. It is always challenging seeing people in very difficult circumstances when you are unlikely to see them again. What could I really do? I was very humbled when lady after lady shared their experiences of difficulties with husband or children. They entered sad and left smiling. What had I done? There was really no advice I could give them, no change in their circumstances. It was simply important to them that both I and my Christian translator listened and valued them. I encouraged them. So many of these ladies only get abuse and blame. To be listened to with respect and cared for was a new experience for them.

The ladies running the women’s shelter asked for training to help the children who had escaped abusive situations with their mothers. I explained that although the children will probably later need counselling, the first and most important thing is to provide them with a safe and nurturing environment, provide good food and clothing and to cater for their educational needs. I also gave them training on basic child development and parenting skills. They were very grateful and said they found this training helpful even in their own families. They also realised that their work was just as important as what professionals did.

Nothing happens by chance. God uses all our experiences, and I am grateful for everything he is doing through my retirement!

Marian and her husband are doctors, serving long-term in a remote part of Central Asia.

Names have been changed

Social work and software

OSCaR is one of those things that’s hard to write about. It’s a social work case management and database software package. It doesn’t tug at your heartstrings like rehabilitating drug users, or rescuing people from trafficking, or reuniting children with their families. It’s certainly not what I had in mind when our family left Australia for Cambodia in 2014.

In my life before Cambodia, I was a case management social worker in a high school, working directly with disengaged young people. I also had some experience supervising social work students through their university placements. Coming here, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be doing the same thing – social work in a second language is really tough – and I assumed I would fit into a support role at an NGO.

Social work is a fledgling discipline in Cambodia.The Royal University of Phnom Penh started offering the Bachelor of Social Work in 2008, and the number of qualified social workers in the country is low. While there are many Cambodians at NGOs with a lot of life experience, the lack of formal education often results in people making things up as they go. It goes without saying that social work like that often doesn’t lead to the best outcomes for vulnerable people. Unfortunately, there is also a history of some missionaries obtaining visas as social workers despite being unqualified, contributing to the perception that social work is not a real discipline. But now work is in progress to address these issues.

I now work at Children in Families (CIF), a local NGO dedicated to providing family-based care for vulnerable children. When I started here in 2015, I was asked to conduct a social work audit. We had some good practice strengths, but weaknesses in client assessment and record-keeping. Those administrative things don’t sound particularly exciting, but they have knock-on effects for the quality of social work generally. How can you make a good plan for someone if you haven’t assessed and understood their situation? How can you keep the details of 20 people fresh in your mind and provide high quality follow-up every single day, if you never adequately write down the things you’re doing with them? And how can you ever hope to report on your work to your donors (and so keep on doing that work in the future!) if you haven’t got records of what you’ve done?

I’m not a computer programmer, but I grew up comfortable with computers. And our office already did most of its work digitally, so it felt natural to look at supporting our work with better software. We applied for (and won!) a grant to develop a case management system in late 2015. The system has continued to be more and more widely adopted, but it’s tempting to ask, so what?

I’ve been really excited to see how OSCaR has contributed to the development of social work practice at CIF. Our assessment structure is now more relevant and lets us track long-term whether the work we do is improving the lives of the kids we support. We keep records in Khmer, with processes in place to let managers supervise their staff. We track all the things we need to in order to report on our work to our donors, and our managers are beginning to understand how they can be involved in monitoring and evaluation processes themselves. As I’ve helped other organisations integrate OSCaR into their practice, I’ve seen how they also wrestle more with their own work and consider how best to serve their beneficiaries.

I believe that God wants to see Christians not only reach out to the vulnerable, but reach out in ways that are helpful, relevant and competent. And while OSCaR by itself does not work with vulnerable people, it is supporting hundreds of social workers, in Cambodia and in other countries, to do so more effectively. This isn’t the work I expected to do, when I left Australia five years ago. But I’ve seen God bring things in line, and I’m grateful to have been put where I am.

Chris and his wife Stacie advocate for family-based care for children. Their family lives in Cambodia.

The gift of a voice

Speech therapy is largely unheard of in Cambodia. Currently there are no speech therapists in the country who were trained at a Cambodian university. For the last 18 months, I have worked as Program Manager in a locally-run organisation working to grow speech therapy in Cambodia. We have a vision for a Cambodian university-qualified speech therapy profession that is able to provide high quality, culturally-relevant services to the estimated 600,000 Cambodians with communication or swallowing difficulties.

Establishing a new profession is a pretty daunting task! Curriculum writing, development strategy, clinical research and advocacy work all require connections and expertise beyond our little team of seven Cambodian staff and three foreign therapists. For a university course to be relevant to this context we need to document research and experience of using speech therapy strategies here. The purpose of this is to evaluate what approaches to speech therapy work in Cambodian culture and in the Khmer language, rather than simply transplanting models of practice from Western countries.

Cambodia has a long history of foreign therapists working in isolation for a few months or years, each investing in their small area but with little connection to government systems and no overall coordination. One of the first tasks for our organisation was to partner with others to establish the Cambodian Speech Therapy Network, with an aim to share resources and learning, and to be an orientation point for future speech therapists coming into the country.

Another early task was to establish a speech therapy clinic as a social enterprise. Two years in, our private clinic is booked out and needs more staff than we can find. This clinic brings opportunities to document therapy in Cambodia. Furthermore, also critical to ongoing success, the clinic helps to raise awareness and builds advocacy platforms with influential Cambodians whose families have benefited from therapy.

Currently, many children with disabilities are not in school even though by law and by government policy children with special needs are allowed to attend. Last year we designed and implemented a pilot project to coach rural primary and preschool teachers in their inclusion of children with communication difficulties within government schools. Beginning with disability-accessible schools from the government’s special education department, our staff worked to train the teachers in skills and knowledge that assists them in using teaching methods that helps all children learn. Presenting our results to the government was a tangible example of how speech therapy could help Cambodians. We ended the year with a formal partnership agreement with the Ministry of Education and had some very pleasing discussions with the University of Health Sciences as they plan a bachelor course in speech therapy to start in 2020.

Building on our national staff’s connections in the national disability and health sector, I’ve been able to bring my experience from 12 years of living and working in Cambodian poor communities along with my grassroots involvement in community-based disability rehabilitation work and establishment of community preschools and homework clubs. As a cross-cultural worker with longer-term experience, I’ve helped our local and foreign team members to understand each other better. In addition to my professional expertise in speech therapy, I’ve also drawn on Interserve’s values of partnership, servant leadership and valuing local expertise as together we grow our organisational culture and strategy.

While it’s not part of the employment criteria, it has been a surprise and encouragement to see how many staff members in the speech therapy project share the Christian faith. For the Christians within our staff it’s been easy to see God’s hand guiding our planning and his provision of resources and partnerships. It is such a joy to together celebrate God’s blessing, lament the injustice we encounter and advocate for systems that allow access to services for the poorest and most marginalised.

Ruth lives with her family in Cambodia. She works with a local NGO working to grow a Cambodian speech therapy profession.

A different way of doing medicine

I was only fourteen when I decided I was going to become a medical missionary. I assumed I would be going to Africa – back then I thought all missionaries went to Africa.

But I was surprised to learn that female medical personnel were most needed in Muslim countries, where women must see a female professional and sometimes died when there were no women doctors to attend them.

So I ended up doing a medical student placement in South Asia. It was in a compound with high fences and armed guards. Women were not allowed outside the compound alone, and we had to cover every part of our body including our head. I remember old rusty beds, surgical gloves hanging out to dry after use, hot sweet tea and lots of kids with thin mums.

I started to think about wholistic health and doing medicine in a different way after I witnessed a nurse stomping a baby’s bottle under her foot. Her strange action made sense after I learned that bottle-feeding contributed to the illness of babies there. Big multinational companies sold their milk formulas cheaply and promoted bottlefeeding as the way of the West. However, many poor village women watered down the formula to make it last longer, depriving their babies of the nutrition necessary for growth. The lack of clean water and difficulty to sterilise bottles frequently led to infection and diarrhoea, then dehydration and death.

My brief time there taught me so much. I learnt the importance of preventative and community medicine. I learnt that even though curative hospital care was exhilarating and necessary, for me prevention is better than cure. I began to understand that people’s health is more than physical, and that it is bound to their poverty, education level, status, economic means, gender and religious beliefs. In short, I had begun to understand about wholism.

Another turning point in my Christian journey came when I had the opportunity to go on an evangelistic ward round. The hospital evangelist shared the gospel with patients’ relatives, who stayed to care for the patient. I thought it was great that the gospel was shared, but I was uncomfortable with the division for me: because of time constraints doctors mostly dealt with the physical and evangelists dealt with the spiritual. I didn’t want to restrict myself to being a doctor; I wanted to be a doctor sharing Christ and to teach from the Word of God. This was a good fit for the way God made me.

So I began full-time theological study while working part-time as a GP and completing my training. I was able to reflect on the interaction of the physical, emotional and spiritual. We are complex beings and being healthy is a complicated business.

When I applied to join Interserve, I was willing to go where I was most needed. That turned out to be Central Asia, where the church had grown exponentially since the fall of the Soviet Union, but leaders were young in years and young in faith. I quickly caught the vision of impacting communities in a wholistic and grassroots way, where they could be empowered to recognise and solve their problems with local resources. Our community development lessons covered many topics, such as physical health, income generation, agriculture, emotional issues and moral values like honesty and forgiveness.

Most of the communities we worked with knew we were followers of Jesus, and in time, through interaction, they developed a more positive understanding of Christianity. We did this work not as a means to evangelise or plant churches, but because it is good in itself and demonstrates the love of Jesus. In many places around the world, however, the natural consequence of such wholistic community development is that, over time, new communities of faith begin.

These early lessons have shaped my work as an Interserve Partner for the last 22 years. When there is harmony between people and God (the spiritual dimension), among people (the social dimension), within the person (the emotional dimension) and between people and their environment (the physical dimension), we have wholistic health. As Christians we work to show that Jesus is Lord of all and has reconciled all things in heaven and earth to Himself (Colossians 1:15-20). That’s wholism.

Lyn is Interserve’s Regional Director for East Asia and South Pacific. She lives in Australia with her family.

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.

Learning from women

We sat around her table, overlooking the valley down to the city. The table was covered in papers and we frequently reached for our phones to record things that struck us as together we wrestled with the issues.

My friend is a follower of Jesus from another religious background, and she continues to identify both as a member of that community and as a follower of Jesus. I had given a paper at a conference on the role of patronage in discipling women followers of Jesus from Muslim backgrounds. I had learned a lot from her when she explained how her community operates and women’s roles within it. I was aware that my paper had some under-developed areas. Now we were talking through what it would look like to have a book that pulled apart the topic and added to it, and how we could do this together. I am both a learner and a facilitator in this ongoing process.

Research and writing had not really been on my agenda as a young cross-cultural worker. I was by nature an activist but when I did my PhD I found new doors opened for conversations that brought together my activism and my love of research.

I was researching the role of women in social change, and was invited to attend a women’s rally. As we gathered at the start of the rally, I found myself standing by Mukhtar Mai, who had been the subject of international media attention after the local village council ordered her rape as punishment for an alleged crime by her brother. How would I, as a follower of Jesus, have a meaningful conversation with this woman? I knew she would wonder if I were just another foreigner looking for a way to use her for my story. As we talked, I wanted to know about her, not just the story that was already in the media. We stepped back from the noise and in a quiet voice she talked about her family and the girls in her village, whom she passionately wanted to protect.

I walked through the march, talking to women and asking them about their hopes and dreams in participating in such a rally, seeking to understand what change would mean for them. I thought of the stories of Jesus’ interactions with women that could be shared. This has helped me think through the work of the When Women Speak … network in training and equipping women to reach Muslim women.

Research and writing has now become a core part of my cross-cultural work: facilitating and publishing collaborative research and writing by women, including those who follow Jesus from Islam, to help the church understand how women experience faith; training the church in other places with higher education qualifications so it can be an articulate participant in transformation in its community; encouraging reflective practice among women mission practitioners through online courses; and forming a platform for women’s cross-cultural mission research at the Australian College of Theology.

Research and writing enables me to participate in new ways in God’s great work of reaching the nations.

Cathy has served with Interserve for over 30 years, working with women in the Muslim world. She now leads When Women Speak…