One person among millions

Five pairs of eyes watched us in silence. Five daughters half-hidden in the furtive darkness of the ramshackle bamboo hut. Probably they had never seen foreigners before. Probably our clipped, studied pronunciation of the national language was to them an alien tongue. Curious– suspicious, they peeked out from behind a beam separating the guest area from the sleeping space in their home. Separated from us by a far greater distance than wood and shadow could show.

Our journey had begun that morning, when we embarked on a four-day motorbike ‘faith journey’, with only the bare bones of a route sketched out, and even less of a plan of where we would eat or stay the night. We had turned off the main road onto a bumpy dirt track which would eventually taper alarmingly round the edge of a mountain. Having just nearly crashed the bike in a rocky quagmire, I felt like I had already learned enough faith for one day.

Then the tropical downpour began. After miles of jungle, we suddenly emerged into the edge of a small village, where we rushed for shelter under the eaves of the first shack we came to. As we pulled in, the man of the house returned from foraging in the woods. He looked at us with surprise but invited us in, offering dried-out day-old rice: all he had.

While we ate he began to pour out his heart, telling us of his poverty, his anxieties for the future, the sickness that prevents him from working in the rice-fields and forces his wife to face the daily labour alone. Finally he shared his terrible fear that one day, when his five daughters grow up and get married—and ‘ownership’ of them transfers from parents to husbands—he will have no son to look after him, in life and in death: as an aging father needing care then as a dead ancestor demanding offerings.

His fear was real. His ethnic group are deeply enslaved to spirits, and conservative in their views on the value of women. Yet he loved his daughters. He cradled one gently in his arms and spoke softly to them all. He was not ashamed of them; only of his own failure to produce a son.

Before we left to continue our journey, I asked if I could say a blessing over him in the name of the mighty Lord Jesus who makes impossible possible. The One who has Himself walked the road of suffering and grief, who brings hope to the downhearted and love to the unloved.

“Oh! This Jesus, I’ve heard about Him before.” The man’s eyes had lit up, his voice animated. “It sounds like a good story. I’d like a book about Him so I can read it for myself.”

This may be the only interaction I ever have with this lonely father. He represents one person among millions, one ethnic minority among hundreds. Yet we were brought together to hear something of each other’s stories; to accompany and encourage one another on our journeys of faith. The short-lived downpour and unexpected welcome provided a glimpse of God’s ongoing interactions with us. A reminder that He paves His way—and makes His home—in isolated, forgotten corners; among downtrodden, destitute people; in lost and longing hearts.

Clara is a long-term Interserve Partner, living and working in South East Asia.
Name has 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.

Full hearts

It’s amazing how a small act that seems insignificant in our eyes can spark something huge in God’s Kingdom.

We’ve had a small box of bilingual scripture cards in our home since we’ve been married. They’re in English and Japanese. They sat on the kitchen counter in our first home but after a number of house moves they lay forgotten in a box. After our recent move they resurfaced again and I took them out to give to my best friend, Anh, who I’ve known for the past six years. I met her the day she decided to follow Jesus and I still remember telling her that it’s the best decision she would ever make! Since then we’ve become close friends and we’ve been journeying together through the ebbs and flows of life. Since first meeting her, she’s given birth to her own startup education centre where she holds English and Japanese classes for the local community in our South East Asian city.

Thursday mornings are my favourite weekday mornings. Anh and I meet at 7am and walk to the lakes, grab a bowl of sticky rice and a glass of ice-cold tea, chatting about what God has been showing us and usually discussing a book we choose to read together. This past Thursday, I remembered to take the scripture cards to give to her. She thanked me and I jokingly challenged her to put one verse each week on the notice board of her education centre and call it “Wisdom of the Week”. She could even suggest to her colleagues that they should memorize it and try to do what it says during the week. We didn’t talk too much about it as we continued to our usual breakfast spot for our weekly catch up

About 3 hours later a string of messages flooded my phone. It was Anh. “Thanks for the cards. You know what? Today during the Q&A part of our Japanese class they asked me, ‘When you don’t have money, where do you go to borrow some?’ I took a chance and told them that, as a Christian, I would ask God to guide me. They seemed interested in my faith and after sharing some of the cards I ended up talking for two hours, starting with the Garden of Eden!”

Anh went on to share how the people in her class asked to know more about Jesus and two of them now want to follow him! My heart wanted to erupt with joy! Heaven is rejoicing! Later that day she wrote an email to our international church pastor to share her story. My eyes welled up with tears as I read it. I felt so thankful and humbled to be reading her story – His story!

It is amazing how one small act can lead to something so huge! Never underestimate the power of one small act! Step out, share what you have and watch what God can do with the little you have to offer.

Andrea and her family live and work in South East Asia.
All names have been changed.

You came back

“What? WHAT? Wow! Wow! WOW!!” Silence followed; a deep, intentional silence from my friend, Mawar. “I’m crying!” she eventually said.

I had texted Mawar earlier to let her know we were back in the country after four months in Australia due to COVID-19 border closures, and she was now in disbelief. “You came back, from your safe country to this scary situation?” she asked. She told me that she had not worked out in the community for this time, keeping herself safe at home.

Chickens squawked in the background, and I remembered when she and her husband moved into their house last year and transformed it from a clothing factory to a self-sufficient oasis in the capital city of this country. If I close my eyes I can still vividly see the lush plants and taste the bountiful mangos from their front tree served from a bottomless plate. Mawar is vegetarian and we ate lavishly from the fruit and vegetables that grew in her garden.

I have known her for fifteen years, having met on a medical team after a natural disaster. She is a well-known researcher, advising the government and World Bank on micro-finance projects and is much sought after for her research skills. For years she has travelled to remote regions of the country advocating for the needs of the poor.

Our journey from Australia back to Asia began with that deep call to be back alongside those who are suffering after thinking we had retired from field work. We began to ask ourselves, often prompted by other people’s questions, “while we can do good remotely, what can older people who are willing to leave the safety of life in Australia do to serve others overseas?” We knew from experience that walking alongside others in their pain is much more powerful than what we can do from a distance. Isn’t this what Jesus did, after all?

While Australian authorities were working hard to keep us all safe and near to home, the deep call back to Asia grew in us. Just before retiring to Australia, we had been working with our national friends to teach and model what good member care and self-care could look like for local Christian workers who laboured tirelessly in remote areas away from their support systems for long periods. We felt that ‘still, small voice’ calling us out of retirement to take this work further to the remaining provinces.

It was so encouraging to find that our act of obedience motivated Mawar to in turn take the risk to return to field work. She was acutely aware of the increased suffering of her fellow citizens from the pandemic. She had been writing a paper to publish on this topic and my first job was to proofread it for her. “We are not called to be safe,” she wrote. “We are called to be whatever God wants us to be to help others.”

What we had been able to do as older Australians is mere loaves and fishes compared to what our local friends become inspired and encouraged to do through our commitment to take risks to serve others. It’s been such a joy and honour to see workers who face isolation and burnout becoming healthy again and able to continue to do good in these communities. Praise God! We are more convinced than ever that ‘doing life together’ with local people is such a powerful way to show that God loves the world, and we do too.

Sharon and Len recently returned to the South East Asian country where they lived and served in member care for many years.
Names have been changed.

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.

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.

Under the Fig Tree

Your tears are not the only outward sign of your deepest pain
Your need is desperate
Your words are filled with horrors
You scramble to fill a bag with warm clothes for your children
For your baby

Your house is cold
Your cupboards are bare
Your plumbing is leaking
Your children are crying, unruly, aching to get out
But this cold room is the only safety you know
How can you start again here?
Your life has been torn apart
Senselessly

Your son is in a different land
Kept apart by distance, money, weather, borders By governments
Those in their warm clothes and heated houses
Those who have a responsibility to care
They have failed their duty to you
They plot and plan, distanced from the horrors
Why is this world so unfair?
Why you?

You live in a land that is barely welcoming
A place that is now your ‘home’
“How can this place be home?”
It doesn’t feel safe

How can you possibly process the death of your child, your son?
You have other children to care for, a family to hold together
Your mother, your sisters, your aunties, your community are not here
You are alone
Isolated
You long for a place to belong in this strange wintery land
For someone to hear you, to see your struggle, to care

“I hear whispers about people who care
who provide warm clothes
who offer a warm drink
where children can fill their bellies
A place where people like me can find community with others who have faced the same horrors
a warm place, a family
Free from discrimination
Who are these people and why do they care?

“There is something different about them. They are defined by love. How can I know this love?
Where is this place?
Could this be a place where I am accepted?
Could I find community here, are there people who will care about me?
Could I find a hot drink, food?
Would they be this generous?
Will I find light from the darkness here?”

My friend you are welcome here
come and meet the one who cares more deeply than any human
to find shelter under the
Fig Tree

Rochelle wrote this poem during her short-term placement with refugees in West Asia.
Name has 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…

Serving God without leaving home

A few weeks before my family went to live overseas for the first time, I got a phone call. The caller was an older friend whom I respected.

“Ruth”, she said to me, “I know we talk a lot about Jim’s role. But I wanted to remind you that the reason your family can go overseas is because you are behind him. If he could not rely on you as his wife and mother of his kids, then there would not be the option to go.”

It was the first time I recognised my unique position to be used as a stay-at-home mum overseas. We were heading there with a baby and toddler in tow. Usually the anticipation focussed on my husband's role, whereas mine… not so much. Let's face it, being a stay-at-home mum is not glamorous.

It didn't get any more glamorous overseas. There were still sleepless nights, tantrums and dirty nappies (to be clear: Jim also dealt with all of these – I couldn’t have done it without him!). Besides that, it is tough for kids in a new culture. They needed me close by, especially at first when the street dogs were scary, their tummies were upset and they were still getting used to having their cheeks squeezed by strangers.

But in the Middle East, there is a lot more respect for mothers than I'd experienced in Australia. To locals, I was doing a legitimate role. It was beyond their imagination that I put my children to bed before 11pm at night, or hadn't toilet trained them by 12 months old. But walking the kids to school, shopping at the market and doing my own cooking did make sense to my local friends. And that helped as we built our relationships.

Being a stay-at-home mum also enabled me to use other gifts in flexible ways. Relationship building was part of our ministry within the Interserve team. We loved having visitors and we would often have people over to share meals together because I had the time for hospitality. In the frequently stressful times of a foreign land, this mutual encouragement strengthened and refreshed us all for our ministries elsewhere.

Interserve’s vision is transformed communities. Did I transform anything through my school drop-offs and nappies and pots of spaghetti bolognaise?

Maybe the question is not what did I transform, but what was God doing though me? Like a tapestry that is not yet finished, I can only see scraps of the pattern God was creating. I do know my role contributed to helping us thrive as a family in the country. I had a part in enabling my husband to do the role God had for him. It also allowed me to pour time into building relationships with other cross-cultural workers, to support them in fulfilling their own God-given purposes. It gave me time to see the opportunities, and as the kids got older, to find my niche outside the home too.

I am no hero of the faith, but I trust God used me as a stay-at-home mum. He placed me there, made me the person I am, and gave me my role for that time.

The rest is His story.

Ruth served with her family in the Middle East for six years.
All names have been changed.

A barista walked into a cafe

“If more people come to know Jesus through our deaths than though our lives, then we are prepared to die, Father.”

I read this prayer in a biography when I was nine. I was struck by how radical and countercultural life in Jesus is to the world around us. Our lives are gifts not to ourselves, but to be given sacrificially for His story and His glory.
God began to water the seed of overseas mission in my heart. Through reading missionary stories, I imagined being a teacher in the depths of the African savannah, choosing education as my university degree.

But throughout my teens, biographies, novels and world events like September 11 increased my curiosity about the Middle East and Islam. Growing up in rural WA, I don’t remember meeting any Muslims or even knowing anyone who had ever stepped foot in the Middle East. Yet God began to grow this curiosity. While I was at university, I read about Brother Andrew’s ministry to Muslims and in that moment decided that I would start working towards going to the Middle East as a teacher.

But it didn’t take long into this journey to realise I did not enjoy teaching. This led to a lot of anxiety as I studied at Bible college. If I didn’t teach in the Middle East, what could I do?
But just as God had begun watering the seed of love for Muslims, He also had planted a love of coffee! I returned to my home city and started working in specialty cafes, learning the coffee business and mastering the barista’s art. I didn’t know how I could use this in the Middle East but I prayed that I would!

God heard these prayers. I found myself boarding a plane as an On Tracker to the Middle East to work for a coffee business for two years! In His strength and grace, the project aims to accomplish many things alongside providing delicious cups of coffee.

As I helped develop the barista program and its curriculum, train staff and build the team I was amazed at how God used simple things like coffee and baristas to bring people together: rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Muslim and Christian to create networks and communities that provided endless opportunities for people to see His power, glory and reconciling love. I saw Him refining and using local Christians as they showed their Muslim colleagues what it means to be a Middle Eastern Christian. I saw Muslims taking note of God working in the lives of His children. I saw them begin to have their misconceptions about Christianity dispelled and be curious about what it truly is all about. All in the everyday workings of a small business!

God has used my education and my coffee experience. If I were to go back in time to decide on a future career, I would tell myself that God doesn’t just use the ‘traditional’ missionary careers like teaching and medicine. He can use any career or trade! He gives to each of us skills, talents and passions to be used for His glory and in His story.

Ella is preparing to return to the Middle East as a long-term Partner.