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.

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

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.

Seeing God at work

I sometimes get the feeling that some people think we’re ‘super Christians’ to have lived in a slum for the last 12 years with our family… but to us, it’s just life. We don’t think we’re special. We are just using our lives and the gifts God has given us, to be good friends to our neighbours and respond to those whom God is placing in our midst.

Our first years were all about learning. Learning the culture, the language, how to wash the clothes by hand, how to shop at the market, how to live with 17 people in the house… and how to be parents for the first time. Learning was hard, painful, and disempowering for ourselves, but was the ultimate step in allowing us to serve, empower and champion Cambodians, rather than come in on top of them with our education, power, money and white skin. Here’s what we learned:

nterruptions are not interruptions if we see it as God bringing someone into our lives. So often we book up every minute and never have time for the thoughts, things or people that God places in our midst. We need to shift our posture to allow God the control and space to work. Leaving our door open means anyone is able to come into our home with a need, or share life with us.

Life is mission. People don’t drop by at convenient times. It’s usually dinner time! We need to be flexible to respond. People are not ‘work’, because work happens in the 9–5 and people happen in the 24/7… people are life. We do, however, need to take time to rest, or we burn out and are not useful to others.

Living in community has its ups and its downs. We see births, weddings, funerals, parties and sadness… we’re on this life journey together. Khmer culture goes well with Aussie culture, but is also very different. Sometime we get along, sometimes we don’t. It is enriching to our lives to find a way to get along with others, rather than just hanging with those who are similar to us.

Have an empowering mindset. When we worked in an NGO for the first few years, it was a slow process to empower our Cambodian colleagues until they came up with the lightbulb ideas. It can be arduous work for us, but it means Cambodians will own these initiatives. It’s about having an empowering mindset when you see a problem: Can that person bring about their own change? What about their family? Can their community? When those avenues are exhausted, maybe then it’s appropriate for the mission worker to step in. Partnering with the local church is also another way to work with ‘people of peace’ who want to see the gospel spread and change in their community. True help brings about long-term change and empowerment.

Through being present in our community we have been able to see needs and journey with Cambodians who are willing to respond. These include: helping someone navigate the health system, advocating with the village leader to get the drainage fixed, standing in-between a husband who is beating his wife. Homework clubs have started so that kids can pass their exams and speed up their literacy. A local preschool started under someone’s house, so that kids can become ‘school ready’ before they hit grade one. Justees, our fair trade t-shirt printing business, helps young ex-drug users earn a wage to support them through their schooling, and Connect Street Work is responding to direct requests for us to be advocating for users from poor communities in the drug rehab system. The small things make a great difference for the people that society thinks are at the bottom of the heap.

It takes pressure off when we believe that God can do great things! We need to be in a right relationship with him and submit our lives and ideas to him so he can speak, lead and guide. We’re just being us, in this place, looking to see the way he is working… and being part of that.

David and his family have lived in community in Cambodia for 13 years.

Working for transformation

“What do you do?” he asked, by and by.
“Well, I work”, answered I.
“What as?” he continued, with aplomb.
“I do my job …”
“Yes”, he said, “I see,
that this work is why you are here”.
“Yes, indeed”, with much in store,
waiting for a chance to tell him more,
Sharing with him about how much he is loved.

So, our identity is in our work. Rarely are we asked, “Why do you work?” and “What is your motivation?” Usually, it stops at “What do you do?” and that is enough to satisfy the curiosity of our host country, host organisation, local friends and complete strangers.

But isn’t our identity more than work? We are loved and completely accepted—isn’t that our identity? Hence, we often experience a tension in how we share our identity with those around us. What we do is less important than who we are. It’s easy to say that we work; indeed, it is expected. If not, then suspicions are raised—how can they really live here if they do not work? Or, if we say we are doing one thing but in fact are doing something else, we actually have a major problem with integrity. I define integrity as having just one story about who I am and I share the details of my story in a way my hearer will understand. But, what I say is what I do, because it usually is, in terms of my work.

Of course, work is not everything. Family, rest, sharing in communities … we all know the expression that no-one gets to their deathbed and says, “I wish I had spent more time at work”. The reverse is invariably the case. God rested, and so should we.

But identity is not the only function of work. One major function of work is relationship building. We have many opportunities to spend time with the people we work with. Indeed, I have found it easier and more natural than, for example, becoming friends with my local traffic policeman (as I did in my early language-learning days) and this is because we have more in common. Work relationships seem to last longer. And relationships are often key if we want to see transformation.

Transformation—yes, that is what we long for. Often the transformation, physically and spiritually, is through our work. When I see a community being empowered to take their own actions to address some of their limitations for health or education, then I can see transformation—and all this through work. When I see a social business being able to contribute significantly to a social cause through a business model, then I witness transformation.

What about when I don’t see transformation, though? Is my work less successful, or is it even wasted? How do I handle ‘bad days’ or even bad seasons? At various points in time I have thought about what makes success. Going back to the question of identity … if our identity is based on our success, we are setting ourselves up for a big problem.

Perhaps the end of the matter is to have a healthy attitude towards work. For most of us, that will be ordinary work. Ordinary people doing ordinary things. But we are enabled for our ordinary work to be achieving something quite out of the ordinary in kingdom terms. And, if anyone asks—yes, I am here to work; here to see transformation.

Robert has worked in community development in South East Asia for over 10 years.
Names have been changed.

Doing business doing life

When we left for South East Asia over five years ago, we had no idea what we would be doing after being on a language study visa for one year. We knew for sure, though, that we wanted to support local believers and fellowships and to share Jesus’ good news with the people of the majority faith.

Through the time of language learning, Paul researched and explored ideas of how we could stay here on a long-term basis. Like most countries, you need a visa to live here if you are not a tourist. And it piqued our interest that our city is known for being a ‘business’ city.

Paul left Australia with his computer programming skills, a knowledge of running a small business and a few contacts. During his time of studying language he talked to various people, listening, building friendships and noting the needs around our city. He concluded that setting up a computer programming business would create opportunities for training local workers using the knowledge we are blessed to have from being educated in Australia.

Now we find ourselves, six years on, in an amazing, unique and financially challenging position. The computer company develops custom web-based programs, mobile apps for clients and its own software products. We have also taken on the management of an English language centre. In all this growth, Leah has found a place supporting both businesses through her love of administration and accounting. Together the businesses employ almost 20 full-time and part-time staff. We’ve also taken on apprentices from the local university.

What we love about this lifestyle is that we are privileged to ‘do life’ with our staff and clients—we rejoice when the HR lady’s baby is born, give comfort when the admin lady’s father passes away suddenly, celebrate when a staff member gets married, give sympathy when a dating relationship breaks up, offer support when a business endeavour is struggling, and give encouragement by reading the Bible with our Christian staff.

We’re also intentional about sharing life outside the office. Do you enjoy the beauty of nature? Leah does! She is always wanting to get out of the city and explore the natural world around her (she is really a country bumpkin at heart). To her surprise she learned that many of the staff at our company felt the same way. The dream became a reality recently when we organised an outing to a waterfall for staff and their families. Two of the girls had never left our city and it was wonderful to watch their faces as they saw their first mountains, water buffaloes and monkeys, went on their first bush-walk and even got muddy for the first time. Everyone enjoyed the outing. Swimming in the cool water of the waterfall was definitely a highlight after hiking in the middle of the day in the heat and the humidity of the tropics.

This trip was also unique as it included people from the many demographics that make up our company: people aged from 2 to 44, English teachers, computer programmers, admin staff, family and friends, seven people groups, and four religions. What a blessing to see everyone enjoying community together! Coming from Australia, you may be wondering why the diversity of this group outing was unique. In this country, people are usually divided by people group and religion; their cultures differ significantly from each other. Belonging to a people group usually means that you follow its dominant religion and its uniquely different culture (food restrictions, festivals, religious holidays, family reunions).

To have an environment where people are willing to be friends, respect each other, and do life together is quite extraordinary, and very exciting!

Leah and Paul live and serve in South East Asia. They have four children.

Names have been changed.

The ordinary work of life

We see them on Facebook and Instagram in all their colour and energy. The biography shelf at our local bookstore regales us with their tales. You know the stories I mean. The ones that we wish were ours, but are quietly terrified of at the same time. The stories of lives that are full and exciting, and overflowing with blessing and fruitful ministry, drama, joy and … life!

We read these stories and are filled with awe, and sometimes more than a little jealousy. We look at our own ordinary lives and wonder, is this it? Am I missing something? In contrast to these exciting stories, the lives of us ordinary humans, doing the ordinary work of life, can seem incredibly boring.

Then, there are those of us who appear, to others, to have the exciting lives. We have left our passport countries to make our home in new places with interesting cultures, exotic foods and tale-worthy challenges. We may have thought that we were finally getting to live those stories we had once listened to with rapt attention.

But then comes the reality. The new place loses its wonder. The challenges become mundane and ordinary, or a never-ceasing frustration. We fill our lives with language classes or sit at a computer most days. To all appearances we’re not changing the world; we’re just changing nappies. It may look like we’re not spreading the Gospel; we’re just spreading peanut butter sandwiches. We are not seeing hundreds healed and coming to faith every other week; we are just sitting with our friends, trying to navigate relationships. We’re not seeing breakthroughs; sometimes we’re just experiencing breakdowns. Our once-exciting lives once again seem very ordinary.

So, are we just missing something, or are we instead missing the point? Maybe our human need for glory and recognition has blinded us to the fact that God never said “Go out and make a name for yourself”. There is no great commission to Facebook or newsletter glory. Jesus did, however, tell us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:37–39). We are also reminded by Paul that “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

Whatever you do. Yes, this might include miraculous healings or being involved in exciting conversions. But it also means the ordinary, day-to-day work of life too. It means loving those around you well, and meeting the sometimes very ordinary needs you see, with the skills and experience God has gifted you with. The main thing has always been about the heart. It’s about anchoring yourself in God, and living out that relationship.

For me, this anchoring, through prayer and rest, is perhaps the hardest part of the ordinary work of life. But right now I’m discovering its importance. I’m diving deep into discovering the biblical-ness and beauty of the rich wisdom of our spiritual mothers and fathers in the contemplative traditions. I am realising how necessary it is for us to just be with God, being exactly who we are. In that place we can hear who God is saying that we are, and discover joy in all the extraordinarily ordinary work God has prepared us to do.

So, I pray that you let God open your eyes to the beauty of the ordinary work of life, wherever and whatever that looks like for you. Because whatever ‘ordinary’ is for you, when it’s done with God at the centre, it is always extraordinary.

Kylie is a Partner living in South East Asia. She serves a community development organisation.

Working for transformation

“What do you do?” he asked, by and by.
“Well, I work”, answered I.
“What as?” he continued, with aplomb.
“I do my job …”
“Yes”, he said, “I see,
that this work is why you are here”.
“Yes, indeed”, with much in store,
waiting for a chance to tell him more,
Sharing with him about how much he is loved.

So, our identity is in our work. Rarely are we asked, “Why do you work?” and “What is your motivation?” Usually, it stops at “What do you do?” and that is enough to satisfy the curiosity of our host country, host organisation, local friends and complete strangers.

But isn’t our identity more than work? We are loved and completely accepted—isn’t that our identity? Hence, we often experience a tension in how we share our identity with those around us. What we do is less important than who we are. It’s easy to say that we work; indeed, it is expected. If not, then suspicions are raised—how can they really live here if they do not work? Or, if we say we are doing one thing but in fact are doing something else, we actually have a major problem with integrity. I define integrity as having just one story about who I am and I share the details of my story in a way my hearer will understand. But, what I say is what I do, because it usually is, in terms of my work.

Of course, work is not everything. Family, rest, sharing in communities … we all know the expression that no-one gets to their deathbed and says, “I wish I had spent more time at work”. The reverse is invariably the case. God rested, and so should we.

But identity is not the only function of work. One major function of work is relationship building. We have many opportunities to spend time with the people we work with. Indeed, I have found it easier and more natural than, for example, becoming friends with my local traffic policeman (as I did in my early language-learning days) and this is because we have more in common. Work relationships seem to last longer. And relationships are often key if we want to see transformation.

Transformation—yes, that is what we long for. Often the transformation, physically and spiritually, is through our work. When I see a community being empowered to take their own actions to address some of their limitations for health or education, then I can see transformation—and all this through work. When I see a social business being able to contribute significantly to a social cause through a business model, then I witness transformation.

What about when I don’t see transformation, though? Is my work less successful, or is it even wasted? How do I handle ‘bad days’ or even bad seasons? At various points in time I have thought about what makes success. Going back to the question of identity … if our identity is based on our success, we are setting ourselves up for a big problem.

Perhaps the end of the matter is to have a healthy attitude towards work. For most of us, that will be ordinary work. Ordinary people doing ordinary things. But we are enabled for our ordinary work to be achieving something quite out of the ordinary in kingdom terms. And, if anyone asks—yes, I am here to work; here to see transformation.

Robert has worked in community development in South East Asia for over 10 years.
Names have been changed.