I waited anxiously at the hole-in-the wall restaurant where we had agreed to meet. It was the kind of place that specialized in a Central Asian pizza of sorts, flatbread with ground beef, oil, and spices spread on top of it. Not the most compatible meal with anxiety. *Hama was running a little late and I was worried that he would bail on me. I was excited that he had agreed to visit a local house church with me for their midweek evening meeting. But I also knew the great fear locals have of meeting with others from their own people group to do something technically illegal – to study the teachings of Jesus in rejection of Islam.
Thankfully, both Hama and *Aden arrived. Aden was another good friend of mine. He had been a believer for a couple years and was a passionate young evangelist as well as being a goofball. I hoped that they would hit it off given the fact that Hama was almost a believer and also appreciated a good prank. The first meeting could have been worse. They sized one another up and had some respectful dialogue, but I sensed some hesitation in Hama.
“Still want to go, Hama?”
“Yes, I still want to. I have some important questions and after what happened with my sister…”
“Well,” I said, “I’m glad you’re taking this risk. I’ve visited this group a few times over these past months and I think they’ll be very receptive to your visit and to your questions.”
I wondered if this visit would be the one to push Hama over the edge. He clearly was wrestling with faith in Jesus, but he knew it would come at a cost.
We walked the ten minutes or so to the house where the church was gathering. It was in a neighborhood just down the hill from the strip of restaurants where we’d met. We left our shoes at the front door, contributing to the couple dozen that were already fanned out there. As we entered the room, everyone broke from their conversation and immediately stood up, proclaiming respectful greetings, making honorable gestures, and shaking hands at the same time. We were pointed to the more honorable side of the room, where guests were always invited to sit. We chose a spot still considered honorable, but shifted over to the side a bit, communicating both an appreciation for the gesture and our own desire to let others take the better spots on the floor. The hosts waited to sit until we had already found our spots, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.
More choruses of welcoming phrases followed, accompanied by honorable responses from Hama and Aden and to a lesser extent, myself. Americans just say “thanks” to everything so it takes us a while to get used to utilizing the several dozen respectful greetings and responses that Central Asians fire, machine-gun style, into their every day interactions. Twelve years later, I’m still not a pro, but I’m certainly better at it than I was back then. It helped when I realized that the other party isn’t actually fully listening to your barrage of pleasantries, busy as they are producing their own.
Two men in their late thirties were the obvious leaders of the group, both dressed in traditional attire. Most of the rest of the guests were young twenty-somethings, like my friend Aden. They were dressed in Western clothing. There were only a few women present at this meeting and they chose to meet in the next room over. One of these men, *Zane, was the pastor, and *Allen was his assistant-in-training. Both had quite the background story, with Zane surviving assassination attempts and *Allen being a former member of a terrorist organization. As a twenty-year-old missionary, I was just going to sit back and pray and let these guys do the talking.
The plan had been to continue their study through the book of Revelation and spend some time in prayer together, but they condensed their meeting in order to have abundant time to interact with Hama. After a brief study and prayer together (lifting up one of the members who couldn’t come because he’d been beaten by his brothers again), we sang a few worship songs. This particular house church had some issues with tying their teaching too closely with the political aims of their people (sound familiar?), but man, could they sing. I’ve yet to be part of another group where the singing was as passionate as this one. They would often start their songs off in roaring A Capella, clapping, and in the wrong key and tempo, much to the consternation of the violin player who was supposed to be leading. Still, they meant it. Living through persecution together can have a powerful effect on corporate worship.
After this, they invited Hama to share his story and why he was interested in knowing about Jesus. Hama shared for about fifteen minutes, telling about his years in the UK, his disillusionment with Islam, his study in Matthew, and his sister’s recent healing. Zane listened intently, leaning in. I could see why all these young men were a part of his group. He was a natural leader. His sudden and secret departure for Europe a year later would largely shatter this church – an unfortunate result of him being offered some kind of position as a pastor in Germany.
After Hama was done sharing, Zane began his response. He probably spoke for about thirty minutes, weaving in and out of different reasons why Jesus was the true way and Islam was false. Hama listened and nodded soberly. I kept praying. Zane’s words were going deep. The one part that I clearly remember is when he gestured to a young man sitting in the corner.
“You see him? He’s a part of our enemy people group. His people committed genocide against us. If we were Muslims we would still hate each other. Right, *Elijah?”
“That’s right,” Elijah grinned.
Zane continued, “But because of Jesus we are brothers now. We love one another and we even love that American guy who brought you too. We are all one family now because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Only by believing in him is this possible.”
Hama nodded and I stopped listening to what Zane was saying next as I chewed on what had just occurred. I hadn’t known that Elijah was from that enemy people group. What a powerful testimony to the unity the gospel can produce. These men really should hate one another and Elias should hate me, given his background. Yet here we are.
Zane finished up eventually and closed the meeting. We said our respectful goodbyes and walked back toward the restaurant area. Several of the young men were heading that way too. One of them kept pressing Hama with one evangelistic argument after another. Hama was half listening, but his brain was clearly already saturated. He wasn’t in need of more information, but in need of some time for reflection.
“It’s true, you know,” Elijah said putting his arms around me and Aden. I should hate you and I should hate you and you should both hate me! But we are brothers now… Look at what Jesus has done!”
Even though that house church eventually fell apart, Elijah’s words that night have remained with me. The power of his mere joyful presence in that group of natural enemies was a small window into what eternity will look like – and into what healthy churches among our people group can look like also.
Many in missions emphasize the need to plant only people-group specific churches. The logic is that planting churches combining those from different ethnicities will hamper church multiplication. While I understand the push for speed comes from a motive to see as many reached as possible, I can’t help thinking that the speed will come at the loss of a particular kind of power and beauty. The power and beauty I saw on display that evening as Elijah walked with us. No longer an enemy, now a brother.
*Names have been changed for security