My Iranian refugee friend, *Reza, had come to faith. It had felt like a long road for him, but there was now clear evidence of the new birth in his life. After lots of struggle and discussion about baptism and church membership, he had taken the plunge. My wife and I began dreaming about seeing a group of Middle Eastern refugees in our American city come to faith. Who knew? Maybe this new believer would result in a church plant that strategically focused on this diverse and overlooked community.
Initially, we did have some traction with some of his Middle Eastern contacts. But through his friendships as an employee at Walmart, my friend started befriending and reaching out to a very different community – struggling Kentuckians. He befriended a single mom who had had a very broken past and was in need of a lot of help. Our community group rallied, helping her with practical needs and sharing the gospel with her. We helped her walk away from a false church with cult-like tendencies. It was encouraging to see my friend’s new faith resulting in mercy ministry. But I was a little uneasy with this direction things were taking. My vision was reaching Middle Eastern refugees. Mercy ministry with local Americans was a good thing, but very time-consuming. And it was something there were many churches already doing.
Things got more complicated with this single mom and she ended up moving in with us temporarily while we searched for a safe living situation. She seemed to be close to coming to faith. Then we found out there was romantic interest there as well between her and Reza. Two baby believers with very complicated pasts were now interested in one another. We had only been married a year ourselves and had a newborn. We were in over our heads, but kept trying to plug our friends in to good opportunities for growth with us. So Reza started attending a Perspectives class with us. If you haven’t heard of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, it’s a class offered in many places in the West that focuses on global missions and includes a lot of church history. If you want to wake a local church up to God’s heart for the nations and their part in that, hosting a Perspectives class can be a great way to begin. It’s not really designed for brand new believers, but we were hoping to get missions DNA into our Iranian friend from the get-go.
Then we learned about his girlfriend’s brother, *Akin. Out of the blue he had reached out to his estranged sister, asking for help and telling her that he had finally burned all his bridges in the city where he lived. He had been addicted to heroin for three years. I didn’t know very much about drug addiction, but my friends who did told me to be extra careful with heroin users. “They’ll rob their own mothers,” is the sentence that I remember. Reza told me they were going to go pick him up and have him move into his sister’s new place, an apartment we had just been able to find in a sketchy refugee apartment complex we would later live in ourselves.
“Absolutely not,” I told him. “That is a really bad idea. I have been told to be super careful with heroin users, so you should not let him move in with his sister who just escaped a dangerous living situation. Just give me a couple days to work something out with the homeless center that we’re connected with. They should be able to get him a good option that’s also safe. Just whatever you do, don’t go get him tonight.”
He ignored me.
The Perspectives class was just starting when Reza called me. “I’ve got the brother. We’ll be with you in class shortly.”
“What?!” I asked, “You went and got him? Bro, I told you not to!”
“It’s OK, I’ll take responsibility for him. See you soon.” And he hung up. I looked around the room, wondering what to do with the unfolding situation. I decided there was nothing really to be done. Not for the last time I shook my head at the stubbornness of Iranians.
After a short time, they arrived. My short and mustachioed Iranian friend walked into the room with a pale, skeletal American guy. He looked to be about my age, had scruffy facial hair, sunken eyes, and didn’t look completely aware of his surroundings. They came and sat at our table and we did some hushed introductions as the class was now underway. But I was frustrated. Why wouldn’t my friend trust me and listen to me? Why would he complicate our already complicated situation like this when we had so much else that we needed to sort out? Couldn’t he have waited just a couple days and not brought this guy to a missions class? I sighed. I was supposed to spending my time doing relational evangelism with Middle Eastern refugees, not doing emergency ministry triage for these messy Americans. I could see glances being exchanged by different class facilitators as they took stock of the situation also.
The next part of the class was the part where we would pray at our tables for an unreached people group. That night, it was a people group in India and we were instructed to pray in pairs with the person next to us. My assigned partner was Akin. Well, I thought to myself, at least I can pray the gospel as we pray for this people group. Oh, the strange situations I keep finding myself in. I’m prayer partners with an unbelieving heroin addict, praying for a group of unreached Hindus in India!
I can’t say that it was the most faith-filled prayer I’ve ever prayed. Internally I was all over the place. But we made it through the prayer and through the class. Akin, to my surprise, listened intensely to the speaker’s presentation, which contained a lot of gospel. Somewhere in the middle of class, I looked over and noticed how calm he had become. Other facilitators also told me afterward that something had visibly changed about Akin over the course of the class. He borrowed a copy of Ragamuffin Gospel from somewhere, moved in with his sister, and was nursed through a month of detox by my Iranian friend. He started coming to church with us right away and plugged in to our community group of messy young believers and young seminary families. Soon he had an interview with one of our pastors where they dug into the gospel and the changes taking place in Akin’s life.
I caught him in the church sanctuary after the interview and asked him how it went.
“It went well. I’m so encouraged that the pastor has a past of drug addiction too! He pushed me real hard on some things, but I didn’t back down. I’m not going back to heroin. I believe in Jesus now.”
“Really?” I asked. “What do you mean by that?”
Akin went on to explain the gospel and his trust in it. And how he had begun to experience dramatic internal changes – starting from when I had prayed with him for that random Indian people group.
“What?! You think that’s when God might have saved you? That first night when we hadn’t even had a chance to talk yet?”
“Hard to say, but something changed during that prayer. Then I kept reading and praying when I was doing detox, and studying the Bible with Reza. Yep! I think God’s made new.”
God had indeed made him new. Whenever the specific act of regeneration had occurred, God had used our strange circumstances – and my Iranian disciple’s ignoring of wise advice – to save Akin. Mysterious and ironic. I did not feel called to work with Kentuckians like Akin, but that wasn’t going to stop God. He was out to save Akin and his sister anyway.
It wasn’t long before we noticed things coming full circle. Akin started counseling a Middle Eastern refugee who was struggling with drug addiction and was a resident at our partner homeless center. I had assumed that investing in this broken American family was something apart from the particular ministry God had called us to. I didn’t realize that God was going to use us Americans to reach a Middle Easterner, who would himself reach some Americans, who would then go on to in turn serve Middle Easterners. It was, for me, a particular lesson in providence.
Akin would go on to get baptized and become a member of our church, to marry a godly woman – a marriage ceremony I had the great joy to officiate – and to eventually become a faithful deacon at that church. These days it’s not uncommon for him to be caught scheming with the other deacons about how to bless others through mercy ministry, playing his trombone for the worship team, or busy on the phone with his Iranian brother-in-law, planning when to play basketball with the nephews. During our last visit together they hosted us for some sublime barbecued pork – a particular kind of mercy ministry for people like us who work in Islamic countries.
Whenever I encounter those struggling with substance addictions, I think of Akin. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him playing trombone with the worship team in a powerful rendition of “Absent from Flesh.” Everything God had saved him from hit me afresh. God doesn’t always instantly heal addictions. But sometimes he does. I’ve got a deacon to prove it.
*Names changed for security