We leaned over the railing, watching a group of ducks and geese in the park’s man-made lake. It was a warm winter afternoon. Some of the fowl lazily swam around, others took one-legged naps, and one goose attempted to intimidate us by hissing and exposing his strange tongue. My friend and I just laughed at him. *Harry, having grown up in a village, is no city boy, and is quite comfortable with animals and their strange ways.
“You know what we say for liquid soap like this?” he had asked me earlier when we stopped into a mosque to use the facilities (all mosques here offer public restrooms). “We call it cow drool, ha! You know how cows are always drooling, right? See the resemblance when I push the dispenser button?” Apparently the next time I’m in need of someone to hand me some soap from a push wall dispenser, I can simply say, “give me some cow drool, please.”
Harry is the one believer still a part of our church plant that was there at the very beginning, six years ago, when it all started with a Christmas party. For the first few years of the church plant, he was the most promising potential leader. Humble, teachable, and wise, Harry blended a rough tribal village upbringing with an engineer’s education and a surprising array of experiences traveling abroad via couchsurfing. He’s also from the most conservative and violent tribe of our city, but had managed to live out his faith carefully and faithfully.
However, when we were on our first furlough the church suffered its second major implosion at the same time that major persecution ramped up from Harry’s tribe and coworkers. In danger and experiencing severe discouragement, Harry isolated himself, vowing to never gather again with other local believers, only with foreigners (and even that a maybe). His departure was a severe blow to all of us. It took him two and half years to come back around – a return that was one of the miraculous answers to prayer we saw over this past year.
To be honest, both of us are still pursuing healing after the difficulty of the past few years. Another leader in training had betrayed us both during the first implosion. Others we had looked up to and depended on had left. When we had gone on furlough and committed to moving to a different city, we had only done so because we believed we could depend on Harry to persevere in his track of being our first local elder. Trust had been broken, on both sides. But the desire to rebuild is mutual, and we’ve been making some steady strides.
Our long walk together on this particular day through the bazaar and the park was our first chance in a while to deeply invest in each other and reaffirm our friendship.
“Harry,” I said to him, “Can you promise me something?”
Harry looked at me expectantly and nodded.
“The next time you are in trouble, would you tell us right away?”
Harry made a cautious grin. He knew what I was getting at. The fact that we had not done more to help him during his season of intense persecution still stung for him. For our part, we were not told right away what was actually happening, and every time we had asked to help, he had told us to keep our distance so as to not make things worse. We all look back on that season with regrets, though no one is sure what else could have been done.
Harry’s instincts are still to go quiet and isolate when things are hard, and to reemerge when he’s got them under control again. It had happened again with a recent car accident. So my question was to try and help him see the need for him to depend more on the body of Christ when he has problems – a nonnegotiable posture for a healthy church member, let alone a potential leader.
Harry shared some of the reasons he’s afraid to depend on other believers, reasons which are very understandable given his story. He also expressed to me the need for us to have a plan in place before the persecution ramps up. I agreed. This ideal is one we keep bringing up, but given its complexity it has proven remarkably difficult to put any legs to it. I suggested a monthly meeting where we get together to work on it. Harry seemed encouraged by this idea.
“Do you remember what you told me years ago about what your father said about the wolves?” I said, referencing a story Harry had once relayed to me about his upbringing. “He told you that if you were out with the sheep and a wolf came, you were not to run for help. Why?”
“Because by the time I got back with help all the sheep would be dead.”
“Yes, so he told you that you had to stay and fight the wolf alone.”
“Well,” I continued, “I want you to know that’s not your situation anymore. Now, it’s like you have a mobile phone on you. When the wolf comes, you can call right away, and we will come and help you fight him. You don’t have to face your difficulties alone anymore.”
Harry looked out at the lake and thought about what I said. I prayed that he would actually believe me.
“You know,” he said, “I have friends who sometimes buy ducks and geese in the market and bring them here. They save them from slaughter and give them freedom.”
“And no one comes and steals them from this park?”
“No, they are safe here,” Harry said.
We turned away from the lake and walked on in the warm winter afternoon sun. I thought of all the difficulties Harry has faced – and will face – as a persecuted believer. His future looks bleak from a human perspective. Who will he marry? Will his tribe let him continue to be publicly known as an infidel? Will he be able to keep his government job? I know he longs to follow Jesus, but he also longs for safety, for marriage, for stability and a life without a crisis always threatened just around the corner.
Yet when Harry has been offered the chance to live in Europe, he has refused to do so. In spite of opportunities to marry Muslim girls, he is still single. In spite of failing and others failing him, he is still persevering in his faith, sharing the gospel, and following Jesus. The new heart in him and the presence of the Spirit keep him coming back, risking again for the sake of Jesus and in the hope of healthy churches someday taking root here.
I am sure that the wolf will come again for Harry. Yet Christ will stand with him, just as he did last time. We know that without a doubt. Our vision is that, somehow, the body of Christ will stand with him also. And that Harry would let us. Pray to this end.
*Names changed for security