It had been a rough six months back in the US. After a life-changing year in Central Asia, I had returned to the States in order to get back to being a college student. My first semester back was spent at an expensive Christian liberal arts school in the cornfields, where reverse culture shock hit me like a locomotive. In addition to this, a long-distance relationship had fallen through, a mentor had died of cancer, and God had seemed to go silent. A friend studying in Louisville, KY, invited me to come and visit his school. The combination of this close friendship, a more affordable school, and city with Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees caused me to move to Louisville in the summer of 2009.
Sometimes providence shows off. Circumstances fall into place in such an unlikely or personalized way that we can’t help but feel that God is uniquely caring for us as known and loved individuals. Soon after moving to Louisville, I searched the internet for halal markets. These stores are run by Muslims and sell groceries – and particularly meat – that are ceremonially clean for Muslims to eat, or halal. Most cities in Western nations that have resettled Muslim refugees will have a small network of these markets, as well as halal restaurants. I was sorely missing my Central Asian friends. And I was eager to be studying the Bible with Muslims again. So I scanned the search results, zeroing in on a market and bakery that were only one mile from my school – close enough for a student without a vehicle to walk to. Suddenly I leaned in. The name of the bakery suggested that it was run by refugees from the very same Central Asian people group I had just spent a year with. My heart leapt, and I decided to go as soon as I could.
The day I visited the bakery I met Rand*, a refugee from the same people group I had lived with, albeit from over the border in a neighboring country. He was just as shocked and happy as I was when we found ourselves able to converse in his mother tongue. We excitedly told our stories to one another and Rand gave me a precious gift – a stack of warm flatbread, freshly baked in a tanur oven. The smell was incredible, and transported me immediately back to the the windy streets of the bazaar. Not only did Rand bake the stuff, but he even delivered it! Now I was feeling spoiled. He was heading out to deliver his bread to the Middle Eastern restaurants in town, so we said goodbye and I promised to come and see him soon. I turned out of the bakery section of the building and starting exploring the small market.
The market was run by a kind family from Afghanistan. I had never had any friends from that country, and they became my first. Both my focus people group and Afghans are from the Persian-related swathe of Central Asia, and I was amazed to find how much of their culture and vocab was similar to what I had learned thousands of miles away. I gleefully picked up some looseleaf tea and spices to make the local chai I had learned – half earl grey, half black Ceylon, a little bit of cinnamon and cardamom and plenty of sugar. I stepped out of that market beaming, walking home awash in a sense of God’s kindness toward me. A halal market and bakery only one mile from where I lived! New friends from Central Asia! And a chance to step back into a part of the world I had come to love deeply, and which was beginning to shape me deeply in turn.
Nothing very dramatic ever happened at that halal market and bakery, but several very good things did. I got into conversations about Jesus with the Afghan family. I met some new friends there from my focus people group. I helped support refugee businesses by buying tea, happy cow cheese, and flatbread. I took a cute girl on one of our first dates there (a girl who would one day become my wife). That day it was snowing and we had a lovely walk through the snow to the bakery where I got to introduce her to the wonders of warm Central Asian naan and hot chai.
After only a year or so, Randy and his family moved out of state, and it wasn’t long afterward that the market closed also. There’s a very high turnover rate among small businesses like these. I missed visiting them, though by this time I had also found a dozen other Central Asian-owned businesses within a couple miles of my school – much to the surprise of even the missions professors. Iranians in particular are very good at starting businesses in the West that blend in pretty seamlessly, unless one is specifically looking out for them.
But I will never forget that bakery that felt like it was placed there just for this reverse-culture-shocking broke college student who dearly missed Central Asia. In what continued to be a very hard season, it was a tangible sign of God’s kindness – especially that fresh flatbread.
*Names changed for security