This past week Harry* preached for the first time in over two years. One of the only local believers who was present at the very beginning of our church plant, Harry at one point had become a leader in training. Our hopes were high that he would soon become an elder, but he disappeared during a season of church conflict and increased persecution from his tribe. By God’s grace, he’s come back around this past year and has been a steady and positive presence in the church once again. It was a sweet thing to have him preach again, teaching on John 15:12-17, “Friendship with God.” I led worship for the service, playing several of our local worship songs on our beater guitar that sounds half-way ukulele.
Harry is also one of the few locals still around who had met me fourteen years ago when I took a year off from college to come to this particular corner of Central Asia. Somehow the topic of how we first met came up on our ride home after the service.
“So, you remember this song?” I asked as I turned on “Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys.
Harry clapped his hands and gave a hearty laugh.
“That’s it!” He said. “That’s that ridiculous song you guys sang at the English club.”
My team at that point took part in a weekly English club at the local university. We would typically show a film clip to the hundred or so students gathered in the auditorium and then break up into discussion groups. The problem was the students were mostly very shy and nervous. At that point locals still felt pretty intimidated to be interacting with native English speakers. So we tried various strategies to get them to loosen up, including skits and musical numbers – mostly in vain.
One week for some reason I suggested we do a live rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” from the film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Perhaps it was my grandmom’s West Virginia mountain holler genes getting the better of me. I was sent to the bazaar to find grey wigs that we could fashion into hillbilly beards and we scrounged up some floppy hats, flannel shirts, and overalls. I played guitar and another appropriately stocky man on our team would be our main vocalist. Three other teammates would provide the backup vocals and the hoe-down dance moves. The performance went off surprisingly well, especially our flourish – when the redneck dancing seamlessly transitioned into Central Asian line dancing. That was, as I recall, the one point we got a little bit of audience interaction. This was appreciated, as it was likely the first time in history that the dance moves of the Appalachian mountains met those of Central Asia.
We finished the song triumphantly – but were met by a room of awkward silence, then a few hesitant smiles. One student started some lonely clapping and we performers shrugged at one another and transitioned on to the next part of the program. Apparently it was too much, too soon, but at least we had had a good time with it.
The one student who clapped was apparently the only student to have also seen the movie. “Better than the film!” He said as he came up to interact afterwards.
As I was to learn many years later, Harry was also in that room of perplexed students.
“I remember you all showing up dressed very strangely and wearing fake beards. Then the big guy started singing and you were on the guitar. I was the only one of my friends who knew a little English, so they asked me what was being said in the song. I couldn’t understand a thing – until the line, I have no frieeends to help me now. I leaned over to my friends and told them, ‘He says he has no friends.’ ‘What?’ they responded, ‘Of course he has friends, who are those other guys up there with him? What kind of a song is this, anyway?’ I just shook my head.”
Apparently Harry and I briefly met that day for the first time, though it would be seven years before we would meet again. Instead, I ended up connected with one of his good friends who had good English. Amet* and I would spend the next nine months meeting up in city parks, walking and discussing the book of Romans, and sitting on the grass while we munched the rice wrapped in grape leaves that his mom would always send with us. I felt sure that Amet was close to faith, but I returned to the States at the end of my year somewhat disappointed that he never crossed the line into confessing and believing.
Six years later I would return to the same city on a vision trip and hear that Amet was now a language teacher for another expat family – and they were having regular spiritual conversations with him. Amet soon brought Harry along, and then got lapped by Harry, who was the first to believe, finally dragging his friend over the line as well. Amet later became a refugee in the West, but Harry stuck around and became a steady disciple.
Harry and I laugh when we remember that goofy bluegrass performance. It’s an odd contrast with the hard road we’ve walked together since then. A road that’s involved being betrayed together by a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Harry’s ups and downs with the church and with his tribe, and our mutual struggle to trust that all this mess is really going to one day result in a faithful church.
Ironically, one of Harry’s greatest struggles has been to believe the opposite of that line from the song – that he has friends who will help him now. He doesn’t have to isolate when things get hard.
He may have many hardships that fill out his testimony, but in God’s sovereignty he can at least begin his story with something funny. “One day these foreign Christians showed up at my university. They looked utterly absurd. And don’t even get me started on their singing.”
*names changed for security