“I’m gonna invite you guys over for burgers, like I said. I make a mean American burger. But uh… well, you know how kids are always finding stuff?”
“Sure, they do find all kinds of things,” I responded into the phone, not sure what my friend was getting at.
“Well, I lost a hand grenade somewhere in my apartment. Don’t worry though. I duct-taped the pin so it’s not dangerous. But all the same, I’d hate for your kids to find it under the couch or something, you know?”
“Yeah, uh, that makes sense,” I responded, trying to sound normal.
How do you lose a hand grenade? Then again, I reminded myself that my friend Dan* was a mercenary. Everyone misplaces items from the office every now and then. Apparently mercenaries misplace hand grenades.
There are really only a few types of Westerners you run into in our corner of Central Asia. There are the missionaries, like us. The kids, collared shirts, and kind manners are usually dead giveaways here – as well as any proficiency in local language. Then there are some foreigners who are there only for business or adventure, but these tend to be a pretty questionable crew who can’t help but stick out by their awkward and sometimes scandalous conduct in the local culture. There are also the security contractors, the mercenaries. These former military types have their own dead giveaways. Cargo pants, scruffy facial hair, sunglasses, large muscles, and a kind of gnarled weathered look that comes from spending a lot of lot of time in the sun and in the dust.
The cumulative picture of this small foreign community is a bizarre one. Foreigners in Central Asia tend to eye one another warily from a distance, not sure whether they should interact, suspicious by default of what the other is doing in this desert on the other side of the world. One writer compared these expat dynamics to the desert moon of Tatooine in the Star Wars galaxy. Sure, there are some good guys scattered here and there. But most outsiders who end up in our corner of Central Asia are running from something, or are some kind of bounty hunter.
Dan and I met while I was out on a date with my wife at a local mall. He and his wife were at the same mall, spotted us as fellow foreigners, and asked us about the very restaurant that we were going to. Unlike most other expats, Dan didn’t seem standoffish at all. Instead, he was rather forward, even asking if they could join us for dinner. A split-second pivot from my wife and me had our date night quickly turn into an evangelistic opportunity with these new friends who seemed desperate for connection. Pro tip: date nights are hard to come by on the mission field, so only attempt this kind of move if you are absolutely sure you’ll be able to make up for it soon.
We sat down to dinner and began learning about their story. Originally from Portugal, Dan had been a gun-for-hire all over the world and had seen some truly terrible things. A serious injury landed him in Scandinavia, where his future wife nursed him back to health. They had been in our city for less than a year. Dan was working for a leader of one of the local militias, and his wife had gotten a job at an international school.
“I am the only person in the country with a license to open-carry a RPG!” Dan quickly let me know, proudly showing me the license itself. I was legitimately impressed.
As we talked, I learned that Dan swore like a sailor, was very proud of his Catholic military heritage, but really only believed in the power of weapons and the goodness of animals. He hated most people. But for some reason he liked me, and we began a unique friendship. Dan would tell me horrific stories of battle on behalf of corporations in African jungles. I would spiral the conversation in toward the gospel. Dan would eventually catch on, “How did you get me to talk about this again?” he would ask, squinting his eyes at me as if I were enacting some sneaky plan.
Dan would try to convince me that I would only be safe if I was packing adequate firepower. “I get it. You’re a Christian, you don’t want to kill people. How about a good shotgun? You wouldn’t have to kill them, just maim them with bird-shot! I can get you a real nice one at a great price.” I would shake my head and try to convince him that knowing the local language and culture and relying on local friends could get me safely into places Dan could never get into with his weapons. And that ultimately I was in Central Asia under God’s protection.
We got to share the gospel several times with Dan and his wife, including the time we facilitated a small wedding for them in the living room of the international church pastor. Turns out Scandinavian common law marriage is not recognized in Islamic societies that demand a certificate from an approved religious official. They were going to have to live separately, so we threw together a small ceremony for them and used it as another chance to point them to Jesus.
This meant a lot to Dan. And during the next security crisis he was sure to call me up to assure me that he had various options for armored convoys at a great price should our friends in another city need to evacuate. Then later on in the same crisis, he called me from the front lines, telling me that the news media was lying. Open warfare was taking place a couple hours from us, bodies were in the streets, in spite of the international media claims that it was just a “coordinated training exercise.” Now it was my turn to be grateful to Dan for alerting us to what was really happening when our own government and media were lying and trying to cover things up.
“Dan,” I asked him at one point. “There’s a little airstrip outside of town. If things got really bad and the airport were shut down, could you manage to hire some kind of Russian cargo plane to come in and evacuate us?”
“No,” Dan said. “I couldn’t do that… couldn’t do Russian, that is. I could get you an Emirati one though. But that’ll cost you. No friendship discounts there, ha!”
Eventually, though not surprisingly, Dan got kicked out of the country. Anyone with an open-carry license for a RPG is bound to get into serious trouble sooner or later. At the time of his departure Dan hadn’t yet professed faith in Christ. To my knowledge, he still hasn’t. He is one of many friends (though admittedly one of the more colorful ones) that God brought across our path for a short time and that we tried to share faithfully with. Even with our focus of reaching our Central Asian friends, we’ve never wanted to turn a blind eye to the gospel opportunities with others that may come about. Even if those opportunities are with those we never imagined we’d become friends with – like Catholic burger-cooking mercenaries.
Dan never found the grenade. We never had those burgers he promised. But given the strange way our paths crossed, I have a lot of hope that wherever he ends up God will bring him more believing friends who keep spiraling the conversation back to the gospel. And I pray that even mercenary Dan, who hates most people and has seen so much death, will one day be transformed.
*name changed for security