The Courage to Go to Headless Village

“Let’s go. Let’s go tonight.”

I took a moment to register Darius’* response. This was different.

“His sister told me they had two villages,” he continued, “and from what you’re saying this is one of them. We need to go and find our brother.”

Harry*, a long-time believer, had disappeared again – which usually meant something bad had happened, some kind of threat of violence from his family or tribe on account of his faith. Whenever this happened to Harry in the past, the other local believers wouldn’t dare to get involved. Hence why Darius’ response was so different.

“Good. Mark* and I have already agreed to go. Last time Harry asked us to stay away when stuff like this happened, but staying away left him isolated and things did not go well. This time needs to be different. We would be glad to have you with us.”

I called Mark, the other expat serving with me as temporary pastor of our little church plant.

“Mr. Talent* is coming also,” Mark told me.

Another surprise. Mr. Talent, although a former soldier, had not been willing to get involved in past persecution interventions -“I can’t risk it with how well-known my dad is.” But it seemed as if things had changed for these two local men we’d been pouring into. Character was apparently growing. A readiness to risk for their brother in the faith was now there. This, in a culture where you might risk for your blood relatives, but almost never for your non-related friends. I’ve written in the past about some questions that can expose character, even across culture. One of them was, “Do they run when the wolf comes?” Wolves, in the form of Harry’s angry relatives, had potentially been spotted. And Darius and Mr. Talent were feeling some holy protectiveness. Praise God.

However, that didn’t exactly mean that we knew what we were doing. The principle was clear. In a communal, honor-shame culture, Harry’s tribe needed to know that he was not alone. He had people who would come looking for him, both locals and foreigners. This, we hoped, would give them pause if they thought about harming Harry further, maybe even convince them to hand him over if they were holding him somewhere. But the plan was what missionaries elsewhere have called “build the plane as you fly it.” We would go to Headless village, ask around to try to find Harry’s violent uncle, and try to somehow find Harry himself. If he was wounded, we would try to get him out of there. I had brought some first aid packs with me.

The uncle was the key to finding out what happened to Harry. After Harry had gone dark for several days, Mark had gone by his house to check on him. His mother and sister, distraught, told him that three days previous Harry’s uncle had shown up demanding that Harry accompany him to the village for some work on his house there. After that, Harry had been out of contact with everyone. He never came back to the house. No calls got through to his mobile phone. This was the same uncle who had lived with Harry’s family since Harry’s father’s death many years ago, living off their income and regularly beating them. Only recently had Harry been able to kick his uncle out of the house, an episode which also resulted in the uncle coming back when Harry wasn’t home and seizing some of Harry’s Christian books from his bedroom. Harry had been optimistic his very lost uncle might read some of the books and have a heart change. In hindsight it looks more like he was strengthening his hand for revenge.

Darius and I met at my house and then drove together to meet up with Mr. Talent and Mark. I was surprised to see Ray* with them also. Ray is a friend and pastor in the US who was in town for a few days after having preached at our retreat the week before. Had he volunteered to come with us on this risky outing? Or had he been “volun-told” to come so that we could have at least one mysterious American with us who couldn’t speak the local language – thereby raising some potentially helpful doubts in the minds of the villagers about what exactly our connections were? I’m still not sure which one it was, but I was grateful he joined us.

I’m calling the village Headless village because it is one of the main settlements of the tribe named The Headless Ones. These warlike nomads had settled in our area a couple centuries ago and still maintained a reputation for always being ready to fight – and having a lot of guns. Their neighborhood in our city – where Harry and his family lived – was one of the few where the local police would not allow foreigners like us to live. Given the warlike nature of this tribe, I wasn’t sure if our collective anxiety was sufficient or not quite enough. Mr. Talent and Darius certainly believed that we could find ourselves in a very dangerous situation with armed tribesmen very quickly and that we needed a wise approach.

“We’ll go to the village white-beard,” they agreed. “We’ll start with him and ask if he knows the uncle, explain Harry’s disappearance, and have him come with us as a mediator. That should provide some protection if the uncle gets angry at us.”

Right, I thought to myself, how is it that I’m always forgetting the importance of working through authority figures in this culture?

The first trick was finding the village white-beard, a social elder sort of position which every village apparently has. Unfortunately, it was now dark, so it took a little while to locate his house. When we did, we walked across a field of dry tilled earth and took counsel together about how to frame the situation in a true, but non-inflammatory way.

“Harry has been a language tutor for many of us foreigners. We can share that info and express concern that he has disappeared without notice,” Mark proposed.

“And don’t forget to mention that he’s also worked for the UN and other international organizations. That name alone should carry some weight, and help us in our purpose of convincing the tribe that Harry is not alone, but has some connections,” I added. “We need them to know that he has a lot of respect in some circles that they might not be aware of.”

We agreed who our spokesman would be and walked up to the village white-beard’s gate. A little boy spotted us and ran inside to get his father, the village white-beard. He came to greet us in the dark, wearing the traditional outfit of parachute pants fastened with a cloth belt around the mid-stomach, underneath which is tucked a collared shirt and traditional style jacket. A traditional turban and cap were on his head. He was a man in his 50s with a grey mustache, and seemed to have a friendly look about him. So far, so good.

Mr. Talent and Mark led the introductions and the purpose of the visit. The village white-beard ordered the boy to run inside and fetch us some water. We had forgotten to translate much of this initial part for poor Ray, who at this point assumed things were going poorly and the boy was sent to get a weapon. He was very relieved when he emerged with a tray of glasses and passed them around. Remembering the need to cue Ray in to what was going on, I told him to take a swig, toss the rest on the soil, then put the empty cup back on the tray. Locals don’t sip. They chug, chuck, and then give the glass back immediately.

“Is it safe to drink?” Ray asked.

“Maybe, maybe not. But we should anyway for the sake of honor,” I responded with a grimacing smile, raising my glass and taking a swig.

We seemed to be in luck. The village elder said he knew a man by the name of the uncle, with a nephew named Harry. He called him and put him on speaker phone. We held our breath.

“Is this Ali* the son of Bakir*?”

“Yes, respected one, please go ahead.”

“Ali the son of Bakir, with a nephew named Harry?”

“Yes, upon my eyes, that’s me, and who are you, honorable sir?”

“It’s me, elder brother Omar.*” This was followed by a long string of respectable pleasantries between the two of them.

“It seems your nephew has disappeared and there’s a group of his respected friends here asking about him and saying they aren’t sure if he’s safe or not.”

“Oh? That’s strange. He’s safe alright. He’s right here with me.”

We leaned in. Was he telling the truth? Was Harry really there with him and safe?

“Well, put him on if it’s no trouble.”

“Upon both of my eyes. Here he is.”

“Hello?” a younger voice rang out from the speaker phone. “This is Harry, who exactly is looking for me?”

At this point we all looked at one another in surprise and alarm. The names were right, but the voice was definitely not Harry’s.

“That’s not Harry’s voice!” we whispered to the village elder. “That’s somebody else.”

“Huh?” said the white-beard to us, “Where exactly does this Harry live?”

“In the city, in the neighborhood of the Headless tribe. He’s an engineer.”

The white-beard scrunched his brow and leaned into the speaker phone, running these details by Uncle Ali and the alternate Harry. He shook his head and looked up at us.

“You’ve got the wrong Ali and Harry. I remember now this Harry you are speaking of. Engineer in the city, connected to our tribe, not from this village. Not actually a member of our tribe. They’re really from another village up on the mountain. You’re mistaken to think that they have a house here.”

This thoroughly confused us. Up until now we had been convinced that we had the right village, based on putting the pieces together from the intel we had. But his sister had said something about them having two villages. And Harry had always been a little opaque about his background details. Maybe this was an ancestral village with no recent ties? Had we come to the wrong one? …Or was the village lying together because they were all in on it?

“They’re lying, I can tell,” whispered Mr. Talent to us.

“I’m not sure they’re the ones lying,” said Darius, with a look of suspicion and disappointment. “Harry told all of us many times that he was part of the Headless tribe. They’re all saying he’s not.”

“Let’s call Harry’s brother,” someone suggested. Not knowing if they had been in on it or not, we hadn’t wanted Harry’s immediate family to know we were coming to the village, in case they might alert the uncle before we got there. Harry’s brother lived in Europe and wasn’t really involved much with the family, but he was back temporarily on a visit. He picked up and started talking with Darius on speaker phone.

“Harry? Ha! He’s fine! He’s just traveling and in a neighboring country right now. Why is everyone so concerned about his safety?… He’s safe, I assure you… Are we part of the Headless tribe? No, we’re not. Did Harry tell you that?… No, we are from another village up on the mountain, though all our neighbors are Headless… My uncle’s not involved in any of this, who told you he was?… No, Harry is just traveling, I’m sure he’ll reach out to you soon. Haha.”

Mark and I exchanged confused looks. That same brother had been there earlier in the day when Harry’s sister and mother had tearfully described the uncle’s appearance and Harry’s disappearance. Why had the story now changed?

After some further conversation with the white-beard, our group decided to head back to the city. It really did seem as if Headless village was not involved in Harry’s disappearance. The tension that had built up as we anticipated a confrontation gave way to disappointment that our efforts had seemingly been in vain. At least if the village had been involved, and they had successfully duped us, then they now knew that Harry had some friends who would come asking awkward questions. Hopefully the ripples of our visit would make it’s way back to the violent uncle through the grapevine, alerting him to this as well. That could create some options that weren’t there previously.

The others headed home while Darius and I drove back toward my house, trying to make sense of the situation. We decided to swing by Harry’s neighborhood so that Darius could talk to Harry’s mom and sister. No one was home. We called the brother again and decided to meet him at a mall on the other side of town. Somebody, or multiple parties, had to be lying.

When we met up with Harry’s brother to try to figure out what was going on, it only muddied the picture even further. He kept claiming that Harry was just traveling for fun and contradicting things he had said to Mark earlier in the day. At this point it was too late to visit the other village up on the mountain, but we talked about making another surprise village investigation in the coming days.

We never did head to the village on the mountain. The next day we got some messages from Harry. He was on a bus, already in another country. He said he was safe, but something bad had happened and he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. He needed to find somewhere quiet to rest. He was not willing to answer our questions. He was sorry he had left without telling us. Over the last couple months we’ve continued to get brief, sporadic messages from Harry as he was smuggled through several European countries to his final destination. He still hasn’t told us what happened. Nor have we been able to put all of the pieces together.

My best guess is that Harry’s uncle had really showed up that day and taken him to the village on the mountain. While there, he had made some kind threat or attack that terrified Harry, causing him to go dark for several days and make a run for it without even coming back home to get any of his things. Faced with another threat of persecution, Harry had relapsed to his old pattern – isolate and disappear. This time it seems he may be gone for good. His family had initially told us the truth only to walk it back later, perhaps out of fear of blowback from the uncle.

Harry’s sudden departure was a very discouraging development for our church plant and our team. He had only recently began helping to preach again after a period of restoration for having abandoned the church in a previous season. After years of coaching to next time include the body in your suffering and not go it alone, none of this counsel was heeded. Darius in particular was cut deep by his departure and the possibility of at least some deception and self-interest that was wrapped up in it. “We were ready to get killed for him, but maybe he was just trying to get to Europe and saw his chance and took it, just like all the others.”

We felt it keenly too. After several years of rebuilding, we had hoped that Darius and Harry would soon be ready to be elders-in-training. But every time we get to this point, our potential leaders tend to implode. Darius’ tone about the possibility of leadership has also changed because of what happfened with Harry, casting doubt on if he has the 1st Timothy 3:1 desire to be an elder someday. Facing an extended time away from the field ourselves, we were now set to leave our teammates with much less help than we had expected.

So much ministry in Central Asia happens in fits and starts. Costly losses are accompanied by a subtle flash of change and growth. I am grieved over whatever happened to Harry – and how he chose to respond to it. But I am also truly encouraged by the signs of growth that emerged in Darius and Mr. Talent. They really did put themselves in a dangerous position by going to an unknown village – known for its violence no less – in hopes of tracking down a persecuted believer. And though it didn’t turn out how we had hoped, the spiritual courage they showed was real. And a sign that even in the greatest setbacks, God is still at work to grow his people. These brothers had the courage to go to Headless village – a new spiritual instinct that was radically counter-cultural. It’s a beginning. One that someday just may lead to them speaking before kings.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Valery Tenevoy on Unsplash

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