I woke up to texts that several of the exiled political party/guerrilla bases in our area had been bombed. One main base was hit with a devastating rocket attack. I scanned the updates, wondering if any of the teenage guards or kind officials that we had interacted with there had been killed. I was struck again by the sad security realities of our area of Central Asia. Things could seem so stable and safe, then all of the sudden, the veneer of security gets shattered as someone you interacted with gets disappeared, assassinated, or targeted by a neighboring country’s rockets or drones. It hadn’t been very long since I myself had been at that same base that now had a smoking rocket crater in its central building. Though in general we tried to stay away from sensitive locations like these, it was a crisis among local believers that had brought me there. In fact, the leadership of this guerrilla base had even helped to save the marriage of two local believers.
Two months earlier, things had reached a breaking point in Pauline* and Karim’s* marriage. Their daily arguments about money and respect had escalated, household items had been smashed, and they were at risk of falling back into their pre-conversion violent outbursts toward one another. We asked Karim to come and stay with us for a few days until things could cool off. After initially protesting at how shameful this would be for a Central Asian man to be “kicked out” of his home by his wife, he eventually relented. I was grateful for that humility that won out over cultural pride.
The following weeks were full of crisis counseling, and that in another language. It is one thing to have technically achieved advanced language. It is another thing altogether to keep up with conflict conversation, when accusations and insults you’ve never heard before are flying. Somehow we muddled through it. After a few days, Karim moved back in with his wife and daughter, but things were still not great. Sixteen years of tumultuous marriage as unbelievers had left some mighty deep scars. And in spite of the tremendous growth in knowledge they had achieved in their several years of being believers, both husband and wife accused the other of failing to put their Christian beliefs into practice when it actually counted – in the home.
Karim was willing to work on things, and while truly at fault for a great many things, was willing to take some initial steps of repentance. Pauline was done. Day after day she insisted they get an official divorce. To do this, they would have to visit the headquarters of their political party, an ethnic organization and paramilitary group that had been exiled from one of the neighboring countries and was now based out of our area. The unique way our regional government handles groups like this is to require them to have a separate legal infrastructure for all their party members who live as asylum seekers or freedom fighters in the region. The party is thereby able to grant some measure of legality and protection to it members, who are not granted many of the basic rights that local citizens enjoy. To get a certificate of divorce, Pauline couldn’t go to the local courts. She’d need to work through this parallel system, she’d have to make her case to her party leadership.
Continued pleading and counseling with Pauline had little effect. We asked specifically for a month’s time for her to think over the huge decision she was about to make. But it seemed she had run out of hope entirely that she and her husband could change. She insisted that they go and request an official divorce, and, being without transportation, she asked that I drive them. After weighing the risks with the team, I decided to go with them, hoping that the hour and a half drive might provide some opportunity to talk further.
When we began the drive, I realized how unrealistic my hopes for vehicular counseling had been. Pauline and Karim could barely look at one another, and had no interest in talking. Their teenage daughter merely stared out the window and sometimes cried quietly. The atmosphere in the car was tense and silent. I decided to turn on my playlist of English worship songs. In happier times, Pauline and Karim regularly made jokes about how bad their English was, so there was little chance that songs by City Alight, Josh Garrels, and Poor Bishop Hooper were going to have much effect on them. Still, they might pump some faith into my heart. And it was better than driving in the heavy silence. Maybe they’d pick up on the Hallelujahs and the name of Jesus as the songs played.
I stewed on our depressing situation. Pauline, a member of our church, was stubbornly pursuing an unbiblical divorce against all the counsel she was receiving. Karim was acting like a punk as well, taking angry jabs at Pauline that only made things worse. We were driving to a guerilla base that a neighboring country counted as a terrorist hub, and one they periodically bombed. But the worst part of it all was the horrible witness this whole adventure would likely be to the unbelieving party members that we interacted with. How were they supposed to see the difference Jesus makes if their only comrades claiming to be Christians have a marriage that is falling apart? I shook my head, imaging the kind of bickering they might get into once each was asked to make their case to the judge. Maybe, just maybe, my presence there as their pastor could serve to do some good in all the mess. In all likelihood, their party leadership, influenced primarily by Marxism and ethnic pride, would give them worldly advice, and issue a certificate of divorce. Even if they leaned on their Islamic background, supporting a divorce was the most likely outcome.
I drove and prayed. We had tried everything, and it hadn’t been enough. If Pauline proceeded, we’d need to shift into a church discipline process as our final option. What else could be done? Some moments in ministry we feel only too keenly the powerlessness of our words to effect change upon hardened hearts.
After an hour and a half we passed the last local government checkpoint and drove down the desert road toward the area where the exiles had built a neighborhood and their political party and paramilitary facilities. Eucalyptus trees swayed in the spring wind. Rain clouds teased the thirsty orange soil with small sprinklings here and there. It was a beautiful day, the kind likely to produce a rainbow or two over the distant foothills. It was too bad our excursion to this small desert outpost had to be for such a sobering reason.
We pulled up to the base’s checkpoint and were approached by a gate guard who looked like he was seventeen. He and the other young female guard with him were dressed in dark solid green fatigues and had checkered black and white scarfs around their necks. I remembered how idealistic I was at seventeen and wondered if these kids were true believers in the guerrilla cause or if this was simply what one does growing up in this kind of community of political exiles – a high school job of sorts. After checking Karim’s papers, they waved us through and we found a place to park in a small gravel lot.
A party official with a large mustache soon arrived in his vehicle and parked next to us. He recognized Karim and was familiar with their situation. Having been responsible for some of their official processes in the past, he felt some responsibility for their family and quickly shifted from respectful greetings to an almost fatherly demeanor. He put his hand on Pauline’s shoulder and began warmly but earnestly entreating them to do whatever it took to save their marriage. This was when I began to realize that some of my assumptions about the day might not be correct. This man was talking sense, sound wisdom that backed up the counsel they had been getting from their church. I looked at Pauline to see if it was having any effect. Negative. Her respectful nods were accompanied by a steely gaze.
We soon transitioned into a nearby trailer office, a sort of triage room for those with appointments with party officials. Here we sat on reception couches as the younger official behind the desk ordered tea for us and began to confirm the details of the visit with Karim and Pauline. Once again, this official bore a look of kind concern. He also began reasoning with Pauline, asking her to reconsider her decision to divorce, if only for the sake of their daughter. But Pauline held firm, quietly insisting to see the judge. The official then asked who I was, and Karim shared how I was one of the pastors of their church, and an American. Both of these things surprised the official, who seemed both confused and intrigued at my presence. While they couldn’t have interacted with many Christians, or that many Westerners for that matter, I was encouraged that the hospitable responses so far seemed to indicate my presence at least wasn’t going to make things worse.
We finished up our tea and walked back out to the gravel lot, where were met again by the first mustachioed official. He now learned who I was, and as he walked us into the main building to see the judge, he dropped back to walk beside me.
“If we work together, I bet we can change her mind,” he told me under his breath. “She’s not as set on divorce as she appears. I can tell.”
I found this interpretation encouraging, though Pauline sure seemed hell-bent on divorce to me. Hopefully he was right. As we walked through the corridors, multiple energetic and respectful greetings were exchanged with each person that we passed. I was struck by how well this paramilitary context fit with the formal, honorable tendencies of our local culture. The militaristic structure seemed to bring out some of the best aspects of the culture, and to dampen some of the negative aspects that Islam reinforces, such as the demeaning of women. In fact, there was an easy respect among the men and women on this guerilla base that was downright refreshing. I also noticed that the female soldiers were still very feminine, sporting long black braids for example, and everyone seemed fine with that. This, and the fact that many joined up because all their brothers had already been killed presented a more nuanced picture than is usually present in evangelical discussions about women in the military.
At last we were ushered into the large room where we would do the interview for the certificate of divorce. It was carpeted, stiff high-backed couches lined the walls, and portraits of party leaders were prominently displayed. A large, very official looking desk sat in front of the windows. We sat on the couches facing the desk, and were served a second round of tea.
Two women then entered. Like all of those who worked at this base, they were dressed in simple green fatigues. The younger woman was a lawyer. The short woman in her fifties was a high ranking official, and would serve as judge for Pauline and Karim’s case. She had a mature – though tired – look in her eyes and a no-nonsense bearing that called for a respectful hearing. Yet she also seemed kind and approachable. I instinctively trusted her to see through any of the nonsense that might emerge in the following conversation.
After confirming the details of the visit one more time, she proceeded to ask some basic questions. This led to the only funny thing that would come out of the day.
“You are Karim and Pauline, correct?”
“And you’ve been married how many years?”
“And these two are your children?”
“This is our daughter, and… uh, this is our, um, pastor,” Karim managed to say with only a hint of a smile.
I shot the family a quick glance and could tell they got a kick out of the judge thinking I was their son. That Karim and Pauline are my “dear mother and father” would become a story often told and an inside joke that continues to the present day. But the welcome moment of levity was over all too soon.
“So you are here to request a divorce. Pauline, please explain your situation.”
Pauline proceeded to lay out her complaints for the next ten minutes or so while the judge took careful notes by hand and the lawyer leaned in to listen. After this, the judge allowed Karim to respond and explain his desire to remain married. So far, everything remained calm and orderly. I found myself envying the gravitas this older woman brought, and wondering how I could learn to do likewise in my conflict-mediation conversations with locals that tended to explode.
After hearing both sides and effectively shutting down some bickering, the judge began to reason with Pauline.
“My dear, none of these problems that you are describing are abnormal for a marriage. These are not massive issues. They are the everyday frustrations of a husband and wife that must be navigated and worked through. You are not describing anything to me that seems to warrant a divorce. Think of the great costs you and your daughter will incur if you do this. Think of the regret. Pay attention to your husband’s openness to making change. Why should you give up at this point? Be wise and careful, my dear. This is a very serious thing you are requesting.”
The judge continued on this vein for some time, patiently and wisely attempting to help Pauline see reason. For my part, I was thrilled that the judge was taking this position. Over and over again, these unbelieving freedom fighters were dropping wise and sober counsel. Eventually, the judge turned to me and asked what our church’s advice had been regarding the marriage. I was surprised at this invitation to speak, but grateful.
“Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, and that a situation like this does not call for a divorce, but reconciliation. We have counseled them to stay married, to commit to regular counseling, and to follow Jesus in this way.”
The judge nodded respectfully and took more notes. A middle aged man with a red mustache came into the room with some files for the judge to sign. He knew Karim and proceeded to make efficient greetings to all present. He seemed very kind.* Following this, the judge rose and excused herself to deal with another situation that had arisen, promising to return soon with her verdict.
We sat in the room for the next fifteen minutes. The lawyer decided now was a good time to wax eloquent about her views on marriage and feminism. It was the first counsel of the day that was less than helpful. But I could tell that neither Karim nor Pauline seemed to like her. The lawyer continued her spiel, seeming not to notice.
At last the judge returned, sinking into her seat with the look of a woman who has to deal with multiple crises every day.
“Having reviewed everything in your case and heard all of your answers, we have decided to give you a month to think things over.”
This same period of waiting was what the church had asked for as well. I smiled, since the judge hadn’t heard that part. She continued.
“We will not be issuing you a certificate of divorce today. Go home. Think it over for a month. If after a month you still desire a divorce, then come back and we’ll give you the certificate. But dear, do you think carefully and wisely about what you really want.”
Karim, his daughter, and myself were relieved. Pauline was furious. The verbal outbursts that followed confirmed for the judge even more that she had made the right call and that Pauline was in no condition to be making this kind of life-altering decision that day. The guerilla leader saw a chance to save the marriage, and she took it, believing that Pauline might come to her senses and stick with her flawed, but loyal husband. And she was right, this is exactly what would happen. God would use the legal decision taken by this party official to buy time for repentance to begin. I had been very concerned that this leftist group of freedom fighters would only help to undermine Karim and Pauline’s marriage. Instead, we had surprisingly found ourselves to be allies, pleading for the goodness and sanctity of marriage together. God uses all kinds of means – apparently even Marxist-leaning paramilitaries and “terrorists.”
It was early afternoon by the time we left, and we were all starving. We stopped by a hole in the wall restaurant to eat some chicken before the drive home. Karim stepped outside to take a call and I seized the opportunity to draw out Pauline without him present.
“Dearest mother,” I started, alluding to judge’s humorous mistake. “How are you doing? Will you not take this month to reconsider your decision?”
Pauline smiled and chuckled, “Oh my dear son, I’m still getting divorced, believe me! We’ll be back in a month, you’ll see. Now pass me some of that chicken.”
But already there was a new softness in her eyes. And she continued smiling. Somehow I knew we wouldn’t be back at that base after a month. She had tried very hard to go her own way. And God had kindly placed obstacle after obstacle in her path.
Today, Pauline and Karim are still married, and doing better than ever.
*Names changed for security
*Sadly, this man would be assassinated in a hotel room two days later.