One crisis of this past spring hit our small local church particularly hard. Frank and Patty*, after five years of living in our city as asylum-seekers, were finally kicked out for good. They always had a tenuous set up here, patching together a life with the partial legality of official UN documents that said their case was in process. But five years of UN stalling, under pressure from the local government, itself under pressure from the powerful regime of the country next door, had never produced the official refugee status that international law promises.
What this meant was five years of not being able to legally rent a house, work a job, or send their daughter to school. Like many asylum seekers, they were able to achieve these things sometimes through the connections or goodwill of others, and mostly under the table. But several attempts to secure these basics of life legally also led to attempted deportations, sometimes barely averted by the last minute intervention of UN lawyers. It was not uncommon for us to plan church picnics outside the city accordingly, making plans to minimize the possibility of Patty and Frank getting arrested at government checkpoints on the road. The reality was and is that returning to their country of origin means certain imprisonment, and possibly worse. This is, sadly, normal for many Central Asian believers, the cost of following Jesus in a region where they are a tiny minority.
The final deportation came after Frank and Patty tried to legally rent a different house. The house they had been renting was suffering from rot in the ceiling plaster, which kept collapsing unexpectedly in various rooms. This was both messy and dangerous and the church offered to set up a workday where we’d chip all the plaster off the underside of the cement roof. But Frank and Patty were confident that this time they could get the coveted official permission. In fact they made it to the very last step of security police approval when everything went wrong. Someone high up in the local security apparatus must have had it out for them. A week of encouraging approvals led only to a sudden rejection – and a letter of deportation. “We are deporting this family on suspicion of being spies,” read one not very promising line of this letter.
Another lawyer scramble bought them a week and an option to flee to a neighboring province, to a city in the plains where we had lived for a period prior to moving back here to the mountains. We were actually out of the country at the time of their deportation so it fell to the rest of our team and the church to care for them in this crisis. Goods were sold off at great loss, many tears were shed, emotional discussions took place regarding how much of the church funds should be sent with them. Our role from a distance was to work our connections in our previous city to try to find some kind of a landing place while they waited, once again, to receive legal permission to rent their own place. Wonderfully, it worked out to have them stay with one of the pastors of the international church in that city.
So, Patty and Frank, the only believing local household in our church, the most consistent at attending, central pillars of our fledgling spiritual family, left. They had come to faith and been baptized in our church. We had labored to disciple them faithfully through the messy toddler years of being new believers. They had, at times, made us want to pull our hair out. Yet they had also enriched us greatly. Frank kept us laughing, fixed our electricity, and often led our church in prayer and Bible distribution. Patty served the church tirelessly, often hosting believers with a feast they really couldn’t afford, and she labored hard to memorize Bible verses in spite of being barely literate. Their teenage daughter taught our kids the local language and was one of the most articulate believers when it came to gospel clarity.
We had seen much transformation take place in their lives, but when the final abrupt departure came, it felt too soon. We were hoping they would be much further along in their spiritual maturity before having to leave. But all of the sudden, our time was up. We entrusted them to God and to the community of believers in their new city – and of course, promised to visit often.
Their four months of living with the pastor’s family were akin to Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness. God unmistakably provided for them through the sacrificial hospitality extended by this family. And the life-on-life discipleship that took place in those months of living together was worth its weight in gold. Still, they lived in limbo, in a wilderness of not knowing how the UN and the local government would decide, not knowing if in the end they would still end up being trucked across the border and promptly arrested. In the anxiety of this waiting and the trauma of yet another deportation close call, their faith was pressed to the limit, with Patty often expressing despair in tearful calls to my wife. Yet they clung to God and to their new community of believers, until one day the news finally came. They had been granted legal permission to stay.
We recently visited Patty and Frank, a week or two after they had moved into their new legally-rented house. The abundance of answered prayer was unmistakable. In addition to their new rental home, all three had found good work. They had recently become members of the international church and once again served as a pillar household around which other locals were able to gather in the new local-language service/church plant. Frank had begun sharing the local-language preaching load with the pastor they had lived with, who also headed up this ministry. And now their biggest concerns were what to do with all these immature local believers they were meeting!
My wife and I sat at their table nodding as they described their concerns for how few of the local believers they had met knew their Bibles or knew the gospel clearly, and how many seemed mostly interested in money or visas. They expressed concern that the load of discipling so many would be too much for the pastor and his wife. We encouraged them to take responsibility themselves for the discipleship of the other locals around them.
“But it will take years for them to grow as much as they need to! Can’t it happen faster?” Patty exclaimed at one point. I shot my wife a knowing glance, which Frank caught.
“Patty, dear,” he said, laughing, “how long has it taken us to get to where we are? Five years! Let’s not complain about others being slow to grow.”
“That’s not a bad point,” said Patty, thoughtfully.
This perspective was of great encouragement to us. Along with the sweetness of seeing how God works even the hardest seasons of our lives for good. Our two years spent in that city on the plains were not easy ones. Team conflict, culture shock, new-onset diabetes, Covid-19 lockdowns, and a premature departure had all left their mark on us. Yet God had used the love developed between us and other expat believers in that city to create a landing place for Frank and Patty. And more than a landing place. A healthy international church in process of planting a healthy indigenous one. Our seasons of suffering were bearing sweet fruit, as Frank and Patty’s were beginning to also.
As we prepared to leave, Patty and Frank offered to host us for the night, even though they had no extra mattresses. We graciously declined, prayed with them, and pulled our kids away from their 7th episode of Shaun the Sheep – a treat uncle Frank is always happy to bestow, getting a kick as he does from how much our kids cackle at the slapstick humor of claymation farm animals.
Patty and Frank’s departure had left a gaping hole in our small church plant. They will always be a central part of the story of these formative early years. Now they get to be a central part of the formation of another local church. They have, in one sense, been unexpectedly sent. Through their painful deportation they have been called to build up the church in their new city. And they are answering that call. May God grant faithfulness to them, and to any of us who likewise end up suddenly uprooted, involuntarily sent.
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.”
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.
This past week Darius* invited me to an overnight in the mountains. The particular area we were headed to is known for its walnuts, its natural beauty, as well as its proximity to a dangerous border. Turns out the valley of the property where we were staying was in fact alarmingly close to this border, situated in a little knob or bulge of our host country’s frontier territory. On three sides we could look up the slopes and see border fences and guard towers of the infamous regime next door. Thankfully, we never saw any movement and it’s likely that any border guards that were stationed up there were already quite used to the valley and cabins being full of picnickers and their chai-fueled shenanigans.
Our group was a mix of believers and unbelievers, all pretty young, eager to escape the summer heat of the city and to spend the night in a wooded mountain valley. My wife and kids decided not to come this time, so I was flying solo. We anticipated an evening filled with good picnic food, games, and conversation late into the night. We did not, however, anticipate the local wildlife to be such a large part of the excitement.
Shortly after our arrival we were all put on guard by the discovery of a very large snakeskin poking out from under our cabin. This was a stark reminder that we were indeed up in the mountains where snakes and scorpions just might make an uninvited appearance. The early Islamic historians wrote of the nasty scorpions of these valleys and how many invading Arab soldiers had been killed by them in their jihad invasion of these lands. I have yet to see one of these “two-claws” as locals call them, but one of our group’s fathers had been stung by a scorpion who mistook his shoe for a nice little cave, so we decided to move our shoes inside.
Our dinner of boiled chicken and rice had just been set out on the floor dinner mat. Even on a casual picnic overnight like this the spread was laid out like a feast. Our crew of hungry picnickers all came inside, remarking favorably on the delicious chicken and onion aroma, when suddenly someone spotted a rather large furry spider, just chilling on the wall above the couch.
I recognized it immediately. It was only the second of its kind I have seen here, and about the size of half my palm. Full-grown, these monsters can grow to the size of a small cat. And they are venomous, hairy, Shelob-like stuff of nightmares. Thankfully, they are rare up in the mountains, preferring to hunt in the flat lowland deserts. The locals didn’t recognize it, but I did, and I urgently called them to arms. Several grabbed rubber toilet shoes (the traditional weapon of choice for squashing bugs or swatting disrespectful children) and we went after the arachnid intruder. He successfully darted behind the couch, which meant we had to tip it over, arms tense, ready to swat the big gangly thing in hopes of squishing it. The couch pulled up, the spider made a break for the door. However, he never made it. A quick lunge from one of the local guys with a pink sandal landed with a squishy thwack, and the spider was no more.
He was, however, still composed enough for some postmortem pictures, which I was sure to take, texting them to my wife. To which she responded, “Please don’t die. I can’t raise these hooligans by myself.”
The spider excitement all over, we sat down around the dinner mat. I thanked God for the food and we excitedly began to dish out the chicken and rice. The locals asked me if I was sure that the spider had indeed been dangerous, so I proceeded to google pictures of its giant full-grown relatives. My corner of the food mat leaned in in fascinated horror. Suddenly Darius jumped,
Now, Darius is a bit of a joker. So at first I thought he was pranking us. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw something brownish-gray, about the size of a small cat, skittering across the top of the sofa to our left. The whole group saw it at once and everyone screamed, jumping up from the dinner mat in terror as the beast darted down the couch and across the floor.
“It’s another one! A big one!!! Mud of the world be upon my head!!!” It seemed as if the mother of the spider we killed had come seeking vengeance.
My heart was in my throat as I tried to react to the fast-moving furry blob, which was about the size of a kitten. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t a spider the size of a small cat at all. It was a cat.
“It’s a cat!!!” Someone started screaming. At this point, the collective screaming just kept on coming.
The poor feline was now just as terrified as we were. Having darted toward the staircase it now doubled back, racing down the middle of the dinner mat. Drinks and soup went flying as it stepped in the rice, zig-zagged through the dishes, through our feet, and up and out the window.
Everyone stared at one another in shock – and then doubled over in laughing fits that lasted a long time. The spider cat had made quite the impression. For the next several hours, every time the blinds blew in, every time another mountain bug made its way into the lit cabin, we all jumped and sometimes screamed, expecting to see another dangerous mountain critter making its creepy appearance.
There were plenty of visitors the rest of the night, but nothing worse than a hornet, some grasshoppers, and a praying mantis – or as locals call it, the pilgrim locust.
The rest of the evening consisted of listening to music (Interestingly, young locals are developing a taste for Johnny Cash and sea shanties), playing card games, drinking chai, munching on sunflower seeds, and a 1 am game of football/soccer. Not as young as I used to be, I went to bed at 3 am, one of the earliest of the group. The window just above my head didn’t quite close, leaving a gap just big enough for a desert spider to crawl through, I noticed with some concern. Still, I drifted off pretty quickly, thankfully not dreaming of giant spiders.
If you ever find yourself in a mountainous valley of Central Asia, do keep an eye out for the critters. They are, I have learned, quite bold. And be sure to keep your toilet shoes handy.
Two weeks ago Manuel* sat next to me on the couch, weeping. This semi-secret believer’s brother-in-law had been disappeared by one of the powerful political parties. One week he was an important local official for this same party, the next he was publicly accused by Islamists of misconduct – and summarily disappeared. For two weeks his family had no information about where he was, or even if he was still alive.
I had met this brother-in-law only once. During a particularly stressful intercity move in the fever-heat of August, he had used his connections to get our moving truck through some rival party checkpoints on the road. In the process, he had grilled me rather directly on the nature of my work here, one of the few government officials to press me so hard on my identity that I could feel my face changing color. I answered truthfully regarding my official secular work, and yet also let him know about my personal faith and how, yes, I wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t changed me and given me a heart to serve others. With the help of the alternating shades of my face, I’m pretty sure he figured things out. In spite of this, he helped us – something I was deeply grateful for. Now I learned that he was at least imprisoned, perhaps even dead.
During his visit, Manuel, a respectable local man about ten years my senior, leaned on my shoulder and wept. We read Psalm 23 together, I prayed for him, and I listened as he pleaded with me to do something if at all possible through my political connections, of which I have none. For many local believers the belief runs deep that all Westerners have significant political clout that they could use if they really wanted to. Convincing our local friends that we are merely private citizens of our passport countries and strictly apolitical by choice has proven remarkably difficult. Yes, our home governments might grudgingly intervene if something happened to us – I say grudgingly because they repeatedly warn us not to live in places like this. But we have no such clout as to persuade anyone to intervene on behalf of a local political official who has been abducted, even if we thought such political intervention wise.
However, we pray every week during our church plant’s service for the local government officials. We do this to obey scripture, and because incidents like the disappearance of Manuel’s brother-in-law are stark reminders of the sudden danger that stalks almost anyone in this society should they run afoul of the powers that be. So when we gather, we pray for the government and those who wield political power to act justly, to rule wisely, and to serve their people (Micah 6:8, Romans 13:1-7). We pray for this so that the local believers may live quiet, faithful lives and that peace and stability might be granted for the sake of gospel advance (1st Timothy 2:1-4). The local believers are still getting used to this kind of prayer, regularly taking digs at the corrupt governing elite even as we ask who is ready to pray for them. We empathize, but also remind them of how bad Nero was, and then remind ourselves of the same truths when later that day we see the insane political news coming out of the West.
Tonight Manuel visited me again, requesting ahead of time that we sing some worship songs together. When he arrived, he shared the welcome news that his brother-in-law had been released. He’s much skinnier than he was before, bearing evidence of having been beaten, but alive, and back home with his family. I reminded Manuel that God had answered our prayers, and we spent an encouraging time singing together, studying John 15, and praying.
During our conversation, Manuel shared how just before his previous visit he had come very close to doing something dangerous, but suddenly felt redirected to come to our house instead for comfort and counsel. I’m thankful he did, or else he may have been summarily arrested/abducted as well. It makes me wonder how many close calls like this come down to a barely conscious obedience to subtle nudges from the Spirit. And if those nudges and responses would happen if we were not regularly praying for wisdom, and yes, praying for the corrupt local authorities.
Initially, we thought it was a very good idea. We would hike the third highest mountain in the country, and we would arrange the hike without any adult missionary involvement – just us three high school seniors. Having at that point quite a bit of experience with hiking in our adopted Melanesian country – and the money drama with the locals that always seemed to ensue – we decided we would plan a hike that would be fun, challenging, and culturally appropriate. The absence of an adult Western missionary would save us the trouble of landowners and villagers seeing us as potential cash cows – or so we thought.
Kosta, a local and a native of this particular area, would serve as our hike consultant and guide on the way. Kosta always had a bit of a sketchy demeanor about him, but my mom had had several good years of partnering with him in helping to sell his traditional woven baskets to Westerners, and by and large he had proven himself trustworthy. His crew of basket weavers and sellers even kept an eye out for my mom’s safety whenever she would go into the nearby crime-ridden town. Kosta’s tribal area had a mixed reputation. It was known for its tribal warfare and for the elderly who had died in recent decades with strange smiles frozen on their faces – an unfortunate result of having eaten human brains at cannibalistic feasts when they were children. But the area was also known for its rich natural beauty, including its 12,000 foot mountain.
My companions on this hike would be my close friends and classmates, Caleb* and Will*. These two had proven to be eager participants on many misadventures and were also like spiritual brothers to me, always ready to enter into serious spiritual conversation just as they were always ready for a good laugh. Caleb had grown up on the missionary base where the MK school was, where I had also lived since fifth grade. Will was a dorm kid, whose parents still lived out in a remote tribal area. He had moved into the dorms on the compound in high school and would go back and rejoin his family four times a year during the school breaks. He was also from rural Canada, and this combination of hardy backgrounds resulted in an unusual mixture. Will could tell you how to hunt crocodiles in the lowlands by thrusting your foot through the wet mud above a den in order to feel around with your foot for if the creature was in there (apparently the den is too narrow for the croc to open its jaws and bite off your foot). Will also liked to hike in a pair of bright red onesie long-johns, the old-fashioned kind designed for the winter so that it had a butt flap that unbuttoned. He wore a pair of faded jeans over the bottom of this outfit as well as hiking boots, but let the top of the red long johns function as his shirt. Will was the fastest hiker among the three of us and we would often see his bright red long-john top making its way up the next rise just as we reached the top of the previous ridge. His cool head and natural sense of direction meant he was good at scouting out the way.
We had agreed beforehand with Kosta regarding the price we would pay for his service as a guide – and that we would pay for one guide for each of the three villages. We had also received his confirmation that since his villages and clan were landowners of the mountain, we would not be accosted for extra landowner fees along the hike, a dilemma we had regular faced as random men would appear out the jungle claiming to be “papas of the ground” who deserved their compensation for our hiking privileges. As Westerners, this kind of opportunism drove us crazy, though looking back we also could have done a better job of understanding the cross-cultural misunderstandings going on over something as simple as a hike up a ridge. In the West, hiking is often considered a right of sorts. I’ve even read that in the UK the right to hike across others’ open land is enshrined in law. But I’m certain that Melanesian culture meant that legitimate honor/shame concerns were also mixed with simple greed when it came to this issue of paying to pass a certain portion of jungle trail.
However, we were not cash-laden tourists. We weren’t even adult missionaries. We were seventeen-year-old missionary kids from an hour down the road. We spoke the trade language and our guide was a local whose clan owned the mountain. Surely this time we would sidestep all that frustrating money stuff.
The day of the hike arrived and our party of four caught a ride out to Kosta’s village. After a half hour down the only paved road in the highlands we turned off onto a dirt road and wound our way another forty five minutes or so into the mountains. It was still mid-morning when we arrived and spirits were high. We were greeted by many residents of Kosta’s village, not an unusual development, but the greetings in the trade language soon turned into lively discussion in the tribal tongue – a discussion that lasted a very long time. My MK friends and I became impatient, eager to get on the trail. When the discussion was finally over, I asked Kosta what it was all about.
“We will have eleven men from our three villages come with us as guides,” said Kosta.
“Eleven!” I protested. “We agreed on paying three men from the three respective villages here, plus you.”
Kosta diverted his gaze and shifted his weight uncomfortably.
“We didn’t bring any extra money with us. So if there are twelve of you, you will all split the same amount and each get less. You need to tell them that,” I insisted.
“I will, don’t worry,” said Kosta. And he proceeded to say something to the group in the tribal language. There was some sort of heated discussion that followed, and then some kind of agreement.
I noticed with concern as we finally made our way to the trail that seven local men were still with us, including Kosta. I shook my head, hoping that this would be the last of this sort of surprise we’d have to face.
It was now almost noon and the bright highlands sun had long since melted away the cool morning fog. It beat down on our heads as we made our way up a very difficult ridge. A couple hours later we reached the crest, sweaty and glad that we had seemingly made some progress. But our hearts sank as we looked across a broad valley and saw the mountain we were aiming for, on the far side of the valley, climbing steeply into the clouds. The broad valley in front of us was dotted with villages and gardens – and a road wound around the ridge we were on, arriving at the foot of the mountain.
“Um… Kosta,” I began. “Is that the mountain?”
He nodded an affirmative.
“Isn’t that a road we could have driven to get a lot closer to it?”
He nodded again.
“Are those your clan’s villages then?”
Here he shook his head. I looked at him in confusion.
“Those villages are the ones that have the primary claim of ownership over the mountain. Our villages only have a secondary claim. We didn’t want to split any of the guide money with them, so we decided to climb this ridge and sneak through their gardens. That way we’ll get to keep the guide money. Don’t worry! They’ll never see us.”
My friends and I looked at one another in alarm. Why hadn’t Kosta shared this crucial info with us beforehand? Our well-laid plans were clearly falling through. We were now unwitting participants in petty – and perhaps dangerous – tribal intrigues. And we had just climbed a different mountain unnecessarily, purely to enable Kosta’s and his kinfolks’ sneakery. Our attempts at a protest were too little, too late. The only choice was to continue, to pray, and to hope for the best. Still, the view of the mountain from here was at least a pretty one.
“Quick! Kosta said, “We can’t stand here and gawk. The other clan will see us. Follow us quietly! No talking.”
And with that we began our ill-advised attempt to sneak through the patchwork of coffee, banana, and sweet potato gardens that filled the valley to the left of the villages.
We made it most of the way across the valley before we suddenly came upon a woman in her garden. She eyed us suspiciously and started a series of aggressive sounding challenges in the tribal language. The men with us brushed her off, hurled some tribal speech back at her, and moved along.
“It’s only a woman,” they said to us.
“But won’t she tell the rest of the village about us?” we asked.
“Of course! But by that time we’ll be on our way. Let’s go!”
We made it to the initial ascent of the mountain without any further run-ins. Finally, we would begin the real ascent. By now it was mid-afternoon and as so often happens in that part of the world, the afternoon rain started. This made a steep ascent even trickier, as the packed clay trail turned slick and our clothes got soaked through. At this point, the three of us friends were fighting to stay optimistic about the whole thing. Still, it was not the best start to a hike that we hoped would be simple and fun.
Halfway up the mountain we decided to stop for the night. The late afternoon was fading fast and we had come upon a rock overhang that would provide some protection from the rain. A group of the local men with us scattered into the surrounding jungle and brought back firewood and kindling. It wasn’t long before they had a good fire going – quite the feat of jungle-craft considering how wet everything was.
We ate some supper, the rain tapered off, and everyone seemed to feel better. One of the local men, whom we dubbed “Moe the pirate” due to his beany cap, machete, and sharp features, took us on a short walk to a nearby spur of the mountain. The view was stunning, even in the twilight darkness. The moon and the mist played beautifully off one another as we stared off the alarmingly steep cliffs that ran around the spur, wondering just how far of a drop it might be.
There were times growing up in Melanesia when I was almost able to step outside of myself and look down with a third-person perspective, struck with gratitude or wonder by what a strange or beautiful setting I found myself in. I remember this being one of those moments. Will, Caleb, and I took some night photos together and the group wound our way back to the campsite. I don’t recall much about that night, and we must have slept soundly.
I awoke to the sound of a tribal call, echoing up the sides of the mountain. The highland locals have a particular way of yelling from one mountain top to another, leveraging the echoes and the space to send and receive message across remarkably far distances – a kind of Melanesian yodeling of sorts. Kosta was standing nearby, one foot perched on a rock. He was leaning in and listening hard.
“Kosta,” I said, “What are they saying.”
“They are saying that a group of rich European tourists have trespassed on their mountain… and that they are sending a war party after us.”
Kosta’s voice was surprisingly steady as he told me this.
“A what? A war party? What should we do?”
“Don’t worry,” Kosta said, “We’ve got plenty of time. We’ll reach the summit, then on the way down we’ll come to a place where the trail forks. We’ll take that fork off in a different direction though the jungle, and that will take us to the main road.”
“You sure that will work?” I asked.
“Don’t worry!” Kosta reassured me. “Everything will be fine.”
By now I was coming to have significant doubts about Kosta’s judgement, and his body language was betraying some uncertainty even on his part. But as with the previous day, there wasn’t much we could do other than press on, pray, and hope for the best.
Breakfast on a mountainside is never quite as good as dinner, but we made the best of it, brewing some tea mixed with milk powder and local sugar cane sugar. Before long we were on our way, greeted by a gorgeous morning.
This was the best part of the hike. The jungle around us was now breaking up and becoming patchy grassland. The sun was warm but not too hot. Our progress was obvious as we would mount one spur, look at the amazing view behind us, then descend in order to make our way up the next ascent. Caleb and I fell into good conversation as we walked, chuckling at Will’s red long-johns always one hill ahead of us, guiding the way.
We met several locals on their way down the mountain, having ascended from the other side. Though small in stature, these Melanesian highlanders were all remarkably tough. The women carried huge loads of firewood or garden produce on their backs, often hefting these burdens with the help of a large woven string bag, held to their body by its thick strap which lay across their foreheads. Most carried machetes as a practical tool for traveling jungle paths and doing garden work. All were barefoot. Decades of traversing trails had leathered and broadened their feet until they almost resembled those of hobbits – except that they weren’t very furry. These feet were so tough that local soccer teams would play barefoot and seriously bruise us with them even when they collided with our cleats and shin guards.
At last, around lunchtime, we reached the summit. The view was stunning. Those who have hiked mountains before know the endorphin rush that comes when you finally reach the top – and how much more delicious chocolate tastes at the summit of a mountain. We broke out some chocolate bars in celebration and the three of us friends began taking the sort of posing photos typical of high school boys feeling triumphant. I also snapped a classic shot of Moe the Pirate, smiling mischievously with a backdrop of distant peaks and clouds far below him.
It wasn’t long, however, until we noticed that Kosta and the rest of the guides seemed agitated, discussing something among themselves. Kosta soon made his way over to us where we were seated on the pile of rocks that made up the summit proper.
“I’ve spoken with the other guides, and we’d like you to pay us now, not later as we talked about before.”
I frowned. “Kosta, why do you guys keep changing the plan on us? Didn’t we agree on everything beforehand so that there would be fewer problems? Look at the mess you have gotten us in.”
“Also,” continued Kosta, “The boys didn’t bring enough food with them. They want some of your chocolate.”
We looked over at the crowd of guides who glanced our way hopefully. Sighing, we handed Kosta the guide money and the chocolate.
“This is all we have, other than money for some sweet potato lunch on the way home. I guess you’ll have to divide it seven ways.”
Kosta delivered the chocolate and the small amount of cash to the rest of the guys, who seemed somewhat disappointed. But the chocolate and the straightforwardness of the situation seemed to cheer them up. Now they were sure we really didn’t have any other money, so in one sense they didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I wandered over and did my best to offer them a sincere thanks for their help, and refrained from complaining about the sneakery and its likely consequences, and this seemed to go a long way.
We were a happy bunch as we began the descent. The guides kept assuring us that we’d make the needed turnoff in plenty of time to avoid the war party, and that combined with the beauty of the day and the joy of having achieved our goal kept us in good spirits.
Once again, Will managed to break out in front of the rest of the group. For about an hour and a half we continued like this. Suddenly we realized that for a while we hadn’t seen the red long-johns reappearing on the distant trail below us. As we reentered the thicker tree cover, we soon found the reason why.
Will stood at the junction of the trails, pale-faced and wide-eyed, staring at the war party’s advanced scout, a livid and screaming man with a bow and arrow, sporting blood-red teeth from chewing beetlenut, and a wild head of hair.
We were too late. We had been intercepted at the very junction where we’d hoped to make our escape.
“You!” He yelled at us. “You have committed a great crime! I have come to tell you to come down to the river where we will hold court. The rest of the war party is on the way to take you.”
At this point Caleb, Will, and myself started to get quite worried. Our group of guides started conversing with the wild scout excitedly in the tribal language. Ten minutes passed and the scout calmed down more and more. Kosta kept motioning to the escape trail as he talked and it looked the scout was seriously considering letting us go.
Then the rest of the war party arrived. It was about a dozen men, well-armed with machetes and bows and arrows, all just as livid as the wild scout had originally been. Some had wrapped jungle foliage around their heads as part of their combat attire. As they repeated the same angry demands, Kosta and our guides quickly became submissive and sheepish and motioned for us to forget any thoughts of escape and to do as we were told.
We made our way down to the river a much larger and much more sober party. Caleb came up next to me, whispering.
“I’m worried about what we should say in our defense. If they know we grew up here they might get even angrier with us, since that would mean we’d know the culture. Maybe we should just say we’re tourists so that we can plead ignorance?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I shook my head. “That wouldn’t be true, and it might be that claiming to be tourists would make things more dangerous.”
Caleb sighed nervously.
“We’ll just have to pray and tell the truth,” I continued, “After all, we did try to do right by everyone in this situation, so at least we have that.”
As we descended the final slope we offered up some desperate prayers on our way to the riverside court hearing.
Having arrived at the riverside, the “court” was arranged. The war party stood facing us, brandishing their weapons, with the river on their right. The three of us MKs stood facing them. Behind us and to our right, Kosta and his kinsmen stood huddled sheepishly at the edge of the trees.
The wild scout was appointed spokesman for the war party, which would presumably act as prosecution, judge, and jury.
“You have committed a great and shameful crime!” The scout-spokesman began. “You have come here and climbed our ancestors’ mountain deceitfully, trying to rob us of our rightful guide money. We own this land and you have violated our culture by trying to sneak around us. You are rich, European tourists! And we know that means! Whenever tourists come to climb our mountain they pay us our rightful share.”
Now the scout-spokesman transitioned to the agreed upon sentencing.
“Because you have done this, we have decided that we deserve compensation. So, we will take your money, your cameras, and your clothes!”
I was a bit taken aback by the final part of their demand. Our clothes? I looked at Will and at his bright red long-johns. What in all creation would the local villagers make of such an unusual garment? Would its buttoned butt-flap make it the prized possession of the village, presented to the chief, to be worn by him proudly as the only one like it in perhaps the entire country? I couldn’t help but crack a smile at this image.
A contingency plan was also quickly forming in my mind. If this war party didn’t listen to our defense and proceeded with their verdict, they might actually put us in a very powerful position. No one in these villages had likely ever seen three naked white boys – that would be shocking in and of itself. But missionaries were also held in high esteem in this culture. Missionaries who had died while serving the people of this land were even more highly revered. And my father was buried just an hour and a half up the the road. If we had to, we could march into the village, naked (or wearing banana leaves), calling down a world of shame on the this war party who had disgraced themselves by presumptuously robbing and shaming missionary kids – even those who had lost parents for the sake of these very people. Honor/shame cultures can, in a pinch, be flipped on their head in this way. It all comes down to who has been the more unjustly shamed and can get the crowd on their side. The rest of the villagers might even demand they beat up the war party for the sake of our honor.
It was now our chance to speak. I glanced at Kosta and our guides. They were going to keep their mouths shut, hoping to hold onto the pay they had already received. No help was coming from those guys. I looked at Caleb and Will, and their eyes told me they wanted me to make the defense. Each of us were feeling shaky with fear, and Caleb looked quite pale. I took a deep breath, sent up another desperate prayer, and started speaking in the local language.
“Respected men of this area. You say that we are rich European tourists who have robbed you of your rightful guide money. If this were true, then your anger would be just. But I am sorry, we are not rich, we are not European, and we are not tourists!”
Here a murmur went up among the war party and they exchanged glances.
“No, we are not these things. We are simple children of missionaries who have grown up and live an hour and a half from here. Our parents sacrificed greatly to come to this country to serve your people. For years we have heard of your beautiful mountain. We have desired to come and see it with our own eyes and now we have. It is even more beautiful than we had heard. You have an amazing land.”
Noises of approval and nods came from the war party.
“We came, we climbed your mountain, and we plan to tell all our friends what an amazing place this is. However, you must know, we agreed with these gentlemen (and here I motioned to Kosta and co.) to hire one guide from each village that had a claim to the mountain. When we arrived, they did not allow this to happen. But we three are innocent in this situation. Please let us keep our clothes and our cameras. The only money we have is for some sweet potato for lunch. If you would accept our apology for all of this, we would be very thankful and we will give a good report about you to others where we live. That is all I have to say.”
Kosta and the other guides were looking very uncomfortable at this point, and a lively exchange followed in the tribal language. Finally, an agreement was reached.
“We have agreed,” said the scout-spokesman, “that you are telling the truth and that you are not tourists. We will let you keep your clothes, your cameras, and your money.”
The three of us shot hopeful looks at one another.
“But!” he continued, “Our clan expects us to come back to them with lots of money. They are eagerly awaiting this. So we will let you go, but you must sneak around our villages again and escape. We will tell them that we could not find you!”
Our smiles quickly turned to frowns. Would there be no end to this foolish sneaking about? Another conversation was happening among the war party. Soon the spokesman turned back to us.
“Actually, we changed our mind about one thing. The boys would like to buy some smokes. We’ll take your lunch money after all.”
We handed over the little change we had left and everyone shook hands. Broad smiles came out all around, some white and brightly contrasted against the locals’ dark skin and black beards. Other smiles were blood-red, the tell-tale sign of beetle-nut chewers.
I decided to take a risk with all this newfound goodwill. “Friends! Can I take your picture?” After a brief discussion they all agreed and I snapped a photo of an armed, but smiling, war party – with the very camera they had just threatened to steal.
After this, the war party led us on a winding path through their gardens. I found myself becoming friends with the scout-spokesman. I decided to try to reason with him about his clan’s conduct.
“Do you want more tourists to come to your area?” I asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“What do you think will happen if you rob the tourists that try to climb your mountain like this? Do you think they will spread a good reputation about your people? Do you think you would get more guide money?”
“No, they would tell other people not to come here.”
“Exactly. It’s wrong to treat visitors like that.”
“Yes, it is wrong.”
“It was bad what you tried to do!”
“It was bad what we tried to do.”
“Don’t ever do that to visitors again.”
“We won’t do it again.”
I shook my head at the whole situation and the strange earnestness of these hot-headed tribesmen.
Soon we parted ways as the war party went off to spread their fiction about their failure to find us. We climbed a slope that we thought would lead back to Kosta’s village. Unfortunately, our guides got a little lost and we crested a small ridge in full view of one of the war party’s villages.
“There they are!” we heard the villagers shout as they started scrambling down below us.
“Run!” Yelled Kosta as we turned to flee down the slope to our right. We could see a large flatbed truck coming down the main road in the direction we needed to go. We ran and slid down the slope so that we could catch it in time.
“Get in the truck!” Kosta yelled as we ran up beside it.
“What about you?” I yelled back.
“Everything will calm down once you are out of the area. Now go! I’ll come to see you soon! Oh, and don’t tell your mom about this!”
We threw our bags into the truck and hopped in, yelling farewell to Kosta and his clansmen. There was no way I was not going to tell my mom about this. Let the honor/shame implications for Kosta’s reputation and basket business fall where they may. The truck rumbled down the road, and after some more misadventures involving a baby pig and a rainstorm, we made it safely home.
A couple weeks later Kosta came to visit me and my mom. The two of us sat together on our porch swing, drinking iced tea.
“You told your mom, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I admitted.
We swung some more in silence. I could tell Kosta was feeling deeply embarrassed.
“You know, even with all the problems, we still had a great time,” I said. Kosta looked down.
“But I have one question,” I continued. “When we were having court down by the river, and that discussion happened between your group group and the war party, what was being said?”
“Well,” Kosta answered. “They were saying that they liked you – and the one in red – because you were not afraid. But they said that Caleb was afraid, so they should beat him.”
I sat up and stared at Kosta, his hand on his forehead in the traditional sign of feeling embarrassment or shame. Then I started to laugh. How in the world did Will and I not appear afraid? And poor Caleb! Kosta looked confused. What the war party had wanted to do – beat the one who showed fear – appeared perfectly logical to him.
“Kosta, promise me you will not tell Caleb!”
Kosta looked up from under his hand, and shot me a mischievous grin.
Hamid* unexpectedly walked in just as the service was beginning. At once I felt anxious chills in the back of my head and neck, my body’s way of telling me that it feels threatened. The last time I had seen this man had been five years previous – and he had been screaming at me in the middle of the street, raging, spitting insults. A friend I had begun to trust had turned into a wild beast. Weeks of horrible text messages had followed. Now, years later, he had walked in on a day when it was my turn to preach, a day when I already felt exhausted and anxious. I silently prayed that the panic symptoms that sometimes overtake me in times like this would be held at bay. Hamid, for his part, seemed relaxed and perhaps even a little self-conscious, a posture which helped to put me somewhat at ease. We extended brief polite greetings to one another, and the small service mercifully progressed without any drama.
After the service, I took a deep breath and went over to welcome Hamid more fully.
“Remember the last time we saw each other?” Hamid asked with a smile.
I noticed that it was not a cynical smile, but a kind one.
“Yes, I do. That was a difficult night.”
“It was 2 a.m.,” Hamid continued, “We had been walking up and down the cafe strip of Peace Street, arguing for hours!”
I remembered it well. What an awful night. Hamid had been one of the first local believers to gather with our fledgling church plant. Though discipled by someone else, he had had no church in the local language to attend, so began joining our efforts. Things began well, until my colleague tried to emphasize the exclusivity of Christ in conversation with him. Hamid completely lost it, blowing up at my teammate and insisting that Jesus would never send honest and good Muslims like his parents to hell. My colleague of course maintained the truth of John 14:6 – no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. Hamid continued to rage, and then followed up this conversation by showering my colleague with scores of abusive text messages.
My personality tends to calm people down, and sometimes this can be of strategic use in ministry. So my colleague and I agreed that it would be good for me to have the followup meeting with Hamid, in hopes of talking some sense into him. This attempt completely failed. As I tried that night to gently press Hamid on his beliefs about the exclusivity of Christ he got more and more agitated, eventually spewing all kinds of heresy and hatred. I began to lose my cool as well, bluntly pressing him to question the genuineness of his faith in light of his current beliefs and his conduct. Everything I said was true, but I was beginning to give into my anger as well. Hamid only got worse and worse, more and more given over to rage and anger. We left on a cold note, both of us utterly fed up with the other. While grateful that Hamid’s inclusivism and character were exposed, it was also a deeply disheartening experience, one of many small betrayals we experienced in those years from local believers that we had such high hopes for.
Hamid continued to send angry text messages for a season. We responded with scripture. This elicited more hatred. Then we stopped responding altogether. I prayed for his repentance regularly for several years to follow, then eventually stopped using the prayer list where his repentance was requested. Eventually, after moving to another city, I heard that he had made some kind of apology to my teammate and had asked about my welfare. I received the news cynically.
Now here we were, casually revisiting the last time we had seen one another, a night that I would have preferred to forget.
“You were very upset with me,” Hamid said, laughing.
“Yes, I’m sorry for any words that I said that night in anger,” I responded.
“You know that I apologized last year to your colleague, right? And I had wanted to talk to you also. But I think you changed your phone number.”
I nodded, one part of me wanting to believe Hamid, and one part deeply skeptical.
“I’m very glad that you came today,” I said, knowing that this was an honest statement even though another part of me was somewhat freaked out in Hamid’s presence. He did seem different, though, seemingly too at peace to have come back with an old axe to grind.
We practice close communion at our church plant, where unbaptized believers are asked to abstain from the Lord’s Supper until they have obeyed through baptism. This is unique in our city, and often acts as a prod for locals to desire to take this difficult step of obedience. Hamid felt this prod during this first service back and approached my colleague immediately afterward, requesting baptism.
“Really?” I asked my colleague when I found out. “You think it’s genuine?”
“Let’s have him come to men’s discipleship this week and share his testimony with us and the local guys, and see if we’re all in agreement about moving forward with it.”
I furrowed my brow. “Some measure of clear repentance for the past is going to be needed before I’d be at all comfortable with moving forward.”
“Same for me,” said my teammate, “but I’ve seen some of that. And I think we might see even more during our men’s meeting.”
Neither of us could have been prepared for the depth, humility, and preciseness of Hamid’s story of repentance that following Tuesday night.
Normally, unbelieving locals never apologize or ask for forgiveness. Local believers have come a long way when they are willing to apologize publicly even in general terms. “If I have sinned against you” comes out much more than we’d like it to. Indirect apologies are still the norm among most believers, even years into their discipleship. Such are the realities of working for reconciliation in an honor/shame culture.
But there was nothing indirect or general about Hamid’s repentance. After detailing how he had initially come to faith, and explaining the gospel in wonderfully biblical terms, he then went on to detail our conflict.
“At that season of my life, my father was hospitalized with a deadly disease. My mind was really messed up because of this. So when these good brothers here, (here he motioned to me and my colleague) spoke to me of Jesus being the only way, I couldn’t accept it. I got so angry with them and I said terrible things. But everything they said to me was right and true. I knew it at the time, and I know it now. Jesus is the only way to be saved. But I got so angry and then I sinned by leaving the church.
“I was still caring for my dad though and so I kept desperately praying for him. One day I learned that the hospital wanted to amputate his leg, but that they had little hope that he would recover at all. For all this they would still charge us an exorbitant sum of money. I despaired, and I begged God to somehow heal my father. That same night I got a call from a friend in another city. He told me of another hospital with a new treatment. If we asked, they might accept my father. We asked, and to my surprise they not only accepted my father as a patient, but they successfully treated him – for free! He completely recovered. I knew that God had graciously answered my prayer, even though I had been so stubborn and angry and sinful. And he just kept on answering my prayers in that season. Even though I didn’t deserve it, he was so merciful to me. It was this mercy that softened my heart and convinced me that I needed to come back to the church and repent. I have apologized in the past, but I want to now repent publicly and in front of these men ask for your forgiveness. Will you forgive me? I was so wrong for what I said and how I left. And you men were faithful to speak truth to me in spite of it all.”
My colleague and I had stopped cracking our pile of sunflower seeds – a snack ever present at men’s discipleship – and were staring wide-eyed at Hamid. We had seldom heard a local repent in such explicit terms. We had certainly never seen it done publicly like this.
I felt any opposition I had to Hamid’s baptism fall away as I extended forgiveness to him. The local brothers followed up with some good questions, including “What took you so long to come back?” A couple weeks later Hamid was baptized in a lake on a scorching summer day – the very last weekend of the picnic season until the heat breaks in September.
I watched Hamid’s baptism from the rocky shore as my colleague and a local brother read him the questions and put him under the water. Years of prayers for his repentance had not been in vain, in spite of my doubts. His faith had been genuine, since the Spirit hadn’t let him go, in spite of his anger and in spite of his rebellion. In spite of me giving up on him.
Now I no longer get nervous when I see Hamid come through the door with his big smile and thick spectacles. Instead, I feel joy. The joy of knowing a brother truly repentant. The joy of true reconciliation.
Most of my prayer walks in the bazaar are an exercise in being alone with God while being surrounded by other people. Strange as it may sound, I enjoy praying quietly to myself while flanked by other pedestrians on a bustling Central Asian sidewalk. I’ve not intentionally sought out opportunities to share the gospel while out praying and walking – that discipline is able to happen elsewhere. But neither am I opposed to hitting an evangelistic softball if one is thrown my way during the course of a walk.
An opportunity like this came along last week, and completely out of nowhere. It was a sunny mid-morning I was walking down a street full of small bakeries, fish stalls, chai houses, and watch repairers, when I decided on a whim to take a left down past the old post office. I had no particular reason for choosing this route, but at the moment of decision it simply felt like this would be a good way to go.
Two-thirds of the way down the post office street I spotted a man standing in front of me and looking at me oddly. Our eyes met.
“You are an English teacher, right?” he asked me.
“Well, I was for some years, yes.” I said as I wondered how he had pegged me so accurately.
“I am a legal translator. And I am stuck. I have been translating registration documents for a Christian organization.”
Internally, I quickly transitioned out of prayer/meditation mode and sought to focus on what was happening in front of me. The ingredients of this situation were not exactly common. I wondered if this might be a divinely-appointed interaction.
“There’s some religious language that I’m not familiar with,” he continued. “Some unique Christian terms that I haven’t heard before. I don’t know what to do…”
“Would you like me to come to your office and see if I can help?” I quickly offered.
“If it’s no trouble, my office is just across the street here,” he motioned to a nearby corner.
We walked over to his small translation shop and stepped inside. The legal translator motioned for me to take a seat, handing me the customary small bottle of cold water. Then he pulled out the documents he had been working on.
“Can you tell me what gospel identity means? And what about reconciliation?” the translator started off, furrowing his brow. “Look at this sentence where they use those terms. I can’t make any sense out of it. I’m a legal translator, not someone familiar with translating religious language.”
He handed me the registration documents and I perused them, smiling internally. The words the translator was the most stuck on were some of the best gospel bridges in the document.
As I read the document, one part of me rejoiced at the spiritual terms present, and another part of me shook my head at the unnecessarily complex language we Westerners tend to write in – and saddle our translators with. “The goal of good writing is to be clear, not impressive.” I don’t know how many times I have said this line while helping a local friend struggling to translate Christian material out of English and into our local language. The translatability of our writing is a virtue not spoken of often enough.
The legal translator and I went back and forth over a number of tough Christian words and phrases, a process which gave me several good opportunities to dive into biblical truth. I shared with him the basic definition of gospel – good news – and then described that good news as “God is holy, we are sinful, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, and we must respond by repenting and believing in him.” We review this God, Man, Christ, Response outline as a church every time we gather for a service and I was grateful for the gospel fluency this longstanding practice has created, both for the local believers and for us.
We made some good progress on the document, but I could tell that the translation needs would require more time than I had to give that morning. Gospel comprehension would also require more time.
“I have an idea for you,” I shared after a while. “If you download the YouVersion Bible app, you can search for a Christian term and see how it is used in the Bible and see how it’s been translated by scholars into your own language. There’s this great parallel language function that I use all the time.”
“Really? That would be great!”
I showed him how to download the Bible app, search for a term, and compare languages side by side. I also gave him the number of a bilingual local believer in case he got stuck and needed some more assistance.
“You know, you remind me of someone I used to know,” the translator said. “A close friend named Joshua.”
“Joshua?” I smiled. I knew who he was talking about, a believing friend from college who had done a stint in this city of more than a million people a decade ago. I knew that Joshua would have shared the gospel with this man. And yet the lack of easy comprehension on the part of the translator showed that it had never really sunk in, even in terms of intellectual understanding. Or it had long since faded, suppressed by time and an unbelieving mind. Maybe Joshua was still praying for this man. Maybe that’s why we had run into each other on the sidewalk that day.
I took note of the translation office’s location, a spot I walk past most days. This shop would be one to come back to.
We said goodbye and I stepped out into the sunshine. I walked home, continuing to pray and encouraged by this unexpected chance to share the gospel. Even on a meandering prayer walk, there are no unplanned steps, no random encounters. I don’t always pick up on the providential designs beneath my daily encounters. But some days they’re simply on full display. Almost as if providence is showing off.
Today I preached to our local church plant from John 12:44-50, a passage often titled “Jesus Has Come to Save the World.” Preaching today meant that yesterday I sat down with a local believer, *Harry, to go over the sermon manuscript, checking for language mistakes and smoothing out the grammar. For the dozens and dozens of times that I have now preached in the local language, God has never failed to provide me a local brother to help with this important prep work – and every time that local brother manages to save me from at least a couple proverbial foot-in-mouth situations. Last night was no exception.
“Jesus teaches us here that it is his words that will judge us on the last day,” I read out loud.
“When?” my friend asked, raising an eyebrow.
“The last day,” I repeated.
“A.W.,” Harry continued, “in our language ‘the last day’ means Friday, not the final day of judgement. To communicate your meaning you have to say ‘at the final age.'”
“Ohhh, thank you. I’m definitely not trying to say that Jesus’ words will judge us on Friday!”
“And when you say ‘the final age’ don’t forget that short vowel in the first syllable of ‘age.’ If you forget it you will be saying ‘at the final tongue!'”
We laughed, sipped our hot drinks, and continued. A little later my friend put up his hand again for me to pause.
“Stop,” he said, “Read ‘Jesus Messiah’ out loud for me again.”
“Jesus Messiah,” I repeated.
Harry shook his head. You are saying it too fast and skipping over the final throaty H in Messiah. When you said it just now, it sounded like you were instead saying ‘Jesus of the squeegee.'”
I chuckled. This was not the first time I had made this kind of mistake. Preaching through Ephesians years ago I had publicly proclaimed, “The Squeegee is our peace!” instead of my intended meaning, which was “The Messiah is our peace.” That tricky throaty H is one of the old nemeses of us English speakers attempting to learn this particular Central Asian tongue.
Idioms especially can be like hidden bombs, ambushing the innocent speaker who is merely attempting to speak in literal and clear ways. Just a couple weeks ago I was doing sermon checking with *Darius when I learned that I can’t say “the person and work of Christ” in that simple form.
“‘Person and work of’ together like that,” he told me, “is always an idiom for someone’s closest circle of relatives. You don’t mean to say that we are saved by the relatives of Jesus Christ, am I right?” He laughed. “That sounds kind of Catholic!”
Then there’s those tricky words that are spelled the same and sound the same, but differ in meaning based on the context and construction of the sentence. This kind of similarity between the local words for canary and shore led to one of my more famous blunders, when teaching through the parables of the Kingdom in Matthew.
“And then Jesus sat down in the boat, next to the canary, and began to teach about the kingdom of God.”
The local believers leaned into their Bibles trying to figure out where the song bird I was referencing had suddenly come into the text.
Last night Harry and I finished our editing work together around 9 p.m. I thanked him sincerely for his help, knowing that his investment of a couple hours with me would mean greater clarity for the rest of the church on the following day, Friday, when our church plant is able to meet.
As we parted ways I shook his hand and said to him, “See you on the last day, brother!”
“What?” he said back.
“Tomorrow is Friday. You know, thelast day.”
Harry laughed and shook his head. “Right! See you on the last day indeed.”
“But you have not answered my question,” the workman said as he ate the lunch we had provided of takeout kabab (It’s expected in this culture to provide lunch when workmen are at your house all day). “What do you think of Islam? Is it good or bad?”
I had just concluded sharing how Islam teaches salvation by works – salvation through the scale of good deeds – while the Bible teaches salvation by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus alone. But my friend wasn’t going to let me get away with indirectly pointing out how my faith directly contradicts Islam. The workman and his colleague looked at me expectantly.
“Islam teaches that a man can save himself by his good works,” I said, “so it is bad. Because it is impossible for a man to save himself in this way. It sets men up for despair, or worse.”
It’s rare that I drop that bomb so early in a conversation. Usually if I attack Islam directly early on, then the honor/shame defense mechanisms kick in and the conversation stops being productive. I’ve learned that most of our locals will let me critique Islam in a hundred indirect ways and keep talking with me, all the while increasingly understanding my position that what they believe about ultimate reality is wrong. However, the response from the head workman to my blunt reply was more positive than I had been expecting.
“Good job!” he said. “I think Islam is bad too. For me, humanity is everything. And I can’t stand how we mix Islam with politics all over this region.”
I hadn’t seen this coming. These workmen were from a town four hours to our south, members of one of our unengaged people groups. An unreached unengaged people group (UUPG) is a people group that has no known Christians working to reach it with the gospel. The particular group these men belonged to may be around one million strong, with its own distinct language and identity – and zero known believers or churches. They live in a politically tense area that is hard to access and are so obscure as to barely show up on the unreached people group mapping sites.
Given this background, my assumption was that these men would be rather devout. I had assumed wrong. Sitting in front of me were men whose people group have never had a Christian missionary, but who had already been “converted” away from their native religion and into the lure of an easy humanism. They were Muslims in name only, but in reality would share much in common with progressive Westerners. The difficulty in these kinds of conversations is helping these locals see that the gospel is not just an equivalent religious system to Islam (and therefore to be dismissed as outdated), but to show them that many of the values they so admire in Western humanism – such as human rights and freedom of religion – come from biblical principles – and that these values alone are not enough.
I was encouraged over the course of two lunches to get to share the gospel, the goodness of religious liberty, and a biblical sexual ethic. We agreed to meet up for dinner soon where we’d have lots of time to talk at length about these things.
These lunch break conversations were an encouraging providence in a tough week of frozen pipes, gas shortages, sickness, and below freezing temperatures. Some weeks we spend so much time just staying functional that it can feel like we have nothing left over for the actual work of the ministry. It is especially encouraging then, when the life maintenance brings the ministry conversations to us.
This time we got to share the gospel with UUPG men who have never heard it before. That’s worth some frozen pipes.