Telling stories, throwing seeds

Near East | Nicole James

Ladies in the Muslim WorldOn any given day, long-term OM worker Alina* intentionally tries to start her morning with prayer. “When you’re doing this kind of [ministry], and it’s so relationally driven and so unstructured, it reminds you of how dependent you are on God for leading you in opportunities,” she explained.

Then, it’s onto Arabic study—a few hours at home or in a local language school. Possible visits in the afternoon allow Alina to interact with local friends and provide opportunities to share stories or tidbits of truth.

After dinner, an unmarried 30-something neighbour might unexpectedly drop in, seeking space from the small home she shares with brother, sister-in-law, mother and grandmother. “She’ll tell us about her secret habibi (boyfriend). And we try to think as a household how to be with her in the disappointments of life and how to bring opportunities into that to share hope,” Alina explained.

From sunup to sundown, “you’re trying to throw out 'seeds' all the time, and you don’t know what they’re landing on,” she said, referencing the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.

Workers might base their effectiveness on their own awareness and intentionality, but it’s important to remember “there are so many dimensions of how God uses us in the community,” Alina stressed. “You don’t know what things people notice about you actually that are distinctive.”

Simply standing out is not enough to create vibrant communities of Jesus followers among the least reached, however. “We’re not going to see churches unless people are engaging with God’s Word,” stated Sophia*, another long-term worker.

Therefore, she, Alina and others serving in the Near East field (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq) prize “putting God’s Word in people’s hands and showing them they can read it, and they can understand it and they can share it.”

And while there’s no one-size-fits-all method for sharing the gospel message, from nearly day one of field training, workers learn to prepare and share Bible stories in a variety of situations.

Listen, don’t judge

Sophia, who teaches English to local people, has used language practice to introduce biblical narratives. The teachers at her language centre, all like-minded believers, determine as a team which activities to implement in their English classes. Sometimes, the staff capitalise on a cultural connection, like studying the passage on Jesus’ resurrection during Easter. Another time, they introduced a new comprehension skill to the students: listening without judging.

During one of these English conversation groups, Sophia asked her students, “Can you listen to something you disagree with?”

She modelled the skill by first reading a section of the Qu’ran, showing students that “we can learn and engage from their text without arguing.”

The next week, they read from the Injil (New Testament). In the last few months, Sophia presented the stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the account of Jesus declaring all foods clean. The last story “was quite controversial,” she admitted, citing Islam’s strict ban on certain foods.

In addition to reading stories, Sophia has led conversation groups about prayer and fasting. “It’s a good opportunity for us to learn about Muslim practices, and for Muslims to learn about Christian practices,” she said. “A lot of people have said, ‘I didn’t know Christians prayed or what that looked like.’”

Many of Sophia’s Muslim students have never talked to a Christian or heard what Christians believe, let alone read anything from the Bible. At the end of class, Sophia often encourages her students to tell their families what they’ve discussed.

One girl, whose father does the daily call to prayer at a nearby mosque, “loved the story of Jesus declaring all foods clean,” Sophia recalled. “She was going to go home and share it with her family.”

Language lessons

After long-term worker Lisa* had a baby, she was looking for a language tutor to teach her at home since her new-born prevented her from continuing formal classes at a language centre. One day, Lisa happened to meet a young girl, Samaher*, at a neighbour’s home. “My Arabic isn’t great yet, but we can do conversation,” Lisa said.

“I’m looking for a tutor just once a week,” she told Samaher.

“I’ve tutored some people,” Samaher replied, naming a few other foreigners (whom Lisa knew).

Soon after, Samaher came to Lisa’s house to discuss the format of lessons.

“Do you mind reading some stories with me from the Injil?” Lisa asked.

“That’s fine, I used to do it with others,” Samaher replied.

As the lessons continued, conversations stemmed from the stories the women read. “We’ve spoken about heaven and hell and sin and where we agree and disagree,” Lisa described. “We’ve grown a friendship over time.”

During a particular lesson, Lisa left the living room to make tea. When she returned with the tray of drinks, she saw Samaher holding the English-Arabic New Testament she had left on the table. As soon as Samaher noticed Lisa, she put down the Bible.

“It’s ok, you can look,” Lisa encouraged.

Later, Lisa left the room again to care for her baby. Again, when she re-entered the room, she saw Samaher reading the Bible.

Then, the same thing happened a third time.

“What are you reading? Do you want to talk about it?” Lisa asked.

“It’s good for language, the English-Arabic [translation],” Samaher said.

“If you like it, you can take it with you,” Lisa offered.

The next time the women met, they did discuss the story.

At an OM gathering, Lisa told Renee*, who had previously studied with Samaher, about their lessons. “What, she’s reading the Bible?” Renee asked.

According to Renee, Samaher had made a decision to follow Jesus, but her parents found out and forced her to speak with a sheikh, the local Islamic leader. Because Samaher’s father worried about the foreigners’ influence on his daughter, she had only taught Arabic in her parents’ home.

Lisa’s baby, however, provided the chance for Samaher to get out of her house and have spiritual conversations in Lisa’s living room. Eventually, however, Samaher found a scholarship to study at university, and Lisa re-enrolled in formal language school. 

Recently, “I bumped into her on the street, and she said she’s busy now because she has to study, but she’d love to hang out. I’m going to be intentional about continuing the friendship,” Lisa affirmed.

Just keep sharing

Alina seeks to share stories on every visit, regardless of whether women have expressed spiritual interest. She regularly visits two Syrian sisters, who live next door to each other, with another Arabic-speaking believer. The two women, along with their three teenage daughters, welcome them.

“We don’t know what they think, whether they’re happy for the visit and just tolerate the story. At the moment we see it as an opportunity to keep visiting and sharing,” Alina explained. “Each time we go we share a story and we ask questions, trying to do a very simple, informal way of doing a DBS (Discovery Bible Study).”

Alina has also seen relationship grow with another Syrian friend, who was approved to travel as a refugee to Alina’s home country.

“Each time I’ve visited her, there’s just been a greater level of trust for what she’s trusted with me. Sharing [spiritual] things hasn’t been easy with her, but after I had gotten to know her a little bit, I found out her father is still in Aleppo. Late last year when the siege was particularly intense and bombing was intensifying, he got really sick and desperately needed to see a doctor, but he couldn’t get any help,” Alina recalled. “There were a lot of opportunities to pray with her and be with her in that situation.”

Ultimately, Alina, Sophia, Lisa and others pray, prepare and share—and leave the rest to the Lord. “It’s not our job to make fruit happen; it’s our job to continue to be faithful in the place [God’s] put us in,” Alina said. “We continue to pray that God will bring fruit.”

*Name changed

Nicole James is an international writer for OM, passionate about publishing stories of God’s work among the nations and telling people about the wonderful things He is doing around the world.

Credit: Nicole James
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