A new hope

It’s about 5:30 in the evening and members of the church-planting team in this high, Central Asian City, are just arriving for their weekly team meeting. It’s a moderately diverse group: our hosts, Joshua and Yanina, have come to Central Asia from Chile, there are two British families here (although one of the mothers is actually from Australia and grew up in Mexico), seven North Americans and a Nepali. They are young parents, middle-aged parents, parents whose children have grown and an unmarried woman – the team’s leader. In their previous lives some were engineers, paramedics, nurses, teachers, businessmen, artists. Now they are mostly students and they all want the same thing – to see just one Christian church growing among the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Yees who live in and around this city.  There is an ease about the group – they joke and tease each other freely – but a tentativeness as well. Some of them, like Melinda and Aaron are new. For everyone these are the first weeks of a long effort to become more than just a group of individuals or families. Perhaps even to prove something about how church planting among “barely reached” peoples could be done.

The language hurdlebikeBoys

Jacob, a gangly Canadian in his late thirties, begins proceedings by teaching everyone a Christian song in Yee – “if we sing, maybe we will remember some words we can use”. Then he gives a mini seminar on the obstacles to language learning, the need for discipline and how to achieve language immersion. He suggests English media should be restricted to a once-a-week “language sabbath”. They make a list of ways people are trying to improve their language outside the classroom: talking to cab drivers, shopping for obscure items, watching local TV, chatting with friends or inviting them out for meals. 

For most, language study is both their official occupation and the immediate practical necessity. But it’s a fraught proposition.

There are two difficult languages to master at once and for Joshua and Yanina a third, English, to use with the team. Later Yanina – who comes across as soft-spoken and shy – tells me that she only began to learn English a few months before she left Chile for the first time to come to Central Asia. She still finds team meetings and get-togethers exhausting, often relying on Joshua for translation. The arrival of Melinda, who came here from England but grew up in Mexico, has been a huge relief. “It’s so nice to be able to talk to someone outside of our family in Spanish from time to time,” Yanina told me.

But everyone is struggling. Parents with young children – four out of the seven families – often find it impossible to focus on intensive language study with daily home school lessons to give, playmates to find and connect with and the uphill battle of adjusting to life in a high-rise apartment. “There is just nowhere to play,” one of the mothers says, “we have to look for ways they can run and jump and climb inside the apartment.” When they do venture outside, locals often seem more interested in trying to touch the foreign children’s blond hair and rosy cheeks or practice their smattering of English than in carrying on conversations in the local language. A few days later when I ask Melinda what she thinks are challenges for the team she says, “exhaustion…it’s very easy to get discouraged here.” Language learning can quickly become one mountain to climb too many.

But Melinda and her Scottish husband Aaron, who have been appointed to the role of pastoral care coordinators for the team, aren’t banking everything on their language attainments: “we came with the view so much could be done by prayer without language.”

Cutting edge

Kit shares how opening up to a Yee friend about some of the darker elements of his own past has helped foster a greater sense of trust between them. “And he got to hear about grace and forgiveness” Kit says. Everyone murmurs pleased encouragement. Others chime in with their own stories of small movements toward friendship or openness to religious conversations. There is a pause for prayer after every story.

Some have dreamed for years about being here and doing this.  And the strategy is cutting edge: a church planting team that functions as a church, that shares every part of the work – even friendships. Later in the meeting Jacob and his Nepali wife, Ashmena mention a local family who want English-speaking playmates for their kids. According to some missiologists most Muslims will not consider Christianity until they have met at least ten Christians – until they have been exposed to a Christian community. The team hopes to become that first, tiny community. That their “unity in diversity” will be a demonstration of the Trinity.

But the evolutionary nature of this work is fits and starts and stalls. “A Yee church is maybe fifty years out,” Bob, a member of the team and SIM director for the region says. On top of the minefield of bureaucratic and legal pitfalls missionaries have to avoid in this part of the world, there are huge cultural obstacles to overcome in reaching Yees. Racial and political tensions between them and the majority population makes Christian outreach by locals almost impossible. And the generations-old Islamic faith of Yees keeps them suspicious of Westerners with whom they sometimes associate a licentious Christianity.

“The Yees seem to want to put you in a box,” Bob quips during the meeting. “Are you ‘one’, [a Muslim] or ‘two’, [an immoral Christian]? And you have to find a way to say you are ‘C’.” He laughs.

Bob and his wife Kris are the veterans of this team. They provide, along with Jacob and Ashmena, perspective and guidance. “When I first got here,” Bob says, “I thought security was the barrier to my sharing the gospel. Then I thought it was language.” Then he realised it was the same problem he had at home – “people don’t care.”

These people, I think, are determined to last, to become genuinely part of this community. “I imagine Yees coming to our house,” Melinda tells me. “I don’t see sharing the gospel as an outside the house thing.” This seems fitting in a culture deeply committed to hospitality.

Tea and naan bread

China-teacupThe day after the meeting Sarah, the team’s leader, takes me along on the forty-five minute bus ride out of town. Blank stone buildings line our way to a courtyard overhung with pears, grapes and tomato vines. We’re ushered into a little room with a raised floor and a low table. Tea, dates and fried batter are laid out for us along with naan – a stale bread I’m told is culturally very significant (and also very hard to chew).

Sarah is here to talk to a woman about a dress-making job. If the woman’s skills are sufficient, she could make a good wage sewing boutique clothing for the American fair-trade market and have an opportunity to increase her financial independence. It could also be the beginning of an influential relationship – perhaps of an opportunity to speak to her about Jesus. But here, it seems, one doesn’t just ‘get down to business’. Instead, we will sit and receive her hospitality. Bringing the gospel in ways that fit with Yee culture is a high priority.

The Good News. Borne on a hundred thousand sips of tea and a thousand difficult bites of naan. “I imagine them celebrating – in their own style without influence – the Lord’s Supper,” Yanina says. “Maybe with tea and naan bread – definitely loudly and happily. A real party.” 

Rachel, seated on the floor of their little apartment one morning while her Yee house helper plays3-elders with their girls, describes a future in which “the old respected men of the community” will sit around telling their grandkids stories of Jesus. As the bearers of the culture and often the least welcoming of change these men are perhaps the furthest from accepting a Christian gospel. The hope that the culture they protect might one day include Jesus Christ seems beyond far-fetched. If she wasn’t sitting right in front of me, I might think Rachel was kidding. But here she is. This single hope has overturned her life.

Weeks later, sitting at my desk at home, I receive an email from Bob. He is actively recruiting people from everywhere in the world to join Central Asian teams just like his. The qualifications: love Jesus; be willing to grow; be a friend to the unreached peoples of Central Asia. He could hardly ask for less.

But when I recall my days with his fledgling team, their tiny high rise apartments overlooking a merciless desert and the deep wells of hope that bind them together I realise he could hardly ask for more.

Words and pictures by Jude Corliss (edited)

Names and some identifying details in this story have been changed