A new hope
By Jude Corliss | Central Asia
Photos: Jude Corliss
(Names and some identifying details in this story have been changed)
One of the first things that happens after I step tentatively through the door of the tiny apartment: I am handed a baby. “Go to Uncle Jude,” his mother says. I have just arrived in town, the baby and I are not acquainted, but the atmosphere here seems to preclude the idea of mere visitors.
It’s about 5:30 in the evening local time - already 6:30 official time - 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 South Asian. 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.
Outside the apartment’s bay windows, scoured mountains bathed in orange light peak between rows of skyscrapers. Inside, the team gradually settles into couches or against the wall and begins to chat. 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 to Central Asia, others are new to this team. 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.
There are hopes that other teams just like this one can be assembled in the region. When those teams meet it will, presumably, look a lot like this meeting .
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. “Weather makes a difference to language learning,” someone says, “in winter no one wants to stay out late.”
Talking about language seems to drain a little of the energy from the group. For most of the team, 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 and has often relied on Joshua for clarification or 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. Cramped indoors and intimidating outside, parents can start to feel caged. 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.”
"The guys are doing Baby Steps to Jesus this time,” someone says after Jacob has put away his guitar and white board. “The ladies are doing Goals.”
These are part of a ritual the team has recently adopted, presumably to keep their spirits up, to support one another in making progress and to keep information flowing around the team. A few of the newer members look around uncertainly, unclear about what they are supposed to say. Rowdy sounds occasionally break through from the bedroom where the six older children are being entertained by one of the dads.
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.
If not for the prayers, I might be at a meeting of some innovative, Silicone Valley startup. The enthusiasm is here - some have dreamed for years about being here and doing this. So is the sense of shaping the future - “I saw a little Yee girl with her parents recently,” Silas told me. “I thought, ‘I want her to grow up knowing people who are following Jesus and knowing Yee churches.’ ” 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 south Asian wife, Ashmena ask if any of the families with small children on the team want to be introduced to their neighbours - 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, as Kit put it for me, “a demonstration of the Trinity.”
But, unlike Twitter or Ali Baba, this “startup” doesn’t measure its growth in millions or the speed of its success in weeks and months. The apparent in significance of some of the ‘baby steps’ shared are evidence of the evolutionary nature of this work - its 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 Hup people 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.
“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. Fluent in Hup and comfortable in Yee 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 I realised it was the same problem I had in the States - people don’t care.”
But he is circumspect.
“I’ve been thinking about Jonah and Noah,” he tells me one afternoon as we drive through the dusty, golden countryside just outside the city. It is harvest time - a fact that seems incredible in this desert - and the pears and grapes are at their sweetest. Talk of Jonah and Noah only heightens the Biblical atmosphere.
“Jonah was incredibly fruitful in his ministry,” Bob says, referring to the instant change of heart Jonah is said to have effected throughout an entire imperial capital. “But not obedient. Noah, on the other hand was obedient to God but not fruitful.” He pauses to take a corner into a sun-dipped lane. “Better to be Noah,” he says.
It’s darkening outside Joshua and Yanina’s apartment and the gaudy neon lights of the city are reflecting on the surface of the river like a huge oil slick. The women begin sharing the goals they’ve set for the next two weeks - unambitious goals, focussed, it seems, more on surviving life in this place than changing the world. One says she has a lot on her plate, intends to take more rest in the next few days to keep from burning out; another hopes to increase her hours of language bookwork to three a week. Kris relates the fun she is having giving her English students the chance to help her improve her Yee. “I correct them all day long,” she says excitedly, “now they can correct me!”
These people, I think, are determined to last. Not merely to withstand attrition, but 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.
The day after the meeting Sarah, the team’s leader, takes me along on the forty-five minute bus ride out of town to the edge of a spare alley. Blank, single-storey, 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 the matron of this house 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 - our legs fanned out beside us - and receive her hospitality.
The team is committed to seeing, as Silas told me, “the Yee people themselves taking the message to their own.” To this end, 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.
For Yanina, who has given up her own country and language to be here, naan itself could be symbolic of a Christianity that doesn’t require the Yee to do the same.
“I imagine them celebrating - in their own style without influence - the Lord’s Supper,” she says. “Maybe with tea and naan bread - definitely loudly and happily. A real party.”
Joshua evokes that piece of furniture so often missing in contemporary Western celebrations of the ‘Lord’s Table’.
“I have a picture of them sitting around the table speaking in their own language and teaching me about the gospel,” he tells me.
It is a sentiment echoed by almost everyone on the team. Rachel, seated on the floor of their little apartment one morning while her Yee house helper plays 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 - her comparatively spacious European house thousands of kilometres away along with the possibility for her children to attend an English school or have friends that don’t treat them like exotic birds - I might think Rachel was kidding. But here she is. This single hope has overturned her life.
The meeting is over. People slip on coats against the autumn air and joke with one another about the erratic habits of local drivers. Some of them seem eager to leave. It strikes me how little they all appear to have in common - as if they have been tossed into this room at random from every corner of the world. Their varied gifts, fascinations, past lives lumped together in service of a singular, impossible vision.
It reminds me of a church.
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.