A Changing tide of grace

Anne Viljoen | Near East

“God’s grace kept us here, and seeing God at work. In looking back, it is all grace, lots of grace,” said Joe*, a long-term OM worker.

After two decades in the Near East (OM field comprised of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq), Joe and his wife Alisa* are amazed at the changes that have taken place, and the new window of opportunity to share the Gospel in this region. “Syria was always tough,” recalled Joe, “there was little response.”

“We [relocated] to our present location in 2010 and the following year the war [in Syria] started,” he said. 

He and Alisa have seen many changes in the region since then. Before the war, there were rarely Muslims in the local churches. Now, up to half of their local church congregation are Muslim refugees from Syria. The local churches in the Near East have been instrumental in helping refugees, regardless of religious backgrounds.

Even before the war, there were many Syrian Kurds in neighbouring countries living as migrant workers; young men would come out of Syria to make money, enabling them to get married and start a family. In the past, the Kurds were reluctant, not open to the message of Christ. But now, especially since the war also brought women and families out as refugees, there are more needs and more opportunities to minister, explained Alisa.

“Pre-war, there was no way to reach women in the Kurdish villages in Syria,” Joe shared, “as the government kept a close eye on everything, foreigners visiting were blacklisted and sent out of the country. It was very political. When the Syrian Kurds arrived here as refugees, they were welcomed and loved by the churches and by our workers. Now we have ladies’ meetings where 50-70 Syrian Kurdish refugee women come together, often bringing their children. They listen to stories and teaching about Jesus, starting from the creation story, the fall of man, the sacrifice (which they would recognize from their culture and the Koran) and to the salvation through Jesus.”

Joe and Alisa with their 20 years in the OM Near East Field have never witnessed anything like this—so many Muslims wanting to learn from the Bible.

“They come,” said Alisa, “in need, in tears, in sadness and find release and peace as people pray for them. It is really a special time. Even better, is the fact that many of the refugees themselves are now ministering to others; offering to share and pray with relatives and neighbours.”

Alisa explained that the culture is very communal and relational, and that God hears their prayers: “We see many miracles and answers to prayer. One woman asked us to pray for a job for her husband, he had been seeking for weeks and they were running out of money. The same night somebody phoned with a job offer!”

“Yet there are lots of problems,” she added, “unending. For many, it is impossible to survive here. They never know if they can feed their family or pay the rent. If they get sick there is no money to pay for medicine. We help, through the local churches.”

Joe’s ministry extends to several countries, visiting groups of believers, mentoring, encouraging and developing new local leaders. He often faces discouragement in the ministry. He explained that in selecting five potential leaders for training, ONE may succeed, and he quietly added: “life is hard for many.”

Joe and the OM team organize training for Arab partners, including some from Iraq and Syria, meeting for an intense weekend in a neighbouring country. The training includes topics like church planting and Discovery Bible Studies (DBS), but equally important is the teaching on self-care and member-care—how to find rest in the midst of a long-term crisis situation and stress management. Meeting others in the same situation is also a great encouragement.

While the world may look at the physical war in Syria and the movement of refugees, the OM workers in the Near East Field see the spiritual war that is very real and present.

Pray for Syrian refugees in the Near East, that they would understand and receive the message of Jesus, see God at work in their lives, and grow in their faith. Pray that God will raise up leaders for the Bible study groups, as well as new church fellowships. Pray for the OM workers and for the churches reaching out to refugees, for patience, perseverance, strength and wisdom.

*Name changed

Published: Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Credit: Anne Viljoen
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Features take an in-depth look at life and ministry on the mission field. Here you’ll find stories of how God is changing lives through the work of OM, as well as stories describing the joy and challenge of serving God in missions.