From death to life

Nicole James | Central Asia

Hidden away in the corners of the city—camped on a shaded park bench, spread out under a leafy tree, huddled on a pedestrian overpass, secluded behind buildings—homeless people in Central Asia are marginalised among the least reached.

A handful of Jesus-followers, both OM workers and local church partners, have committed to caring for the men and women they’ve found on the streets in one Central Asian city. Each week, they prepare simple food packets early in the morning and then spend two to three hours walking around the area, scouring the out-of-the-way places often occupied by homeless people and handing out sustenance and encouragement to those who need it most.

‘How many people should die before someone starts a ministry?’

Clara*, a long-term OM worker, had already been living in Central Asia for four years when she noticed a man begging in front of her building. She approached him and offered help, but he didn’t want to go to rehab and continued spending the little money he gathered on alcohol. Eventually, the man died. “I couldn’t help him,” Clara recalled.

The incident shook her. “How many people should die in this city before someone starts a ministry for homeless people?” she wondered.

Clara started to pray for the homeless people in her city. Soon another worker joined, the beginning of a small group. “Every time we met, we prayed for different things. I always asked that God would open the church’s eyes for the homeless,” Clara said.

After a while, another friend introduced Clara to Sezim* (now her husband). Together, they connected with a church group already involved in providing food to homeless people. “I started cooking at home, all kinds of food,” Clara said. From there, the ministry turned into a movement.

Some of her local friends joined the weekly outreach, along with people she knew from different churches. For Clara’s birthday that year, she invited friends over but told them not to bring the traditional chocolate or flowers as gifts. Instead, she asked her friends to bless the homeless. From 12:00 to midnight, her friends dropped by, bringing donated clothes and shoes. “My balcony was full,” Clara remembered.

During that first winter, Clara realised that providing food and clothing wasn’t enough. Homeless people needed shelter out of the bitter cold. “In the winter, [many homeless people] get drunk. They sleep on heating pipes and don’t feel that they get burned,” Clara explained. “Many of them die because of cold or alcohol problems.”

In January 2014, the informal homeless ministry rented a house for people to stay. “We didn’t have anything in the beginning; we didn’t have enough money; we didn’t know what’s the plan—but God blessed us,” she said. Churches donated used furniture and OM contributed towards the needs. “That was the beginning,” Clara affirmed.

Since then, Clara and the team have turned over physical shelters to churches. “Now there is a house in a village for older people and two houses in the city; one is for women and one for men,” she noted. “We are not directly in charge, but when we find someone in the street, we ask [the shelter] to take them.” Then, she continued, the ministry pays for monthly room and board.

There have been positive and negative outcomes, Clara shared. “We’ve seen people coming with joy to be in our shelter, but they left. They didn’t want to be in the house; they wanted to be in the streets. But we also have the testimonies [of formerly homeless people]. God changed them, and now they are a blessing for others.”

Everything is possible with God

Taras* knew how to pray before he knew how to read. Growing up, he was the youngest and “the most loved” in his family, he described. But, when he was 15-years-old, his mom suddenly got sick and died.

At first, Taras looked for freedom, turning to alcohol and drugs. Then, at 18, he moved to another city with his brother. “I started working in a marketplace and making some good money. Because I had money, I started using more drugs,” he said.

By age 20, Taras was addicted to both alcohol and drugs. He tried to stop but lacked the willpower to change his life. “When I was 29 years old, I lost everything. I didn’t have any documents. I lost my relationship with my family. I was in the streets living as a homeless person for three years,” he said.

During that time, Taras found ways to earn money for alcohol and little else. After one night partying with friends in a village about 10km (6.2 miles) from where he stayed, Taras and his companions got lost. They argued about the way back and split up. “That night, it was very cold,” he remembered. “On the road, there was ice about 15cm (5in.) thick.” Eventually, Taras found his way back but realised in the morning, one of his shoes was missing.

A man who had hired Taras for work drove him to a hospital. Because Taras didn’t have identification documents, the hospital couldn’t provide necessary treatments. After two days, Taras was back on the streets. For one week, he went from hospital to hospital in the city, looking for a place to help him. “Because I was not sleeping for all of this week, I had some hallucinations. And in that moment, I remembered about God,” he said.

Taras prayed again, asking God to help him die with dignity. Then, Sezim and a friend found him. “They really wanted to help me,” he remembered. They took him off the streets, gave him a shower and new clothes and listened to his story.

“God loves you,” they told him.

“How can God love me if I’m still in this condition and need help?” Taras remembered thinking.

Clara and Sezim located Taras’s brother. Then, with his help, they checked Taras into a hospital. “The doctor said I wouldn’t survive the surgery,” Taras noted.

In fact, he survived not one but three surgeries—in which doctors amputated nine of his fingers and both legs. When Taras woke up from the procedure, “I wanted to end my life, to kill myself,” he recalled. “But even at that moment, I couldn’t do it.”

Taras stayed in the hospital for some time, recovering and reading various books, including a Christian title, “Come back home.”

“I was reading about the prodigal son when he turned back to his father, and I was feeling the same—that I wanted to turn back to the Father,” Taras said. “That night, I knew that everything would be different.

“When I went out from the hospital, I was free of cigarettes, of alcohol and drugs. And I started to read the Bible.”

Change didn’t happen overnight, but with the support of Clara, Sezim and other believers, Taras made peace with God and his family. He learnt how to write with the single finger on his left hand and attended Bible school. Slowly, he re-learnt daily activities, including driving. Today, he volunteers at youth camps and shares his testimony with others. “I am different than many people, but I can say that my life has purpose,” he stated.

“If someone told me three-and-a-half years ago that I would live, I would say, ‘You lie. That’s not possible.’ But I know that with God, everything is possible.”

*Name changed for security

Nicole James is a world traveller and writer for OM International. She’s passionate about partnering with fields to communicate the ways God is working across the globe.

Published: Wednesday, 03 January 2018
Credit: Nicole James
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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.

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