Years later, they embarked as a family on a new adventure in the Arabian Peninsula (AP). When Jim received a job offer, after three years of sending applications and CVs with no response, “it was clear God was telling us He had prepared it for us,” Jim explained.
The Gulf country where they moved has historically been a difficult place to share the gospel. Other foreign Jesus followers living there had told Jim and Lena to expect “a fruit every decade,” referring to the number of local Arabs they saw accept salvation through Christ. Therefore, the couple set simple and low goals for their first year in the AP, focussing on cultural engagement and understanding the social landscape. “We wanted to land and learn,” Lena said.
Normal moving challenges were compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing. With restrictions in place, “you don’t just bump into people,” she explained. Despite the difficulties, “we have been able to engage with people and walk alongside and disciple and share the gospel in ways we never could have imagined,” he said.
“If it had been a goal, it would have caused anxiety. I prayed God would do it, not me, and it took the pressure off!”
Like many countries in the AP, Jim and Lena’s current home hosts an astonishing percentage of immigrants working in various professions. “Even though the local population is definitely culturally dominant, they are a small minority in their own country. As foreigners here, it’s easy to get sucked into an expat bubble with those who want to live like they were back home and just make money,” Jim said.
To fight that temptation, “it’s important for us to maintain our own rhythms and be able to keep the mindset of why we are here,” Lena added.
Prayer, in particular, has been an important part of their time in the AP. “Prayer isn’t just something we do when we need something, but prayer is the work,” Jim shared. “It’s how we maintain the connection with God and how we’re able to be aware that God is doing something around us. How we’re able to have the strength and courage to speak up when it’s time is through that prayer.”
On several occasions, Jim has been invited to a majlis, a gathering of local men at someone’s house. At one of the meetings, the host talked about a difficult situation he was facing. “I asked if I could pray for him and shared the Old Testament story of Joseph and how God was faithful to him when he was going through hard times. He was appreciative of that,” Jim recalled.
Lena initially planned to try building relationships with the few locals she could find through her children’s school or neighbourhood contacts, but strict coronavirus restrictions made this already very difficult task all but impossible. Just as she was beginning to get discouraged, an unexpected connection with a friend of a friend led to a sudden job offer for her, an opportunity that has already given her more exposure to the local culture—and that she hopes will lead to even more in the future.
In the last year, God has taught Lena patience and to rely on His timing, she said. “He puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and my part is to walk faithfully…. He placed me in the work I have, and it’s beautiful to see Him bringing me people where we have more connection and it’s more natural.
“I’m learning to walk in step with Him without overthinking and overstressing, being in tune with His movement.”
Lena grew up as a nominal Catholic but doubted the existence of God until a woman from her home country shared the gospel with her while she was living in Europe as an exchange student. “For the first time I understood Jesus’ death was for me, not just for the whole world, but for me in particular,” she said.
Jim said his pastor father and family “showing God’s love to people and ministering to others” influenced his upbringing and his own decision to follow Christ.
However, neither Jim nor Lena set out to live in the Middle East. Jim studied in Europe during university, volunteering with an outreach group there. After graduation, he was invited back to join the team, but during his preparations to return, he sensed that God had something else in store for him. “Looking through the options, all the ones resonating with me were in the Middle East! It made no sense for my background or my training or anything,” Jim recalled.
Nonetheless, he obeyed. Before moving to the Middle East, he participated in Perspectives, a 15-week course that helps Jesus followers understand God’s heart for the world and their role in reaching people who don’t know Him. Through the speakers and stories that were part of Perspectives, Jim said he learnt that God could speak to Muslims. “It was a revelation that these ‘closed countries’ didn’t keep the Holy Spirit out,” he explained. He also recognised that people don’t bring the Word of God or the Spirit of God to a place, “but we are following the Lord’s work. He does what He does, and we are able to be a part of that.”
For Lena, an OM Ships line-up team (a group of people organising the upcoming visit of a vessel to a particular port) presenting at a youth conference she attended influenced her so strongly that she decided to join the Ship Ministry herself. One year after the conference, she joined a year-long OM training programme in South America; two years later, she was on board Logos II.
On the ship, Lena listened to a man named Gary Witherall share his testimony: his first wife, Bonnie, had been murdered three months prior in Lebanon, where the couple had moved to share God’s love. “As he was talking, I said: ‘God, I am willing,’” Lena remembered. “I wasn’t called to the place but to the people. It was a big eye opener to the need among Muslims.”
From there, Lena said her story mirrored the biblical calling of Abraham. “God said: ‘Go to the land I will call you. Trust me to the next step,’” she shared. So she moved to the Middle East and helped coordinate exploratory conferences for other Jesus followers in several places before ending up in the country where she stayed for almost five years, completing her university studies there—and meeting Jim.
After Jim and Lena got married, they returned to his home country to work for a while, “always with the understanding we would come back to the region as a family,” he said.
“The best place to be is where God wants you to be. Trust His movement even if it feels scary, even if it takes longer than you think it should,” Lena emphasised. “Be available to Him and trust that He will prepare the way.”
Published: Thursday, 05 August 2021
Credit: Nicole James