Pioneering in Central Asia

Nicole James | Central Asia

A small team in Central Asia rarely introduce themselves at the bazaar anymore. Most of the time, others do it for them.

The team hasn’t lived in this area of Central Asia for a long time, but they’ve made relationships with scores of people. “We cannot take all the invitations we get. We could accept many more invitations to eat with people and talk with people. It’s really an open door,” team member Iva* described.

Shopping at the bazaar is a chance to meet people. So is going anywhere, really. “Just walking on the street, you meet most of the people,” team leader David* said.

Developing relationships, however, requires intentionality – lingering over produce purchases and stopping to say hello whenever you see a familiar face – and flexibility.

“There is a butcher who works along the road home. I always try to stop and have a good word for him,” David shared. “One afternoon, he said, ‘Come with me, and we will have an evening meeting with other friends.’”

Five hours later, after driving out of town and meeting up with other men, David returned home.

Culturally, men in Central Asia can “stop by anywhere,” say hello and invite someone out for tea. David has even talked about Jesus while sitting in the public sauna, a central gathering area for men in the town.

Another team member, Missy*, said the team shares a lot, but she acknowledged they haven’t seen much evidence of truth penetrating people’s lives. “I think there’s a lot of people that have a spiritual blindness. They hear it, but they can’t accept the truth of who Jesus is. They hear it, but there’s still a barrier.”

The team doesn’t know any Central Asian believers in their town, but they have heard rumours of believers in one or two of the villages.

Embracing culture, sharing stories

Apart from encounters out and about, the team has also learnt to embrace the Central Asian in-house visiting culture as a way to share stories. There’s a special word in the local language for the act of visiting people in their homes, sitting on cushions, drinking tea and talking.

“It’s a very defined script. It’s always the same,” Iva explained. The two- to four-hour affair starts outside the door, when the host brings a jug of water for guests to wash their hands. Then everyone moves inside and sits around a tablecloth on the floor, artfully covered with small dishes full of nuts, raisins, biscuits, chocolate, savoury pastries and bread. Once the bread is broken, everything starts.

The host pours tea into a little round bowl–the tea cup–that gets passed around. “Tea drinking and bread are the most important,” Missy said. As a host, “you’re constantly pouring tea because that shows you’re serving a lot.”

On visits, a prescribed order determines the food and beverages served. Likewise, a defined hierarchy governs where to sit and who can speak.

“If you’re higher up (richer, older) you sit at the top of the room. If you’re lower, you sit at the door,” Missy shared.

As foreigners, the team members are often offered a special position. “Sometimes it’s an opportunity to speak, when age-wise and because we are unmarried, we would not have the opportunity to speak,” Iva said.

Still, it can be difficult to steer the conversation, David noted. Among men, subjects range from football to marriage to the price of a cow. “I cannot change the topic,” he explains. “I have to wait and maybe at one point I can jump in with [spiritual] things.”

“Often they are just curious who the foreigners are, what they do and stuff. Occasionally, they invite us to tell stories,” Iva added.

One woman in particular, who was instrumental in bringing the small team into the area, regularly creates opportunities for them to talk about Jesus.

“She really enjoys hearing stories, and various times when we’ve visited her and sat around with her relatives, she’s actually stopped the conversation and asked us to tell a story [about God],” Missy said.

The woman also remembers stories shared in the past. A couple years ago, Missy shared, “we were having a conversation about learning language and why it’s important and why we even have different languages. I just told [the Tower of Babel story] as a random, to-the-side comment. Later, she asked again, ‘Missy, tell the story about the tower.’ And she connected it to God.”

“When we share stories or even when we read, people are so excited about Jesus—they feel that the stories fit in their cultural background. They say, ‘That’s like Central Asia. That’s like our community. That’s like our religious leader,’” Iva said. “They very much can identify with the stories.”

Serving and pioneering

The team is trailblazing in Central Asia both geographically and professionally. David builds therapy devices and teaches language classes in the community. Iva and Missy serve as therapists.

“My heart was always for Muslims, and I wanted to use my professional skills [on the field],” Iva shared. “It’s exciting to be in a pioneering situation.”

The people living in the team’s host city are known throughout the country for their religious conservatism. “They are more strict than other places in the country, but I think it’s an opportunity because they really want to please God,” Iva explained. “Many of the ladies I am meeting want to please God by fasting or praying. I think the Lord sees their desire to please Him.”

Matthew 5:6 comes to mind, Missy added—“those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (NIV). They want to be on the right path with God, that’s why they do the things they do religiously.”

As part of their professional work, Missy and Iva often meet with mothers of children with disabilities. “We give practical advice based on our professional backgrounds, but it’s also an opportunity to counsel the family about the disability,” Missy said. “Very often the conversation leads to sharing that your child isn’t cursed by God… . God doesn’t pick a bad mother and curse her with a disabled child. Actually, God picks a good mother, who will look after the child and care for him. Actually, God loves you.”

“This is a really key ground-breaking work,” Missy stressed. “Often women burst out crying because this is the first time they have heard [that message of love].”

Like others in the town, mothers of children with disabilities want to relate to God and want to love Him, but they believe they have been cursed by Him, the team explained. “We believe this first conversation will already plant seeds for them to see their child differently and see God differently,” Missy emphasised.

Of course, the team members pray their relationships will go deeper. “It’s our profession and our passion to help people with disabilities, but that’s not the main point,” Iva stated.

Pray that the Lord would reveal Himself to people in the town where the team serves. Pray that people will share what they learn about Jesus with family and friends. Pray for vibrant communities of Jesus followers to develop amongst these least-reached people.

*Names 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: Tuesday, 04 September 2018
Credit: Nicole James
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