RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Being ready at a moment’s notice to board a plane and evacuate a country is a reality for many Christian workers in North Africa and the Middle East.
Trying to share the Gospel in nations with unstable governments is difficult in the best of circumstances. But as refugees flee the crisis in Libya, and other nations such as Yemen, Egypt and Syria continue to struggle with political unrest, the task is increasingly challenging. Though people are turning to Jesus during this time of conflict, Christian workers say the environment is far from ideal for ministry.
“It really is challenging trying to minister in this climate,” said Christian worker Sam Morgan.* He and his family have served among Shia Muslims across Northern Africa and in the Middle East since 2005.
In recent weeks, the Morgans have seen an increase in political protests.
“There are news cameras everywhere,” Morgan said. “If you go to downtown where everybody is protesting, and you’re the only American, immediately people are attracted to you because they feel like you’re there to stand behind their cause.”
Some of the people Morgan meets with and ministers to have pleaded with him to join the protests in their country. But Morgan always declines.
“We’re not here to fight for [that] cause,” he said. “We’re here to fight for the cause of Christ.”
Morgan said his biggest concern is whether he and his family may have to evacuate and leave behind years of ministry at the ring of a telephone.
“There have been moments … where I wonder if we’re going to be on a plane tomorrow morning,” he said. “One day you’re in a country, the next day you’re not. All those friends and that whole life you had, it’s gone.
While tensions in the Middle East have been front page news in recent weeks, Morgan said political protests and conflict often are a way of life among his people group.
“In our country, they burn tires every Friday, and they have since we [moved] here,” he said.
“Then it’s over, and Saturday goes on and everybody is with their families and we move on and do our ministry.”
Avoiding awkward political conversations can, at times, be nearly impossible, said Marshall Jackson*, who has ministered to people in the Middle East for the past six years.
“Their questions are often fairly pointed and opinionated,” Jackson said. “Most of the time, they’re not asking you to find [an answer]; they’re asking you to let you know what they think.
“If you feel someone really pushing your buttons or you’re getting hot under the collar, just walk away.”
When groups from the U.S. volunteer a Mideast outreach, Christian workers advise them to avoid wearing clothing and hats with American flags or political statements on them. And above all else, don’t start a political discussion.
“We’re not there to convince people that American foreign policy is correct,” Jackson said.
“Usually [volunteers] don’t have enough cultural background to handle disagreements in that culture and to do it appropriately without being overly defensive or giving someone the impression you agree with them when you don’t.”
The best — and typically most successful — way to handle difficult questions or discussions is handling them in a loving way.
“Just simply say, ‘but you know Americans love [the people in that country],'” Jackson said.
Ultimately, Jesus is the best example of how to handle difficult questions, he added, saying, “None of us would be as good as Jesus [with tough questions].”
Amy Jones* has found that the Middle Eastern women she ministers to are open to hearing about the hope Jesus can offer them. She and her husband Justin* have worked among Middle Eastern people for more than six years.
Jones befriended a single mother, Amal*, and her 11-year-old son. Jones met Amal in 2004 through the help of Christian volunteers from the States. Amal, who is an Arab Muslim, eventually became a believer in Christ.
But life for her has been difficult. Others often look down on single mothers in that part of the world.
“She has a horror story a mile long,” Jones said. “She’s been beaten by her brothers. She’s been held at gunpoint by her neighbor. She had to evacuate during two separate times of war. She’s been without a job, just barely making ends meet.”
Though relating to Amal’s challenges has been difficult, Jones said the two have remained friends through the years. The Joneses gave her a Bible; they’ve studied Scripture with her; and they occasionally have bought her groceries. Amal, in turn, taught the Joneses how to share their faith in Arabic.
Despite times of uncertainty, people’s hearts throughout North Africa and the Middle East are more open to the Gospel than ever before, Jones noted.
“People are hopeless, and the things … that they’ve put their faith in are kind of falling apart around them,” she said.
“It makes them more prone to ask questions and to seek a deeper kind of hope.”
*Names changed. Alan James is a writer for the International Mission Board.