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A Slowly Opening Door: Calling a New Generation of Workers to the Middle East

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By Jay Martin, Mediterranean Regional Director
Names changed and country name omitted for security reasons.

In January of this year, Rosedale Mennonite Missions organized a mission leadership consultation in the Middle East where we have been working for the past 30 years. Two RMM Board members, a CMC Executive Board member, and several other guests accompanied RMM workers and administrators on this listening tour. The aim of this trip was to reflect together about what God has done, is doing, and wants to do in this country.

We started out in the city that launched the apostles Paul and Silas on their first journey. A dear brother and his son, Zekerya and Servet met us at the guesthouse where we were staying and then took us to see their Koreanborn pastor, Jacob, and their church building/cultural arts center. Zekerya and his son Servet inspired us with their stories of God’s grace bringing them, as Alawite Kurds, to faith. The next morning we visited another one of the five small evangelical protestant churches in this city of 217,000. They have faced much opposition from radicals in the community but the city authorities have given them freedom to worship openly.

At noon we divided up into three groups to visit different areas where RMM has had workers over the past three decades. I took agroup of four to the city where our family (as well as others) had lived and worked. It was a moving experience for me to reconnect with those disciples with whom we had labored and toiled for many years. These stalwart few are standing strong in spite of, or perhaps because of, persecution. They are trophies of God’s grace and transforming power. We rejoice in that there are now two other churches in this city of one million. One of these churches is part of a growing and vibrant group of 30 Persian immigrant churches spread across the whole country. My group also took a one-day trip into the mountains to visit Yilmayan and Yildizhan, a couple that we fellowshipped with in our city a decade ago. It was so meaningful for me, after all these years, to sit with them in a circle on their living room floor. We shared a meal together and heard their stories, seeing them now as parents of three young children (Isaac, Light, and Elijah), teaching them the way of Christ. Before leaving we laid hands on them and their youngest son who has an inoperable tumor in his neck. Aptly named “Dauntless” and “Star” in English, this brother and sister are testimonies of the enduring power of the Spirit of God.

All three groups reconvened in the city where Esta Felder lives and works with the church in theater. We met in a simple hotel with a meeting room on the top floor that gave us a panoramic view of the city. For five days we gathered in this upper room to reflect on God’s work in this country. Each day began with worship followed by studies of the manuscripts of both Mark and Ephesians. In the afternoons we reflected on our visits to the south and east regions, heard reports from five non-RMM workers about the current state of the church, and reviewed a brief history of the work of RMM. We spent significant time in prayer and brainstorming.

The Social and Political Context
in Which the Church Finds Itself Today

This country is 99% Muslım. It is governed by a well functioning form of parliamentary democracy that is almost unparalleled in the Muslim world. The state is secular and affirms constitutional protection for private religious expression and propagation for all religions. It has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing freedom of religion. In reality though, laws are only as good as the people who enforce and uphold them. Since 2002 the government has been in the hands of a center right party that has loosened the secularist hold on power and also dramatically reduced the power of the military in the political sphere. Islam has grown in strength during the last decade, partly because the parliament has liberalized the secularist limitations of religious expression in the public arena. In the last 12 years, while the economies of many countries have stagnated, this country’s economy has quadrupled in size and per capita income has tripled. This monetary growth has resulted in a new self-confidence and an increase of influence and power in the region. There is deep concern about the increasingly autocratic and combative posture of the current prime minister and his government. He has intimidated the press into submission to a large degree. Twitter and YouTube have been shut down for brief periods recently. In the past few years we have seen a dramatic increase in polarization between government supporters and the opposition creating unprecedented unrest in the country.

A local pastor, Muhammed, who came to faith in the mid-80’s in our work in the east, told us that he sees four turning points that have impacted public opinion to begin to accept Christians as part of their cultural fabric instead of simply “the enemy.” The events he cited were: 1) in 1988 widespread arrests of Christians, 2) in 1999 the massive earthquake and the outpouring of help from Christian nations, 3) in 2007 the brutal murders of three workers in the eastern part of the country, 4) in 2013 unprecedented protests across the nation giving voice against oppressive authoritarianism.

Most likely there are many more believers that we don’t know about yet who aren’t part of a local church. Primarily, believers are of Muslim background, ethnically diverse, urban, and concentrated in the western part of the country. The church is young and small but stable and growing, with more and more national leaders emerging. Satellite and Internet broadcasting has scattered the seed of the Word far and wide, bringing many people into the kingdom.

Much remains to be accomplished however. This country still has the dubious ranking as the largest unreached people group in the world. Evangelical or Protestant believers number one half of one percent of the population. Thirty six of the eighty one provinces in this country still have no resident witness. Parts of this country are still very conservative and opposed to foreign influences, particularly in the east.

So while there has been a growing Islamism in this country and the region is being shaken by war and political instability, we also witness a greater openness and response to the gospel. I believe that as people tire of earthly kingdoms and their strife, many will be drawn to the Prince of Peace and his reign of love.

RMM’s Work in This Country

We have prioritized working in the south and east parts of the country where churches haven’t yet been established. But we also are working with the church in visual arts in a major city in the west. From the beginning of our work here in the 1980’s we’ve worked in partnership with other agencies in city-wide prayer meetings, regional and national networks and conferences and local church planting efforts. Our goal is to work together with others in the body of Christ to establish an indigenous church independent of western denominations. We have focused primarily on making disciples and establishing house churches in cities where there are few or none. Our workers have at times pastored emerging house churches hoping to turn them over to local leadership. Our role as foreigners has more recently shifted more toward disciple making rather than church planting. We see ourselves primarily as catalysts and mentors, rather than pastors and church planters, assisting our local brothers and sisters to reach their extended families and form clusters of disciples.

Is There Still a Need for RMM,
for Foreign Workers, in This Country?

We asked this question as we deliberated together in the upper room. Is it wise to continue to toil in a land when we haven’t yet seen widespread movements to Christ? Our local brothers and sisters have said YES, there is a role for foreign workers at this stage in the growth of the church. We at RMM believe that God says YES! We believe that God wants us to focus again on sending a new generation of workers to this land. We currently have experienced workers in country who have found their niche and can mentor others. We aim to leverage our collective experience and send a new generation of workers into this harvest field. The doors are open, more than ever before, for workers to come. Multi-year residence permits and visas are easily obtained.

There are many options for obtaining long-term visas; I’ll highlight two. We can go as students, studying at quality universities. We can also go as university, elementary, middle and high school teachers and find jobs in English language schools all over the country. There is a demand for professionals in education. I would challenge the young teachers in our Conference. Would you consider taking your professional training and skills and putting them to work in a setting where Christ followers are few and far between? Is God calling you to partner with his work in this country?

Contact RMM today via e-mail (info@rmmoffice.org) or call 740-857-1366 to learn more about opportunities. There are countless more, like “Dauntless” and “Star,” who would welcome you to humbly live and work among them!