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Returning Filled: 15 Years of Service in the Muslim World

By Lydia Gingerich, RMM staff writer

John and Cecelia Aslan* recently returned to the U.S. after 15 years of living in Central Asia and the Middle East where they faithfully worked with RMM to spread the word about Jesus.

As I spoke with the Aslans, Cecelia told me about a local custom that was sometimes challenging to fulfill. Where they lived, if someone dropped off a plate of food at your house, it was expected that you would return the plate filled, again, with food. Her neighbors were so generous that she often found her kitchen full of empty plates needing to be filled and returned. John and Cecelia have spent the last 15 years of their life investing in friendships, teaching and learning new languages and cultures, and working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). But they have not come back empty. Their lives have been filled with long-lasting relationships, fulfillment in the work they have done, and a rich love for beautiful cultures.

When they left for Central Asia, their four children were 17, 15, 11, and 9. Living in a Muslim country was something that had interested Cecelia for a number of years, but they both agree that it was the call of God that caused them to make the move. John said, “What we were doing in life was good, but we felt like there was something more for us.” A family who had recently returned from Central Asia was staying with them at the time, sparking an interest and tenderness in the Aslans for that part of the world. In 2000 they followed God’s call, and went.

The relationships they formed in Central Asia were very meaningful to John and Cecelia. They met their neighbor Safiyya* early on during their time there. Over the years, she became more and more involved in their lives as a coworker at their NGO, a language teacher, and a friend. The Aslans found that once you knew someone, “it wasn’t just knowing one person, it was knowing their network.” Through their relationship with Safiyya, they were welcomed into the lives of many of her friends and family members.

“There is a level of commitment that is hard to find in relationships in America,” Cecelia said. Once Safiyya’s mother became friends with the Aslans, she invited them over for dinner once a week. Their time together was deeply valued, and the Aslans felt a strong sense of love and hospitality shown towards them. In a society where trust is hard to come by and people are dedicated to following the cultural norms, John and Cecelia found respect and acceptance. Typically, foreigners are not looked on fondly in that area of the world, but the Aslans began to see that holding to a high standard of morality gained respect in their community. Even as outsiders, they were seen as honorable people. They were often told, “Because you are trustworthy, we are trustworthy.”

“...mother to mother, teenager to teenager, man to man. There is so much in common... Muslims want to be good and they want to be perceived as good. They want to achieve in life. They want the best for their children. Things we want too.”One important thing the Aslans learned from the friendships they made in the Muslim world is that many fears in cross-cultural relationships can be overcome by realizing that “there are differences, but not too far under that, at a base level, everybody is pretty much the same.” Soon after moving, before they had acquired much of the language or culture, they were invited to numerous social gatherings. At first, these events seemed intimidating, but they quickly found that they could easily connect with people on a human level. Cecelia mentioned that their whole family was able to relate to people like them, “mother to mother, teenager to teenager, man to man. There is so much in common.” From these interactions, she saw that “generally, Muslims want to be good and they want to be perceived as good. They want to achieve in life. They want the best for their children. Things we want too.”

The Aslan’s time in Central Asia was initially spent working with NGOs. The first NGO they joined had a poultry-raising project that John became involved with. Later, the NGO developed an education project that Cecelia participated in. Eventually they both joined another NGO that specialized in education projects. One part of their work with that NGO was forming and establishing libraries in different schools. They also developed curriculum to be used in classrooms. Seeing their work directly affect the children around them was meaningful, and it was a good way for them to be active in their community. After six years of working with these organizations, the Aslan’s were denied visas to continue working in the country. In a few weeks, they were forced to close the libraries and shut down the NGO. They had to empty their house, pack what they could, and move with their two youngest children back to the USA to discover what was next for them.

This was an emotionally stretching part of their time overseas. But even through the stress of this difficult move, John and Cecelia felt God’s faithfulness. They sensed his security and provision as they gave up the comfort they had found and the fulfilling work they had joined in. At first, this seemed like the end of the road for them, but half a year later, God took them to another country. They knew that God was not abandoning them, and that this was all a part of his plan.

Although they came into this new country with an overlap in language and already familiar with the culture, there were new challenges to face. The first country was less economically stable, leaving the people unsatisfied and more receptive to the story of God’s redemption. In this new country, people were content with what they had; they were not looking for any new answers. There were exceptions to this—some people were dissatisfied with their place in society and were curious, but for the most part, people were not hungry for God.

“But the same as in any culture, being loving and listening and caring about who they are draws people.” Although the receptivity to Christianity was not as prevalent in this country, the receptivity to a Christ-like friendship was. John and Cecelia had to “be willing to go the distance for the relationship, never just to get a quick conversion.” The Aslans said, “We wanted to be authentic sisters, brothers, parents, and children. We became all of those things for people. We loved them for more than their convertibility—a love that valued them as a person, who they were.”

Due to illness and a death in the family in the last year, John and Cecelia decided to move back to the United States. They are currently living in Columbus, Ohio and enjoying spending time with their children and grandchildren. It excites them to be able to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries together after spending so much time away from their children.

The Aslans are still in the process of settling in to the country they first called home, but their desire is to continue to be involved with the international community. Cecelia is currently teaching private English lessons and hopes to expand to a classroom setting in the future. They also hope to have a home that they can welcome refugees into, which they both see as an excellent opportunity to share the love and hospitality of God. Cecelia says, “You know, we lived among these people for so many years, they were our neighbors and friends when we felt alone and far from family and friends. We loved them so much. Now we are back here and want to connect with the immigrants and refugees coming from the Middle East. They are out of their homeland, they are displaced, and they need friends. I think it is a wide open door for building relationships.”

John and Cecelia have returned to the United States having poured out much of their time, passion, and strength. But they learned that getting over the fear of communicating with people who come from different backgrounds is incredibly rewarding. They have loved, and they have been loved. They have filled, and they have been filled.

Please pray that the seeds John and Cecelia planted overseas would find nourishment, and inspire a Jesus movement in that part of the world. Pray also that God would open doors for them to minister in Columbus as they continue to faithfully serve him.

*Names changed for security reasons