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“I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the increase...”

By Jill Wagner*

During the years our family served on an RMM team in the Middle East (1982-89) a young engineering student, Abdullah,* came to living faith in Christ. He was a member of our house fellowship, baptized in our bathtub.

After we had to leave the country in 1987, Abdullah became the local leader of the house fellowship until he was arrested for his faith, imprisoned and interrogated for a month, and as a result, expelled from the university.

Korean brothers and sisters working in the same Middle Eastern country took Abdullah under their wing, paying for him to finish his education and to receive advanced theological studies in Korea. He married a Korean woman.

Fifteen years ago Abdullah and his wife Fatima* moved back to the Middle East with their two children, called to raise up a church there. A third child was born. Many members of Abdullah’s extended family came to faith through their witness. As they lived in a totally unchurched region of the country's largest city, prayer walking its crowded streets and meeting their neighbors, a thriving house fellowship was born in their living room.

Then, unexpectedly, a spinal cancer diagnosis lay Abdullah low. He was in and out of the hospital for several years--living with constant pain – prayers for healing. Tears. Longings. Trust in the goodness of God.

In March 2016 we received the devastating news that Abdullah had died. We hadn't known that death was imminent. We wished we could have visited this spiritual son before his death. What would happen to his little family; the young church in his home?

Of course, the “little flock” reeled at the death of its shepherd. Would the sheep scatter? Fatima asked God for direction. Were there others who could step in as leaders? Several leaders came and assisted, but none seemed like a good fit. As Fatima persisted in fasting and prayer, she sensed God's gentle question, “Are you willing to care for my sheep?”

“But I'm a woman,” she protested.

“So?” God said. “Does that prevent you from caring for my sheep?”

Fatima accepted God's challenge. And that's how we've gotten involved. As we reached out in support of Fatima after Abdullah’s death, she contacted my husband Emmanuel* about assisting with a baptism. On April 24, barely two months after Abdullah’s death, Emmanuel traveled to the Middle East, visited Abdullah’s family, grieved at his grave, and helped to baptize three new persons into the fellowship. One was a young man who had come to faith at Abdullah’s bedside.

As Fatima continued giving leadership, she was often in touch with us for counsel and asked if she could look to Emmanuel, Abdullah’s spiritual father, as a spiritual overseer for the fellowship. We couldn't say no. In September we both went back for another baptism. This time we had the privilege of assisting with a baptismal service that included Abdullah’s mother and two others.

“Is there any way you can come and stay longer?” Fatima queried. “There's so much that's happening! It's amazing that you still remember the language after being gone for almost thirty years.”

In November we returned again, staying for three weeks this time. We lived with Fatima and her family. And there was another baptism!

This baptism included a young married couple and the young adult daughter of a woman who had been baptized in September. It was exciting to see the gospel beginning to spread through friendship and kinship networks. A whole minibus full of interested relatives and seekers attended this baptism at a church in the middle of town.

“...one day riding to work I started thinking about all the unrest and terrorism here, and in fear I found myself praying. Suddenly I stopped and thought, if I don't believe in God, who am I praying to?”“What drew you to faith?” we asked the young professional couple who were baptized.

“We've always been secular,” the man explained. “Atheists, really. But one day riding to work I started thinking about all the unrest and terrorism here, and in fear I found myself praying. Suddenly I stopped and thought, if I don't believe in God, who am I praying to?”

That thought led him to download both the Quran and the Bible onto his smartphone. During slow days at work, he devoured the Bible for the first time, finding it incredibly life-giving. It answered many of the existential questions he'd always had about life. A young married man, he loved what it said about marriage and other practical issues. As he compared the Bible to the Quran, he saw that many of the stories referred to in the Quran are told more fully in the Bible. It seemed obvious to him that the Quran had been heavily influenced by the Bible and the Arab culture of its day. His interest in learning more about the Christian faith led him to an old family friend who was a member of the house fellowship that met in Fatima’s home.

Now he and his wife are excitedly telling their family members and friends about their new faith. The idea of someone becoming a disciple of Jesus feels jarring to many people in the Middle East. Atheism or deism is not a problem, but vibrant Christian faith is.

In November as we walked with the young fellowship and heard their persistent questions about whether or not we could spend more time with them, we sensed God’s call.

Even as we revel in the joy of spending time with our biological children and grandchildren, God has given us spiritual children and grandchildren – and we feel an answering call in our hearts to come alongside this young fellowship.

Thirty years ago when we were deported, I wept. Feeling that all our efforts to learn language and culture were now in vain, just a wasted investment.

But God never wastes anything.

*names changed for security