Before Ben* and his family decided to move to the Middle East* to learn the language and culture that would help them better minister to those from Muslim backgrounds in their home in south-west Sydney, not many of us had heard of Islamic State. A lot has changed since then, including what Ben thought he’d be doing during his time in the region. Kaley Payne spoke to Ben about what he’s been doing and what’s changed since he first arrived.
* For security reasons, Ben couldn’t name the country where he and his family are staying. We’ve also withheld his last name.
Can you tell me where you are right now?
My family and I are living in a country that borders Syria. It has a relatively small population and few natural resources. It is considered a developing country, but it’s not extremely poor. But most of the refugees here are poor, and life gets harder for everyone as all the prices go up. We live in the capital city, which sprawls across many dry, dusty hills.
At a time like this, when the Middle East is so dangerous – especially for Christians – what prompted you to leave Sydney and travel to where you are?
We’ve been here since the start of 2014 and we plan to stay here until the end of 2016, after which we’re planning to return to Australia.
After I finished at theological college, we moved to south-west Sydney, to an area where many Muslim people live. I was the assistant minister in the Anglican church there, serving the congregations and particularly trying to connect with members of the local community who had no relationships with Christians.
With a small team of godly and motivated people, we made many friendships with locals, including many Muslims, and God grew our small prayer and Bible study group into a multi-cultural congregation. We had people from lots of different backgrounds join the gathering, including Christians from a Muslim background and non-Christians who wanted to be a part of the community and find out more about Jesus. It was chaotic but joyful!
We realised there were lots of Christians around Sydney who wanted to see the gospel message spread among Muslim people, but there were lots of barriers. Sometimes there was a language barrier, because the Muslims we were talking with spoke Arabic or Farsi or Bengali or Urdu. Even when they spoke English, it was sometimes as though we were speaking a different language, because we saw the world in such different ways. For example, Muslims didn’t seem so concerned about their guilt before God, but were much more occupied with honour and shame; theirs and their families’. We wanted them to know Jesus, but there was this huge gap between us and them, and we needed to find ways of helping them see the relevance of the gospel for themselves.
After lots of prayer and talking with older and wiser Christians, we decided to invest in learning the Arabic language and more about Arabic Muslim culture, by living amongst it. We would then return to Australia to share what we’d learned with other Christians and help them share Christ with Muslims. Arab Muslim culture is helpful in reaching all Muslims because even though most Muslims are not Arabs, Arabic culture and language are the foundation for all Muslim cultures around the world. In this sense, our plan has been a bit like a missionary’s first term in the field: learn the language and the culture through relationships.
You’ve found yourself in a place changing rapidly because of surrounding conflict. Has what you’re doing in the Middle East changed because of the tumult in the region?
One of the main things we’re doing is focusing on learning Arabic. We didn’t realise it at the time, but God has also brought us here to serve the refugees who have come to this country over the last few years. We have relationships with Syrian families here, and I’m involved in a church-based support and visiting programme.
It goes without saying that these families are struggling. In addition to having fled Syria, there are lots of other difficulties. Many of the men and fathers are either fighting in Syria, have died or have gone on ahead of the family to find a new life in Europe. The women are very vulnerable and struggle to care for children on their own. In addition, the World Food Programme has just been forced to cancel its food support of hundreds of thousands of refugees in this country, because of lack of funds.
They come to the church for material help, and are treated with dignity and love. During that time, and during home visits, we also share the Good News with them. Muslims have just celebrated Eid al-Adha – the Festival of the Sacrifice – which is the biggest festival of the Muslim calendar, when they remember the sacrifice Abraham was willing to make of his son. I had the opportunity during that time to share the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the sacrifice God provided in place of Isaac on the mountain, which points to the much better sacrifice of Jesus.
It’s interesting to see here another example of cultural difference: Muslims understand what it means to sacrifice an animal in obedience to God much better than I do, as a 21st century Aussie. What they need is to understand the meaning of the sacrifice. What they need is exposure to the word of God, to lead them into the light.
Have you met with any Christian refugees coming from Syria? Among the people you’re meeting and working with, what are their greatest needs?
I haven’t met any Christian refugees from Syria, though certainly they exist. Others remain in Syria, mostly in government-held areas in the west, either because they live there, or they’ve been internally displaced from areas like Aleppo in the north.
There has, however, been an influx of Iraqi Christian refugees here, though, since ISIS invaded Iraq in August 2014. They are mostly Orthodox or Eastern Catholic and have found their way to local churches to seek help. Their greatest need now is to find a new place to live, outside the Middle East, which is increasingly a hostile place for Christians. For those who aren’t believers yet, of course we want them to grasp the hope of eternal security in Christ, but we need to share that with them as we love them.
For the 12,000 Syrian refugees who will make their way to Australia over the next six months, how do you think Australians can really welcome them. What are the practical things you think might make a difference?
It’s going to be love. These people are so vulnerable. Their homes are destroyed, their beautiful country is ruined, they have lost family members, they are suffering depression and perhaps PTSD, they have poor nutrition. They no longer know which way is up. The thing that will nurture them as human beings and, God-willing, see them come to know Christ, is the love of Australian Christians.
That means investing in them, sharing their burdens a
s they adjust to life in a very, very different country. Keeping in close contact with them, not a phone call once a week from someone at church, but real relationships. Helping them with all the practical things, like how to shop, learning English, getting their kids into school, understanding the way Aussies talk and relate. And showing them how Jesus can free them from fear and shame, and give them a new life full of hope and joy.
What has God been teaching you through this experience in the Middle East?
Muslims don’t know God as father. For them he is distant and doesn’t relate in a constant and reliable relationship of love and sacrifice. Our heavenly father has been teaching us more clearly the depth of our relationship with him through his Son Jesus. We are learning to bring our fears and failures to him in Christ, knowing Jesus is the perfect Son for us. This has been very liberating, and encourages us even more to share the message with our friends here.
We want everyone here to have the opportunity to hear about the love of God the Father, and one excellent way to do that is to support the distribution of audio Bibles, sometimes called “pocket missionaries”. The MegaVoice device can be loaded with the Scriptures or Bible studies in Arabic and shared among refugee families. It can go places that we can’t and see the word of God spread through the community.
Ben is helping distribute the MegaVoice devices in the region where he and his family are staying. If you would like to support the spread of the gospel through MegaVoice audio Bibles, gifts can be directed to:
C/- Christ Church Gladesville
Po Box 250
Or by bank transfer:
BSB 032275 A/C 270006
In Australia, Bible Society has partnered with welfare support agencies to address the physical needs of the 12,000 refugees who will soon arrive on our shores, as well as ensure that their spiritual welfare is also being met, through the gift of a Bible. To find out more, click here.