'She became the first local believer in the whole country'
Helen’s story | 12 years in North Africa and learning to grow in the desert
“Sometimes God allows you to be at the right place at the right time. You don’t know why, or how, but you’re simply there, trusting him. We lived in a small town in North Africa for 12 years. My husband worked in community health and I home schooled our four sons, in the desert. Back then, the guide books described our town in two sentences. ‘Move through it as quickly as you can. There’s no earthly reason to go there.’
“We were surrounded by sand. One year, a visitor tried to find soil. He dug for hours and hours … and there wasn’t any soil at all, just sand. But our boys loved it. They thought they were living in a giant sandpit. After a while, I discovered that if you plants things in sand, and water them long enough, they will grow, even in the desert. I started planting tomatoes and they grew. Then I planted a plum tree. It’s still alive today!
“But the hardest thing was forming friendships. My husband had a role. He was out there in the local community, working in health. I was at home with the boys. And back then, there were no local Christians. The church had disappeared in the 11th century. It was a secular, Muslim state, which meant that, among other things, our phones were tapped and our contacts were monitored by the government. We were allowed to be there, as Christians, but we were under suspicion … and it meant that making friends wasn’t easy.
“After a while, I employed a local lady to help me with home schooling. She watched the younger two while I did lessons with the older two. We became friends. We would drink tea together every morning, and over time, I realised that she was spiritually open.
“One day, we both walked past a Bible on a stand in the hallway. For some reason, I decided to show her Psalm 139. It’s a great Psalm. ‘You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise …’ (Verses 1-2) But I also knew that it was a risk. If she reported it to the authorities, we could be thrown out of the country.
“But as I read the Psalm, she stared at me. ‘This is amazing!’ she said. ‘I always knew God was like this. Why didn’t anyone tell me?’
“It was an instant response to the truth, as if she was seized by it. We started to read the Bible together regularly, in Arabic. We would sit down at the kitchen table and we’d read and chat while the boys played outside in the sand. She was always curious and she had so many questions. We began reading in Genesis, and the Gospel of Luke, at the same time. She grew in her understanding. After a while, I gave her a Bible and she took it home. We kept reading together and over time, she came to faith in Jesus. She became the first local believer in the whole country.
“Then, after a few more years, there were hundreds of believers in that country. It’s a longer story and it may sound sudden, but people were praying and it was the right time. The church was birthed. God was at work in wonderful ways. These days, the church in that country is still small and fragile, but it’s growing … and God is at work today, in the desert.
“For me, it showed me that we never know the fruit that God will bring from the small things, even when we think we’re inconsequential, or when we’re just drinking tea and chatting with one person, in the desert.”