A month and a half into my time in South Central Asia, standing by my door ready to go to work and looking at the snow covered trees and the crisp blue sky, I knew, with a heavy certainty, that my life would never, could never, be the same again. My whole view of the world had shifted. I can’t put my finger on what exactly prompted the shift but the epiphany was profound and would endure through a range of experiences.
In the weeks and months that followed, I was evacuated twice to different cities. My little house was rocked by a bomb blast and gunfire reverberated all around my compound. I heard stories of fellow workers gunned down. I saw my long-term colleagues grapple with the death of friends and the genuine security threat it heralded, but more so, with the implications of having to leave as all non-essential personnel were evacuated. What would happen to the men and women they employed? What would happen to local families? What would happen to the people being served through various projects? What would happen to their friendships? The minds and hearts of my colleagues were for the people they love and serve.
I was privileged to see some of the work being done. I visited a hospital that had served the country through some incredible regime changes. Not only had the hospital brought healing to thousands, locals were equipped and empowered to take over the hospital’s management. I had seen groups of women meeting together in homes learning, for the first time, to do basic mathematics and to read. I saw hope and dignity in their eyes as they too were empowered to use their gifts and talents to run their own businesses and help their families. I saw university students and professionals alike, learning to speak English and engaging with global issues in a country that had been sheltered from the outside world for years. I heard stories of prison ministries and classes on hygiene and parenting. Work was being done amongst counselors and psychologists to help a generation traumatized by years of war and by the mistreatment of women in particular. This is just a sampling of the work being done.
“I don’t understand. I heard that none of you get paid. You are volunteers. You leave behind your comfortable lives in the west and come here to work with us. Why would anyone do that?” It was a question one of my students asked me and it was a sentiment I heard echoed in various ways. After the second evacuation and when I settled into the new city where I would see through the remaining two months, I had the opportunity to run literature circles with a range of professionals and businessmen. Together, we studied a graded version of Les Miserables. It was fascinating to see them grapple with the extraordinary acts of kindness and forgiveness and grace as presented in the text. Self-sacrificial acts of grace were considered “utter foolishness”. It made no sense to them whatsoever and yet there was something undeniably life-giving about not only the actions but the people practicing it. Why do people do this? Because they are compelled by a greater love.
I imagine it was primarily this love which made it difficult for some of the long-termers to leave. Ultimately, this love comes from above and since our trust is in a God who is not swayed by circumstances, we can rest assured that He will complete the good work He has begun.
In addition to the tangible love I saw being practiced by our brothers and sisters, I was honored to get a little glimpse into the incredible and powerful way God works in us and through us in the world that He loves. The way God protected His people during a bomb attack targeting believers was incredibly humbling and awe-inspiring. Little moments of apparent serendipity illuminated God’s hand, such as the fact that I could stay in country to see out my four months since I am a teacher and a teacher was needed in another city when people were being evacuated. Even the fact that I studied philosophy, arguably one of the most useless of degrees, opened doors to have conversations with people about the problem of evil and sin, grace and forgiveness, the nature of God and other powerful and fruitful concepts.
Although it is hard for me to see it, since I am living it, one of the startling things about my experience there was the reaction of long-term workers to the very fact that I exist. I know that sounds strange and it is strange for me, but you see, I was born in South Central Asia and the emotional connection is still there. My family left when I was two years old and came to Australia. How this all came to be is another story; a story that again illuminates God as a master craftsman of destiny.
As I grew up and saw year after year of war, and later, of oppression as girls were forbidden to go to school, I felt so incredibly privileged to have the indulgent opportunity to study for the pure enjoyment of studying –for the intrinsic value of learning. There was a very real sense that my life could have been so very different. It was encouraging for me to be back in my birth country, to see the genuine progress being made and the years of love and toil that brothers and sisters had poured into the country. There was an understanding too, though, that much remains to be done. The country still has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, especially amongst women. While the rate of children in school has risen markedly, there is much to be done within the education sector.
The love that has been modeled for me by long-term brothers and sisters over there; the love for the locals and the country that in some sense is mine; and the incredible life-giving love that I have experienced from above, all compel me now to explore ways to serve long term in this place.
The author served On Track with Interserve in South Central Asia