Excited children spill into the dark street. Distracted briefly from the ever-present danger of this illegal celebration, more than 100 people are celebrating the saviour’s birth in this unassuming living room. Jammed together, perspiring, excited, these national friends exude the bonds of community and deeply forged friendships carved from the harshness of life in this province. I am included in their community, the one “family member” with no beautiful colour in my skin.

As always, I struggle to process the disparities: the disproportionate (in terms of effort) encouragement our visits bring to these people; the tumbling piles of expensive clothes and toys left behind by departing expats to be shared among my national friends. I struggle with questions such as, “What giveaway message is here for my friends?” “What legacy has been left by those beautiful expat families who have now gone?” This focus suddenly changes as I look at Adin’s face, an island of pain in the midst of this celebration.

Adin and Diwa represent to me all that is noble and good here. They have lived sacrificially for more than a decade here to help the people of this marginalised and repressed area. But, being nationals from another province, they are considered outsiders, mocked and discriminated against in employment and housing. Richly endowed with skills and caring hearts, Adin and Diwa teach organic gardening skills to their neighbours and friends. Luscious strawberries and healthy vegetables grow in these gardens, enough to help feed their own family as they face the daily challenge of finding enough food. Lately there has even been enough produce to sell a little, marginally easing the acuteness of financial stress that plagues such workers’ lives.

We too have lived in this province—harsh in climate and sanctions but so rich in glorious natural beauty. Memories of laughing faces and wet bodies still linger, reminders of our weekly retreat meetings with other expatriates. What also lingers is the knowledge that few similar intentional events had existed for the national workers. During our time in the province, changes were made to bring this encouragement to nationals in their own language and culture, but something more regular was urgently needed to “strengthen the arm” of these people.

The term “member care” is not new for some of us, but for our national friends it was a foreign concept. Sent out from their home areas, they had existed for so long in isolation without regular care that they didn’t understand when we asked, “What would make you feel encouraged?’” or “What can we do to support you?” So much for ethnographic surveys! What a golden opportunity for us to become a living example of the Father heart of God in caring for them.

Our international team members loved being tasked with initiating regular gatherings for national workers. Monthly gatherings began at beaches or in homes. Families met for socialisation, de-briefing and prayer. Adults met for weekly networking. They had never experienced such encouragement before on a regular basis. Workers travelled from other cities; weekly meetings started in other locations. The model of member care lived out in situ was having the Richter effect, cascading out like the earth tremors we frequently felt.

We now have a vision for a next step. Most expat workers have left the province and that lovely island retreat centre is no longer allowed to host such events. The love of Christ compels us to walk alongside our national friends to see the establishment in another location of a facility for gatherings, for rest and refreshment, for counsel and spiritual direction for the national workers who seek to bring light and hope to marginalised population groups.

Alice is a long-term Partner, walking alongside national workers in South East Asia.

Names have been changed.