Before Jamal* and his wife, Yulduz*, got engaged, he told her he had a passion for the Muslim world. “I want to serve in Central Asia, but I don’t know where,” he said. At the time, Yulduz, a professional nurse, was earning a decent salary and didn’t see herself leaving her home country in South Asia.

Out of love for Jamal and obedience to God, she prayed honestly: “God, I’m not ready to leave, but if You will it, please make me ready.” Faithfully continuing this prayer, she began to experience peace. “One day I was praying, and I got encouraged by Ezra 10:4 – ‘Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it’ (NIV). I felt God saying to me: ‘Yes, I am with you.’

It took almost two years of prayer and discussion, but in 2011, Jamal and Yulduz became the first couple sent from their home country by OM in 35 years. “God really challenged us that many had heard [in our country]; other workers had blessed our country. God really challenged us to bless other nations,” Jamal explained.

Close friends criticised their decision. Are you crazy? You’re going to Central Asia? You are better here, earning good money. Nevertheless, the couple persisted, trusting God’s calling and His provision. “We left our country with 50 USD, zero bank account, everything zero,” Yulduz recalled.

Though their initial commitment was for three months, the couple has continued to serve in Central Asia for nine years. They focus on holistic development: spiritual, emotional, physical and social.

A missing example

When he arrived in Central Asia, Jamal heard that many men primarily worked in Russia, and spent very little time at home with their families. One of his close friends in the country, Bahram*, a Muslim background believer, shared that his own father had spent almost 35 years working abroad, and he had never had a chance to spend time with him growing up. For Jamal, this reality hit close to home. “I grew up in South Asia where the father was there but only as a provider, not to have a relationship with his children,” he shared.

That situation showed him a spiritual gap: “How can people, especially Muslims, understand God as father if they don’t have a picture in their family of a father with his children?”

After years of prayer and language learning, Jamal started to address local village leaders and create small men’s groups where he could talk about relationships with their children, fidelity within marriage, HIV and sexual health and gender equality. “Coming from South Asia, we hear that the man is the dictator, the man is everything. The same feeling we found here,” he said. In some of these groups, Jamal also discovered opportunities to pray for a few of the participants and discern who was interested spiritually. If only one man responded, Jamal would ask him to additionally gather a few more people who would be open to studying the Bible. That led to the formation of weekly discovery Bible study groups.

Locally led movement

“In my family, my mother became the first believer,” Jamal remembered. “But my sports leader discipled me and showed me God’s love. It made a big impact in my life. All my points of view changed positively. It was a time when I started serving [God].”

Likewise, discipling local believers—teaching them to lead Bible study groups and share Jesus with their own families and communities—is part of Jamal’s ministry in Central Asia. When Bahram decided to follow Jesus, his father did not know, Jamal said.

After five years of prayer and discipleship, Bahram gained the courage to tell his father about his faith: “Dad, you know that I was praying, and I was doing all the things that our mullah (Islamic leader) told us to, and one night I was dreaming, and God spoke to me and said: ‘Follow me’. …And I started to read the Bible. Now I’m believing Jesus is the Son of God.”

“I was encouraged by how boldly he was sharing with his father,” Jamal said. “This is so encouraging to me to see how the first generation [of believers] is telling their existing family that the Lord is Christ.”

For local believers, sharing their faith with their families is fruit of spiritual growth, Jamal explained. “You come to faith, but still you have inside your heart a garbage bag that you keep from your former life. Now I became new in Christ, but it’s a process, a journey, it takes time to come to this decision,” he said. Fear, identity issues, lack of discipleship, need for inner healing and plain busyness can keep new believers from truly experiencing freedom and sharing that with others.

However, citing the close-knit communities in the country where he lives, Jamal said house churches—that might emerge from existing Bible study groups—have potential to create great momentum for advancing the gospel. “People are living together… The father is living here, and the son is in the next house,” he described. Extended families are constantly in and out of each other’s homes, cooking together, spending time together and doing life together. These natural relationships and rhythms can lead to communities worshipping God together, led by locals and carried out in their heart language.

Jamal is committed to discipling his friends as long as he and Yulduz are allowed to stay in the country (it is challenging for them to maintain their visa and raise adequate support), but he knows it’s ultimately important for locals to lead others to Christ.

Coronavirus challenges

The new coronavirus has upended the communities among whom Jamal and Yulduz live and serve. “People are panicking, living with fear; goods became expensive as…most things are imported from other countries,” Jamal shared. People who rely on income from a family member working abroad now face increasing poverty as many of those jobs have ended due to the pandemic.

Aside from the economic impact, the virus itself carries a stigma. “Especially in a shame and honour culture, people are afraid to be the one to carry and spread the virus. They do not want their neighbours to know that they have a sick person in their family,” Jamal said.

“In our context, people relate sickness with sin. They assume that sickness is a divine punishment.”

As both men and women try to maintain their families’ honour, they struggle with the ramifications of a COVID-19 diagnosis: For a man, getting sick means failing to protect and provide for his family; for a woman, self-isolating brings the shame of separation. “The first priority of the family is to preserve the family honour by keeping everyone together, regardless of the health risks,” Jamal explained.

Amidst the pandemic, he and Yulduz are raising more prayer; focussing on media ministry, including online chats and telephone calls; and distributing simple hygiene and preventative resources in the communities.

Jamal is also sharing the biblical principle of hope with those he disciples, helping them develop increased spiritual, social and emotional strength and an awareness that God is their provider.

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