Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Stage Without a Script - Act VI

I decided to take a season of just keeping my head low in church. I would try to raise any question but, as Susan suggested, “go with the flow.”  I wanted to devote myself to working at church, behind the scenes and out of the limelight.

It caught my attention one day that our annual mission’s conference was fast approaching. Our church supported five families and a couple of single missionaries, including a Campus Crusade campus ministry couple.

 This year, one of the two featured families was Dave and Betty Johansson.  They were a missionary couple living in Sana, Yemen and been working there for ten years. They run a computer school as a means to live there as visas aren’t given for missionaries. 

I was excited to see them. For one, it had been over five years since they were on furlough and stopped by our church. Secondly, I had befriended a Yemenis man. He was doing an internship at our company after finishing a college degree in international business. His dream was to start a company in the US and eventually bring his family over. However, unfortunately for him, the State Department had drastically reduced their allotment of visas for Yemenis because concerns after 9-11.

The events of that terrible day had a profound impact on Aakif.  Even as an undergraduate in Sana, he seriously doubted his Islamic faith.  He was certainly a more secular Yemenis.  However, after 9-11, he actually began to loathe Islam.  Many in the Islamic world reacted very differently to those events, becoming more devout, but he took the path that many Christian Americans had wished that all Muslims would take, a disgust of violence in the name of Islam.

Getting to know Aakif was a fun process as I was his mentor at work. I think in the beginning the only thing he despised more than Islam was Christianity.  While I grew to love him as a man and not a ministry project, I was very honest with him, assuring him that many of the ugly cultural things about Christianity weren't necessarily part of real Christianity.

To my surprise, Aakif confined in me one day that he was seriously considering becoming a Christian. I felt speechless. I wasn’t jumping for joy, but I wanted to make sure he was sincere and that he knew what he was getting into (huge ramifications back home).  But he, and he was a deep thinking man, assured me he was.

About this time, soon after his sincere desire to become a Christian was expressed, he got a notice that his visa renewal had been denied. He had ninety days to return to Yemen.  He hired a lawyer but there were no loop holes he could fit through.

Aakif had been on my mind a lot. When I saw the Johanssons on the program I was excited to make connections for Aakif. After all, Sana can’t be that big of a city.

The night of Dave’s talk, was the highlight of the mission’s conference. He was an excellent speaker, with the sweet tone of a Joel Osteen, but with a bit more theological and intellectual prowessness.  He told dramatic story after dramatic story of living in a Muslin land and being sustained by supernatural acts of God . . . one after another.  

In one story, he described how he had heard of a young girl in a remote mountain village, whom had converted to Christianity and going to be stoned.  Out of passion, he donned poor-villager clothes and an old motor bike. He navigated the dusty, al Qaeda –infested, roads all the way to her village. Once there, in the midst of great danger, he tried to find her. But it appeared that the story was just a myth.  He described how several of the terrorist-types had wanted to find and kill him, but God had made him invisible, literally, to them.

He also made it clear that he had come to Yemen to spend his entire life, even wanting to be buried there after he dies, with the hopes that his life of toil could lead to one convert to Christianity.  He read the passage about the lost sheep and how he is willing to live or die for that one lost sheep. Dave had just written a book about his adventures of living in Yemen and it was going to be at the back table.

I was excited. Here would be the perfect contact for my dear friend Aakif.  I had asked the Yemenis man to join me to listen to Dave and to meet him, but going to a church service was too much for him, too much at that stage of his transition.  However he was excited about the resource and potential contact back in Yemen.  I assured him that Dave was a great man and would help him a lot.

I couldn’t wait to meet Dave (although I had met him before at a previous conference) and to tell him about Aakif.  I stood in line at the table as people were signing up for Dave and Betty’s newsletter, filling out donor pledges and buying his books. 

When it was my turn, I introduced myself to Dave and I, with excitement in my voice, told him about Aakif.  I actually thought that Dave might be jumping up and down . . . but in contrast, he seemed subdued with the news.  He looked at me with a frown, “You have to be cautious in these situations.” Then he said the strangest thing, “Do you have any training in Muslim ministry?” 

“Uh . . . no,” I responded.

“I would suggest you back off,” said Dave.

“Back off? Back off from what?” I asked with confusion.  Had he been listening to my story? “Don’t you understand, I have to ‘back off’ because Aakif is being forced to move back to Sana in a few weeks?  I need someone like you to help him there on the ground.  He is going to be all alone and in a dangerous situation.”

Dave smiled, “Yeah, those situations are dangerous. We live in danger every day . . . but God sustains us in miraculous ways.”

But this wasn’t about him (I was thinking) this is about Aakif.  “So, can you help?”

Dave smiled and started talking to the person behind me as if our conversation was coming to an end.  He looked back at me, “We have to be in St. Louis by tomorrow night, I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m talking about helping our friend Aakif back in Sana in a few weeks. Can you help him?”

Dave answered while he was simultaneously autographing a book for someone  "I’m not sure. We have to be very careful about who we talk to. Maybe talk to me later.”

I asked for his e-mail address and asked,  “Will you be checking this while you’re on the road?”

Dave answered, “Checking what?”

I answered, “Your e-mail address . . . will you be checking it?”

“When we can.”  Then Dave immediately started taking to Mrs. Taylor behind me. “Oh I just loved your stories,” she said with a bright smile. “I would love to buy your book and could you sign it?” Dave broke out in laughter. “Sure thing.”

Before the week was up I e-mailed Dave. There was no answer. I e-mailed him again.  No answer.  Aakif was becoming more nervous as the time was approaching.  I thought maybe I had the wrong e-mail address down, but I double checked the one at church and it matched.  Then, suddenly I started getting the Johansson’s newsletter. I hadn’t signed up for it but it was sent to me via e-mail attachment, using the return address of my office e-mail, which I had used to contact them about Aakif which proved that my e-mails were going through.  So I emailed them again.

I’m starting to become confused at this point.  Aakif was becoming more and nervous. He had purchased his ticket to Sana. He hadn’t dared told his family about his interest in Christianity. He did have a devout Muslim uncle, who would probably have him disowned by the family . . . if not killed.  He didn’t know of a single Christian back in Sana.

In my desperation I became more aggressive.  I asked the pastor for their phone number.  He was very hesitant, “You know these people are in a sensitive ministry and they don’t publish their number or give it away to just anybody.”  I tried to tell the pastor how important this was and gave a synopsis of my experience with Aakif.  The pastor oddly said, “I think you should probably keep out of their business.”

“Whose business?!” I asked.

“The Johanssons are very busy right now. They are traveling from church to church raising their support and maybe they don’t have time for these questions.”

“What questions?  I’m not trying to reach them just to ask questions.  I told you how important this is for my friend.”

“The Johanssons don’t owe you any favors either. They are very busy people.”

I was starting to get angry.  “Pastor, I’m just confused.  They spoke about how important it is to reach one single Muslim and here I have a man that WANTS to be reached, and they don’t seemed to be interested.  I’m just confused.”

The pastor replied, “I went the Bible school with Dave and Betty. They are amazing people. They know a lot about ministry to the Muslim world. They are under a huge demand. They just can’t take the time to correspond with every person they meet on the road.  You haven’t been trained in Muslim ministry and maybe you should be careful.”

I answered, “Pastor, I know what it is like to be busy. I’m working on a project right now and I’m working seventy hours per week. I can guarantee you that I’m working more hours than the Johanssons, but I am deeply concerned about my friend Aakif and he is about all I think about.”

The Johanssons never, ever responded to me. I left voice mail after voice mail on their cell phone,  I did remain on their newsletter, not by choice, and I had several letters written to me asking me to become a monthly donor. Aakif moved back to Sana, in his heart wanting to be a Christian. We corresponded for a while then he seemed to disappear into the adobe and stone maze of Sana and her highlands.

But I was confused. Here was a missionary who claimed to be consumed about winning the one soul from Islam. Here I was giving him that soul on a silver platter . . . I didn’t want any credit for Aakif’s conversation.  But the reason that I feel that I have not read the script is that the pastor, my wife, the Johanssons and whomever I talked to, didn’t see the point.  I saw, a great paradox that I just couldn’t get my head around.  I frankly don’t understand life . . . especially life within the church.

I had indeed discussed it with Susan and she was on the same page as the pastor, repeating, 1) The Johanssons are busy people, 2) I'm not trained in Muslim ministry, 3) The Johanssons don't owe me any favors and 4) The Johanssons are wonderful people.

But I continue my search for meaning. I don't understand human behavior. I'm in a play where I not only don't know the script, but I don't even know where the narrative is going.


peaceofchange said...

I feel your pain. "full-time" ministry, for me, was a paradox. I too watched perplexed as the game of ministry was played and those who wanted to become Christian looked down on. I had a very "us and them" experience. I couldn't get my head around clergy looking down on laymen or lost men... I watched the others who were "successful"...I couldn't act that way. They reminded me of politicians or corporate types climbing the wasn't me...still isn't. I am repulsed by most church services. I still consider myself Christian, but I'm not sure how to relate to God either...I'm very confused as well. If you figure it out, please let me know...

jmj said...

I remember a lot of us young Christians (as the time) held to that youthful idealism. We took what we heard as serious. We learned much later that it was really just a game. I don't like drama. I don't think I will ever figure it out. I hold on to the perspective that Jesus, the real Jesus,didn't seem like a player.

Eagle said...


Funny you should mention Crusade. That was my poison, as I know the Navigators was yours.

When I moved ot Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2005 I was full of youthful idealism. I believed I was following God's will. And that I was going to be a missionary to the DC area. As a fundagelical I was such a fool. I was also brainwashed like many evangelicals are today.

So after having a long stint in CCC what do I do? I reach out to CCC for help when I arrive in DC. I was stunned that they offered little help to someone eager to be involved. The CCC leader out here told me that he was not interested in folks like me. Instead they were focused on evangelizing people on Capital Hill and the Pentagon. But they didn't have the time or resources for people like me. I was stunned, I mean just stunned...what type of Christian ministry does this? And then later on...they have the balls to contact me and ask for a financial donation? 8-O If that's not a WTF I don't know what is.

BTW...I've been meaning to email you. I'm so grateful that you have decided to keep blogging. When I went through my deconversion process in 2008-2009 thereby ending up agnostic your blog was a life raft. I could identify with what you were saying and I could relate. Others have been hurt and disillusioned by evangelicalism also. I couldn't get help from the church when I tried. (This is for another occasion but when I was going through my spiritual meltdown I reaced out to a pastor I knew from National Community Church (NCC) in an attempt to get help. He was always busy or said they he never had time to meet in person, or asked if it could talk for 15 minutes or so; which didn't happen BTW) Today having gone beyond my tipping point there are few Christians that I talk or relate to today. Just about 4 or 5...most Christians I try and avoid like cancer. Like evangelicalism they are phoney as hell. A mile wide and an inch thick.

Eagle said...

MJ...BTW...I think many evangelicals get their reward on earth rathor then heaven. They like to be worshiped whihc i think is a driving factor for many in full time ministry.They seek attention, and they crave it. Want to see proof...look at how a Crusade staff memeber is treated on a university campus or watch a mega church pastor in action. They will pray for each other, and for someone feeling called to go to seminary, or a missionary. Yet they give a cold shoulder to someone that feels called by God to be an auto mechanic at the local Nissan dealership. Go figure....

I really look at Christianity to be a cancer today.

Philip said...

I'm hooked. And with you I can't get an angle on the church's response to your friend. Very confusing and depressing.

I know this is fiction, but if any of it is true, it is tragic.