“Quickly, people are watching … tell me, how can I become a Christian?” he asked her. Steph, from Palmerston North Central Baptist Church, has spent more than 15 years in the Middle East serving with MECO. But it’s in the last year that she’s seen some of the most encouraging responses to the Good News.
In Steph’s day job, teaching high schoolers, she’s had many discussions and explorations of the Christian faith in this predominantly Muslim country. Steph’s new part-time endeavour takes her, each weekend, to a popular tourist destination in the capital city. It’s a Mecca (if you’ll excuse the term) for thousands of conservative Muslim tourists on a semi-religious pilgrimage away from their conservative Muslim homeland.
Back home the Bible is forbidden. And even if they were lucky enough to find one on the black market, the average person would never be able to afford it. When these thousands of tourists descend from their tour buses, they are met by Steph and a team of five others who offer them copies of the New Testament and the Jesus movie on DVD.
In a typical response one excited woman exclaimed, “Ooooh, the New Testament! I’ve been looking for this book everywhere and wanted to buy one but couldn’t find any.”
The acceptance rate is around 90%. Even some mullahs accept them. One asked for extras to take back to his seminary students. Very occasionally every single person on a coach will refuse the offer. They have been warned about “fundamentalist Christian proselytisers” lurking in the tourist spot, ready to pounce on the faithful.
Although many back home support the brand of Islam propagated by the authorities, tens of thousands are tired of what they consider political manipulation from the pulpit. Some are turning their backs on the clergy or on religion altogether. Others are making religion a more personal experience. Still others are looking to alternative forms of faith.
Seventy-five thousand New Testaments and DVDs have been distributed by this small team in the last 12 months alone.
Recently Digby Wilkinson, Steph’s pastor in Palmerston North, and MECO’s NZ director, Chris Grantham, joined Steph and the team in action. On his return home Digby noted, “Coming from a Kiwi culture where society and Christians cynically frown upon street evangelism, I was staggered to observe, and then participate in, handing out Bibles and DVDs to people hungry for what we take so much for granted. As a pastor from a spiritually disinterested country it was both exhilarating and humbling.”
Steph is on home assignment at present. In September she will return to her weekday classroom to resume sharing and living the gospel with her students and colleagues. Come the weekends and special festivals, she’ll be out there with her mates, armed with her New Testaments, DVDs and truckloads of enthusiasm for engaging with the gospel-hungry tourists. The tourists return home to a country where more people have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the preceding 1300.