Ministry begins with a call. But we often don’t see it for some time. I was called to evangelize among Turks in Central Asia. But I often talk about the start of my ministry there, in a very seeing-is-believing way. Sure people often tried to tell me I was already ministering when I was in Bible college, and then for a year of Missions training, and then a month of Islamic training, and then came two years of language study in an American University. Yes, well meaning Christians were always telling me what servant of God I was being.
But that never satisfied the longing in my heart to live among the Turks of Central Asia, and to tell them about God’s love for them, expressed in the coming of Jesus the Christ. In those days, there was no telling me that I was already doing something, when I was not seeing myself doing it. I was not in Central Asia, and it would take greater faith than I had to think that all this training was then helping Turkic people to know about the love of Jesus, while I was still on American soil, without an Uzbek person in sight. There are many more Turkic peoples of Central Asia: the Tatars, the Kharakhalpaks, the Tuvans, the Khirghiz and Khazakhs, Azeris and Turkmen to name some. Ann and I were studying Uzbek though, and I was eager to just get on with it. And when we finally moved out to where these folk were, I finally started hoping to feel the satisfaction that would come from telling them about Jesus and His love for them.
I had more language study to do there, as the dialect I had spent two years studying in America only remotely related to the one I now had to study. Most linguists would disagree with that last sentence. But to a linguist there are always relationships in languages. To a complainer there are only differences. I saw no similarities. So I had to study hard.
At the University in the city where we were, there were thousands of Turkic men and women who needed to know the love of Christ. In my language study, I spent time mainly in syntax, wanting the meaning of the message to be heard. I didn’t work much on pronunciation. Being from the Boston area, I had grown used to challenging people with my accent. I don’t mind being teased for something like my funny accent, so long as people understood the message. I’ve never been big on packaging; as for me it has always been the gift that counts. Finally in Central Asia, I was not going to be wasting any precious time.
So the first words I wanted to learn in this new language, were the words I would need to be able to say, “God loves you!” “Huda” means “God.” “Sizni” means “you.” And “soyeedu” means “love,” right? No problem. And so off I went to the men’s dormitories, to proclaim the beginning of the good news. Each dorm room held 8 men, who slept in four sets of bunk beds. And I would knock on the door, and local hospitality would demand that they invite me in. And when they opened the door to me, I would say, with my Boston accent, “Huda, sizni soyeedu!” “God is going to butcher you!”
That’s right. Apparently that first vowel in the verb “to love” needs to really be said with the proper pronunciation. It has this funny French sounding “eu” sound, that I had not bothered to practice, and so instead of saying the verb “to love,” I was using the verb that a butcher uses to kill an animal; “to slaughter.”
Of course to make it worse, I was saying it with a big evangelical smile that was probably even a bit sappy, as I was still charmed with the notion that I was out there doing God this big favor; telling a people not yet reached, about Him. And add to that, that being considerably older than these young men, their culture would have thought it quite rude for them to correct me; their elder. And so for three weeks, I went from room to room, smiling and drinking their tea and eating their sunflower seeds as I brought to them my prophetic message of doom.
Fortunately for me, I made the same “O” mistake in all my sentences. For example, instead of saying, “I saw my friend Mahmut, yesterday,” I would say, “I stir-fried my friend Mahmut, yesterday.” People knew what I was trying to say, and so the joke got around campus fast, and all behind my back. People would see me coming and nudge each other, and I thought they were coming to hear my pearls of wisdom and “the good news.” But what accompanied those nudges was something more like, “Look out, here comes that foreigner. He says God’s gonna slaughter us.” And I didn’t know any of this was going on. So folks had a good laugh.
Something else that I didn’t know was that there was a young Turkic man at our school who had had an experience with God already. He was a very energetic boy who to this day, jumps into life with both feet, in all that he does. And when he was only 16, he climbed a steep face of a cliff, just outside of his hometown. Once high up, he looked down and realized he hadn’t the nerve to get down. He had no idea how he was going to get down, and he was alone.
So high up on that ledge, he confessed all his sins, and gave his life to God. He declared that he didn’t know the way to God, but that if God would get him down alive and show him the way to Himself, then he would surely follow in that way. And God got him down. At one point he actually fell, and to this day he says, looking up at that cliff, that he should have died. Amazed, he landed unhurt, but for one scratch; just big enough to remind him of the vow he had made to God.
Somehow he knew God must really care about him. And this truth about God, was not something he had learned at the Mosque. So three years later, when he heard that there was a foreigner running around campus, incorrectly trying to say that God was loving, he felt he needed to correct my speech, and to find out more about this loving God. So, seeing me studying in the campus reading room, he came up and offered to teach me his language. When he told me not to say “soy-yee-doo” but to say “seu-yee-doo,” I asked him why. He just ran his finger across his throat with a grimace and made the sound of a butcher’s knife, and repeated “soy-yee-doo.” I cannot tell what my face looked like at that moment. I was mortified of course! All the rooms I had visited, with eight men per room over the past three weeks came into my mind all at once. The smiles that had responded to my sappy smile, and the polite pouring of tea: Whatever my face looked like, my new friend was lost in debilitating laughter. And I was soon joining him. We were then told we’d have to leave the reading room. Instant friendship!
Hey, you either have to laugh or just go home! If two years of language study, a year of missionary training, a year of Bible College, and a month of Islamic training had taught me anything, it was that you either have to laugh, or you have to go home. That night I just thanked God that I hadn’t yet memorized verses from the Bible. Imagine if I had memorized John 3:16, or First Corinthians 13!!!
That young man came to our home every night and we read the gospel of Mark, and then we got into the book of Acts. He was constantly receiving truth and teaching me his language. And if I ever got lazy on pronunciation, he was right there ready for a good laugh. And I was learning that how Central Asian Turks received truth was quite different than the way this North American does. I'll not now describe what I saw over those months, but the boy was in the Kingdom of God, long before I heard him say a “sinner’s prayer.” It was evident on his face and the way God protected him and the way Satan attacked him. He was on his way. And when he did pray to dedicate the road of his life to following Jesus, he suddenly and with great joy, remembered his words to God on that cliff-side, that day three years before: “God, if you just show me the way, I will follow it to You.”
Later my friend and brother brought other people to our home. He went on to another city that the government sent him to for further study. And he has grown strong by God’s grace. Others have come to faith too. And I marvel at how God does it. I have made many, many mistakes since telling everyone that God was going to slaughter them. I trust they all know that I meant better for them. And more importantly, that God means the best for them. But we had been in that city for 6 months before friends started coming over. That was when I had thought that our ministry would begin.
But our ministry had actually begun three years before we got there; on the side of a cliff. It continued on for ten more years in similar fashion. Ann and I would tell people in a very imperfect way, how much God loves them. And God would get through somehow to those who would believe. But the testimonies usually had much more to do with what God had been doing in their lives before they ever heard us speak. And the words of the gospel of Mark or John were usually the words that sounded most like the God who had been leading them along to Himself. Instead of feeling like agents of change and conversions; Ann and I much more felt the joy and privilege that God grants all His children to:
"...shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life--"
About a month before it was time for us to leave Central Asia, and to return home, I was walking in the bazaar, and feeling rather good about all that God had been doing these past ten years; probably trying to assess how He might have used us. I must have been thinking myself rather important, as presently a tall man came up to me in the market, and he called my name. He was walking with his daughter who looked to be about 8 years old. He reminded me who he was. He had been a student at the same school where Ann and I had been, and he was on his way to the school to show it to his daughter. It was so very nice to see him, and my pride swelled even more when he said, “Aygul, this is the foreign man who I told you about.” But then he added with a broad smile, “You know, the one that was telling everyone that his God was going to slaughter us?”