By Sarah Scofield
Imagine walking down a busy market street in North Africa, catching the eyes of a few veiled women, a handful of school children, and some shopkeepers. Watch them smile shyly, eagerly, brightly. Hear them greet you: “Salam aleikum.” Peace be upon you.
Now you are hiking through a mountain valley. Mud-brick village houses dot the hillsides and camels meander down the riverbank. Heavy-laden donkeys pass you by, and a man in gumboots approaches you and holds out his hand. He invites you to have tea with him, leads you to his garden pump house, and turns a few gas canisters and pieces of cardboard into makeshift chairs. He laughs and jokes with you and pours you more cups of mint tea than you could possibly drink.
And then, from the hills around you, you hear it: the call to prayer. It echoes off the mountain rocks and penetrates into the landscape and into your soul. That’s when it hits you: this man before you, all the faces in the market, all those children skipping to school. They are all, every one, lost.
Now you’re in a big, ancient city. It is Friday, the Muslim holy day and it is lunchtime. You are sitting at a café right next to a mosque, and dozens of people in fancy robes are slipping off their shoes and entering the ornate doorway. Soon, there’s no room inside the mosque, and men unroll their prayer rugs on the pavement.
Over the loudspeaker, the imam’s deafening song continues to call the religious to join the fellowship of prayer. Together, the faithful face Mecca, side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, and foot-to-foot. The devil must not be allowed to slip in between the cracks.
Suddenly, there is silence. All the men stand still, some of them covering their faces with their hands, others resting their hands on their chests. The imam gives the cue, and everyone bows at the waist. Murmuring, chanting. Then they drop to their knees and press their foreheads to the ground. In this stance of complete submission, they believe they are closest to Allah and that surely he will reward them for their devotion.
The men sit up and raise their hands to the sky before returning their foreheads to the floor. The movements are fluid and in unison. They are one large mass of whispering, longing people.
It is heartbreaking.
And yet it is what keeps our friend in this country. I asked him if he enjoyed living in the city, and he said, “I would so much rather be back home near friends and family and everything familiar. But when I think of this country, when I see these mosques on every street, and I watch these people going to them, I’m drawn to this place. I want to be here for these people.”
Later that week, he takes us to his small church, the only one in the city. Because it’s a place for the foreigners, the building is allowed to exist in the country, and as long as no locals enter the premise, the Christians are left to meet and worship in peace. But they are watched as they come and go. The twenty or so men and women who gather in this congregation look tired from the strain.
But they also look joyful. They are successfully living and working in a foreign, and sometimes difficult, country. They are learning Arabic and building local friendships. They are carrying with them a beautiful message of hope and grace that they can’t wait to share with their neighbors.
This week’s church message is from 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” It is just what these obedient believers need to hear. And it is inspiring to me, the visitor who leads a much different life of service, and I know that, after meeting these people and glimpsing their passion for the lost, I will never be the same.
After the service, our friend drives us to the top of the hill that overlooks this North African city, and we gaze at the landscape stretching out before us. Church had ended with a song: “Greater things are yet to come. Greater things are still to be done in this city.” As I surveyed the tall businesses and squat homes, the marketplace teeming with colors and shoppers, and the determined cars and motorbikes snaking through the streets, I knew those words were true.