Ramadan: Friendship, Language Learning, and the Gospel in North Africa
By Greg Helms
My last day in this sandy, sub-Saharan, African city had arrived bringing a month-short visit with long-admired missionary friends to a close. My flight out was the next morning yet my heart was still yearning to place the Scriptures in the hands of some dear friends—to be honest, I almost didn’t follow through. The Holy Spirit guided what took place; I was provoked to schedule one last meeting for that final afternoon. I was privileged to build close relationships with each of these five men. This took place through an English exposure course, meeting them where they were—at a small, rugged place of business and education.
Teaching English had never been my intent. I had turned down the first offer to teach, coming from the only fluent local man my friend introduced me to. We became friends and he asked me again if I would teach. I realized God was opening an avenue for me to bring Light into this little place of business in the Arab world through education. I agreed to teach English basics and began my internet research on where to begin a new language. After much prayer and preparation, and many YouTube videos, we had our first day of class. I shared a portion of my life story, that I am a follower of Jesus Christ (not knowing how they may respond), that I cared for each of them greatly, and that I would like to help them with their entry into English. We would cover greetings, introductions, simple questions, days/months, dates/time, directions, etc. I explained that though they were grown men in French, and grown men in Arabic, they were young in English, and we would aim to grow up together.
All of this was translated into French and Arabic by the shop owner friend “J” who had initiated the course. I now had a translator and could communicate with these men who were brought in to listen. J is a well-respected businessman, teacher of the Qur’an, and all-around lovable man. There was deep praise in my soul when I realized the gift of what was taking place. The students listened intently to each line shared. The class carried on: 3 times a week, 3 hours per course. I made worksheets for practice, thought of creative activities to support memory, and came early and stayed late to interact with these strangers turned friends on the other side of the world. We laughed a lot together. We managed through hand signals at times. There was always a break in the day when they would go out to pray. I would pray for each of them as they went to wash their hands and feet and face in preparation to bow down as a group. It was a cultural exchange. Often we just sat in the shade together as the sun beat down. We drank sweet chai tea until our teeth felt like they were made of sugar.
I would share for a few minutes at the start of each lesson on matters of truest value before moving to the coursework. They would ask what life is like in far off places. I wanted to tread wisely, to balance my sincere love for these men and desire for them to see Jesus as who He is while also fulfilling my duty to teach English. I did not want to wear out my welcome. The men had asked how much the class would cost; I was able to share with them that the class would be offered freely to friends. We continued in this way through several weeks, only postponing class once during a short trip I took to visit believers elsewhere.
I could share details with you for days but I must get to the point: what took place on that last Saturday before my departure. The timing was the Lord’s; He is the Master stage-setter. I walked down the sandy road one final time, with a certificate of participation and a Bible in Arabic for each of the men who had attended every class—quite the commitment! The shop owner and I signed each of the certificates and I presented them to each student, each friend. We took photographs and sat at the table to talk for the last time. We smiled. There was sadness at the separation that was coming, as is common among those who love each other. They presented me with an agenda as a gift for teaching them and devoting my time.
There was a solemn silence at the table and I knew it was time to speak. I looked at the shop owner and spoke delicately. “You all know that I love you sincerely. I have shown you this with my time and efforts throughout this short stay. Will you allow me to share in words with the group where this love comes from, through your translation?” I will never forget hearing his response: “of course Mister Greg, you are our friend.” This shop owner translated the message of the Gospel, the story of God’s love for us fully embodied in Jesus Christ. I shared that we were created in the image of God at the beginning and that God has shown His love for us even as we became enemies. He translated how Jesus alone is able to make us right, cleanse our hands, purify our hearts and minds, and bring us into the family of God, into His light. He translated as I explained the darkness in the world and the darkness that was once within me. He translated as I described the change and purpose Jesus has brought into my life.
At first, I wondered if he was truly translating what I was saying (I’ve seen that trick before). He was. I looked across the table. One of the quiet men had tears in his eyes. I handed each of them a copy of the Word. I explained that this was a gift from me to them. It was still wrapped in plastic—likely the first new book many of them had ever received. I explained that I knew they felt an obligation to receive this gift, but that I would not be offended if they wanted to leave it with me. I shared with them that the God-man Jesus who changed me and is changing me, who altered my eternity and enabled me to love, could be found on the pages of this Book. They all said they would keep their copy, each with a smile and a gesture of thanks. One man said, “this is local Arabic, how did you get this?” I told them I know some people, and we all laughed. The truth is they had never seen the Bible in their local dialect. I encouraged them to read it for themselves, to see the Truth which brings followers of Christ a full joy, deep peace and heart of compassion. Each man gave me a hug, several handshakes, a few words of blessing, and we parted ways. The last thing they asked before I left was for me to write a prayer or a special word to leave on the wall of the shop. I wrote this: seek wisdom, seek knowledge, seek Truth, along with a prayer for their place of business and each of them.
Profession and persecution.
Fast forward 12 days.
One of these men, Amir had read the entire New Testament. He has since made a profession of faith. I had brothers working in the area meet with him to verify the sincerity of statements made through our Google-translated texts. To be honest, I tend towards skepticism, often to a fault. My missionary friends shared with me that this was a true conversion, as true as they’ve seen. It is a marvel to see the Spirit of God work. The Lord gave B dreams as he poured through the Scriptures. He explained a dream where there was “light beyond light” and he was keenly aware that the voice he heard was Jesus speaking to him. The voice told B that I was sent to that place of business to tell him of salvation.
God granted favor in my short season there and specifically on that last day. Now several are praying for and working alongside B locally, aiming to spur him on in the faith and provide practical, contextual support. In eight weeks, B had read the New Testament three times. It was taking deep root and convicting his heart. B’s family burned all his belongings when they heard his claim that Jesus Christ is Lord. His uncle and father have threatened his life repeatedly. B told me he doesn’t wish to die, but if he must, it will be with the name of Jesus Christ on his lips because Jesus has saved his soul. This from a man who has known the Lord only a few months! As B has been abandoned by his family, other believers have been the church and supported B as a brother and assisted with housing. An arranged marriage which he was already “given to” has been called off; this is a big deal in a culture where a man must have a wife to be respected as a man.
B is trying to share with friends in the workplace while growing in his faith. He continues to pour over the Scriptures. He still needs to connect tightly with a community of local believers in his area. Pray that J, the shop owner, would come to know Jesus as Lord and be a source of influence in the neighborhood and through his place of business for the sake of the Gospel.
This morning I received a message from “A” another student and friend from the English course. He has read the New Testament and is now going through it again. He is receptive as I share specific passages with him, and he is aiming to memorize several. I suspect that B has been sharing with him and that this man will come to know Jesus.
On Tuesday evening, as I wrote this story, I received a message that two others (“M” and “H”) have both come to know the Lord as B reasoned with them and taught them from the New Testament. Tears filled my eyes as I read the message aloud to my fiancé. B understands all the more that his work is that of an evangelist. His commission is to herald the Truth of Jesus Christ to those he loves, still held in Islam; it’s the message that has been entrusted to him. Pray that many men and women would become brothers and sisters in Christ, ushered into the family. Pray for a mighty move of the Spirit of God.
I could write without end on how this journey has stretched and challenged me while nourishing my soul. This season both answered and raised questions. I’ve received new insight and opportunity to relate with brothers and sisters beyond our borders of comfort. All of a sudden the far-off people and realities and consequences not my own, which I’ve prayed over, seem very close to home. This is the story of one African-Arab man who came to know Jesus and we pray for many to follow.
Let us live with a Christ-exalting resolve to spend and be spent for the sake of the Gospel going forth in our home context and to the ends of the earth. To God be the glory forever and ever.