By Valerie Jones
It seemed so trivial, but a trivial disagreement with my husband that morning seemed to knock the wind out of me. Our three-month-old marriage was still new and apparently, not yet perfect! Embarrassingly enough, I couldn’t hold back the tears as we both boarded our 50-minute bus ride to a small Middle Eastern town that had been flooded with refugees.
My husband and I decided to spend our first Christmas on a 10-day outreach ministering to these displaced families. We were assigned to work with the children. We read them stories, made crafts, and played games, doing anything to take their minds off the fact that they were no longer at home. I was begging the Lord to help me pull it together and find some semblance of joy so I could hug on and dance with the children who would swarm us when we arrived. My silent prayer only wanted to drift into self-pity.
As my tears continued to roll, the girl in front of me turned around and asked, “Excuse me, why are you crying?” I simply nodded, shrugged, and tried to close my eyes. These are the times when I miss my Western culture, I thought. Why can’t I be where people just mind their own business!
This girl, however, would not give up. After the third time of poking me and asking, “Why are you crying?” I finally gave up on my attempted prayer time to answer, “I’m sad.”
“Me, too,” she replied. “I am so sorry. I understand you because I cry everyday.”
Another Sister’s Story
For the next 40 minutes, I learned this girl’s story: 23-year-old Nada* is from Mosul, Iraq. I met her brother and sister, Yusuf and Miriam, also sitting close by on the bus, smiling and happy to meet me. The three of them moved to this city less than one month ago. Nada explained to me how ISIS had overrun their hometown and because their family was known to be Christians, they were forced to leave. The family just finished building a new home that is now completely destroyed. They moved to another city for a time, thinking that it might be better for Christians there but soon realized they needed to flee the country for safety.
“I cry because I miss my home. I cry because we have nothing to do here in this country; we don’t belong here. I cry because the teachings of Jesus tell me I must forgive the ones that have hurt us, but I am a sinner and this is hard to do. My brother and sister tell me I will be miserable until I let Jesus help me forgive, for even he forgave the ones that killed him.”
Yusuf explained that when they heard we were doing programs for Syrian refugees, they jumped at the opportunity to be our Arabic translators. “Funny! We as refugees are helping refugees! But that’s how it goes . . .
We will love any opportunity to share about knowing Jesus and the hope that he gives: God is love. And this is not the end of the story.”
One of the biggest jewels I took from that trip was a reminder of the depth of true Christian fellowship. We sometimes use the term fellowship so much that we don’t even understand its meaning. The word itself implies a group of people connected through shared interests or beliefs. But living our lives as disciples of Christ according to the Scriptures should create a bond with others that is perhaps stronger than the term fellowship or even family can express.
This bond is much deeper than simply sharing a meal or sitting in the same service on a weekly basis. It can happen at a church or a home gathering or other events, but it won’t occur by mere physical proximity or cultural likeness alone. True fellowship is something that takes place when people have completely oriented their lives around one purpose or goal, and soon they take a glance around them and notice others who are doing the same.
During this trip, my husband and I happened to be the only Americans. But as we worked to give resources, hope, and prayers to hurting families and sing songs and play games with their kids, I remember often catching the eye of fellow believers on our team. Although they typically had a skin color, first language, and culture different than my own, I felt a closeness and unity with them not always shared with those of my own background or nationality. True fellowship happened as our team vigorously worked side by side, fueled by a common desire: to see others be loved and comforted by our Jesus as we ourselves had been. As Yusuf had said, our hearts maintained hope in the midst of great suffering, not because of any great change we thought that we would necessarily cause, but because we know our Lord will soon bring justice to the earth; we know this is not the end of the story.
United by Christ
Back in the U.S., I have often thought of Nada, Yusuf, and Miriam. Upon our return, we found an increase of tension against Christians who were being forced to take a stand against certain popular social issues. I found myself in quite a few situations with the opportunity to be honest about what I believe on a certain topic as a follower of Jesus. How would I respond? I remembered my refugee friends. My brothers and sisters halfway across the world are showing that they are willing to lose everything they have to be associated with Jesus Christ. How could I possibly let my Lord or my brothers and sisters down by failing to speak up for Jesus, even when no one might be aware that I had?
Perhaps this is what Paul was getting at when he rejoiced in his imprisonment, seeing that “because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Philippians 1:14). Perhaps this is what Jesus implied when he said that in the end, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12) when faced with suffering for simply bearing the name of Christ. Shouldn’t knowing the sufferings of our fellow Christ followers in the world give us a greater resolve to speak of him without fear?
I wonder if this touches the meaning of true fellowship. As followers of the same wonderful Lord, I have automatically become part of a worldwide family, united by a goal to stand at the end of the age and be told that we did not deny Christ and his kingdom while on earth. Along with the fellowship of the saints around the world, may we have grace and perseverance to continue to strive toward this worthy end.
*All names have been changed.
Valerie Jones and her husband live in Colorado Springs and work with international missions and refugee care.