The Maltese Cross

1 Nov

Sharing God’s good news with local people and foreigners on Malta gives the cross a whole new meaning.

MaltaCrossThe cross is a cherished and significant symbol for one particular island in the Mediterranean Sea. Malta is not only one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world, it is one of the most Catholic. Almost everyone is baptised into the Roman Catholic Church at birth. Tourists are struck by the prominence of crosses and images of saints all over the island.

 Malta took a strong stand for Christianity when the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on its shores, but countless battles have been fought on its soil. It was thanks to the Knights of Malta, whose symbol is the Maltese Cross, that the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire were halted from their advance into Europe. During World War II the island served as a British outpost, and King George VI awarded the people the George Cross for their valiant stand, helping to free Europe and North Africa.

The cross has also been the underlying motivation for Dutch workers on Malta, Dirk and Wil Knies. While serving on board OM’s ship Logos II in the Caribbean during 1996, the couple were in a car accident that left both of them badly injured. Forced to leave the ship ministry, the Knies moved to Malta in 1998 to start something new

Evangelicals in the MinorityMaltaSea

Dirk estimates that there are perhaps 800 to 1,000 believers and 12 to 14 evangelical fellowships on the island, although some are tiny and meeting in garages or homes. He believes that visits by OM ships over the years have helped to break the religious ice. But, he adds, “The church is still small. The ground is still hard. Catholicism is an important part of life here. A Maltese who steps out and becomes an evangelical Christian will be isolated from his family.”

Last Easter Dirk and a few friends shouldered a giant wooden cross and carried it across the island for eight days, stopping frequently to talk with residents.

“To most people Easter is just a traditional religious feast,” he observes, “they don’t know what the cross is really about. But six people came to Christ!”

Dirk and Wil found themselves focusing more and more of their concern on new arrivals from the Middle East and North Africa. Malta lies only 176 miles east of Tunisia and 207 miles north of Libya, and its proximity has lured thousands of men, women and children to chance the perilous sea crossing. The UN’s refugee agency estimates that approximately 8,400 migrants and asylum-seekers landed on the coasts of Italy and Malta during the first six months of 2013 alone. Often these desperate people pay $1000 or more for transport in unseaworthy boats. While Malta’s search and rescue efforts have saved many lives, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea in 2012 alone. Those who do manage to reach Malta may be sent back to their home countries or held indefinitely in a detention camp.

“We get boats all the time,” relates Dirk, “people arriving in horrible shape.”

Finding Refuge

Distressed by the condition of such refugees and seeing many Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East hiding in fear of authorities, the couple began to help them both practically and spiritually. They even took some of the men into their home for long periods of time, assisting them to find asylum in other countries. They have also had the joy of seeing Muslims discover a more permanent spiritual refuge in Jesus Christ.

MaltaDirk1Over the years Dirk has volunteered to lead OM teams into North Africa. He often takes along a Maltese flag; using the cross that it features to share about Jesus’ sacrifice. “I’ve been pulled into the police station a few times, but not imprisoned.” He shrugs. “I’ve never really suffered.”

The Cross in a Box

This summer Dirk hosted his fourth OM Transform team on Malta. One of the evangelism tools he has designed for their use is the “Little Big Gift,” a cross with pictures and Bible verses from Romans that folds into a small box.

“I love to train people and put stuff in their hands that works,” he says. “We need to multiply our efforts so that more will get out there to evangelise. I’ve tried the Little Big Gift everywhere and given away 1500 or 1600. Nobody has ever really refused, even in the Middle East. I used it once to share God’s gift with a lady at a bus stop and after 10 minutes she said, ‘I understand! I want Jesus in my life.’ She got on the bus a new person.”

Dirk calls himself “a pipe through which God’s love, grace and blessings flow.” “For over 40 years I’ve witnessed to the average man on the street as well as presidents, princes, police and others in authority. I’ve shared in palaces, government buildings, schools, factories, shacks, tents and on hundreds of streets in the darkest countries of the world.

 “At times I’ve felt like quitting,” he admits. “Believers with a Muslim background often hurt us; many times we’ve been cheated, deceived and in some ways stabbed in the back. There are times that I’ve failed too. I’ve let down my Lord and my family. But the one thing that has always kept us going was continuing to look to Jesus. ‘For us, to live is Christ; to suffer for Christ is honor; to die for Christ is gain‘” (Phil. 1:20-23, 29, 30).

Dirk values your prayers as he continues to shoulder the cross on the island of Malta.

 

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Life and death on the lake

11 Oct

An English nurse embraces the challenge of a lifetime on Lake Tanganyika

Copyright Brad Livengood 2013“The minute we saw the lake I said to my husband Chris: ‘That’s it. I’m home.'”

 Ever since she was a little girl, Nicola (Nicky) Tiltman had cherished a passion to become a missionary nurse. She had never even heard of Africa‘s Lake Tanganyika until the couple applied to OM and learned that a nurse and person with administrative skills were required in the lakeside town of Mpulungu. The job descriptions suited them both.

Chris and Nicky moved from England to Zambia in 2012 and by April they were settling into a vastly different lifestyle along the longest freshwater lake in the world. Their team had 40 missionaries, 33 of whom were Zambian.

 “As a Good News II Medical Ministry Team, our first priority was to build a relationship with the local government clinic while making trips to the villages on the lake,” relates Nicky. “Almost a million people live on the Zambian shoreline and OM has workers in five villages. Initially we are focusing on three villages. Two of them have no clinic and in the third we are working together with a local Christian community health worker.  The most prevalent conditions we find are severe malnutrition, malaria, skin conditions and opportunistic infections related to HIV and AIDS. Our response is at primary and preventative healthcare level including education about nutrition, hygiene and sanitation.

Nicky adds that the need in the villages is not just physical but spiritual. “There are churches in some villages, but most who attend them also have a heavy reliance on witch doctors. Men, women and children bear scars from small charms implanted under their skin. When we visit a village, our team encourages the local church, does ministry with the children and often shows the JESUS film.”

HIV testingCopyright Brad Livengood 2013

Nicky says that serving in Lake Tanganyika has given her a heart both for Africa and for people living with HIV. “Mpulungu has a population of about 100,000 permanent residents, and an HIV rate of 15 per cent amongst those who department of the local government clinic. This clinic does have a conventional machine for obtaining a CD4 cell count, the test needed before a person can commence antiretroviral therapy. One of the challenges, however, is the cost of transporting people to Mpulungu for testing and the fact that it takes two days to get test results. Another problem is that Voluntary Counselling and Testing is not routinely conducted along the lakeshore, so many people do not know their status. The local Ministry of Health is desperate for us to go and offer this service.”

Now, thanks to funding supplied by OM UK through their “Just Christmas” appeal, the team has taken delivery of a UNAIDS-approved CD4 cell count testing machine. The machine is lightweight and portable and does not require a laboratory technician to operate it. Nicky and her husband attended and passed the manufacturer’s training in Lusaka; now they plan to train a number of local workers. The main benefit of the machine is that it analyses a CD4 cell count in a sample of blood taken from a finger prick, giving a result in only 20 minutes. This means that a person who is HIV positive can get their CD4 cell count and start on treatment within 30 minutes.

 “Please pray for a continuous supply of antiretroviral medication to the government clinic we are partnering with to offer HIV services,” urges Nicky. “Also pray for a change of mindset in the villages, where people are living in bondage to fear. We are dealing with 12-year-old girls who are at risk of early marriage and trafficking; with women who have no right to say no to sex and with men who have multiple women at different fishing villages. Many of them still believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of HIV.

“There’s a huge job ahead,” she admits. “Illiteracy is very high so I am making a pictorial teaching tool. It’s a NICKYlakeTwithChrischallenge not to feel that we are fighting a losing battle. But that’s where faith comes in. God is able to do abundantly more than we can ask or think or even imagine!”

The strangers among us

13 Sep

Xenos 01-08-2013 16-55-03“It’s a miracle that we made it,” Amira* told me. She explained how she and her husband had scraped up 50,000 US dollars for people smugglers to get them and their two children out of Iraq, to a safe place. “At many points I thought we would die. My husband says if he’d known what would happen, he’d never have risked his family’s lives. But every day there are more bombs and more people dying. Everyone is desperate, sick and tired of war. That is why people like us pay every penny they have to leave, to give their children hope for the future. We had to do it for our kids.”

Like most people I had heard some of the horror stories about people-trafficking. But sitting across from Amira in OM’s Xenos centre in Germany and watching her emotion as she described her family’s traumatic, three-month flight to freedom was very different.

“It took three months. When we finally got to Germany our youngest child had a fever. Our marriage certificate was lost along the way, so we had no papers for the hospital. A Christian organisation suggested Xenos, and Martin and the other workers helped us. Since then we come all the time to the centre,” she smiled. “I love it here! And I thank God many times every day that we are safe.”

Finding the ultimate safety
“Xenos” is Greek for “foreigners”, and that what OM’s team in Heilbronn, buried in the southern half of Germany, is all about. Germany has served as host to a tidal wave of foreigners in recent decades but you might be surprised to learn that 47 per cent of residents in cities like Heilbronn have an immigrant background: either foreigners or the children of foreigners. Almost 10 million people living in Germany today were born outside the country.

The man who started Xenos was a foreigner himself, the son of a police officer in Iran who was sentenced to death during Khomeini’s regime. After seeing friends killed Navid had little choice. His long journey took him to Dubai, Hungary and the Netherlands before he landed in Germany. Six months later, sitting in the back row of a church he’d been invited to, he silently cried, “Help me, God. I’m at the end”.

Once Christ came into his life, Navid discovered he had a gift for evangelism and planting new churches. He helped to start a fellowship in Essen and an Iranian church in Stuttgart. Seeing the many foreigners who lived in the refugee camp outside Heilbronn, he and others felt God wanted them to start an international fellowship in that city in 2004. OM’s Xenos team now has eight members, many of them with significant experience of working in countries like Morocco, Afghanistan and India. They have also recruited some 30 volunteers from local churches.

Raising awareness
“In the South of Germany there’s a church on every corner,” says team leader Martin,”so when we tell people we’re missionaries here it’s a hard concept for them to understand.”One major aim of the Xenos team is to mobilise and train local churches to reach the world on their doorstep.”

Martin initially found a way to meet foreigners by volunteering as a translator for the Red Cross. Later he was invited to give cultural orientation to newcomers. He discovered in Germany a freedom to share Christ–and willing Muslim listeners–that he had never encountered in countries where he’d previously served.

A home away from home
The Xenos centre is a hive of activity with a kitchen, kids’ room and bright, attractive meeting area set up informally like a café. The team helps people on a practical level with thing like household needs, doctors’ visits, and official paperwork. They also provide German lessons and homework support for kids. Once a month the usual Thursday evening worship is followed by a pot-luck supper. Three spin-off Bible studies also currently take place in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu.

Why start an international church? “Trying to integrate new believers from other countries into German churches doesn’t work,” Martin answers simply. And sitting in a Xenos worship service with a continuous murmur of several translations going on all around me, I began to realize why.

I smiled as Navid, who was leading the service, quoted a Persian proverb. “‘A camel sits in front of every house,'” he told his audience and explained, “We can all meet the same God, the same Jesus. We can all feel His touch and know His joy. It’s for everyone!”

The land of beginning again
Afterwards I talked with a young computer technician from Iran. He has been in Germany only a few months; the previous four and a half years were spent in the Netherlands, hoping for asylum. After making friends and learning the language, however, he was informed that his application had been rejected. So now Esmail is starting all over again, struggling to hold on to hope.

Teams like Xenos that offer practical and spiritual help to newcomers like Esmail and Amira’s family desperately need to be replicated all over the country. No single mission or church can meet the growing crisis. But when German Christians allow themselves to be channels of God’s compassion, all things are possible.

OM Germany Leader Tobias Schultz is eager to see that revolution of love. “The German church at large hasn’t understood cross-cultural ministry,” he observes. “There are so many immigrant churches that are not included in the German Evangelical Alliance. And just think of the second generation kids who would be well-equipped to participate in missions! Our hope and goal in the next seven years is to build strong relationships with these immigrant churches.”

Coat of Arms of Heilbronn *All names in this article except for that of Tobias Schultz have been changed.

 

Breaking the fear barrier!

19 Aug

EgyptprotestWhile attending a conference in Rome last month I talked with an American who describes exciting new opportunities for Christians after Egypt’s second revolution

A lot more is happening in Egypt these days than is apparent on our nightly news. A Christian worker on the ground in Cairo, whom we will call John Nyalls to protect his security, reports a groundswell of excitement among the Christian population who are involved in reaching Muslims. He declares, “One year of Morsi’s government has done more to advance Christianity in Egypt than all the decades before it.”

Media attention to Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations gives the impression that this group is much bigger than it actually is. John estimates that only about one-half to one per cent of the population are avid pro-Brotherhood and up to five per cent may be ultra-conservative Islamists. But after Morsi failed in his promise to represent all the people rather than the Islamist faction and passing an Islamist-favoured constitution, the vast majority of Egyptians made it clear they’d had enough.

So unpopular is the Muslim Brotherhood these days, observes John, that many shopkeepers are refusing to serve men with long beards (the usual Brotherhood trademark), and taxi drivers are refusing to pick them up. Some Muslims have shaved off their beards in self-defence. 

Christians–especially young people from the churches–have become proactive, handing out thousands of copies of Bibles, New Testaments and CDs of the Jesus film and other material. Very few Arabic Bibles are refused. Believers add that they’ve even observed some covered Muslim women, after receiving Bibles, lift the book to their lips in a reverent kiss.egypttahrir square

It hasn’t all been easy for the Christian population, however. Ultra-conservative Muslims have retaliated against what they called Christian support for Morsi’s removal. A number of attacks have been launched against churches and Christians, particularly those who live in Brotherhood strongholds.

 “Now,” says John, “the wolf–the Brotherhood–is no longer pretending to be a sheep. Members are now unbridled in going after churches and Christians. And this is turning more moderate Muslims against them.”

He pointed out the astonishing fact that tens of thousands of Bibles are being downloaded each month in the Muslim world. The website aljazeera.net published an interview with Ahmad Al Qataan, an important Islamic cleric, who said that every year six million Muslims convert to Christianity.”* Unfortunately, most disillusioned Muslims will turn to atheism rather than Christianity unless more people seize the day. John reports that Christian Egyptians who have been reaching out are coming across a significant enough number of atheists; they are feeling the need for specific training on how to reach them.

The next presidential election is not slated to be held until early 2014. The interim leader has meanwhile sworn in a Cabinet that includes women and Christians but no Islamists. Although no one wants a police or army state, John agrees with many that the longer the election is put off the better. “People need time to think through who should take control. Elections came too fast after the first revolution; the Brotherhood were the only ones organised enough to step in. Seventy per cent of the population are just struggling to survive, only maybe 30 per cent are thinking through the politics. The Brotherhood actually lost last time in Cairo and Alexandria, where the intellectuals are centred.”

Considering that Christians control about 30 per cent of the economy in Egypt, it would seem that they are in a position to exert great influence. In churches the tendency has been to support Christian projects within Egypt rather than world missions. John Nyalls asserts that with the new opportunities that are now apparent, the ministry paradigm needs to change. “Pray for creativity, that churches won’t just say, ‘No money, no mission'”.

*http://www.faithfreedom.org/oped/sina31103.htm

On the road for Syria

8 Jul

KelmsRefugeeRide2013

On June 21st OM artists Dustin and Katie Kelm set off on an extraordinary adventure. Their goal is to ride two 36 inch “big wheel” unicycles from coast to coast across the USA in order to raise one million dollars for Syrian refugees and internally displaced people. The journey began at Tybee Island, Savannah, Georgia, and is scheduled to end the first week of October in Yachats, Oregon.

Dustin and Katie have been serving with OM Arts International since 2008. Millions around the world have been impacted by Dustin’s skills and personal testimony as he uses the unicycle at schools, festivals and other events as a tool to share the message of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, while in training just two months before the start of the Refuge Ride, Dustin had a crash that resulted in a concussion and broken arm. However, the Kelms felt the need and pain of Syrians was much greater, and made up their minds to complete the challenge.

Although the couple are riding the 3,500-plus miles their own, without any vehicle backup, this initiative is very much a team effort. A large support group has arranged lodging and speaking engagements, ships them supplies as needed and continues to recruit sponsors and donors.

“We have been amazed by the generosity and kindness we have already experienced,” they affirm. “Someone handed us cold water from their car window as we rode by. Numerous restaurants and hotels have graciously donated food and rooms. People have prayed with us for safety and success in parking lots. Others have donated instantly when hearing about our cause, even from their cars while slowly driving by to talk to us.”

OM is trying to meet some of the immediate physical needs of displaced Syrians, also providing trauma counseling programs and long term micro enterprise projects to get people back on their feet. Dustin and Katie ask you to get behind their effort by spreading the word, praying and giving. “With God’s help and the sacrificial involvement of many we can all make a difference in the lives of Syrians struggling to survive.”

Follow their journey this summer on http://refugeride.blogspot.co.uk/ and give at https://my.omusa.org/RefugeRide

KelmsUnicycleTrip2013

Streams in the desert of Chad

19 Jun

Chad nomads

It is an ancient land, inhabited and fought over since time began. Lying deep in the heart of Africa, the nation of Chad is three times the size of California and entirely surrounded by six countries: Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Sudan. Even after the latest five-year conflict with Sudan which ended in 2010, the land remains troubled by rebel groups.

Chad is also hugely impacted by the ever-expanding Sahara Desert. To the 80 per cent of residents who are subsistence farmers, water is precious. Few roads are paved. This is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on the planet. The average life expectancy is only 49 years. Maternal death rates are as much as 1000 times higher than in high-income countries, according to the World Health Organisation. Chad is on Save the Children’s top 10 list of the world’s worst places to be a mother.

 Only a special kind of Christian worker can survive in Chad. Although freedom of religion is supposed to be official and up to 38 per cent of the population are at least nominal Christians, over half are Muslims: and Muslim influence is strong.

 “The further you get from the capital,” asserts “Paul,”* “the more radical it is.”

Paul moved from his own country to pioneer in Chad nine years ago, the last four of them under OM. He now speaks French and is learning Arabic. Last year he was finally joined by a second man. The pair teach English, conduct Bible studies, develop friendships with young people through football, and run a sewing project to assist some of Chad’s thousands of war widows, since the government offers little help.

 Paul has boldly chosen to live in the community he is trying to reach. “But even though I dress like everyone else,” he says, “people know I’m a foreigner and a Christian. Twice I was stoned. The first time it was by little children. So I challenged the adults who were playing cards nearby: ‘You say, “Peace be upon you!”–Is that just for Muslims or for anyone?’ Then they rebuked the kids for throwing stones.

 “The church in Chad is very weak,” continues Paul, “and Christians are fearful of going into Muslim areas. Churches are also divided among themselves and don’t work together. We want to change this situation through discipleship training. Our first two-month course, a pilot project, starts this May. The training will include practical evangelism experience in Nigeria. Pray that Christians from all the churches in the area will participate.”

 Paul and his co-worker have been encouraged that some believers are getting on board with the sewing project and also learning to share their faith. “When we talked to the women about God as our Father, I saw a Muslim woman cry. She said, ‘God sent you. We didn’t know we could call God Father’! Knowing they can talk to Him about their problems speaks volumes into their lives.”

 These two men are very anxious for your intercession. Chad’s climate is not a comfortable one, either spiritually or physically. Temperatures at this time of year can soar to over 45C or 110F. Their personal drinking supply is not safe and Paul struggles with stomach problems.

 Some have nicknamed Chad the “Dead Heart of Africa”. Fortunately, the God who gave His Son to die for the people of Chad is eager to show that no such place exists. He specialises in creating thirst-quenching streams in even the most barren of deserts.

 *Name changed

North & South Korea: Crossing the great divide

27 May

north-korea-flag“There used to be 3,000 churches in the North of Korea–more than in the South,” OM’s Northeast Asia Regional Leader, Gim SuYong, told me in a recent conversation. “Many pastors in the North left and started some of the biggest churches in the South. In fact, my own fellowship started that way. But 70 years ago the country was divided into two: North Korea and South Korea”.

For the last seven years Gim SuYong has partnered with the Church in leading a Bible study among North Korean defectors. Approximately 25,000 North Koreans now live in South Korea, he says, and every year 3,000 more come through China. For two years Gim SuYong was designated by the Korean Church Council as leading pastor of a Korean defector camp. He has met several thousand men and women who have chosen to escape the North.

“The defectors I meet have left because they hate what their government is doing,” he states. “When I asked a 60-year-old woman what the big difference is between North and South, she said, ‘In North Korea everybody lives for one man. But through the South Korean church I now understand that one Man died for all!’ The government in North Korea is taking God’s glory for themselves,” continues Gim SuYong. “They have copied the church system of hymns and worship to their ‘god’, Kim Jong-un.

“North Korea’s first priority is to preserve their system. Thousands of people can die without food but if it interferes with the system, they won’t allow aid from outside. However,” he adds, “the doors are not absolutely closed. People are being allowed in to do humanitarian work, and South Korea is funding much of it. A new science and technology university also recently opened in Pyongyang, and the government is aware that it is staffed and supported by Christians”.

The Mongolia connection

Gim SuYong’s OM responsibility extends to Mongolia where, he says, 50 per cent of the population have some relationship with Korea. “Many work in South Korea and it’s not difficult for South Koreans to go to Mongolia, only three hours away. Even the languages are related. Newcomers in either place can be fluent enough to preach within six months. Many Korean Christians go and live there during the summer to do outreach. Mongolia International University was established by a Korean, and he wants to send students to OM.

“But Mongolians can also visit North Korea without visa problems. Many believers have an increasing vision to reach the people in the North. In this way God humbles us!” Gim SuYong smiles. “He can use the tiny Mongolian church to do what the big South Korean Church cannot do!

“Northeast Asia is the heart of the 21st Century–politically, socially and economically. Seoul, PyongYang, Beijing, Ulan Bator and Tokyo are all key cities. That’s why I have a heart burning for this area.

“I want to say I have hope in the North Korean Church,” the field leader finished, and I saw that hope in his eyes. “When believers in the North pray with South Koreans, it’s different. Their experience has shown them how to cry out to God, and with their passion there is hope for revival. I believe in God’s time they will revitalise the church in the South! When visitors to North Korea tell believers that they are praying for them, North Korean Christians respond, ‘No, we’re praying for you!’

“One hundred North Korean defectors have studied in Bible school. I hope one day some of them can join OM!”