Katherine,* a member of a Baptist church in Arkansas, is no stranger to missions. Kenya is familiar to her—she and her husband, John,* have been going there long enough to know what to expect.
But what’s unfamiliar is the dust she’s shaking from her shoes these days, shoes that have taken her from house to house in some of the most tragedy-riddled areas of the Middle East. They’re shoes that have spent time tucked underneath her as she sat on the floor of Syrian refugee families’ homes, listening to their stories.
It’s a place she never thought she would be—in fact, she had turned down the opportunity at first when another church member asked if she and John could go.
“We said no,” Katherine said. “But within two weeks, we said to each other, ‘I think that’s where we need to be.’”
Two weeks later, the couple was on a plane.
And now growing more familiar all the time is the sight of Syrians with light in their eyes—Syrians who previously had no hope.
“It’s just such an amazing opportunity,” Katherine said. “There’s such a loneliness and a longing among the Syrians. They need Jesus. They’re ready for the Gospel.”
John and Katherine travel back regularly to partner with IMB field personnel whose lives are spent sharing Jesus with those who have little to nothing.
Miracles in the Midst of Tragedy
While John and Katherine come and go, the Bendermans* provide a long-term presence on the ground amidst the transient refugee community. “There are thousands upon thousands of them here, and God is showing up in miraculous ways among them,” said Lauren Benderman, who serves with the IMB there alongside her husband, Joshua Mark.
One woman the Bendermans met had fled from ISIS with her five small children after her husband was murdered in front of them. After she made it to safety, another IMB worker invited her to a Bible study. She came, and kept coming.
And one day while she was there at the study, she got word that her brother was about to be hanged in Syria.
“She was really distraught,” Lauren said. “Our teammate just stopped and prayed for her brother in Jesus’s name.”
That afternoon, her brother was released from prison.
“Before that, she saw God as not personal and not wanting a relationship with her,” Lauren said. “That’s the point where she came to know Christ.”
The woman’s testimony is that her family’s trauma brought her to the place where she could hear the Gospel.
“Her story is that she knows Jesus because of the horrible tragedy that has happened in her life,” Lauren said. “She’s actively sharing with her neighbors, ‘Yes, we’re in trauma, but our hope is in Christ.’ Her neighbors are fearful, but she keeps on sharing.”
Embracing Costly Discipleship
Disciples like that woman are what Joshua Mark and Lauren are hoping and praying for and working toward. When they first arrived in the country where they serve, they found that there were already some believers there among the Syrians—but they had been taught from the beginning to be fearful about sharing their faith.
“The people who had brought them to faith had told them to be careful and keep quiet, because it could cost them their life,” Lauren said. “They were almost parental in the way that they were afraid for them.”
So the Bendermans knew there had to be a change—even if it was a costly one.
“We’re busting that paradigm,” Joshua Mark said. “We’re starting to see our partners realize that if they want the Gospel to advance, they have to train believers to share the Gospel because Jesus is worth it. He isn’t just worth them putting their lives on the line for their disciples, as they were doing—He is also worth their disciples laying down their lives too.”
Since they started training those disciples to train their disciples to share boldly from the beginning, another 150 have come to faith among the Syrians in their area.
“We’re jumping up and down and praising the Lord because they are starting to catch a vision for Gospel advance,” Joshua Mark said. “We’re really excited about that change.”
His vision is to see the Gospel advance this way across the entire Middle East.
“They are beginning to work in a completely different way, and they are multiplying laborers for the harvest. They’re teaching new disciples that they can share their faith from the very beginning,” he said. “They want to begin to replace us as the primary trainers, and that’s exactly what we want too. God is waking up the church here.”
And Lauren says He is using Syrians to do it, as well as the churches back in the US who are partnering with them.
“Syrians are just everywhere,” she said. “We knew God had a bigger purpose for them. And we’re grateful for the partners He brings us to help encourage them and share with them.”
A Deepening Partnership
As Katherine and John’s church has partnered more and more with the Bendermans, they have seen more and more Syrians take that step of faith, even when it comes at a great price.
They have also seen their church get more involved—they regularly take trips back to the area, and they have sent two church members there to serve two-year terms with the IMB. And as they give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, they see exactly where it’s going—to support the work the Bendermans are leading.
It’s a work they say has changed them too.
On their last trip to the Middle East, Katherine sat on the floor of one home they visited, talking with the grandmother of the house while the men chatted nearby. In recent months, that grandmother and her family had fled the violence in Syria with nothing but what they could pack into their pockets—and all the pain they could pack into their hearts. They had tried to make a life in this new country, and that too had been rife with trauma.
Days were hard—sometimes unbearable.
But that day, as Katherine shared the hope of Jesus with her, she listened. Her twelve-year-old granddaughter also, sitting nearby on the floor, inching closer and closer to the conversation.
“That day, the whole family came to faith. It was an amazing experience to get to be a part of that,” Katherine said. “They may not be grounded right now in earthly things, but that’s where the Gospel comes in and offers a hope and a future.”
Her husband, John, agreed. “God, through a terrible situation, has opened the door to their hearts.”
The work of the Bendermans and thousands of other IMB missionaries is supported by the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering taken up by Southern Baptist churches in December.
* Names changed.
Grace Thornton is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama, and is a member of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham.