“You must love the Iso very much”, people commented while we were preparing to move to the Iso. Well, to be honest, in the beginning we didn't. We hadn't even met any of them before going to live with them!
How could we love people who were faceless, voiceless, only a name on a list of unreached people groups?
Initially, we had mostly to do with officials at customs and immigration offices, traffic policemen, and others we met travelling there. Most of them were not Iso, but were from other people groups. Our these encounters weren't favourable! Some of the more memorable events were when my husband was arrested as a spy by the army and interrogated for a few hours. Yeah right, he looked like the spy-type. Another time we were hijacked and threatened with death by a drunk policeman carrying an assault rifle, who forced us to take him to his village. And, I was held up and threatened next to the road by traffic police once for a few hours, because ... well, I am not sure why.
There’s a thin line between an adventure and a nightmare — my husband’s wisdom! We experienced many other character-shaping events. Eventually, we learned that God’s grace, a sincere smile, persevering friendliness — and speaking a local language — carried us through each time.
Then we came to live with the Iso people, being the only foreigners in a village of 10 000 Iso.
We were treated with suspicion at first. Some of the adults disciplined their children by telling them that if they did not behave, the foreigners would come and suck their blood! They confessed this to us much later, thinking it was hilarious!
Even though we were seen as vampires by some, we persevered in being sincerely friendly. And making the most ridiculous mistakes — unintentionally — when speaking Isoni, helped to dissolve their suspicions.
Many missionaries look to the language learning phase with apprehension, even some anxiety, and frustration. Others hope that they will just ‘get’ the language, almost like you would somehow magically absorb the language automatically. That intense, difficult and dying-to-self language learning phase is necessary to become vulnerable, endearing and accepted by the people you want to share Jesus with. The language learning phase is vital for making friends and building trust, and learn the culture as well.
Gradually, the Iso got used to us. We got used to them. But love? The Lord brought that, too. I quickly made many friends.
Except for one.
Deena was my neighbour. And a very annoying one, too. She was rude, unfriendly, brash, demanding, unkind, even cruel. Any other negative adjectives out there? She had all of them. She would come to our house often — like three times a day! Either gossiping, or demanding things.
One time I gave her a pumpkin, because she was hungry. Her response was not “Thank you,” but rather “Where's the sugar and oil? How do you expect me to cook this without sugar and oil?” Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble (and smoke coming out of my ears) as I duly delivered the sugar and oil.
At other times, she would come over and order me to take her to the mill with her harvested rice. It was like she owned me. Many times she would just laugh mockingly in my face when I didn’t understand what she was saying, or when I did not understand their customs. That was not nice of her. And I often asked God to change her.
Now I know depicting her like this, would make me seem to be a saint in contrast, right?
I started going with her to all the ceremonies and funerals — didn’t have a choice really. She would just arrive at the house and took me with her.
I just could not get to the point where I liked Deena. And it started to bother me. Here we were, coming all the way from our home country, giving up our business, sacrificing a life of easy comforts — yeah, I knew I received my rewards — in the sincere motivation to come and tell the Iso about Jesus and His love for them. Well, it so happened that I couldn’t even love my closest neighbour! In my defence, nobody in the village liked Deena! She was quite infamous.
And then I started praying earnestly — what I should have done from the start — asking, no begging, the Lord to help me. I told God how I tried to love her, just in case He didn’t know about it. I told Him how I constantly went over with gifts, and sharing Bible stories with her, so she could change. And I confessed to God that I really, really did not like her. I came to the end of my rope, and realised that it would take a miracle to love her. I prayed, asking God to help me love Deena with the love He had for her.
I had been praying like this for a few weeks, when Deena came to the house for her daily gossip session. We sat outside in the shade, while she informed me of the latest happenings in the village. Suddenly, while she was talking, it was as if I became deaf. I could see her mouth moving, but could not hear a thing! Initially, I found it quite amusing. Ah, bliss, silence is golden. But in that silence, while looking at her moving mouth, God poured His love for Deena all over me — like someone just poured a bucket of water over my head. It was an intense experience! I was quite overcome with emotion. In that instance, I knew that I loved her. After a few minutes of these intense emotional feelings, it was as if my hearing came back again. Shortly after, she went home. I was in a daze for the rest of the day.
From then on, our friendship blossomed. And then Deena changed! She became grateful, considerate, and friendly! God responded to my prayers, right? Which one? The one to change her, or the one to help me love her? He changed my heart first! I realized that she saw that I treated her differently now — and by showing her true love and acceptance, not dutiful neighbourly tolerance, she responded to that love by becoming lovable too.
We became great friends, and I often went to her house, just to ‘hang out’. Seeing her changed face and demeanour, it was obvious that she was gently being drawn nearer to God and His grace.
Luke 6:27-31, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.(NIV)
What are you praying for?