Timothy W. Berrey
The plane lumbered down the runway of the Bangkok airport, eventually found its wings, and I was off to my second Muslim-majority country. There was something different, though, about this trip. For one thing, it was my first mission trip to the Middle East. More importantly, it was my first time to visit a Filipino missionary doing work among Muslims. Statistics commonly assert that approximately ten percent of Filipino citizens work abroad at any given time, most of them in Asian or Middle Eastern countries. The Philippine government refers to them as Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs). From a missions perspective, OFWs have a unique opportunity to bring the gospel to Muslim countries that are officially closed to any kind of mission work.
I was going to visit a pastor who had been sent out a few years before by his home church as a tent-making missionary. “Pastor Juan,” as I will call him, was working a government job that afforded him maximum time for ministry in his off-hours. Through repeated miracles, his wife and children have been able to be with him during the duration of his mission work in this Muslim-majority country.
What amazed me was the courage of Pastor Juan. The core of his little flock is, as you would expect, other OFWs to whom he has reached out with the gospel. Filipinos working in other countries are often more open to the gospel because they are removed from the normal strictures of family and peers. His Bible studies have borne fruit. Twice during my time there we held baptismal services in the Persian Gulf.
What is unusual about Pastor Juan, though, is his burden for other nationalities. During my visit there we held special services that were attended by people from India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
What Pastor Juan is doing in starting a little house church and inviting Muslims to attend is illegal. Even more daring was his decision a few years ago to put up a small sign board with the name of his church on it. He has been enabled, in part, to do this because of his good working relationship with his neighbors. In two years’ time he learned Arabic, no small feat in itself. He cannot read or write it, but he can speak it, which has opened repeated opportunities for friendships with his neighbors. A large population of Bangladeshi foreign workers lives near his church, and he has made efforts to learn Bengali so that he can reach out to them more effectively.
I will never forget the Pakistani who attended our services and became my friend. He did not abandon his Muslim faith as a result of what he heard, but he said that he now understood what Christians mean when they say Jesus is the Son of God. He stood with us on the beach during one baptismal service, and I explained to him the significance of what was happening. My heart goes out to this man who is hoping against hope that somehow Islam and Christianity are essentially the same and that in the end he will come out okay no matter which choice he makes. He is, frankly, afraid of coming to the light because of what it might illumine.
Pastor Juan is just one of many such courageous Filipinos advancing the gospel in Muslim countries. They have open doors that are closed to Western missionaries. During my stay with Pastor Juan one man we met found out that I was from America and scowled. It was clear he did not like Americans, although he relented in his opinion of me a little when I mentioned that our president was now Barack Obama. My ministry hands would be very tied in a country like that, and I would be carefully watched. Pastor Juan has remarkable freedom and even rapport.
What Should Be the Response Of the Western Church?
We should pray for our courageous Asian brethren as they preach Christ to “unreachable peoples.” Persecution is real, and Christians are being martyred on a larger scale than ever before.
We should also continue to pour efforts into equipping the Asian church theologically. In some ways, these Asian missionaries need more training, not less, since they will be battling radically anti-Christian worldviews and facing unique cross-cultural challenges.
We should also persuade them of their duty to view themselves as more than just foreign workers. God never puts a Christian anywhere just for his work; He providentially places each one in a strategic location in order to live out the Great Commission. OFWs need to be encouraged to view themselves as tent-making missionaries with unusual access to unreachable peoples.
We can also learn from our courageous Asian brethren how to turn Restricted Access Nations (RAN) into Creative Access Nations (CAN). On the one hand, opportunities for Americans in RAN are somewhat limited; on the other hand, there are doors open only to Americans. When we harness a genuine burden for souls to Christlike creativity, there is no telling what God might do.
Lastly, we can rejoice before the Lord for the part that our Filipino brethren have in reaching out to the nations, tribes, peoples, and languages who will spend all of eternity praising the Lamb who was slain for them.
Timothy W. Berrey serves as a missionary to the Philippines with Gospel Fellowship Association. He and his wife, Laura, are located in Manila, where Tim teaches at the Bob Jones Memorial Bible College and serves as the director of Graduate Studies.
(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2015. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)