Building Bridges

“Part of our principles and philosophy is to build bridges within the cultures we move in,” said Bob Fetherlin, Vice President of International Ministries for Colorado-based Christian and Missionary Alliance. “You have to build trust. Once you do that, you are more able to win a hearing for the Gospel. You have to show Christ’s love and compassion through deeds as well as through the Word.”

Fetherlin served in the West African nation of Mali for 10 years and said that there are often built-in hurdles American missionaries and relief organizations face in the region.

“One of the issues we face is an American passport,” he said. “Because of the way American foreign policy has been perceived in that part of the world, it is a barrier we have had to overcome on many different occasions. A second barrier is race. The history that Anglos have because of slavery issues and other uncomfortable history in parts of Africa is also an issue.”

The 10/40 Window

West Africa is at the edge of the “10/40 Window”, a geographical band which stretches eastward across the Arabian Peninsula to India, China and Southeast Asia. It is named for its location between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude from the equator. The window is widely recognized in missions circles as an area of critical need because of poverty levels and a vast population not exposed to Christian beliefs.

Many countries in this window are predominantly Muslim, including several which are ruled at least partially by Islamic law, including Sudan. The nation has received broad international criticism for its handling of the long-standing civil war in the southern part of the country and its impact on the people of Darfur. On the surface, operating in a Muslim country would seem like a daunting challenge, but again the element of trust is a vital component.

“For the contacts we have, it is extremely important that we are very open and transparent about who are,” said Rachel Wolff, Media Relations Director for Disasters for World Vision, a Christian relief organization with 31,000 staff in more than 100 countries.

“Even in predominantly Muslim countries when we talk to them as people of faith we can establish relationships. In this relationship building it is remarkable the communication that goes on.”

About a year ago Wolff spent time in one of Africa’s most troubled nations, Zimbabwe, located just south of the equator. Long-time president Robert Mugabe initially appeared to have lost during May elections to rival Morgan Tsvangirai and his party, Movement for Democratic Change. Over the last six months Mugabe has refused to cede power and negotiations with Tsvangirai’s camp for power-sharing arrangements have floundered. Part of the fallout has been an outbreak of the water-borne disease cholera, where the number of cases has mushroomed to over 18,000 since it was first discovered in August.

Wolff said this has posed a major challenge to aid organizations in the country in addition to the already challenging security situation. She said World Vision members who travel to highly sensitive parts of the world receive security training.

“We’re taught basic first aid and also things like how to spot and avoid land mines,” Wolff said. “A lot of it is common sense. If you’re deployed to a lot of countries, you need to be given emergency guidelines and evacuation procedures for safety.”

When Disaster Strikes

Providing safety for missionaries and the populations they serve is just as essential in Central and Southeast Asia, a large area of the 10/40 Window. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world and four years ago next week it bore the brunt of the massive Indian Ocean tsunami which killed about 200,000 people.

As devastating as the tsunami was, it opened up amazing service opportunities for Christian organizations according to J.P. Mellis, Regional Director for South and East Asia for Samaritan’s Purse.

Mellis traveled to southern Thailand in June 2005, located on the other side of the Strait of Malacca from the northern portion of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Much of northern Sumatra was obliterated by the tsunami. He said the greatest part of the aid money that flowed into the region immediately after the storm went to rebuild infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Samaritan’s Purse, which is headed by Franklin Graham, has worked in the region to help build schools, care for orphaned children and provide vocational training for widows, Mellis added.

The organization’s response in Indonesia gave them unprecedented access to help meet the needs of the survivors.

“We always have to be careful,” Mellis said. “We must abide by the local laws. We stay out of politics as much as possible. We aren’t there to tear down the developed belief systems. Quality work in the field is the foundation of our witness.

“The people there were truly shocked that there were Christian people from the other side of the world who were there helping them. Once they got to know us and see our concern was genuine, you build relationships where they become open to truths and ideas they never had exposure to before. … We share God’s love in whatever we do when we work to save lives and reduce suffering.”

Elsewhere in the region, the nation of Myanmar was hit hard by a cyclone in May. The country, which has long been ruled by a military junta, received broad international criticism for the speed at which it let aid workers enter the country. Mellis said Samaritan’s Purse has worked with the United Nations’ World Food Program and has contracts to build three schools in the country.

As terrible as these disasters are and as difficult of an area of the world it is for missions to operate, Mellis agrees the 10/40 strategy needs to continue.

“I feel it’s really the most effective strategy of the late 20th and 21st centuries to focus on reaching previously unreached people. You will see God using catastrophes and disasters and an open door where Christians can go in where they haven’t been previously allowed to go. If we’re responsible how we respond to the needs, God gives an opportunity to go in and change lives.”

Facing Persecution

Christian missionaries and aid organizations are also represented in the second most populous country in the 10/40, India. China has the largest population in the 10/40 at approximately 1.3 billion.

Both Fetherlin and Mellis were cautious in talking specifics in India because of the persecution and attacks Christians have suffered from radical Hindu groups over the past several months. Radical Muslim groups have also been the focus of investigations by the Indian and Pakistani governments for the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November.

“India is a very special situation,” Mellis said. “It’s an incredibly diverse place. Few people realize that it has the second largest Muslim population in terms of numbers of anywhere in the world. Going back to the time of Gandhi, you have a long history of religious diversity. When you have a piece of geography like India where the population is getting more crowded every day, extremism in different places is bound to happen.”

Difficult challenges for missionaries are a reason to engage, rather than disengage, around the world, Tom Eklund said. Eklund’s mission work is a little closer to home in his role as director for Orphanage Outreach. The organization sponsors an orphanage in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. Eklund, who resides in Phoenix, decided to manage relief efforts at the orphanage after seeing its dilapidated condition during a mission trip to the country in the early ’90s.

Orphanage Outreach has opened its doors to the community at large in the city of 20,000. It uses school and church volunteers to help teach English, run a Vacation Bible School and provide access to technology that is otherwise unavailable. Eklund said he does not face anything like the political and social hurdles in the 10/40 because of the long-term presence of Christianity in the country due to the presence of the Catholic church. A huge key to working with the population is still the same as in other parts of the world – transparency.

“We’ve been blessed with a lot of resources,” Eklund said. “We have shared our resources with the community at large and it has given us access to help the schools and people in the (local) prison we wouldn’t see otherwise. It’s important to be open about what you’re doing.”

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