One of the main ways we have served people this year, I’ve come to believe, is simply by showing interest. Many of the people we meet are working to share their faith in settings where that faith community is extremely small and conversion rates dismally low. So many things we took for granted as IVCF staff in the US, such as the ability to hold meetings on campus or to advertise one’s group at a fair as the year begins, are not possible in this part of the world. For this and a host of other reasons, numbers are not always impressive; budgets for programs are small. Given that, they pull off incredibly creative events and work hard to connect meaningfully with the students who come to them.
We sat with a staff team for a four-day meeting recently. We were the clear leaders of portions of the time: I led the team through a Sabbath day, with various journaling exercises and lectio divina-style reflection on Scripture. Rich led several Bible studies and taught Situational Leadership. But many hours were spent listening, with translation, to the team as they reviewed what has worked the last few years, what needs to be put on the back burner for a season, and what needs increased investment to thrive. We made some contributions but a lot of what we did was simply listen. At one point they worked at white boards in small teams, without slowing down to translate for us. At the break, I approached one of them and asked if she would translate what her team had come up with. She did, and as she finished said, “Thank you for your interest in what we do here.” I was touched by the sincerity in her words. In some ways what they do is not of great interest to the wider world. It won’t make headlines—in their country, Azerbaijan, we hope it won’t! It is a small ministry and, failing a miracle, that is not likely to change substantially in the coming year. But what they do is incredibly significant, and we were privileged to come alongside it, offering our listening ears and our interest. Most of the 25 students in the room on the Saturday seminar were people who had become believers in the movement, or whose parents had. (See the picture below for some of the students at the seminar, who came decked out to show their enthusiasm for the US and the UK.)
Last Sunday I managed to communicate care without even really intending to. I was tired from a late-night wedding feast on Saturday, and frankly sometimes the translation we get from a well-meaning pew-mate, delivered in hushed tones, can be a bit soporific…so let’s just say I may have missed some of the details of the post-church event as it was announced. It is the custom in Azerbaijan to gather with those who are recently bereaved and sit with them over tea and appetizers, hearing stories of their loved one and comforting them. A lovely North Korean woman who had grown up in Uzbekistan, then moved to Kazakhstan, and finally to Azerbaijan, invited us to mourn her sister, who had died suddenly in Kazakhstan at age 52. Now, I will admit that as we walked to the church office a few blocks from the church, I had completely forgotten this announcement, if indeed I’d ever really heard it, so as we entered the office my thought was, “Cool! Snacks. I’m hungry. We’ll eat then go back and I can nap before the evening event.” Only gradually did it dawn on me why we were gathered, and that this would not be a quick stop. I did not even sit near enough to hear the stories she shared. I just took up space and consumed food. But as we left she hugged me tight and said a heartfelt “Thank You” in Russian. Not knowing my cluelessness, she was thanking me for taking the time, for being present, and in a small way showing interest in her suffering and her life. While it often feels more clear to me that we have contributed to a student ministry or a church when we have taught or coached, sometimes just showing up and showing interest communicates more than we can imagine.
Where are you struggling to show up and keep showing interest these days? The neighbor or roommate whose stories you’ve already heard five times? The friend whose narration of life feels like a litany of woes? Ask God for the patience to keep listening and showing interest. You may be doing more good than you know.
Rich and Lisa Lamb