e’d been on the mission field only six months, and we were already experiencing every missionary’s dream story: a Muslim convert. We participated in his baptism, guided his discipleship, and supported him through persecution. We had so much to write home about.
It all started when Gil and I—both just 24 years old—moved to a large city in Tanzania in 2001. We lived in the heart of the Indian section of the city, serving a subgroup from Southeast Asia who had flourished there for generations. We lived in a tiny, 600-square-foot, concrete block house, and all day long we could hear ripe fruit from our giant mango tree slam onto our tin roof.
Right outside the gate of our compound, a dusty road hosted small fruit stands, a butcher shop, and taxis that bumped through the potholes. Just down the street, a Muslim school educated hundreds of young Indian boys. Soon after we arrived, the school asked Gil to coach volleyball, and that’s how we first met the young man I’ll call Abbas.
Abbas was 19—only a few years younger than we were. We joined an Indian church plant, and when Gil started inviting the boys on his volleyball team to the youth group, Abbas jumped right in. Gil and Abbas quickly became fast friends. It wasn’t long until Abbas spent nearly every afternoon at our little house—playing chess or volleyball and arguing with Gil over soccer teams.
Abbas got used to my American cooking and developed a special affinity for cheese. I can still remember him imploring me daily, “Hey, Amy, do you have any cheeeeese?” He’d also scold me for throwing away the chicken neck because “that was the best part.”
He had eyes that danced and an infectious smile. During the regular greeting time at church, he’d make us all laugh by personally greeting every person in the room. He was smart, he was a jokester, and he was hungry to know about Jesus.
Abbas began meeting with Gil twice a week to study the Bible. We didn’t want to pressure him, so we let him set the time and determine the length of study. “How many weeks do you want to meet?” Gil asked. “Until I understand,” was Abbas’s reply.
Not long after Gil and Abbas began meeting together, through tears Abbas said he desired to become a follower of Jesus. A few months later, he asked to be baptized. The Indian congregation gathered on the nearby beach, our toes curling under the warm sand while the breeze tousled our hair and rustled the palm fronds. After his baptism, Abbas leaped out of the water and ran ashore, radiating joy.
But Abbas’s Muslim community was furious when they found out about his newfound faith. He was excommunicated—forbidden to attend the mosque or other social events. One day, Abbas woke up to find that someone had poisoned the tropical fish he raised to sell to pet stores.
Another morning, I got into our car at 6 a.m., ready to make the long commute to the school where I taught. Abbas gave me the fright of my life when he suddenly popped up in the backseat, still with his ready smile. His family had kicked him out the night before, he explained, and he had nowhere to sleep. It had been too late to wake us up, so he’d spent the night in our car. Despite all this, Abbas remained eager to grow in his faith. We were amazed at all he had learned and asked ourselves, “Who taught him that? It wasn’t us.”
Abbas told us that he was willing to die to see his family come to know Christ. We were awestruck . . . but maybe not all that awestruck. After all, wasn’t this how missions were supposed to go? Hadn’t we expected this? We’d read about miraculous missionary stories and now it seemed we were living one. So we filled our newsletters with reports about Abbas; he became the shining star of our ministry. This was why people were sacrificing to send us to Africa. This was why God had called us there.
So we were incredulous when another youth group member told us she suspected Abbas was stealing money from us. It wasn’t possible. No, there was no way! But she gave us enough details that we had to consider her accusations.
Because we lived in a cash-based society, we always had cash in our house. We kept it locked up but had become careless about where we left the key. So we started paying closer attention and, after a few days went by, we could not deny it: Abbas was stealing from us. When he realized we were onto him, he made a partial confession. This revelation came only a few weeks before the end of our two-year term when we’d return to the United States so Gil could finish seminary. Our realization about what Abbas had been doing was too much for our young minds to process. The confusion, the disillusionment, the sense of betrayal was so overwhelming that we couldn’t even talk about it—with Abbas or anyone else. Our identity as missionaries had become wrapped up in Abbas. Shame and failure threatened to strangle us, and both of us fell into depression when we returned to the States.
After we left, we learned that Abbas stole from another youth leader. When he was confronted, he slunk away from church gatherings. The seed that had so fervently sprung up seemed to have withered under the hot sun. Eventually, Abbas immigrated to Europe and, from what we could tell, he hadn’t returned to Islam but wasn’t following Christ either. Over time, we lost contact.
We never told our supporters what had happened with Abbas. We never told our teammates. It took years before the two of us could even talk about it between ourselves.
We’d absorbed the unwritten rule in missions: Failure is unacceptable. I’d grown up immersed in missions culture, yet I couldn’t remember a single time that a missionary story, presentation, or newsletter ever included failure.
I know better now. But even today, missionaries are reluctant to share defeat, depression, or despair. Maybe there is too much at stake. Hundreds of people are donating thousands of dollars for you to do this work. Everyone craves numbers: numbers of converts, numbers of churches planted, and so on.
The “successful” missionaries always have lots of numbers. They fill their newsletters with compelling stories and photographs of large groups of believers. But nobody gives presentations about evangelistic events where no one showed up, or posts a picture of the local pastor who abused his daughter, or writes a newsletter about the exciting convert who just slowly disappears.
Perhaps we grab onto the happy ending way too soon. After all, the church-planting movement that’s spreading like wildfire could quickly become syncretistic. The young pastor we’re investing in could leave his wife. The church that thrived for five years could dissolve under internal conflict. When we measure success, at what point do we measure it?
We could swing to the other side of the pendulum and throw our hands up in the air, saying, “Let’s not measure success. Let’s just measure faithfulness.” Of course, faithfulness is vital. But could this attitude be a cop out? God knows my heart, we say. We meant well, and that’s all that matters. But if that’s true, then we aren’t leaving room to learn from our mistakes. We don’t look for better methods or strive for greater effectiveness.
Could we have done anything different with Abbas to prevent his falling away from faith? At the time, we were so consumed by our own hurt that we never helped him explore the root cause of the theft. Maybe we could have taught him to lean more heavily on grace—and reminded ourselves to do the same. Maybe we could have remembered that missionary stories in a broken world rarely end with a “happily ever after.” Until that day when all things are made new, life is always going to be messy.
When Gil finished seminary, we returned to Tanzania for 14 more years. We saw many more victories in ministry and just as many tragedies. Time and maturity gave us a different perspective: The ways of God are mysterious. We don’t often see the beginning and the end of the story; we see only bits and pieces here and there. What we see as tragedy, God may be transforming into redemption. What we see as victory may be the impetus for destruction.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom
and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33–34).
Perhaps this is why we missionaries must ground ourselves in the sovereignty of God. We must learn to be steadfast in faith no matter the circumstances. We must hold loosely to both the victories and the tragedies, knowing that it will only be in the end—in the very, very end—that all will be revealed for what it truly is. And when we know Christ, we can take joy in how the most important Story will end.
Out of the blue, Abbas contacted us a few years ago. He planned on visiting his former home and wanted to see us. Of course, we were happy to agree. We had long since let go of the pain and shame of the past. When he visited, we spent a few hours together, reminiscing about old times and catching up on each other’s lives. After all, we’d shared a lot of great memories. Just before we said goodbye, Abbas became quiet and emotional. Very simply, he apologized for what he had done to us 14 years previously. It was a sacred moment. We’re still not sure what God is doing in his life, but we are certain that God is not done with Abbas. We serve a God of grace and redemption; we cannot possibly imagine what is just around the corner. The story is still being written.
Cover Photograph by Martin Jernberg
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