Finding refuge in Central Asia, North Africa
In the 2016 version, many still are coming to them to save their life and, yet, they also are finding life. I observed this just weeks ago in two major global cities, both having been in the news in recent months for acts of terror and political instability.
The first in Central Asia was teeming with young professionals and, though centered in a Muslim culture, there were signs that the younger generation in this city were not much different than many in the West in terms of their tenuous devotion to their historic and national religion. At prescribed times throughout the day, prominent mosques would erupt in amplified calls to prayer. Yet, just as in some of our Western cities where church bells ring out from massive and mostly vacant cathedrals, the normal course of business is for the people not to pause for genuflection, but to carry on with head bowed toward their smartphone.
Yet, in midst of this bustling and burgeoning scene of a transient humanity, there is an underlying great work of God.
In that city, I was visiting a team of Midwestern College students spending their spring semester serving with the International Mission Board as part of Midwestern's Fusion program. The students live and work every day among the people and specifically are working with university students.
There they are joining the IMB's effort to reach these urban citizens through a variety of college-focused activities. On the last night I was there, they had an event in the basement of a community center where they regularly invite new friends to meet and practice their English.
In this center, several churches also have their meetings and it was the event that night that prompted me to think of the Old Testament cities of refuge. For here beneath this massive city with its clamorous calls to prayer resides a quiet center of refuge -- a place where any can come, make friends, improve their English, and learn and hear about the Gospel of Christ. There students are coming and there they are finding life.
The second city I visited was in North Africa. Here too, the city never sleeps or stops. Indeed, there are few traffic lights as none are needed for the flow of cars and people lilt like tidal waves at every hour of the day and there is no rest from the tumult.
Here there are two teams of Midwestern students enduring dust and the press and noise of the people and traffic as they make a daily trek to their place of service. Taking a combination of metro rail and a 1.5-mile hike over bridges and under overpasses along streets without sidewalks, these students are in a daily battle for survival. Yet, they joyfully take on the challenge, for at the end of their trek is another city of refuge.
In this metropolis, a displaced people from a neighboring war-torn country has sought a home. At a center for refugees, our students have admirably joined a long history of Southern Baptist work. Here they daily seek to serve the refugees by lending them aid of all kinds and particularly by teaching them English. After their formal classes, they spend extra time inquiring after their students and give them lasting words of life. At the time I visited, they had seen two men trust Christ and our students were now meeting with them on a regular basis for discipleship.
Oddly, from these perilous and unstable cities I came home encouraged for, I too, found refuge. In these cities of great darkness and danger, God is still providing pockets of light and safety for peoples who have limited or no knowledge of the Gospel. For every act of terror in the world today, there are multiplied a thousand times over acts of sacrificial service and Gospel proclamation.
Often, we are much like the psalmist in Psalm 73 who was discouraged and despairing at the seemingly successful state of the wicked around him to the point that he almost stumbled in disbelief. The wicked were prospering, living a life of excess and ease. They were like reckless bulldozers steamrolling over their culture with threats, violence and bombastic speech, with apparently nothing or no one to stop them.
The people of God were faltering, questioning God's omniscience given that such men were achieving every end to which they set their desires --and thus many started turning to follow the wicked. At this point of deep darkness, the burdened psalmist finds new eyes to see. Seeking God, he finds the truth that God still sees and knows, that God will one day act and judge -- that in the end He will set all things right. This knowledge drives the psalmist back to God where he resolves, "I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works" (73:28).
In one sense, all of humanity are refugees in search of cities of refuge. All are like sheep gone astray (Isaiah 53:6) from our Creator and deserving of judgment. Yet, instead, God judged His Son so that we could no longer flee from Him, but return home to Him (Luke 15: 20). Jesus Christ is the true City for those "who have fled for refuge" (Hebrews 6:18). Thus, the call now is for all to take refuge in God and not fear the temporal evils of man.
These students in our Midwestern College Fusion program will tell you that the sole reason for their willingness to brave spiritual attack, daunting cultures and climates, and physical danger is that "so others may hear and live." This Christ-like motivation and action modeled so well by our International Mission Board partners throughout the world is serving to create cities of refuge for refugees of all kinds.
Whether secularized university students in Central Asia or actual displaced peoples in North Africa, I take courage; for as I saw in the very places that the world would tell us to abandon, people are finding Gospel hope. As the old hymn says, in these cities full of terror and trial, our students are seeing the nations "for refuge to Jesus have fled."