In 1999, I was in Yalta, Ukraine on the Crimean Peninsula. I had a team of short-term missionaries that I was leading from Oral Roberts University (ORU). It was a two month trip and we were nearing the end of the trip, but what we were doing at that time was not only the pinnacle of the trip and the primary goal of our time in Ukraine that summer, but it was the most fiscally straining.
We had come to Ukraine with a special agenda that summer. We were not there to just “do” short-term missions. We were there to train other short-term missionaries from a youth group in Kiev and facilitate a mission trip for them. Due to obvious budget restraints, we were doing a domestic mission trip within the boarders of Ukraine. We had selected as the target of our love and ministry, an unreached group of muslim’s known as Tatars.
Tatars were originally from Crimea, but had been deported wholesale by Stalin during World War 2. A large portion of them ended up Uzbekistan. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the so called independence of Ukraine was established, the Ukrainian government welcomed the Tatars back to Crimea. Tatars returned but they were not warmly welcomed by the actual inhabitants of Crimea, who at that time were largely of Russian descent (they walked in and took all of the Tatar assets after they were deported). Their property and businesses were gone. They were starting from scratch.
With a focus of our mission selected, we prepared a team of Ukrainians. Part of their preparation was fundraising. We knew that the young students that would be going on this mission to Yalta, would not be able to raise or earn enough money to cover the actual cost of the trip. We felt, however, that it was important for them to participate and to sacrifice for the trip. We planned for our team budget to cover the shortfall between what they would raise and the actual cost. This difference was significant.
Needless to say as our trip was nearing the end, our team funds were receding like Nicholas Cage’s hairline. Money was tight and we needed to maximize every dollar. That is what we had…dollars. Of course, we needed to exchange those dollars to the local currency, Hrivna, to buy food, pay for transport, pay for housing, etc. The problem we faced was that the official exchange rate was horrible. Yalta was port town and a tourist destination and the exchange rate reflected that perfectly. At the official, exchange booths or at the bank we were loosing an additional 10-15% over what we would get in Kiev. Because of this, we exchanged our dollars in the open market. Ukraine was full of grey markets. This is how the majority of business was conducted in Ukraine. We would go to the market, approach a stall owner or an unofficial money changer and do an unofficial exchange. This would save us a lot of money. They were happy, and we were happy. That is until one of my Ukrainian friends, a translator for the team, changed money with the wrong guys.
I sent my friend, to the market to make an exchange like we did everyday so that we could buy groceries. It was about two or three hundred dollars. It may not seem like a lot, but that was 3 month’s wages for your average adult in Kiev at that time and as I mentioned the money well was drying up but we still had a team of 35 people to feed. But I digress. My friend was in the market looking for someone to exchange with, when a couple guys from Azerbaijan, approached him and offered an awesome exchange rate. He was ecstatic! So money changed hands and everyone walked away happy.
My friend didn’t get very far before his elation turned to despair. As he went to purchase food with the money he had just exchanged, he came to understand the age old axiom, the hand is quicker than the eye. The Azerbaijani money changers had walked away with hundreds of dollars and he had walked away with a few dollars worth of Hrivna.
My friend returned to me in shame, guilt and sorrow. He knew our financial situation. He knew he had just lost the equivalent of 3 months wages for his single mother. He was shaking and in tears as he relayed the situation. I comforted my friend and told him it was ok. But I was livid! My righteous anger was a fiery blaze the size of Texas…in the mind of a texan. The target of the vitriol was not my friend but a pack of Azerbaijani thugs. In all honesty, I prepared for battle. I put on my boots and I went looking for those guys. I was ready to fight…literally. At that time I was training in martial arts 2-3 times a week and I was confident like the captain of the Titanic. Well our search was in vain at that time. We couldn’t find the marketplace hyenas. We headed back to our apartment. My friend took off for a while and I was left alone with the Lord. I was praying about this situation. I was furious. I need the Lord to intervene.
About 2 or 3 hours later my friend returned. He told me that the guys that had cheated him were back in the market. Once again I prepared to engage them physically. This time was a little different though. Before we left the apartment, I prayed with my friend and another team member who was going to accompany us back to the market to confront the culprits. As I prayed, I was brutally honest with the Lord about my feelings. I told Him that what had happened was wrong. It was a crime. I told Him that I would not stand for it and that justice needed to be served. I told Him that I was ready and willing to fight.
Here comes a key point…but my prayer ended quite differently than you would expect if you were plotting the trajectory of the prayer based on the take-off. I told the Lord that despite all of my willingness to mix it up and seek justice, that I could not fathom how deeply inglorious His name would be seen by those who knew of the situation. I asked Him to resolve this in a way that would bring Him the honor and glory that He deserved.
We left and headed for the market. As we approached, my friend pointed out where the guys I was determined to confront were. I gave my team member that had accompanied us specific interactions. I posted him on a street corner as an overwatch. I told him that no mater what happened he was not to engage in the situation. He was only to observe and report. If anything bad happened he was to find my assistant team leader, brief her and then inform the police ( I knew that the police were going to be useless in this situation and their arrival would be too late if they were needed). I then instructed my friend and interpreter to translate everything. I didn’t care if he thought what I was saying was wrong or dangerous, I made him promise to translate faithfully everything I said and everything said to me. He warily agreed.
With that taken care of we approached the group of men (approximately 6 or 7) we had come to see. I walked up to them and in Russian, I greeted them formally, and I introduced myself and my interpreter. At that point, I let my translator take over. I told them that I they had already, met my friend and that they had stolen money from him. I told them I wanted it back. They were irate. They denied any wrong doing. I told them not to play games with me. I told them it was a waste of time. They knew as did I what they had done and they had to make it right. The leader of the band, told me in no uncertain terms that I better leave and leave them alone or something bad was going to happen to me. I told him that he was mistaken. I assured him that if he didn’t give me back the money, that something bad was going to happen to them. They were all shocked. They began to ask my interpreter, who is this guy? Is he someone important, powerful? I answered for him.
I explained to them “I am no one important. I am not from here, obviously, but people here know me. They know what I do. I help people. We are building a playground for Tatars in their local village, Samota. We work with the Church locally and orphans in Kiev. You see, you think you have stolen from a man, but you haven’t. You’ve stolen from God. If you don’t give me back the money there will be consequences.”
The leader, named Andre, told me that they stole the money gave it to muslim orphan refugees. I didn’t believe him for a minute, but I didn’t address the credibility of the statement. Instead, I asked him “Where does it say in the Koran, to steal and give the money to orphans?” He looked at me but didn’t say a word.
I continued “Besides, if you are a muslim, should you be praying right about now?”
He responded with a “Yes”.
Again I pushed forward, “Well then let’s pray together.”
Andre replied “I can’t.”
I asked “Why?”
“Because we are enemies,” Andre retorted.
“Why are we enemies?”
“Because you are a Christian and I am a Muslim.”
“Yes I am a Christian. But I am also a Muslim,” I declared. Am I? Can I honestly say that, I, a missionary for Christ, am a Muslim? Maybe not in the classical sense, but in a wider sense yes. You see, a Muslim is one who is submitted to Allah. I believe that Allah is the Muslim name for Jehovah. Allah is the God of Abraham. You might say that the Koran paints a different picture of Allah than the Bible paints of Jehovah and you would be correct. It is propaganda. The Koran is full of lies and character assassination contrived by Satan. Consider George W. Bush. He is the son of George W. H. Bush. The written material that you would find on him in a Democrat’s library, let alone that of a Muslim in Iran or Iraq, would differ greatly from George W.’s autobiography. In fact, they may well have other names that they call him by than the one he was given by his father. Their perception of him as a person, his character, his motives and his history, may be far from reality. Regardless of what they know or don’t know, believe or don’t believe about him, he is who he is. When they are talking about him, they are talking about him, despite their misconceptions.
I told Andre and his company, “Yes I am a Christian. But I am also a Muslim.” Then I began to tell them that I follow the 5 pillars of Islam.
“I haven’t been yet, but I hope to one day perform the Hajj” (the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should make at least once). “I practice Sawm (Fasting), Zakat (Tithing), Salat (prayer 5 times a day – Paul said pray without ceasing so why limit yourself to only 5 times), and Shahadah.” Shahadah is the creed for Muslims. There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet. I agree with that in part. It is half right. So I altered my declaration accordingly.
“There is no God but Allah and Jesus is His Son,” I proclaimed. And then for good measure I threw in the 6th Pillar of Islam, for the radicals (faithful muslims) in the house. “And I practice Jihad.” Jihad is often referred to as Holy War. This is the classical interpretation and understanding. But it is actually the struggle that a muslim undertakes on behalf of Allah. Teachers, preachers, and people who work with orphans all fall into that category. So I said it with innocence like that of a dove, but with the wisdom of a serpent. I wanted them to think of only the classical definition when it rolled off my lips.
When the Azerbaijanis heard these things, they looked shocked and they huddled up and began to talk amongst themselves. Then Andre turned back to me and asked the big question. “But are you circumcised?”
Allow me to pause the story here and give you a little additional information about this.
There is a grand tradition in not only Ukraine, but in most slavic and northern european countries that is known as the баня (banya). The banya is is essentially a sauna, with a few added peculiarities. These banyas reach temperatures upwards of 93℃. In a Ukrainian banta, men and women are separated. Everyone is naked. People wear hats and gloves to insulate against the heat. Banya goers take branches and hit each other with them to stimulate better circulation. The experience is denoted by a cycle of going into the heated sauna then exiting and dousing yourself with ice water. Although, my first time was nerve wracking because I was so far out of my comfort zone, it was exhilarating. A couple of hours of cycling in and out of the heat and cold, ending with an hour long full-body massage and I felt like a Roman Gladiator primed for Battle. “We who are about to die, salute you!”
The day before my encounter with Andre and his cadre, I had taken my mission team of American’s and Ukrainians to the banya. Since, as I mentioned, everyone is unclothed, (except for the Babushka or grandmother, serving hot tea, thank the Lord – but awkward none the less) we try to keep our gaze upward above the horizon. Despite this, one of my team member’s gaze fell below the equator and made an interesting observation. All of the Ukrainians in the banya with us were, to the best of our knowledge and with limited inspection…uncircumcised. This revelation prompted a discussion about the reasoning with our local hosts. We came to find out that in Ukraine, unlike the USA, males were not circumcised at birth. Only Jews and Muslims were circumcised there. Out Ukrainian brothers, were as shocked as us at the difference between us. They wanted to know why we were circumcised. We explained that although it was for the purpose of hygiene at this point, it was tradition in the USA (although this is changing). I then began to prescribe for one of the Ukrainian brothers who was working as a missionary in Turkey to be circumcised. I told him that it was important if he was going to be working with Muslims. He vehemently disagreed.
He told me that Paul said that circumcision was of the heart and not the flesh (Romans 2:29). My suggestion alone terrified him I suspect. Despite his apprehension, I laid out my case. I told him, “Yes it is true that circumcision is of the heart. Why then did Paul take his protege, Timothy to be circumcised?It is because, Paul also said that to those under the law we should be under the law.”
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.I am very proud of my translator. He must have been so intimidated, but it was his fear of God that kept him there and being my voice.To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. – 1 Corinthians 2:20-22 NIV
“And although circumcision is not required for salvation, it maybe required to effectively reach those who are. Timothy was ministering to the Jews, and therefore he and his mentor deemed it not only appropriate but a necessary strategy to win them to Christ.”
My friend was still not convinced by the daunting proposition. So I told them the following tale.
My roommate in seminary, had traveled 3 years previous (1996) to a village in Turkey on a mission trip from ORU. He and his 3 team mates were in the village for a few weeks (after a crash course in Turkish on a 1 week stopover in London). The entire time they were there they were treated like dirt. They worked hard, helped out in the fields, acts of kindness, tried to build relationships, but they were largely rejected. That was the daily outcome, until the last few days in the village. The team recognized that the villagers were talking about them. They inquired as to what they were talking about. The villagers told them that they were wondering if the missionaries were circumcised. When they told them they were, everything changed. They were treated like family.
Fast-forward one year. ORU sent a second team. The leaders were invited into the home of the village mayor. His decorations were sparse. In fact he only had three things adorning the walls of his house. The first, a flag, the national flag of Turkey. The second, a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the national hero of Turkey. The third, a picture. It was a picture of the first four missionaries sent from ORU. The impact those men had was profound. It would have been nonexistent if they hadn’t been circumcised.
Fast-forward two years. We are still in the banya, and despite my proof of concept, my Ukrainian brother was still not convinced.
Fast-forward one day.
Andre asks me the big question. “But are you circumcised?”
With assurance I confess… “Yes, I am circumcised. I am a son of Abraham and you have stolen from your brother.”
They were confounded. They were shocked.
To prevent this long story from being longer, let me sum up the results of this interaction. Andre and Co. returned the money. They took me out to dinner. Andre bought me a shirt. I was invited to Azerbaijan to attend the circumcision of Andre’s son. Although I was unable to attend that event, I was able to meet Andre’s son in Lugansk, Ukraine about 6 months later. I don’t know if Andre ever received Christ, because we lost contact with one another when he was deported from Ukraine. I hope and pray that he did surrender to Him. What I do know, is that my prayer was answered. Christ was glorified despite my fleshly response to an unjust and criminal situation. I also came away with a profound understanding that it is in the little things that we do (or not so little) in order to become all things to all men, that may make an eternal difference for those we are sent to love.