Imagine living in Iraq. Not past Iraq or future Iraq, but present Iraq. ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—plagues the Middle East country made famous by the likes of Saddam Hussein. If Hussein’s regime was bad—and it was—then the so-called Islamic State is brutal. Taking over entire cities, the terrorist group is violently pressuring people to convert to Islam and requiring adherence to Sharia Law. Vehemently opposed to religious minorities and westerners, they are known for going to the extreme of beheading them and/or killing them en masse to incite fear.
It is tough to think about going to such a place and even tougher to think about raising kids there. Yet that is just what the Baker family is doing. (For their protection, the names have been changed.)
Making Disciples Amid ISIS
Sean and Allison are in their mid-thirties. They have brown hair, light skin, and three cute kids, the youngest of whom is just three months old. By all counts, they are very American. But America is no longer their home. Sean and his family live and labor in northern Iraq, a region commonly known as Kurdistan. It is nearly one hundred percent Muslim.
“There is no normal there,” Sean said, of their newfound stomping grounds. From trickier-than-normal language barriers to frequent power outages to social restrictions placed on Allison, the Bakers are daily contending with challenges that American culture simply does not present.
Despite these hurdles, they are steadfast in their mission. Their goal is to make disciples among the people there and, eventually, plant healthy Kurdish churches, but that is easier said than done. In their six years living in what Sean refers to as the “difficult and dark land,” they’ve seen about five people profess faith in Christ. It’s not for lack of trying. In fact, spiritual conversations are rather common; open hearts, however, are not.
The tough ministry soil and inconveniences of daily life would be difficult enough on their own, but remember—the Bakers are also living in a country in which a brutal Islamist group is now on the prowl. Thankfully, ISIS is not knocking on their door today, but the fact that they could be tomorrow is unsettling, to say the least.
So why, then, did the Bakers decide to move to Iraq—to ISIS— and why have they resolved to stay?
It’s All About Love
On the ground level, they are motivated by love.
“If you love someone,” Sean said, “then you’re going to grow to love what they love.”
It is clear to the Bakers that God loves the nations and His glory among them. So, because they love God, the Bakers love the nations and God’s glory among them.
Of course, God loves all the nations. So love, on its own, is not particularly helpful when it comes to determining where to go. To which nation are you supposed to give your life? To help answer this, one of Sean’s mentors gave him some advice: “Go somewhere where you’re not so easily replaceable.” If the meaning of that wisdom is not immediately clear, you are not alone. Sean explained with an illustration…
Think back to the last candlelight service you attended. You are in a room filled with people, perhaps hundreds, and everyone is holding an unlit candle. The lights dim and what starts as a single flame is passed, wick to wick, all across the room, until the once-dark room is lit up by hundreds of tiny candles. What happens if, at the climax of that time, your candle is accidentally blown out? Not much. The person next to you might not even notice, much less the person on the other side of the brightly lit room.
On the other hand, think about lighting a solitary candle in a totally dark room. It would not be nearly as bright as the room filled with candles, but neither would it be completely dark. You could see that one flame from across the room, its light flooding the shadows all around. In other words, to light a candle in a dark room is to maximize the impact of that candle.
“Our lives are short. So we want to maximize the impact of the light that we have in Christ,” Sean said. “For me, it made logical sense to go to the darkest place to shine our light, to go to the places that are unreached.”
Even in saying this, though, he made it clear that the Lord did not call them to Kurdistan or to ISIS. Not specifically. His and Allison’s decision to move to northern Iraq was simply the product of seeing the need and having an opportunity to go. When it came to maximizing their candle’s impact, taking that step made the most sense.
The Bakers have proven that logic by shining brightly in Kurdistan—and not just because white people in the mountains of northern Iraq stick out. The Gospel is, in a way, extremely easy for Sean to talk about there. So he does. This seems counterintuitive given the heavily Muslim and seemingly hostile context, not to mention ISIS. However, unlike in America where politics and religion are taboo icebreakers, in Kurdistan there is nothing people would rather discuss. There are plenty of open doors for gospel conversation, and Sean eagerly walks though them.
One at a Time
Here is one of the rare success stories. One day, Sean set out with an MP3 player full of Bible stories, praying that God would bring him to someone with an open heart. After walking around the bazaar for some time without any leads, he finally met a man we’ll call Matthew. Sean asked him how he was doing, and Matthew replied with a straightforward and atypical, “Not good.” In this regard, conversations in Kurdistan are similar to conversations in America—most of them begin with a customary, though often untrue, “I’m good, how are you?” Immediately, Sean recognized the open door.
Matthew began to tell Sean of his distaste for his own culture. In fact, in an attempt to learn of other cultures, Matthew had already read parts of the Bible. So naturally, he was excited to receive the MP3 player from Sean. What is more, Matthew agreed to listen to the Bible stories with Sean and talk about what they were hearing. They began doing this a couple of evenings each week. At some point, upon hearing about Jesus, Matthew prayed to receive Christ. As they continued meeting, Matthew saw that he could not believe in both the Koran and the Bible, so he surrendered the former completely.
There have been few Matthews in northern Iraq, but for the Bakers, this makes their responsibility to share the Gospel just as pressing. They are committed to sharing even though the people with whom they share may not respond today. In their past experience in China, it was not uncommon for members of their team to see multiple people come to Christ every week. Although the scene in Kurdistan is drastically less fruitful, thinking back to their time in China makes Sean and Allison hopeful.
A Time to Till
“In China we were reaping the harvest,” Sean said. “It was just amazing to be a part of. And now, where we are in northern Iraq, we are on the other side of that. We are tilling the ground. We’re pulling out the rocks. We’re not doing a whole lot of harvesting. But we can know–we can live and walk by faith—that the harvest is coming. There will be a healthy Kurdish church someday; I truly believe that. And so somebody’s got to do this work. Somebody’s got to till. Somebody tilled in China. If Hudson Taylor had not been there (for 51 years in the 1800s), there’s no way we would have been able to do what we were doing.”
Even now, though fruit is sparse, God is opening people’s hearts to the Gospel. According to Sean, people with truly open hearts are almost always connected to another local believer, or else they’ve had a dream or vision of Jesus. “I can think of very few exceptions to that,” he said. Whether to sow gospel seeds or explain gospel dreams, this just seems to confirm their ministry goals; establishing a solid ace of local believers is critical.
The local believers that already exist in Kurdistan are special gifts to the Bakers. There is nothing like being able to have deep fellowship with a believer from a totally different culture. Sean said such fellowship “really proves the unity of the blood of Christ.” This unity is much needed among the few Christ-followers that exist in Kurdistan because although their candles are lit, the large room is still extremely dim; and where there is darkness, there is difficulty.
Lighting More Candles in the ISIS Darkness
Here is part of what makes being a believer there so difficult: to be Kurdish is to be Muslim. The Kurdish identity is wrapped up in their family and tribe, and a part of the familial identity is Islam. The unchangeable Muslim ID card given to each Kurd at birth solidifies this. For the Kurds, to decide to follow Christ is to open themselves up to family disownment, social estrangement, and physical danger. Take Boaz, for instance. Boaz is a local believer who, after receiving death threats on his phone for being a Christ-follower, had an attempt on his life. Just months ago, a group of men he could not identify shot at him. By God’s grace, he survived the attack without harm, and by God’s grace, the persecution drew him closer to the Lord. But his family is in real danger.
Kurds who identify with Christ can expect such hostility. The Bakers however, are relatively safe from such social opposition. It is expected that they be Christian because they are American. ISIS, only a drive away, is another story. Though it does not pose an immediate threat for the Bakers right now, such accepting rationale definitely cannot be expected of its militants.
Sean said he sees the effects of ISIS in northern Iraq, even though their influence is currently indirect. In what may come as surprise, those effects are largely positive. For the first time in memory, people in northern Iraq are making jokes about Islam. This may seem insignificant and silly, but such an attitude was unheard of before ISIS. The barbaric organization’s association with Islam has served to bring the region’s status quo into question as people begin to loosen their grip on the religion they have for so long taken for granted.
Sean will be the first to tell you that Iraq is a dark place. However, there is soil to be tilled and preparation to be done, so the Bakers are laboring accordingly. They faithfully shine their lights for any and all who have eyes to see it. It may be now, or it may be years from now, but we have every reason to believe that a harvest is coming. We have every reason to trust that more candles will eventually be lit, even in the midst of ISIS.
After all, our God works in the dark.