Don Graham/International Mission Board
Editor’s note: Mary and John Harper* served in South Asia as Southern Baptist representatives through gifts to the Cooperative Program, which fund the presence and missions outreach of nearly 5,000 Southern Baptist personnel internationally. (*Name changed)
CENTRAL ASIA (BP) – John Harper* had just blown it. The Missouri-born Southern Baptist missionary watched as a wave of anger washed over the face of his new friend, Rasheed,* whom he’d just told that Jesus wasn’t a prophet (as the Quran describes), but God’s Son – a very offensive idea to most Muslims.
“He immediately changed the subject,” John says, worried that his directness had cost him the chance to forge a long-term relationship for the sake of the gospel. “I thought he’d never call me again.”
And that’s exactly what Rasheed was planning to do. Put off by the “blasphemous” idea that God could have a son (which many Muslims mistakenly believe implies that God physically had sex with Mary), Rasheed resolved to wash his hands of his new American friend. But there was a voice inside him that told Rasheed otherwise.
“I am 100 percent certain this was not from me,” Rasheed explains. It said, “Bring yourself closer to that man, develop a relationship with him, listen to him, and he will tell you the way of truth and light.”
John was surprised to get a call from Rasheed a few days later, asking if they could meet. Over the next few weeks, the men began to slowly connect. Each time they visited, John looked for opportunities to share bits and pieces of truth. Rasheed remembers one summer evening in particular. It was late, almost dark, and the two were chatting quietly in Rasheed’s garden.
“He told me everything,” Rasheed says, about his belief in Jesus. “When John was talking it was almost like there was light coming off his face…. He spoke without any fear.”
But Rasheed wasn’t the only one listening. “My wife (Helis*) came. She sat down. She heard it and was very angry, said terrible things,” Rasheed recalls. Helis banned John from the couple’s home and told Rasheed he was forbidden to speak to him.
That was the night, Rasheed says, when he and John became brothers instead of friends.
Hungry for the Word
Barred from the house by Helis, John began meeting Rasheed at his shop in the market. They continued to discuss the gospel, and Rasheed asked for a Bible under the guise of wanting to learn English. John gave him an Arabic-English version, which Helis quickly banished from their house, too.
“She said burn it, throw it away, I don’t care, but you can’t have that,” Rasheed says. “She kept screaming at me saying these are lies.”
He would sometimes sneak and read late at night, but eventually Rasheed realized it was far easier to escape Helis’ wrath if he read at his shop while waiting for customers.
The more he read, the more he wanted to know. “It’s like when someone is really hungry and they really want to eat food, in the same way I wanted to go read that Book,” Rasheed says. “It was a hunger for the Word.”
As John continued to share the gospel with Rasheed, he knew it was important for his friend to meet another local from their city who also believed in Jesus. John introduced Rasheed to Ahsan,* his close friend and church-planting partner. Ahsan was quick to explain the severity of the path Rasheed was courting.
“He said belief is hard,” Rasheed remembers. “Following Jesus is not an easy way, especially here, everything terrible comes into the path of believers. You might be killed.”
But Ahsan’s warnings didn’t deter Rasheed. He continued to meet with Ahsan and John, who also connected Rasheed with several other ex-patriot Christians in town. Rasheed’s faith was reaching critical mass; he knew the time was coming when he would have to make a decision.
Vision of Jesus
Then in February 2011 it happened. Asleep at home, Rasheed had a dream that would change his life. Except it wasn’t a dream, he says – it was a vision from God.
“I was in a scary, cold and dark place. There was a rock wall surrounding me and I knew something terrible would happen, like people were coming to kill me,” Rasheed recalls. “Then I saw a light come down on me, in the shape of a person, wearing white clothes with a brown sash. Until the day I die I will never forget this.”
The man, bathed in light, reached out His hand to Rasheed. “He told me, in my language, don’t be afraid, give Me your hand, come with Me and you will be safe.”
Then Rasheed woke up. “That wasn’t a dream. In my entire life I’ve never seen a dream like that,” he says. It was very early in the morning, around 3:30, but Rasheed says he was so excited he couldn’t go back to sleep. He also couldn’t wait to tell John.
“Everything I had read, everything I had pursued, everything I had been learning up to that point was true,” Rasheed says. “In my heart there became this joy, and I saw the world through eyes of mercy. And I said no matter what happens, whatever comes into my life, this will be the path that I take.”
That’s when the real persecution began. Helis knew Rasheed had given his heart to Jesus and ramped up her vitriolic attacks accordingly. Though her husband was keeping his new faith a secret for now, Helis realized she would be an outcast by association if it were revealed that Rasheed had become an infidel.
Late one night Helis called Jill Foster,* a short-term Christian worker from Oklahoma, and asked her to come over right away. Foster was a member of John’s team and had been trying to befriend Helis while John discipled Rasheed.
Foster could tell something was wrong from the tone in Helis’ voice, but she wasn’t prepared for what she saw when Helis answered the door. Splintered wood from smashed furniture was strewn across the living room. Helis was in tears, her makeup smeared, her dress ripped. The couple’s young daughter was curled up in a ball in a corner, crying. Rasheed sat dazed, chain smoking cigarettes (he does not smoke) to try to calm down. It was obvious the couple had just had a massive fight.
Ushering Foster inside, Helis launched into a tirade against Rasheed, accusing him of everything from adultery to physical abuse. Foster knew Rasheed had been guilty of beating Helis before his conversion, but his behavior had changed radically since accepting Jesus. Foster suspected she was being manipulated.
“There were a couple of times Helis looked at me, and I could be imagining it, but her pupils literally almost looked like slits. I really felt the presence of the enemy,” Foster says, wondering whether Helis might be demon-possessed.
“She proceeded to talk about how he’d become an infidel and sold his belief and how that made her dirty,” Foster says, “trying to get me to take her side.” But even though Foster wasn’t falling for her ploy, Helis had another trick up her sleeve. She’d hidden a small tape recorder.
“Helis used our presence there to manipulate her husband into confessing his faith in Jesus out loud,” Foster says. Helis got the whole thing on tape and told Rasheed she would share the tape with his family if he didn’t return to Islam. Rasheed refused but didn’t try to stop her.
Helis made good on her promise, revealing Rasheed’s “dirty little secret” to his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and beyond. She also recruited her brother-in-law, Saif,* a local religious leader, to help set her wayward husband straight. It was the first time Rasheed was truly frightened because of his decision to follow Christ.
“I’m probably going to lose my wife and my kids and I might get killed,” he thought. Not knowing what else to do, he called John for help.
When Saif arrived, Helis told him everything and played the recording of Rasheed’s confession.
“Have you forgotten your tribe? Forgotten your mom and dad? Where is your religion? Why have you done this?” Saif asked. “What did they do to benefit you? Did they give you money, cars, houses, land?”
Rasheed told Saif he’d received nothing but didn’t deny that he had become a Christian. “I believe in this, and whatever happens, happens,” he told his brother-in-law.
Saif began threatening to take Rasheed to court to divorce Helis when John arrived.
“It was like 10 lions came into the room with him,” Rasheed says. Without hesitation, John boldly defended Rasheed’s decision, but as he and Saif argued back and forth the Islamic leader quickly ran out of things to say.
“The guy is really smart, he has a master’s degree or something. No one can speak like him,” Rasheed says. “But it was like someone shut his mouth. He couldn’t talk. He didn’t know what to say after John finished his speech.”
Rasheed felt an incredible sense of relief. “I looked at John. He was laughing. My wife, she was crazy with anger; it was like fire shooting out from her.”
Despite such turmoil, Rasheed says he is grateful to God for his relationship with John and his wife, Mary,* and for using the Harper family to lead him to Jesus. The family’s departure from Central Asia in 2012 due to Mary’s ALS diagnosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) came as a hard blow.
“When I knew John was going to leave it was like someone takes a bone out of your back and you’re paralyzed,” Rasheed says. “God brought us together. … They helped me walk in the faith. Lots of things happened, but John always had my back.”
But Rasheed knows John didn’t do it alone.
“John’s strength was Mary. There aren’t many women like Mary; strong, long-suffering, patient, beautiful – it was the Spirit of God inside her body. … Until like the day I die, I will never forget Mary and I pray that God will be with her in her suffering.”
That strong spousal support is something Rasheed will probably never know. Saif didn’t follow through on the divorce threats, and so far Rasheed’s family hasn’t lashed out against his faith. But he’s paying the price for his faith at home.
His marriage with Helis remains on the rocks, and his son and daughter are caught in the middle. He struggles to know what to tell them. Despite Helis’ hostility, Rasheed still looks for opportunities to share Christ with her, though his actions speak the loudest.
“I was terrible to her,” Rasheed admits. “We didn’t have any love in our relationship. But then I became a believer and changed 100 percent. I became a better husband. I didn’t lie, I didn’t mistreat her; I loved her.”
But even if things between the couple never improve, Rasheed says it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make in exchange for the joy he has in Jesus.
“When someone believes in Jesus, especially among my people and Muslims, you can be 100 percent sure that you’re not going to see anything good for the rest of your life,” Rasheed says. “You have to have strength and conviction to continue [following Christ], you can’t be afraid.
“All those terrible things I’ve seen and all those difficulties I went through, God has used them for good in my life and I’m thankful.”
He often looks back to that night when Jesus visited him in his dreams, reached out His hand and said don’t be afraid.
“Anyone who knows the Word of God will not be without hope. That’s God’s promise,” Rasheed says. “Life in this world is short. True life is in heaven. I’m waiting on that day.”
In the meantime, Rasheed says there is a need for many more workers like the Harpers to share the gospel with his people.
“People here have eyes of darkness. Their eyes are open, but they can’t see. Their hearts are closed,” Rasheed says. “But they want to know the Truth. They want to read the Word of God, to know why Christians say Jesus is the Son of God.
“Right now is the time to spread the Good News in my land. Right now is the time to lift up the banner of God.”