It may have been one of the worst weeks of my life, the week I spent in a desert oasis village.
I had been in my host country for less than a year, working hard at learning the language. I was determined to master the local dialect of Arabic. I saw that as essential for effectively communicating the Good News to those among whom God had placed me.
There were no formal language learning programs available in the area where my teammates and I lived. That meant I had to plan all my own lessons—as well as convince my language helpers to humor me with the crazy little activities that were supposed to help me learn.
What I really needed, though, was a total immersion experience. I needed to be forced to speak the language, away from the temptation to just get by in English or the regional trade language.
That’s how I ended up spending a week in a remote desert oasis village, living with a local family with six children.
The village spread out into a flat valley between two rocky cliffs. Clusters of date palms were scattered on the edges of the village. A small but beautiful oasis, with several shallow pools fed by a natural spring, was tucked into the narrow crevice where the cliffs met.
The village was much hotter than the coastal city I resided in. Even though the oasis stayed cool, thanks to the stream trickling through the shelter of the high canyon walls, it had little effect on the temperatures in the village. Daytime temperatures in the village often hovered around 100 degrees, and temperatures didn’t seem to ease until just before dawn.
We all slept outside on the sand, trying to imbibe cool refreshment from the starry sky. But the glamour of sleeping under that desert canopy faded quickly. Sand actually isn’t very comfortable—especially when trying to remain modestly covered in the heat under the full-length veil that all village women wear. Additionally, I wasn’t supposed to roll over on to my back—a huge cultural faux pas for women, as it was considered suggestive.
In the mornings, I would wake up to a grandmother yelling at one of the children to fetch her water. That would be my cue to slip into the hut and search my bag for a packet of instant coffee, into which I’d pour a little bit of drinking water. I’d stir it around gently, toss it into my mouth, and pound it down.
Throughout the rest of the day, I’d get sticky little glasses of sugary green mint tea placed into my hand. I averaged about 18 glasses of the potent elixir every day, and my hosts still felt that I wasn’t drinking enough. After that intensive week, I vowed never to drink the concoction again.
Breakfast involved a handful of raw peanuts and dry biscuits. Then I would head to a small tin-roofed hut in the middle of the village to teach a dozen teenage girls and boys. They were an unruly lot who frequently mocked my quirky-sounding Arabic. Two hours was about all we could handle before the heat drove us out of the stifling hut.
Most of us would imagine a village such as this as peaceful, quiet, and alluring. But that was far from the reality in which I found myself. The household I was staying in was filled with jealousy, anger, and violence.
I had been in the culture long enough to know that child-rearing practices were different from what I grew up with in America. Adults were quick to discipline children with a harsh word, slap, or threat. Correction came with no explanation for why a given behavior was out of line.
But in this household, threats, curses, and rocks were thrown at everyone—by everyone. Even the young children targeted their parents with foul words and projectiles.
One afternoon, when a misdirected rock whizzed past my head, I told myself that if I ever got hit in the crossfire, I would pack up and walk myself to the paved road six miles away and catch a ride to my city 400 kilometers away.
By the time my week in the village came to a close, I was worn out by the tension of living amidst the family’s ongoing violence, anger, and brokenness. I relished the thought of squeezing into a decrepit and stifling little taxi, even if it meant spending seven hours in a narrow back seat with three other women, our hips crushing painfully against each other. It seemed a small price to pay for my escape.
For a long time, I wanted to chalk up that week as one of the worst in my life.
But isn’t God the master Redeemer?
I can also be quite oblivious to the spiritual realities around me. But even to my oblivious self, it was obvious that an insidious power had mastered the members of this family. Their anger, the violence, the large amulets bound to their arms—these were simply signs pointing to the pain and lostness of souls searching for an escape from Satan’s lawless occupation.
By spending a week in that village, I may have very well been the first person they ever saw live out a redeemed life in Jesus. They probably had never encountered the peace of Christ before—even if it came packaged in the broken vessel that I am. And most likely, the truths I shared with them were their first tastes of the streams of Living Water—so much clearer and sweeter than the streams feeding the pools in the oasis.
There was one evening when I sat outside with the young children while my host mother prepared a dinner of pasta, beef gristle, and vegetable oil. We were all bored out of our minds, so I started telling them stories from the Bible. The children were captivated. Living in a village with no electricity meant there was no television, so leisure hours were spent socializing with all the same people and retelling old and tired stories. These kids were starving for something new.
One of the stories I shared was about the boy Samuel, who was awoken in the night by a voice calling his name. Three times the Lord called him, until Samuel finally responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10) God then told the boy what He was going to do in days to come.