By Kevin Dooley
So what does the kingdom of Heaven look like when it shows up among refugees and immigrants in your town and mine?
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are living in a unique time in the history of Christianity—a time when obeying the last commandment of Jesus to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) may not include air travel, but rather taking a taxi home from the airport.
For more than two decades my wife, Kim, and I have lived and worked cross-culturally seeking to honor God among the poorest of the poor in Central America, and living and working among others in the Greater Middle East who have never known or had the opportunity to meet a follower of Christ.
Each initiative requires getting on a plane and traveling to another continent, learning more about the host language and culture, and contextualizing the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-39) and truly loving our neighbor in culturally relevant and meaningful ways.
Several years ago we were kicked out of the country we felt called to serve, and we were banned from reentering for political reasons beyond our control. Leaving friends, a home, and business in North Africa was discouraging at first, but God soon revealed a greater work in the heart of the Bible Belt among those he had laid on our hearts. Soon I was tutoring international students in English, and helping to form a network to provide student services for hundreds of international students in our city and tens of thousands across North America.
Recruiting, training, and mobilizing volunteers was a common thread of our work on distant continents, but the marketplace and streets near me, it seems, is where my faith gains traction, where the rubber meets the road.
Conversations of Faith
One Friday afternoon I found myself eating couscous with Moulay, a new North African friend and taxi driver in our city. We talked about the struggles and opportunities for the immigrant and refugee taxi drivers in our town. That friendship started one of dozens of friendships with refugees and immigrants in our city that God would use to grow my own faith and plant seeds of faith in others.
Moulay inspired me to buy a taxi and lease it to taxi drivers. Soon a small group of investors (family and close friends) financed the first two taxis in my newly formed company. The leases would cover the cost of doing business and would repay the initial investments while providing dependable taxis for refugee and immigrant drivers in our city.
For almost two years I leased cabs to Sa’id, who had left his mother and younger brothers in a refugee camp in Kenya to find help and hope through the United Nations refugee resettlement program. He had seen his own father killed by terrorists in Somalia years before and was forced to raise his younger brothers just across the border in a refugee camp in Kenya. Today Sa’id works two jobs and sends money to his family in Kenya so his brothers might have a proper education and life outside of the refugee camp.
Conversations of faith were frequent since Sa’id had no other friends who followed Jesus. Christian concepts of forgiveness, grace, and God’s unconditional love for all people are mind-blowing for Sa’id.
Clarity comes in combining Word and deed, revealing the truth of the gospel. That usually happened while changing out a dead battery in a taxi queue in front of a major hotel downtown during rush hour, or repairing a tire in slush and snow, or cleaning the headlights and changing wiper blades on a rainy night.
For me, lessons learned in “loving your neighbor” are best learned in the marketplace. Jesus’ example of doing the majority of his teaching in and through the marketplace, and Paul’s tent-making impact on his business team and his unique strategy for the expansion of the church, only add to the relevancy of the Christian message.
As a very devout Muslim, Rachid was argumentative at first, always ready to debate his new Christian friend on the superiority of his religion over mine. After all, I was the only Christian leasing taxis for drivers in the Moroccan-owned taxi company in our city in the Midwest. Every month I would give Rachid payment for circulating my taxis in their company, and several times a week we would talk about available drivers and taxis . . . and faith.
We laughed as we celebrated the birth of his child and mourned the death of his father back in the Middle East. I never missed a chance to invite Rachid for Thanksgiving or for a Christmas or Easter program at church. Rachid always reminded me, “Mr Kevin (KEE’vn), I will call you first when a cabdriver is looking for a taxi to rent.” He said it was because I was the only taxi owner who pays his bills on time, but I know it is because of something else.
Demonstrations of Faith
So, what does the kingdom of Heaven look like when it shows up in your city or mine? What do refugees in our cities long to see which they have never seen before if they have not been befriended by a follower of Jesus? Christian Scripture reveals that the effects of a personal faith in Jesus Christ on a believer will produce love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23). But what does this look like to our Muslim friends who have never previously befriended a follower of Jesus?
I had leased a taxi to Mohamed, an engineer with children the ages of my own; our sons had competed against each other in cross-country in high school. In addition to driving a taxi at the airport, Mohamed was studying at the university and wanted some help with accent reduction; at least that is what he claimed. He needed a native speaker of English to help him change his “ziss an zat” to “this and that,” and he asked if we could meet at our church. Only a handful of times has a Muslim friend actually asked to come to church! Mohamed knew where I went to church since a group of volunteers from church were actively praying for and befriending taxi drivers at the airport.
I recruited a few retirees from church to help Mohamed with the language and culture classes in the church library. At first the retired engineer and dentist were hesitant (more so about tutoring English than making a new friend from the taxi-driver community), but when Mohamed’s true motivation for meeting us was revealed, their determination intensified.
After our first session I asked Mohamed, “Have you ever been inside a church building before?”
“No, never before now.”
“Would you like to know what we do here?”
With Mohamed’s eager, “Yes!” I gave him the campus tour describing what goes on in a Christian worship service, why we meet when we do, the meaning behind the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper, youth programs, etc., and with each stop on the tour we talked about the need for faith for our families in uncertain times.
I had had a friendship with Mohamed through the taxi business before our tutoring sessions began, but he had not rented a cab from me in a while and our communications seemed to have dropped off. He had just returned from visiting his family in Africa, and I was surprised when he approached me about tutoring. It was then that he revealed his concern for his wife, who had been diagnosed with stage-three cancer.
Our tutoring sessions included introducing Mohamed to cancer survivors at church who helped to find answers about health-care options for some pretty big decisions his family was facing. Today, Mohamed’s wife is a cancer survivor; and, with some career coaching involving other Christian professionals, Mohamed has landed an engineering job in his field of expertise. Mohamed’s family sees Christian faith in a whole new way, and the Christians who have been praying for them see the immigrant and refugee community through a new set of eyes as well.
I wish I could report that the taxi business was a huge financial success, and that every refugee taxi driver inspired boldness and compassion in my life, and that every relationship in business led to a deep spiritual awakening. But then I would be missing God’s richest blessings on my life and his most powerful witness for those around me. My life verse during the height of my taxi business became James 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
I found out quickly that producing “joy” was relatively easy—I could do that on my own. But, “pure joy” on the other hand, only God could give, and he has chosen to do so, for my benefit, in times of difficulty and trials.
I thought I had learned this in Central America decades ago while serving a growing faith community dealing with injustices and poverty in the midst of a civil war. I certainly witnessed pure joy among the believers we served throughout Central America and the Caribbean. God even allowed us to see pure joy in the midst of unimaginable genocide in the Balkans, mobilizing faith-based medical and relief initiatives. Yes, we endured trials and tasted pure joy on more than one occasion since then, but in comparison to those we were sent to serve, we had only a small taste.
The taxi business has certainly delivered opportunities to experience and endure “trials of many kinds” and has helped us to mature in our faith in Jesus.
Abduwalli is a young refugee studying at the university and driving a taxi part-time in our city. He is a cousin (of the same tribe) of other taxi drivers for whom I have provided services. He helped me discover just how broad the term trials of many kinds actually is. Sure, a few mishaps like knocking off side mirrors or hitting curbs and destroying tires while breaking wheel bearings are expected. After all, God is giving me more time with the immigrant mechanic population downtown too, right?
My prayer life certainly improved, but joy seemed harder to come by. One of my drivers took rides out of state, and I received his fines in the mail for blowing through tolls in Chicago. Yes, trials of many kinds seemed to be increasing.
Only a few taxi drivers showed hostility and anger toward American cultural ways, politics, and a faith different from their own, but just a few. God was answering my prayers and demonstrating his love for me and for those I was serving by allowing me truly to experience pure joy and to know him in ways I had never known before.
Pure joy came to me late one Saturday night when Abdu called my cell and asked me to come to the city and unlock his taxi. He had locked his keys inside the taxi for the second time. At that moment I was unable to conjure any love or kindness on my own for Abdu. He had already cost me much more than his contribution to his part-time taxi lease, and he was consuming time and energy I simply did not seem to have. I had been looking over a lesson I would be teaching at church in the morning, so God had my attention. This was my pure joy moment—I knew it!
The moment when I feel no love for someone on my own, that is when the fruit of the Spirit kicks in and provides an inexpressible love. This is the power of the body of Christ on earth, the church! A gospel witness is most convincing when God provides his love in the presence of hatred, his joy in the midst of despair, his peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness in the face of a prevailing spirit of hostility and brutality seen in almost every headline today. Pure joy is encountered at the end of our own capacity, and then it endures.
It is only by the power and strength provided by God through faith in what he has accomplished for humanity that we can accomplish anything lasting. This pure joy persevering in trials of many kinds provides the most convincing witness to the world for faith in Jesus. It is no wonder God has used persecution and suffering more than prosperity to advance his message of hope and salvation to the nations.
Now, here in the crossroads of America, I am blessed to serve followers of Jesus who have come out of other faith backgrounds, and I am inspired by their pure joy as we lean into trials of many kinds together. Serving together with the persecuted church globally and learning to love our neighbors locally, followers of Jesus in the Bible Belt have a unique opportunity and the power to demonstrate pure joy at taxi queues outside of most Kroger stores in Cincinnati, and lined up at the curb outside of convention centers and sporting events in Columbus, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and on both sides of the riverfront in Louisville. At the time of this writing, the largest of the ethnic groups of taxi drivers in each of these cities are refugees from an East African country taken hostage by terrorists.
Given the current climate of hatred and division in our nation, and of fear in the face of global terrorism, the church is living in the best of times to complete the task of the church by the power of his enduring love.
Yes, we are living in a unique time in the history of Christianity, when the kingdom of Heaven is showing up joyfully tutoring English, and living and working intentionally in our cities, showing love to an immigrant or refugee neighbor, providing a homestay or meal for an international student, and taking a taxi home from the airport.
Kevin Dooley is chief development officer/multicultural consulting partner with Central India Christian Mission. He and his wife, Kim, have four children and reside in Avon, Indiana.