I am reminded of the rather odd librarian I grew up with, the one who seemed to know about every book on the five foot tall shelves that divided the closet-sized room in half and lined the walls from floor to ceiling. With her prompting, I read more missionary biographies than I would have otherwise chosen--those about Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, William Carey, David Livingstone.
These biographies, though, seemed to be more dead words on wood pulp than a real life captured in print. There was so much first person insight missing that I wanted to know, the little details that turned a two dimensional paper doll into a living, breathing human with flaws and failures. I wondered about the person's struggles with faith, with difficulty, with not making a huge difference within their lifetime. Sure, these names are set on pedestals now, but not back then when the person answered to it.
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As you might imagine, I don't read many page turners. Most sentences that cross my desk are either written by green college freshmen struggling to communicate clearly in non-texting English or by serious, soul-searching PhDs that send me Scripture-scampering to contemplate theology in practical application.
And yet, I've spent the past week with two such page-turners on my night stand, their glossy covers tempting me to sacrifice sleep and devour their as of yet unknown wisdom.
Audra Grace Shelby's Behind the Veils of Yemen: How an American Woman Risked Her Life, Family and Faith to Bring Jesus to Muslim Women is an account of an average family who stuffed everything into a crate and moved to the conservative Islamic country of Yemen to be missionaries.
Shelby describes her family's struggle with health issues, with family who thought they were crazy, a foreign language, loneliness, Yemen men's treatment of females, and the inability to break through barriers the Islamic community keeps in place between foreign "infidels" and themselves. As she says of one woman she became guarded friends with, "She wanted my prayers, my strength and my hope, but she wanted to get them her way" (163).
Unlike some of the biographies of my childhood, Shelby's text gives the living breath of autobiography. She's a living testament who shares honestly, sincerely, those personal struggles with her own wavering faith in Christ, a concept I tend to forget when I hear the almost hallowed term "missionary."
Shelby shows the power of prayer, the difficulties of giving people to God when all you've done is planted seeds that seem to fall on hard earth, and most of all, how even being in the center of God's will does not exempt Christians from experiencing difficulties that try our faith.
More than anything, Shelby's book is a call for other Christians to pick up the gauntlet and search their own souls for whether God would have them serve in any way within oppressive Islamic countries like Yemen. She directly addresses the fear Western Christians have about working in such countries, describing a scene where she told her Yemeni friend she should visit America:
"'Oh no!' Amal's eyes grew wide. 'I am afraid of Amerika. They will rob me on the street or shoot me there!' Her voice trailed to a whisper. 'They will rape me...My friend tells me. She watches the news from Amrika on the television. Every day there are killings and robberies and raping of women!'"...
"I paused and cleared my throat. 'Amal, do you know that my friends are afraid to come to Yemen?'
She was astonished. 'But why?' she asked.
'They are afraid they will be killed by terrorists.'
"Oh! But we are not like that, Audra. Only a few!' she exclaimed.
I smiled. 'Aywa [Yes]. And Amrika is not like all the bad news you hear. Only a few.'" (213)
It makes me wonder what joy Satan gets from spreads the contagion of fear across the airways, fear that binds Christians, keeping them from sharing the gospel on hard soil that needs someone to help till it.
**For my review, I receive no compensation from Bethany House Publishers other than a complementary copy of the text.