Farida is intimately familiar with the cost of following Jesus.
As a 15-year-old Muslim woman from North Africa, she heard the gospel from a nurse, who then invited her to a two-day youth camp. At first, Farida rejected the gospel. Despite having immigrated to Paris with her family at a young age, she saw her identity fully as a North African and a Muslim, and felt that the gospel was not for her. But after hearing a message about Jesus Christ at a Young Life outing on the Seine River, she couldn’t deny that she saw herself in God’s story.
“A guy began to share about Jesus Christ, and I was really mad.” Farida recalled. “[But] at the end of the sermon I felt like he was really describing my life, and I was attracted by Jesus. This is how I came to Christ.”
Farida’s conversion to Christianity, however, was met by enormous backlash from her parents, who forbade her from going to church. At the time—50 years ago now—there were not many Muslims coming to Christ, Farida explained. Her decision to follow Jesus was considered an act of treason for leaving the Muslim community. But, confident in her decision and unwilling to stop going to church, Farida chose, at the age of 15, to leave home. She stayed on the street, having nowhere else to go. Paris police finally took her to jail where she remained for three days.
Farida’s conversion to Christianity, however, was met by enormous backlash from her parents, who forbade her from going to church. …Her decision to follow Jesus was considered an act of treason for leaving the Muslim community. But, confident in her decision and unwilling to stop going to church, Farida chose, at the age of 15, to leave home. She stayed on the street, having nowhere else to go.
“A judge for children asked me why I did not want to return to my family,” Farida explained. “He asked if they were mistreating me. I told him my mother never did anything to me, but that I did not want to return if I would not be able to go to church.” The judge told her that he couldn’t do anything for her and that, if she did not return home, he would have to send her to a detention hall. Farida, convinced of the absolute truth of Jesus Christ, chose the detention hall, and stayed there until she was a legal adult.
A few years later, Farida got the chance to do theological studies in Paris. When she graduated in 1979, she co-founded a ministry with Urbana speaker and Fuller Theological Seminary professor Evelyne Reisacher called L’Ami to assist other North African Christians living in France.
When Farida and Evelyne began their ministry, they started with two or three converts. But soon, through God’s work in France, that number grew to several hundred. Their focus was not on growing their organization but rather on making disciples, so they were identifying and training converts to be leaders who could then go on to start their own ministries. Now, there are thousands of Christians of Muslim background living throughout France. Farida also works with leaders in North Africa, which she said is the place where the fastest growth of Christians in the Muslim world is happening.
The need for ministry to Christians of Muslim background is important for many reasons, including creating a community for those who lose their families and support systems as a result of their decision to follow Jesus. “When you’re really involved in family and you follow Jesus, you lose everything. Everything,” Farida explained. “We are taking people outside of their own community and we are building nothing. How can people survive? How can they stay deeply involved in their faith and also feel part of the body of Christ?”
Farida and Evelyne have found that community is crucial to many North Africans sustaining their faith throughout their life. Farida, who also went on to earn her MA and PhD from Fuller Seminary, said she is concerned with how to help new Christians stay connected with the cross through all seasons of their lives, including in older age when habits and customs have even more influence over us.
Many Christians of Muslim background also need help navigating cultural differences in the Western church. Culturally, Muslims deeply emphasize family and community. It is puzzling for some to hear the ideas of family and the body of Christ preached in the church, but then not see relationships emphasized outside worship times.
“My mother told me my whole childhood that the most important thing is your brothers and sisters and family. Give your life for your brothers and sisters,” Farida explained. “Then suddenly you’re a Christian and you’re using similar words, but not with the same meaning, and you are completely lost.”
Though there are grave consequences for a Muslim person’s life if they are to hear and accept the gospel, Farida and Evelyne continue to see much fruit from their ministry to North African Christians, and they are encouraged by the faith stories they witness.
One woman they know from North Africa was married off to a North African man living in Paris. The first Sunday she arrived in France, she discovered her husband was a Christian when he told her they were going to church. He had kept this fact a secret from their families. As she attended church, she began to open up to the gospel. One day, her husband suddenly decided to leave her and her baby, claiming that he was not interested in continuing to follow Jesus. Through this situation, the woman came to receive Christ and was baptized, all the while keeping this a secret from her family. When they heard that she had been abandoned in Paris, her parents told her to return home to North Africa since, in Muslim culture, women are not permitted to stay alone. According to Farida, this woman returned home with nothing but a small book of Proverbs which she hid from her family. With God’s leading and assurance, for over 20 years she lived with her parents, brothers, and sisters, with no interaction with other Christians, and still maintained her faith in Christ.
“For my whole life, I will never forget what she said to me,” Farida said. “She said, ‘You know, Farida, during this terrible time when for 20 years, I had no fellowship, Jesus was with me all the time. I never felt alone and I will never lose this faith, even for my freedom.”
You can hear more stories from Farida and Evelyne about cross-cultural ministry and their work with Muslims and North Africans at a seminar today from 2 to 3 p.m., titled Nurturing Cross-Cultural Relations.
Photo is of a woman in the Persian Speaking world. Used courtesy of Open Doors, which is supporting the church in the Persian Speaking world through Bible and Christian literature distribution, training (discipleship training, trauma training), supporting Christian multimedia initiatives for the region, and advocacy.