A Time to Die

It took six days travelling by bus, train and boat for nine nationals from this Central Asian country to make the journey to Sweden in 1998 to attend a missions conference. By the time they got there they were exhausted, dirty and starving. During the conference they were challenged to begin by doing missionary work in their own community. They prayed, made a list of places they could try to serve and made the journey back home. This type of trip was and still is illegal but triggered a work that has produced countless changed lives.

On the list they wrote the name of a retirement home located about 20 kilometres from where they lived. Nearly 60 people at a time live inside the walls of this old Soviet building that hasn’t received much more than a coat of paint since it was built 40 years ago. The reason this place was put on their hearts is because this is where someone is placed when there is no one to hold their hand as they die or they’ve been rejected from their family and have nowhere else to go. Cement floors and walls, old wooden windows and a small bed with rusted springs is what the residents call home for their last days. They are given an old stained mattress and one blanket. There is no running water inside and they use outside pit latrines all year round. The poorly paid staff barely pay attention to the residents’ needs and even keep food and blankets for themselves. When someone ends up here their head hangs low because for most rejection is worse than death in a culture that values family above all else.

Two out of the group decided to make the journey to the retirement home on their own, beginning what will became the first of many visits. We began by just sitting, listening, and singing going from room to room. We took opportunities to share the gospel and pray for everyone. When we returned to our house church our stories inspired others who began to give us clothes and blankets to take and some even joined in the visits. Soon the residents began eagerly to await their guests.

While visiting, many shared their stories anxious to talk with someone. Rasul shared how he left his home when he was twenty years old and never went back. For forty years he lived without contacting his family. He was very ashamed because as the only son he is required to take care of his parents who eventually died without knowing what happened to him. He lived with many women and spent most of his life living carelessly. As they began to talk with him they encouraged him to try to reconnect with his sisters. His shame was so strong he said he could not but eventually gave them permission to write to his family. His sister travelled from another city and cried as she told them how they had already had a funeral for him several years ago thinking he had died. Rasul received the Lord and several more visits from his sisters till he died a few years later.

Another man always liked to sit close and hold hands while talking because he had become blind. He finally shared how he had used to drink till he would pass out. One day he drank so much that when he came home he couldn’t even unlock his door and passed out in the stairwell. When he woke up he couldn’t see. While we were sitting with him he heard the gospel and said “God has opened my eyes. I was blind but now I can see.” Within a week he passed away.

Sharing the gospel in a Muslim culture always requires wisdom. Most in the retirement home would initially reject what was told to them but eventually after coming again and again they would tell us that not even their family visits them. We were told that the visits gave them enough energy and hope for another week when otherwise it seemed like all hope was lost. The staff began to tell us to come more often because the residents were calmer and friendlier after our visits. Eventually we knew each other by name.

In such rough conditions it becomes obvious when someone is about to die. They receive very little medical care so are quickly taken by sicknesses and also have to survive very cold winters with minimal heat. Even when someone received the Lord we would know inside that they wouldn’t be there when we came the next time. We lost count of how many passed away after we had the chance to pray with them. With each who passed away a new resident came in their place.

After more than ten years trips are still made to the retirement home. We’ve seen many residents come and go. Now each visit begins in a large room where those who can walk gather in a circle along the walls and listen as we sing and tell them stories about those who lived the faith before us. After that rounds are made to those who are confined to their beds. We’ve had days where we had to quickly and quietly leave because of religious opposition. We don’t always know how much impact a few cookies and a brief conversation has but we learned not to underestimate how meaningful a short interaction can be with someone who thinks the world has forgotten them.