From Infidel to Ambassador


I was cruising at an elevation of 800 feet above the feathery palm fronds, headed north up the coast. The tropical beach scenery and the amazing progression of reconstruction projects slipped past below. After years of rebuilding, much work remained to be done at the site of the 2004 tsunami.

Crossing a small bay, the pilot began a hovering decent onto a small, sandy helipad beside a river. Behind the beach, a slow-moving river and sand bank had created a shallow, marshy lagoon. The giant tsunami waves had curled over the beach and lagoon and crashed into the hill behind the village at a height of the coconut trees.

Five days after the great waves hit, my colleague, Don*, was among the first outsiders to arrive at that horrific scene of mounds of rubble and the stench of decaying bodies. In his own emotional upheaval he tried to give comfort, aid and love. But as he reached out his hand to a new friend, the response that came was unexpected. “I cannot return your blessing because you are an infidel.”

Six months later, Don, his wife and their two children moved to the area, praying that God would make clear in which village they should help. God led them to the lagoon. While visiting the family for a few days, I likened Don to the apostle Paul’s description of “ambassador”—one showing God’s peace (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

Survivors of the disaster had built a shantytown wedged against the base of the hill. They used any materials they could find: scavenged wood, tarps and canvas tents distributed by a relief agency. Don and his family explained that they were from a small organization called Compassion and Mercy Associates (CAMA), which did not have deep pockets. He also explained that that they were followers of Isa Almasih (the name from the villagers’ holy book for Jesus). Nonetheless, the people received Don and his family warmly and invited them to live there.

The men who built Don’s house were central figures in the village and made themselves Don’s trusted and dependable core-team leaders. They agreed with his philosophy of “personal sacrifice” (effort) for recovery rather than handouts, and they knew all the villagers. They helped Don select the people with the most needs, the ones who showed initiative and those who would use money wisely.

With a modest budget, Don procured farming and fishing supplies. He set up a system of micro-economic loans (the equivalent of about USD$100 each) for those who had already started a small business. After three months, the recipient repaid 50 percent of the loan into a pool of community money that could then be loaned to another person. Little by little, the team began to rebuild people’s lives.

As we sat together on their porch overlooking the village and the sparkling sea, Don’s wife pointed to the roofs below. “The lady who lives under that blue tarp lost her husband and didn’t have a way to support herself. She wanted to sell baked goods, so we got her pans and start-up supplies, a kerosene camp-style stove and a burner-top oven. Our neighbors over there processed soy beans before the tsunami, but they lost everything. We got them the equipment and supplies to restart that business. The two teenage girls living in that shack lost their parents, so we set one up with baking supplies and the other with a handicrafts business. The man who lives over there lost his wife and baby daughter. He was a fisherman and also lost his boat. We got him the tools, and he built himself another boat. Then we helped him get an engine.”

Hardly a “complete” family remained, and the trauma and grief were staggering. But the people were determined to overcome the terrible losses and get on with life.

The whole town’s economy needed rebuilding, and with the enthusiasm, guidance and financial backing of Don and his local team, the villagers resolved to move forward. Fishing boats were built and nets distributed. Two men were given chainsaws and repaid the loan in slab boards. Three carpenters were given tools and began making simple furniture.

Through the micro-loan program, a woman who lost her husband opened a small restaurant. Several coffee shops, three barbershops, a motorcycle repair “garage,” two “gas stations” (selling fuel in one-liter bottles) and several tiny “stores” were started. Also, Don and his men repaired several small bridges between their village and a larger community several miles south. This helped to connect the village with a center for many aid organizations, enabling the construction of a gravel airstrip that continues to be used.

Most importantly, Don the Ambassador built relationships. He had carefully studied and prepared, and at every opportunity that he “earned,” he spoke into the people’s lives on a spiritual level, offering honest and sensitive answers to questions of why he helped them and what he believed.

Don was the first ambassador for Jesus the people near the lagoon had ever met. They grew to love his wife and two sons. Don and his family are no longer called infidels; the villagers now call them friends.

Don and his family are now meeting needs in another part of the country. But the foundation of love that was laid by them continues.

*Name changed.

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