Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Conversations in Afghanistan

Leslie Basham: When Kate McCord first arrived in Afghanistan and began to live life among the Afghani people, she was surprised how quickly the conversations would turn to the deepest things in life.

Kate McCord: They have a sense that, somehow, God is control and God is the answer to their problems—they just don’t know to find God in a personal way, in a way for their society.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Monday, August 17, 2015.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: We’re continuing today in a fascinating, eye-opening conversation with Kate McCord. That’s not actually her name, but she goes by that name—it’s a pseudonym.  She’s an author of a book called In the Land of Blue Burqas. It’s a fascinating read and a book that you will want to have.

I hope many, many of our listeners will get a copy of this book. We’ll be glad to send it to you for your donation of any amount to support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

Kate, welcome back to Revive Our Hearts, and thank you so much for being with us to share your story.

Kate: Thanks, Nancy, it’s such a pleasure to be here.

Nancy: On the last Revive Our Hearts, the time just flew by. I don’t know where those minutes went. You’re a great storyteller, a great conversationalist, which is what also made you an effective worker in Afghanistan, where you spent five years as a humanitarian aid worker.

For those listeners who didn’t get a chance to listen to the last program, I want to encourage you to go back to Revive Our Hearts and pick up the audio or the transcript so that you can hear the stories that we heard on the last program. Kate, one of the things I really enjoyed about your book was how you just gave these amazing descriptions of life in this country, that for so many of us is something we know so little about.

You talked about some of the really beautiful aspects of culture and life there. What were some of the qualities you saw there that were impressive, that were beautiful? I think of the hospitality—I know that was something that was amazing.

Kate: I just loved the hospitality. When I got there I didn’t know any Afghans; I knew some foreigners. Well, the foreigners, of course, were Americans and Germans and such. I wanted to get to know my neighbors, so I would just go take walks, which was awkward—because I would collect a cloud of children wandering around with me. I would pray and say, “Lord, just bring  someone to take me home with them.”

People would come to me—young women and older women—and I would greet them, and they would say, “Come to my house for tea.”

Nancy: Was that just the polite thing to say, or did they really mean that?

Kate: Well, they have to say it three times before you respond “yes,” but when I first got there, I didn’t know anyone, so I just said, “Yes.” (laughs)

Nancy: You were quick to accept that offer.

Kate: And they would look at me like, “Uh-oh, the foreigner just said ‘yes.’” And then they would take me home and serve me tea. They would look at me like I was a stranger when I first came in the door. But they would serve me tea, they would welcome me, and put little treats out. We would talk, and we would get to know each other.

Usually, we didn’t understand each other in the beginning, because I was just learning the language.

Nancy: Did a few of them speak English?

Kate: A few of them spoke English, but women don’t speak English—very very few. But we would laugh together and sketch out a few things. By the time I left we were friends, and I could come back at any time. They would say, “Don’t be sad—your family’s far away—don’t be sad. Come to my house.”

Nancy: So they didn’t want you to be alone.

Kate: I could come back any time, and they would say, “Oh, how are you?” And I would say, “I was sad.”

Nancy: So you would say that’s the reason you came back.

Kate: They would just welcome me. In Afghanistan, the guest is a gift from God. In America, sometimes I think the guest is an imposition, a bother. So when I moved to a little town, I opened my home. I said that anyone who was traveling through and needed a place to stay, I wanted them to come.

I always had both Afghan and foreign overnight guests in my house. Some of the richest times for me were times when I came home and found a group of people on my doorstep—outside my gate—needing a place to stay for the night. I would bring them in, and we would spend all evening swapping stories. I learned that from the Afghans.

Nancy: That’s a lot like the culture of the biblical era as well.

Kate: Absolutely. There’s so much about Afghanistan that’s close to first-century Judea. When I share Jesus stories, they tell me what they mean. They’re absolutely clear to Afghans . . .

Nancy:  . . . because that culture’s more familiar to them than it would be to us.

Kate: Yes. When they hear the story of the woman at the well, and they see the woman going out to the well, they say, “Oh, she shouldn’t go because there’s a man there.” And when they see Jesus talking to her, before I get to the part of her response, they say, “Why’s He talking to her? He shouldn’t do that.”

Nancy: This is exactly the response that people might have had in the first century, when that happened.

Kate: The disciples didn’t ask the question, but they still wondered. And she wondered. She wanted to know, “Why are you talking to me?” and the conversation went on. The amazing thing about Jesus is that He faced a culture so like Afghanistan, and in that culture He communicated eternal truths in the simplest stories and parables, and they changed people’s lives and hearts.

So when I was in Afghanistan, I just took His parables and His stories, and I shared them with my Afghan neighbors, and they appropriated them as their own. In a way, they fell in love with Jesus through Jesus’ teachings in the same way that the first century people fell in love with Jesus when He walked with His disciples.

Nancy: So, how long did you live there before you started telling Jesus stories, and did you say they were about Jesus?

Kate: I did, and actually, I’d been there about a week.

Nancy: You didn’t waste any time.

Kate: I didn’t. Well, I thought, This is what I want to do—this is what’s important to me. The first person I tried to share a story with—I knocked on the wrong gate by accident. I was trying to visit a friend, and the women’s children came and opened the gate. They brought me in (that should have indicated that I was in the wrong place), but I really didn’t know until I was all the way inside, and thought, Oops, I don’t know where I am.

So I tried to share a story with this lovely lady who was the mother of all these kids, and she smiled at me and I smiled at her, and we drank a lot of tea. We didn’t really understand each other. Well, when I finally found my friend, I told my friend that I spoke with the lady and she didn’t understand me.

My friend said, “Well, of course she didn’t understand you. She doesn’t speak the language you’re learning.”

Nancy: You were learning Dari [form of Persian] . . .

Kate: . . . and she spoke Uzbek (laughs)

Nancy: So you were way off there.

Kate: I was way out there. But over time, they shared their stories with me, and that was very important. Sometimes it was unsolicited. They would just tell me the stories of their lives. I remember meeting one young woman who was a returnee from Pakistan. She had a voice that was low and gravelly. I asked her, “What happened to your voice? Why is it like that?”

She told me that she had been taken to Pakistan as a young girl during the war, given in marriage to an Afghan in Pakistan, and he tried to strangle her, and it damaged her vocal cords. Her family came and effectively kidnapped her from her husband, and he and his family took her back by force. It was a horrible situation.

He was so angry with her that he brought her and her children all the way back to a place in Afghanistan where she wasn’t from. She became my neighbor, and then he abandoned her there. So this woman told me her whole story in answer to a very simple question, “What happened to your voice?”

There was a group of women present, and when she finished telling me that story, I prayed and I said, “Lord, what do I say? How do I respond?” The story I thought about was the Hagar story—a young girl who was sold from her family into the hands of strangers and then was given to an old man in marriage.

We look at the old man, Abraham, and we know he’s a good man. But from the girl’s point of view, this was such a sad story. In her desperation, pregnant, she ran away, and God met her and spoke to her. For these women from Afghanistan who face these horrible things, that story resonates.

When they hear that God cares about a little slave girl from Egypt, they imagine that maybe God could care about them. Hope is born within their hearts. So we traded stories with each other. In the beginning I only understood pieces of their stories. Over time I understood more and more, and I think that in some ways that was God’s grace, because their stories are so difficult.

Now I can listen to their stories and meet them where they are, share their pain, and share the love of God in the midst of their pain. That’s an important part of what we do when we sit in those houses and drink tea.

Nancy: I think a lot of times we sit in this country and we think about women in the Islamic world in general, and Afghanistan in particular, and there’s fear sometimes, or just not knowing what the background is. In our culture there are a lot of mixed emotions about the Muslims in other parts of the world, and the Muslims among us as well.

I think the thing I found so helpful about your book was coming to realize that these are people who have lives and have stories. And many of the stories that you heard from these women were so very hard and painful.

Kate: Yes, very hard, and they also have a hunger for God. I remember talking to a group of women, and they were telling the story of the bombing of their neighborhood in Kabul and how they fled from their neighborhood. They said, “We took our children without their sandals.” In other words, they grabbed their children and ran.

I asked this older woman (the oldest woman in the room has the greatest honor), “What did you say to God?”

She looked at me and she said, “I walked out on to the broken road in the middle of the mountains, and I shook my fist at the sky and I said, ‘What have we done to You that you should hate us?’”

I listened to that, and I saw . . . This is a beautiful old woman, not a bitter woman, a woman who still prays five times a day. I waited and I prayed, “God what do I say?” And finally, when I thought I knew what to say, I said to that woman, “That bombing was not God’s will. It wasn’t God’s will to destroy your family and drive you into the mountains. God came to give us life—full, rich, abundant life. The enemy came to rob, kill, and destroy. God’s will for you is for you to know His love and His truth.”

That really makes a difference, not only in Afghanistan, but it makes a difference for us here. We need to know that God is for us and not against us, and He is.

Nancy: But that’s a very different view of God than the Islamic view of God, is it not?

Kate: It is. In Islam, God is far away; God is a judge, and God only loves those who are obedient.

Nancy: And He hates those who aren’t.

Kate: He hates those who aren’t. Before, you mentioned something about—we face the Muslims in our own community and we’re afraid. Well, Afghans face us as the foreigners. They look across the world at Westerners, and they’re afraid. So, one of the things that I learned to do when I was sitting with them was to affirm that we are all created by God.

I remember one time having lunch with a group of Afghan women. They were asking me, “Where does your money come from? Do you work for the government? Are you a spy?”

“No, I’m not a spy. My money comes from people who want to help you, and they pray for you.”

And my Afghan friends said, “Why do they pray for us? They’re followers of Jesus; they’re not Muslims. They’re Americans; they’re not Afghans. What do they have to do with us?”

I told them that we are all children of Adam and Eve. We are all created by God. He has given an invitation to all of us to come and be with Him in heaven. As I shared that, I could sense the fear and the animosity in the room diminish. And why? Because it’s that realization that it’s not “us and them,” it’s “us and us.”

I think we need to take that same attitude to our Muslim neighbors here who are foreigners in our midst, to treat them as precious to God and inheritors of the same invitation that we have.

Nancy: And yet I think many of us are just afraid to have those kind of conversations—to have any kind of conversation—with, Muslims or not, people who don’t know the Lord—with different cultures, different background—if they’re not of our faith.

I’ve been in the church since nine months before I was born and can sometimes feel intimidated by the thought of having a conversation with somebody who comes from such a different worldview. One of the things I appreciated and was challenged by your example, Kate, was that you would ask questions. You would listen, and people would open their hearts to you.

Kate: Absolutely. We have this understanding as Americans that we need to know everything, we need to be in control, we need to have our act together . . .

Nancy: We need to know what to tell somebody. You a lot of times didn’t know what to say. You just asked questions and listened.

Kate: I didn’t have a clue. I was praying. I think one of the benefits of entering the culture there was that I didn’t have any illusions that I should know anything. And of course, my neighbors didn’t think I would know anything, and didn’t expect me to. We talk about entering the culture as a learner, and I think we can do that here as we come in contact with people. We don’t have to assume . . .

We get so scared we’re going to offend someone, and we might. But we need to be open about that and say, “I don’t know anything about you, but I’d like to. Can we have a cup of tea?” or “Could you just tell me a little about yourself?” That’s what the Afghans were showing me. They were scared of me when I came in, and yet they were welcoming me.

Nancy: Had they known other American women?

Kate: Some had, but most of the people I knew, hadn’t. I remember asking one group of women, “Have you ever met a foreigner before?” They make decisions as groups, so they were all talking to each other, and then one of them slapped my knee—they were always touching and hitting me gently—and she said, “Not until you came in!” 

Nancy: So this was the fear of the unknown for them, as well.

Kate: Absolutely. And for me to enter Afghanistan, I needed to ask people, “Can I go into the family compound aouli? If someone invites me in, can I go into an Afghan’s home? How do I do that?” When I came in, I needed to ask, “Where do I sit? What do I do? How do I drink this? How do I eat this? What part do I eat? Can I say that?”

I would take puzzles, questions I was asking, and I would ask everyone I knew . . . For example, “Tomorrow I’m going to go to the bazaar and buy some fabric. What do I say to the shopkeeper? How do I do that?” I would ask these questions of everyone and listen to their answers, and try to learn from them.

I think we can do that here. There’s a woman who writes me an email. She’s always writing me and saying, “I have this wonderful opportunity to have a Bengali to my house for dinner. What should I serve her?”

And I think, I don’t know! So I write her back and I say, “Why don’t you ask the woman what she would like to eat and what she can’t eat?”

We’re not going to memorize all the rules, but we can ask. And by asking the stranger, we honor them. We tell them they’re important by asking them, “Where are you from? Do you miss your family?” That’s telling them they and their lives are important to us.

Nancy: Did you make any big mistakes?

Kate: Oh, my goodness! (laughs)

Nancy: You’re laughing about them now.

Kate: Oh, yes. I once asked an Afghan man if he was “going to wear clothes tomorrow.”

Nancy: Presumably not what you meant to ask . . .

Kate: That was not what I meant to ask, and I was so embarrassed. He was quite shocked as well. I realized by his response I had made a mistake. So I played back the words in my head and I thought, Oh, no!  to “wear clothes” and to “wash clothes” are very similar words.

Yes, I did make a lot of mistakes. Some of them were small and some of them were pretty significant. But I would always ask, ”Did I do that right? Am I I doing this wrong?” And, you know, they want to protect my honor, so they would find ways to politely tell me, “You shouldn’t do this,” or “You should do that.” My closest friends, especially, would help out.

Nancy: I’m amazed at how quickly the Afghans that you talked with in their homes and in the bazaar—wherever—how quickly the conversations were able to turn to spiritual matters. Does that surprise you?

Kate: It did surprise me, in the beginning. It doesn’t surprise me anymore. Here’s an amazing thing about Afghans—they have such a respect for God, and God is so important to them. Afghanistan has been through forty years of trauma.

Nancy: By that you mean war? 

Kate: War, hunger, disease, invasions. It’s really been difficult for Afghans. Everyone has a horror story, in Afghanistan—all the men, all the women, and the stories are heartbreaking, and yet here they are trying to be good Muslims. They’re praying five times a day (the Sunnis), and three times (the Shiites). They’re fasting; the men are going to mosque, and they’re reading Quran, and they’re just like that white-haired woman, saying, “God, what have we done? What do we need to do?”

They have a sense that, somehow, God is in control, and God is the answer to their problems. They just don’t know how to find Him and how to appropriate those answers. They know that Afghanistan is full of wickedness. They see things like government officials taking bribes, and they say, “That’s not Islam.”

They see men blowing themselves up and they say, “That’s not Islam.” They look at one another and they say, “You’re not doing it right,” but they don’t really know how to find God in a personal way and in a way for their society.

Nancy: So was it offensive to them, for you to bring Jesus Christ into the conversation?

Kate: No, not at all. For one thing, Jesus is viewed as a prophet. For another thing, they all assume that I’m a Jesus follower. And I called Him, “the Honorable Jesus Messiah.”

Nancy: Why did you do that?

Kate: Because, that’s what they call Him in their language. They call Him “the Honorable Jesus,” or the “Honorable Jesus Messiah."

Nancy: I love that!

Kate: They’ll call Him a prophet. They’re not careless about God. They’re very formal about how they treat God and the respect that they show to God, and the way they treat the prophets. So I also had to be careful how I treated their Prophet. I would refer to him as “your Prophet,” because I didn’t want to offend them.

And I would refer to their book as “their glorious Quran.” Again I wanted to honor them. They’re looking for God, and I wanted to honor them in that. But, no, I didn’t offend them—they expected me to be a Jesus follower, but actually they didn’t expect me to be a spiritual woman, a holy woman, because they see so many foreigners who aren’t.

The sign of being someone who’s holy is that you’re modest in your clothing, as a woman, and that you pray. So they would ask me very early on, “Do you pray?”

They were surprised when I said, “Yes!” I would pray for them, and they immediately identified me as a woman of virtue and of honor, and as a woman who knows God. Then when they found out that I knew my Book—the Holy Scriptures—that elevated my standing as well. So conversation was quite welcome—that did surprise me—and I loved it.

I loved talking to Afghans about our faith, about how we’re experiencing God, and how we know Him, how we live for Him.

Nancy: We want to talk more about the Afghan perspective on faith, on Christianity, and on their faith. I tell you, one take-away that I think is so important from this conversation we’ve just had is that those of us who are followers of Christ all strangers living in a place that is not our home. We speak a different language—maybe not a different literal language—we have a different worldview. We all know something of the rub of living in a place where we don’t belong.

Yet God has put us here for purposes of shining the light of Jesus Christ and advancing God’s Kingdom here on this earth. Otherwise, He could have just saved us and taken us to heaven, but He’s left us here for a purpose. I believe there are a lot of our listeners here today, that God just wants to put a burden for someone, or “someones,” on your heart.

They may be Muslim neighbors, they may be neighbors who think they’re Christians, but are just religion and don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ. And maybe you’ve been intimidated to think, I don’t know how I could relate. I don’t know how I could carry on a conversation . . .

I’m thinking of people in my community, people who are my neighbors who don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Sometimes I’m just afraid to strike up a conversation at all. One of the things that God showed you was that He has put this hunger deep in people’s hearts. There’s a need for hope. There’s a longing for answers and for life. It may be that God just wants to give some courage to some of our listeners—to first seek the Lord, pray—and then say, “Lord, how can I engage? What kind of questions can I ask? How can I come as a learner and listen to the hearts and the stories of people that you put around me?”

I was amazed to see in your book, Kate, In the Land of Blue Burqas, how the Lord built those bridges and established relationships as you just made yourself available to Him and let Him use you as an instrument of compassion and grace and hope in the lives of those Afghans. We’re going to continue this conversation with Kate McCord, but I know many of our listeners have been fascinated with this. You want to get this book—there’s so much more in the book than we’re going to be able to unpack in this series.

I want to encourage many of our listeners to give us a call at 1–800–569–5959 and let us know that you’d like to make a donation to support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts so we can continue reaching out to women in this country and around the world, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with them.

Leslie: We'll send one copy of the book when you make a donation this week.

You know, women around the world have misconceptions about God. American women tend to cling to their flavor of the misconception of God. Tomorrow, Kate will be back to tell us about the flavor of misconception that tends to plague Afghan women. I hope you'll join us next time for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.