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It’s said that Sultan Shah of Malacca (1477-1488), disguised himself and secretly walked the streets at night to assess the well-being of his people. He knew that the greatest hindrance to effectively serving his people was a life lived securely behind the palace walls that his kingship afforded him. He knew how to serve his people effectively. 

Learning How to Serve People Effectively

I’ve had the privilege of serving the people of Iraq for the past 3 years with my wife and our 4 children. Before that, we lived in a section 8 community outside of Charlotte, NC for 2 years. It was during this time in “the Bottoms” (as the community is affectionately referred) that we learned how to serve people effectively: live with them.

When my wife and I began reaching out to the families in the Bottoms, we would drive in, spend a few hours with various families, and go back to our home 45 minutes away. We had love in our hearts, but there was an obvious disconnect with the community. We did not fully understand how to serve the people effectively. Our upbringing was typical white, suburban. How could my wife identify with the single mother fighting to provide for her children so the drug dealers wouldn’t? How could I identify with the man who wants to do what’s right for his family but literally didn’t have a bed to sleep on because of the plague of poverty? 

Making the Move

Against all convention, we moved our family to the Bottoms. It was difficult adjusting to new surroundings and a different way of life. However, we quickly realized the power of living with the ones we were called to serve. As opposed to just “traveling in,” we became neighbors. And being neighbors, we had the opportunity to do what neighbors do. We broke bread together, watched each other’s kids, borrowed tools, apologized when our kids trampled on their flowers, etc. We built lasting relationships that continue to this day. In moments of pain we were able to look our neighbors in the eye and say, “I am with you.”

The powerful effect of living among those you serve should come as no surprise. It’s a demonstration of the genuineness of one’s love, so perfectly demonstrated in the life of Jesus. He came not to be served but to serve, to seek and save the lost. Jesus didn’t do this by holding court in the Temple, waiting for the broken to come to Him. He served effectively by doing life with the very people He was sent to save. When Jesus sent His disciples out of Jerusalem to share His love with the world, He sent them out with this promise; “I am with you.” So when my wife and I became gripped with the struggles facing people in the Middle East, we knew it would eventually involve relocating our family.

How to Serve People Effectively in Iraq

Now we are 3 years deep on this journey of seeing restoration come to the people of Iraq. There is still much to do, but we have already seen many lives redeemed in this short time. Part of the effectiveness of our witness is kneeling alongside someone in their pain saying, “I am with you. I’m not going anywhere.” Those are powerful words of comfort when the hurting individual knows they are spoken by a neighbor struggling with them. As it turns out, learning how to serve people effectively in Charlotte prepared us for serving well in Iraq.

I remember having lunch at a family’s home in Mosul during the battle to liberate the city from ISIS. The son had just returned from a refugee camp, where he and I first met. In the safety of the camp, we spent weeks together talking about his family still trapped in Mosul. Oh how much he missed them! I told him, “One day we will all eat together in your home in Mosul.” He took it as a polite gesture, but I meant it. And at the first opportunity a few weeks later, we sat on the floor of his family’s home breaking bread together, interrupted by the occasional sound of mortars exploding in the background.

 The Impact of Living with Those You Serve

Living with those you serve is more than just meeting needs. It means being present in their lives, even though it will be uncomfortable, stretching, and, yes, maybe even be dangerous. But oh how powerful to sit in my friend’s home, looking him in the eye at every explosion. I didn’t have to say the words, he knew. “I am with you.”

What is the result of living with those you serve? Of course, we can tailor our programs to meet very specific needs that we have identified in the community. And yes, we dig deep into the depths of the culture, learning unspoken norms and traditions that help us identify with those we serve.
But so often it’s the “I am with you” moments that make the greatest impact.

Here in Iraq, there is an ever-present orphan spirit. At any moment all that you know can be taken away. Whether it’s the government taking your family land, an opposing army taking your city, or a terrorist’s bomb taking your loved ones, there is a very real possibility that what you love will not be with you tomorrow. The power to look someone in the eye, in the midst of this fear, and say, “I am with you,” is even greater than the best-planned program or project.

A Challenge

While you may not be called to serve a war-torn nation, you are called to serve someone. And right now, at this moment, you are called to serve the people around you that you are already living with. Don’t look at my story and wait for the day you are called to serve in some “extreme” way. Look on the streets of your community and identify the opportunities that you have to serve the ones you live among. Remember, there is power to heal brokenness in the words “I am with you.” Give your life to those you live with, and watch as restoration and redemption break out in your community.

How does knowing how to serve people effectively change how you are currently serving? Comment and let us know!

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