There isn't a clear path forward when it comes to sharing the Gospel with students who face discrimination because of their minority status and Muslim faith. Elaine and Tim started with what they knew best: God's love.
For two grown adults who’ve been out of university for a good number of years, Elaine and Tim maneuver their way around the campus dining hall with surprising familiarity. They balance their dinner trays, heavy with bowls of noodles swimming in soup, and make their way to an empty table in the corner.
It’s their usual spot in the dimly lit cafeteria, chosen because of the group of students who always congregate here. The Yee students.
The Yee are a minority community in the East Asian country where Elaine and Tim live. Most live in a designated “autonomous region” – separate but still governed by the nation within whose borders they reside. Younger generations of Yee have moved to cities beyond their homelands for education, and they live on the fringes of society.
It is the only halal dining hall on campus, which is why the Muslim Yee students eat there. Students from the majority people sometimes eat there as well, but a glance around the room shows that they avoid each other’s company.
“There is a gap,” Elaine says, describing the literal and figurative way the Yee students hold themselves apart. “They face a lot of discrimination. The Yee are associated with terrorism.”
The relationship between the Yee, the government and the majority people can be described as tumultuous. In recent years, terrorist activity by a small segment of the Yee population has hurt the reputation of the whole community – much like the misconceptions about Muslims that arose in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks in America.
“The moment they reach the train station here, they’ll be the ones stopped by security and checked,” Elaine says. “Every single time, without fail.”
Yee students are monitored while on campus, either by teachers or by students from the majority group who have been asked by academic advisors to do so.
Elaine and Tim decided to step into that gap six and a half years years ago when they moved to East Asia as SIM cross-cultural workers. The couple had left their stable jobs in tech with the “fuzzy idea of working with unreached people groups,” in Tim’s words. They realized that the Yee people – mostly Muslim, usually geographically remote and sequestered away in their homelands – were actually quite reachable as students moving into the city for university.
“God showed us: ‘They’re on your doorstep!’” says Tim. He and Elaine began reaching out to Yee students three years into their time in East Asia. “Something in our hearts just clicked – we are drawn to them.”
Love comes before evangelism
Earlier Elaine and Tim had bumped into one of their Yee friends. They had been en route to the dining hall for supper, passing by a group of students, loosely clustered and chatting freely, when suddenly one of the students called out to them.
A young woman separated herself from the group, and a bright, wide smile spread across her face. She greeted them, clasping their hands warmly and giving Elaine an affectionate hug. The other students kept their distance, unsure and slightly uneasy. It was a portrait of the relationships that Elaine and Tim have made with some of the Yee students, and the difficulty they’ve had pursuing others. It has been this way since they began their ministry.
“You have to share lots of love to gain their trust,” Elaine says. “In the beginning, it was really, really tough.”
At first, the Yee students regarded them with mistrust and apprehension. After all, why would foreigners want to get to know them?
Tim explained that some of the Yee students told the others, “Hey, don’t be friends with these foreigners. They might be spies for the government.”
Elaine and Tim started small: giving Yee students rides to and from the train station, then helping them move into their dormitories. Eventually they started inviting them to their home for meals and English language practice.
“It’s like that concept, ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch,’” Tim says. “We had to let them know that there was no catch, that we just wanted to get to know them.”
“Evangelism has to be secondary,” says Elaine. “If you bring it up right away, they’ll say, ‘Oh, there it is. That’s why you’re doing this.’”
Showing love becomes primary. Even if their friends decide not to become Christians, they want them to know the love of Jesus – the Jesus who welcomed foreigners and sought out those on the margins.
While Elaine and Tim don’t necessarily tell their friends that what they’re doing stems from the love of Jesus, it nevertheless has touched a deep chord with some of the Yee students. These young people have moved far from their homes and remote villages to a new, strange place where they are, by and large, disliked.
“In this part of the country, it’s a different world from the one they’ve come from,” Tim says. “It’s college, a time of transition. Everything is new to them. Different food, different culture – and for many, it’s their first time in the city.
“It’s a great opportunity to meet them, coming into this new place. We’ve become their mom and dad here in the city.”
It is a true testament to the strength of their relationships that some Yee students have brought Elaine and Tim back with them to their villages to visit their real moms and dads, and the rest of their families. It’s very rare that outsiders and foreigners enter some of these places, but their friends’ families warmly welcome them.
“They sense it's the love of God,” says Elaine of their Yee student friends. “They wouldn’t express it in those terms, but they know it’s different."
Patience, time, and a lot of love
“You need a lot of patience, a lot of time, a lot of love,” says Elaine about forming friendships with Yee students.
Time is definitely in limited supply with the Yee students, who will always return to their homelands to be teachers and doctors, the “next generation of leaders” Tim says. And though the older students always help connect Elaine and Tim with incoming students, ultimately, they only have about four to six years with them.
Even if evangelism is “secondary,” as Elaine says, they do want their friends to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“Honestly, it’s very slow,” Tim says. “If you want to measure results in terms of conversions, it’s very hard to do with a minority group.”
He describes layers of barriers when it comes to their Yee student friends. It isn’t just the fact that the Yee are more or less all Muslim. There are cultural barriers as well, and ethnic identity and religion are so bound up in each other that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two.
“They are very anti-Christian, so for them to even be open to talking about Christianity – which they are now – is actually a huge step,” Tim says.
At times outreach slows to a crawl, particularly when tensions are high between the Yee people and the government. The students are already monitored closely, and it doesn’t serve them well to be seen gathering together, especially with foreigners like Elaine and Tim. During such times, they don’t see their Yee friends as often, so that the students can remain free of any unnecessary suspicion.
And though Elaine and Tim may not have all the time in the world, they have patience and love to spare when it comes to their ministry to the Yee students. Ultimatley, they know they can only do so much.
“We build the relationship – that’s our priority,” Elaine says. “God is the one who opens hearts.”