Revising Good Plans for Yemeni Women

The grip of her hand squeezed into my arm as her brown eyes bore into my blue ones. “Please,” she urged. “Lazem!” (you must). She tightened her black hajab (hair covering) before it slithered to her shoulders.

I looked from her pleading eyes to the woman frowning beside her. The frowning woman had already asked me to visit her house. She stopped snapping her black balto (outer cloak) as both women waited to hear my answer.

I sighed quietly in the doorway. “Lord, how can I be in two places at one time?”

My predicament was a blessing, even as I felt pulled between the two women. I thought back to my arrival in Yemen six years earlier when I had prayed for opportunities to get beyond the veils and into the lives of the women.

I had arrived in the Red Sea coast region with my husband, four children, and a well-planned strategy to reach Tihama women with the gospel. I thought I had prepared myself well. I had researched Yemeni culture. I had studied books on Muslim evangelism. I had learned scriptures and Bible stories in Arabic. But I soon discovered my strategy was incomplete and I would need to revise it.

Revision #1: Building a Team
My first revision came in recognizing my husband and I could not do the task alone, nor had we been called to. Tihama was an area of four million unreached people. As missionaries, we saw ourselves as “feet …who preach the good news” (Romans 10:15), but I realized that as feet, we were only part of the Body of Christ. We needed the involvement of the whole body—the knees, hands, voices, ears—to join with us in a unified effort to successfully reach Yemen. When God’s people joined with us in fervent prayer, desire, support, and action, God began to open closed doors.

Revision #2: Partaking in Common Ground
My second strategic revision was to put aside “them and me” eyes and learn to walk on common ground. Yemen is 99.9% conservative Muslim. I could hardly portray myself as a godly, devout woman if I dressed in a way they considered immodest, even if it was just showing arms and hair.

In the sweltering 120 degree coastal heat, I could have justified wearing clothing that was comfortable by pointing to my freedom in Christ. But I covered my hair and wore a balto in public, even as I identified myself as a follower of Jesus Christ. I did not pretend to be Muslim, but I accepted that if local women could dress in black baltos and hajabs in the overpowering heat, so could I. And it opened doors: women invited me into their homes and husbands thanked me for respecting their culture.

Finding common ground meant I needed to be “real” with the women. They were only interested in my immaculate dress and manicured hands at weddings—the glamour highlights of their lives. In everyday life, Tihama women were more impressed to see my broken nails and scratched arms from cooking, cleaning, or working in the garden. I had house help, which they accepted since I lacked the availability of their extended family members. But they smiled approval and drew me deeper into their lives when they recognized I did the same chores they did.

Becoming like them, however, did not mean compromising my faith or mixing my faith with theirs. They were unapologetically devout, unhesitant to correct me if I did something contrary to their beliefs.

Revision #3: Being Unapologetic in Matters of Faith
They never seemed to worry whether their comments would offend me. This led me to further revise my strategic thinking, and be as unapologetically devout in my faith as they were with theirs. I needed to worry less about offending and focus more on seizing opportunities to communicate with polite respect, but without hesitation.

One afternoon, I sat among a group of women who scolded me for not saying “Ma’a sha’allah” (what God wills) as I talked about my daughter’s upcoming school exams. “You must say ma’a sha’allah or the Evil Eye will bring her harm in her exams!” they warned.

I paused. Having heard the phrase used repeatedly like a charm to ward off evil, I explained that I walked with God through the way—Jesus—and that he was all I needed, giving illustrations from my personal life. I told them of my husband’s illness—when doctors had not been enough to save him, but after praying in Jesus’ name, God had spared his life. I explained that through Jesus, I had all I needed.

I soon learned that being unapologetically devout meant I had to revise my natural inclination to argue and debate beliefs that differed from mine. This was no easy task for an outspoken woman. One day in a gold shop, I watched as a group of women bargained with the male shopkeeper over the price of a bridal necklace set. A man waited near them, studying me from his perch against a counter.

“Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” he asked me. I was startled. Few people in Yemen understood the difference. “Protestant,” I replied.

“Ah,” he said. “So, what do you believe about Jesus? Was he a prophet or was he the Son of God?”

My heart started beating in my throat as all talking ceased and all eyes turned to me. The women waited for my answer as the man challenged me, looking for a debate. I held my breath, knowing an argument would be ineffective and would accomplish nothing in front of women who were taught to lower their eyes to men.

“Lord, help!” I breathed. I swallowed and looked evenly at my confronter. “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me,’” I answered (John 14:6). “This is what I believe about Jesus.”

The man said nothing. He looked at me, looked at the other women (whose eyes were still on me), and walked wordlessly out of the shop.

I exhaled, relieved that he had not argued and grateful that the grace of Christ had kept my own tongue from arguing. In the absence of contention, God had provided an opportunity to publicly share a powerful scripture in a country that forbade evangelism.

Revision #4: Adapting Communication
Another strategic revision came when I recognized the need to adapt my methods of communication. I yearned to effectively communicate the gospel in a way Yemeni women could understand. With illiteracy rates up to ninety-eight percent among women in Tihama villages, I could not communicate in textbook Arabic.

I had to learn the dialect they spoke—their region-specific heart language—or they would not understand my formal speech. I could not give the women printed gospel tracts or Bibles (even if it was legal to do so) since the women could not read them. The meaning would remain locked from their hearts. Reading to them directly from the Bible would not have solved the problem; the women would not have understood the formal Arabic translation.

I needed to tell Bible stories and verses in their words and to utilize audio Bibles recorded in their heart language.

Revision #5: Displaying the Love of Jesus
The most crucial revision to my strategy, however, began when I understood the attraction I seemed to hold for the women. I was an American, one of a handful among four million people, but their interest went beyond my foreign nationality. There was hunger in their eyes, and although most women lived below poverty levels, it wasn’t a hunger for food.

I had repeatedly heard, “Islam is hallee (sweet),” from hungry-eyed women who claimed the superiority of Islam while they squabbled over whom I should visit next. These devout women had once been fed by dreams. As teenagers, they had fantasized about freedom from their fathers and love from their future husbands.

But they became wives who sat with disillusioned eyes and listened to others’ dream. They became mothers at wedding celebrations who called out blessings for many sons, while clapping thin hands and skinny arms above their own worn-out bodies. These women needed health care and education. In villages without running water and electricity, they needed latrines, mosquito nets, and other practical essentials for living, and we planned these as key components of effective ministry.

But as the women pulled and tugged me from diverse directions, I began to realize that their tug of war wasn’t for who I was or what I could provide externally; it was for what I had internally.

They were hungry for the love in my life—something they couldn’t get from their religion or relationships—and they tried to get it from me.

They were bewildered by my love for God and the stories I shared about his love for me. They saw God as terrifying and remote, and they had a profound fear of dying. They were amazed that my husband loved me in more than a sensual way. Like dry sponges, they soaked up the love I tried to pour and squeezed me for more, sometimes leaving me feeling drained and wrung out by the depth of their need.

In my pursuit of the perfect strategy to share the gospel with Muslim women, I nearly overlooked the second most important command Jesus gave us: to simply, but completely, love our neighbor…for it is his love in us that identifies us most as his followers.

It would have been nice had I known at the beginning of our ministry in Yemen what it took me six years to learn. Perhaps I would have arrived with a more workable strategy. But then again, maybe I was the one (not my strategies) who most needed revising.

Audra Grace Shelby served nine years as a Southern Baptist missionary in the Middle East, alongside her husband and four children. The author of Behind the Veils of Yemen (Chosen Books, 2011), she remains actively involved in global missions.