My trip to Tunisia started with a conversation.
“This is an orphan church. They feel separated from the other churches in the Middle East. They feel disconnected from each other in their own country.”
That’s how Kalim Andraos, our team leader, described the state of the Christian church in Tunisia.
“What’s our purpose for going?” I asked.
“We want to love on these people and we want to provide a retreat for them where they can relax and get to know one another, break bread together and worship Jesus together.”
That was all I needed to hear. So in late August, I stepped up to join Kalim and his son David, a high school senior, and Jon Elliott a good friend, to go to Tunisia to encourage the brothers and sisters there.
A few days later, Kalim texted us some background on Tunisia:
On the North African coast of the Mediterranean.
A narrow country that runs north to south wedged between two huge land masses, Algeria on the West and Libya and the Mediterranean on the East.
Settled by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC with Carthage as its capital.
Famously inhabited by Augustine.
One of the cradles in the nursery of the early church.
Conquered and settled by Muslims from the 8th century AD until the present.
The well spring for the freedom movement of 2011-2012 known as the “Arab Spring.”
Although this thumb-nail sketch was a start, it left me wondering about the believers themselves. What is it like to be a Tunisian Christian, a whisker in the beard of a country of 11 million Muslims? How does religious intolerance feel to the average Tunisian believer? What form does it take? Does any American missionary group help any believers we’ll meet? If so, how? Is the church growth in Tunisia stuck in neutral or moving ahead in overdrive? Is the growth “top down” aided by American evangelicals or “bottom up” with Tunisians telling other Tunisians where they’ve found the Bread of Life?
After a scant eight days there, I don’t think anyone on our team would presume to know all the answers, but there are some clear first impressions that might begin to clarify the complexities of the way God is working in Tunisia.
Tunisia is a fascinating mix of the modern and the ancient. The commercialization of the occult is big business. The busiest fortune tellers live comfortably telling their clients, for example, whom they should marry, or bring on as a business partner. Live lizards – a key component in casting certain spells – are sold by the roadside, dangling from cane poles. Unemployment among college graduates was 29.3% in Q1 2018. (Source: www.worldbank.org) It’s not uncommon to see sidewalk café after café, anytime day or night, populated exclusively by males of all ages, smoking, drinking coffee, and looking at cell phones. Women and children sell bread right in front of most toll booths. If you are a terrorist convicted of murder, it is not without precedent to serve weeks, not years in prison. Building permit for a mosque? Yes, sir. Right this way! Building permit for a “church facility”? No. Sorry. We don’t do those here. Never did we have to look very far to see Tunisian military and law enforcement setting up road blocks and security check points.
Hurricane Florence had flooded most of the coastal Carolinas before we got off the plane in Tunis. An hour into our drive down the coast, the heavens opened and dumped half a year’s rainfall, drowning streets and sidewalks and turning low-lying olive groves into lakes and rivers. A forty-five minute drive with Pastor Rasheed in the lead car became a torrential two-hour crawl to our hotel. “Florence has followed us,” we said.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Pastor Rasheed and his wife Nadia for handling the myriad of details in planning the Tunisian church’s first retreat in modern times. It was the main event that our other house church visits would lead to, beginning Sunday afternoon in S’fax.
On Sunday, we drove the 135 miles from Hammamet to Sfax, where we would meet with other believers. This event was unique to any other “church service” I’ve ever experienced. This simple gathering touched our hearts.
Picture this. On a sunny day at around 2:30, we are greeted at the front door of a modest home on a side street in a bustling city of 330,000. The lady of the house, in her late sixties, is wearing dark blue and black from head to toe with only her face visible. She welcomes us in and shows us to a small room on the left of a short entrance hall. Refreshments of homemade cake and small glass cups of hot African black tea are offered. Around the room young men and women are seated on rectangular cushions along the wall. I take a seat next to an open window which gives the room its only ventilation from the 90 degree heat outside. A baby boy maybe six months old sits in an infant seat to my right separating me from his mother, a young woman in her mid-twenties, with long dark hair and dressed like her Western counterpart from suburban America. As the young pastor calls the meeting to order, he walks to the only window in the room, closes it and draws the curtains tightly. We sing no hymns or praise songs. The pastor and his fifteen-member congregation speak in the hushed tones of library patrons from 50 years ago. The pastor welcomes the guests and asks them to introduce themselves. The Scriptures are read. Prayers are raised. When the meeting is over in maybe an hour, a guest suggests the worshippers gather outside on the sidewalk for a photo. Graciously and immediately, the pastor insists we stay inside for the picture. Amidst all of the good-byes and the traditional kisses on both cheeks, we walk through the doorway, onto the neighborhood sidewalk, some leaving in cars, others on foot. Nobody seemed to mind the group photo was never taken. At the time, I saw it as a lost photo-op to show friends back home “this is the church in North Africa.” I got the impression the Tunisian believers were relieved that it would be one less picture to fall into the wrong hands. Did I mention that our hostess had only become a Jesus follower six months earlier? Watching people practice a risky faith would set the tone for the rest of our week. We couldn’t possibly have known what opposition we would face less than 24 hours later.
One thing I learned about Tunisia and its microscopic Christian minority is that you never quite know what “minding your own business” can actually lead to. The next day, we would begin to find out.
We travel up the coastal highway one sunny morning and we arrive at the home of our contact, Majdi, whose bright smile and youthful energy radiate a winsomeness, rare in MENA (Middle East-North Africa) culture.
With hearty greetings all around, we briefly tour his bright, neatly furnished apartment and get an introduction to God’s work in the local church there. To continue our conversation, we all pile into our rented, dusty mini-van for the short drive to a small café district. We order coffee and sodas and proceed to sit down in a circle in a grassy park just across from the café. Of course, we are shooting the breeze and talking about Jesus. We didn’t pay any attention to the two ordinary looking young men who sat down within earshot of us. Whether either one of these eavesdroppers had COEXIST on his car bumper was unclear. Equally uncertain is whether the joy police snitched on us to the local imam, who by now had joined the other two men in rolling out the black carpet for us with a stream of Arabic invective including the only understandable words “Carolina” and “Jesus.” Because Majdi and the imam knew each other, we struck camp, tipped the café waiter generously, and left the sheltering trees of our park site after an hour’s sweet fellowship.
In this, the oldest city in Tunisia, the two house-churches comprise all of twenty believers between them, in a governate population of 600,000. Still, there are signs of church growth. Two people were scheduled for baptism 48 hours after we returned home. Brother Majdi the pastor draws no church salary. Married and the father of two children, he holds down a full-time job as a QC technician in an electronics plant. Easily the oldest Tunisian believer we met, he was born again while listening to Christian broadcasts via Transworld Radio from Monte Carlo twenty years ago. Before leaving Bizerte, we drove to some high bluffs overlooking the ancient port and prayed for God to pour