Carol Nolan, together with her husband, Rob, and four children, works with CMS in Austria. Here she tells us of the challenges and joys of bringing the women of her church together, along with some unexpected opportunities for bringing the gospel to outsiders.
Austria has a long and proud history of welcoming the stranger.
In this most recent wave of refugees, beginning in 2015, they have welcomed more than 100,000 strangers, which is an enormous undertaking for a country of only eight million people.
We arrived in Linz, Austria also as strangers. In fact, we have been asked several times whether we are refugees from Australia! (We're not!) We came to be part of a church, Grace International Fellowship.
It, too, is very much a church full of strangers – among a small core of Austrian believers are international students, refugees and international workers from all corners of the world. This brings great richness to the church and a taste of heaven, but also some challenges and difficulties.
One of these challenges is how to become a church family and really connect to each other in the midst of great language and cultural diversity, as well as wildly different life experiences and circumstances.
I noticed this as I tried to get to know the women of our church. Week after week, I would ask the same superficial questions and would feel like I couldn’t find the door to deeper conversations and connections. Other women in the church felt the same frustrations, so we came up with a simple plan.
Every two months, we invite the women to meet together. One woman prepares her testimony, a part of her life story, and shares how God has worked in and through her. We translate this into German, English, Farsi and Spanish.
Then, each woman is allocated a prayer partner purely on the basis of them being able to communicate in the same language. Each shares a prayer need and then they pray for each other, with the hope that they would continue to pray for and encourage each other over the following two months.
The results have been surprising and exciting.
As women have spent time preparing and refining their testimonies (with the help of one of our Austrian sisters who is particularly gifted at drawing people's stories out by her intuitive questioning), they have all reported that their confidence and joy in sharing their faith has grown. They have seen that God can use their particular circumstances and trials and struggles with sin to offer hope to others as they share God’s faithfulness through the all too familiar messes of our lives. And this openness and transparency has stirred a desire in quite a number of the women to offer to share their stories too.
In the prayer times, we are getting to know each other. Once we have shared and prayed together, it is so much easier from then on to go beyond the superficial. Although we are from such different cultures and have had such different life journeys, the struggles of life are common to us all. We need God and each other to navigate them.
Perhaps the most surprising result has been that this has become a comfortable place for non-Christian friends to see the reality and power of the gospel. At first we were a little anxious about inviting nonbelievers, wondering whether particularly the prayer time would make them feel awkward. However that has not been the case at all. Several Muslim friends have come and appreciated the honesty of those who have shared and the opportunity to share some of their own struggles. One Pakistani PhD student, Zana*, shared that when meeting with these women, she felt that she was part of a family for the first time since coming to Austria. We have since started doing a video course that explores Christianity for Muslims together and she is hungry to understand who Jesus is and search for the truth. It has been so exciting to sit up late with her and work through one session after another and to discuss the Bible and Qur'an with each other in an honest and unguarded way. Please pray for her as she returns to Pakistan soon.
We have been excited to welcome to these evenings some of the refugee women who we have come to know through our involvement with a refugee ministry called House of Hope. I go along to a women’s craft group there on Friday afternoons. This gives a rare opportunity for these women to relax, be creative, have fun and laugh together, and find respite from their difficult lives. It has been such a privilege to get to know these women – to see their courage, resourcefulness and fierce love for their families.
It is my prayer that in Austria they will also find hope, as they have an opportunity to hear about and experience the beauty of Jesus and the gospel.
I pray that these strangers will truly become my sisters in Christ.
There are refugees in every country and every major city. Could you imitate Carol's work at your church or in your neighbourhood by meeting to share your stories and pray?
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.