A powdered plant dye called henna was part of God’s design for bringing South Asian women living in Europe into a relationship with Him. Despite beatings, berating and children being taken away from them, many women chose to write the laws of the Lord on their hearts.
In 2016, IMB missionary Lena Eckhart* met Miriam* at a play group for children in their city. Lena told Miriam she enjoys applying henna designs on hands, and the women began meeting in a public park for henna sessions.
As Lena drew the designs on Miriam’s hand with the plant-based ink, she told her the Bible story that corresponds to the design. Lena asked Miriam if she had any family or friends who might be interested in the henna stories. The group grew to eight, and they began meeting in a private nursing room for mothers in a mall for fear someone might find out.
The group started as a henna group, but they eventually stopped to focus on stories about Jesus.
“God was clearly moving in their hearts,” Lena said. “They were amazed by the deeds and teachings of Jesus. They were especially struck by the fact that Jesus had the authority to forgive sin. They began asking questions about how it was possible for Jesus to forgive.”
Their questions and desire to meet as a group did not go unnoticed by their family members.
Beaten because of the Bible
“One of the biggest challenges we faced with leading this group was persecution,” Lena said describing the spiritual warfare the women faced as they sought to know about Jesus.” These attacks would typically take place after the husbands of these women heard about their wives’ participation in the study group.”
Some women were beaten by their husbands and family members. One woman was beaten so severely her arm was broken. Another woman had her children taken away by her family. One man brought the local Muslim religious leader to shame his wife.
“Every time there was an attack it would spook the ladies. The group would stop meeting,” Lena said. “After an attack, we would assume that the group was finished, but after a few weeks had passed, they would start making contact again and the group would persevere.”
When Miriam committed her life to Christ, her husband smacked her in the face and left her. However, after a month, he returned and asked her a series of questions.
“First, he asked if she was going to continue to follow Jesus. She said, ‘Yes.’ Second, he asked her if she was going to teach Christianity to their children. She said, ‘Yes, and they can decide for themselves if they want to follow Jesus or Muhammad.’ Third, he asked if she was going to continue to go to the mosque with him. She said, ‘I will if you want, but when I go, I will be worshiping Jesus in my heart.’ He then apologized for hitting her, and she replied, ‘I forgave you as soon as you did it. I forgive you as Jesus forgives,’” Lena recalls.
Miriam followed her profession of faith with believer’s baptism when she was 24 weeks pregnant. After Miriam’s baptism, more women came forward and professed faith and expressed that they wanted to be baptized. This decision always came at great personal cost. One 60-year-old lady was beaten by her husband and brother after they found out she became a Christian.
Still choosing to be baptized, she boldly proclaimed, “I have never felt peace or happiness in Islam. When my husband and brother were beating me, I felt the presence of God. And I was happy because I knew that if they killed me, then I would go to heaven. Jesus died for me. That is why I was willing to give my life for Him.”
Threats lead to an ally
Threats of violence also extended to Lena. Miriam came to a meeting with a black eye and bruises on her arm. Miriam’s sister, Paula*, had discovered her newfound faith and beat her.
“As she was beating Miriam, she was yelling, ‘Why are you not fighting back?’ Miriam responded by saying, ‘Because I love you,’” Lena said. “Miriam’s husband stood idly by and watched as his wife was beaten. In a way, this reminded us of Saul as he stood by and watched with approval as Stephen was being stoned.”
Paula made it known that if she ever found out who told her about the gospel, she would beat her as well. Miriam advised Lena to keep her distance from the discipleship group. At the next meeting, Paula unexpectedly showed up and confronted the group.
A few days later, Lena and Miriam met at a restaurant to talk about how the group was faring.
“Paula once again showed up unexpectedly. She had secretly followed Miriam for the purpose of spying on her,” Lena said.
Paula confronted Lena and demanded to know how they knew one another. Lena decided to leave the restaurant as quickly as possible because she had brought her children. Lena later found out Paula brought friends who were waiting outside the restaurant, intending harm. Lena and her children left the scene without incident.
Miriam was later able to share her faith with her sister. Paula asked to meet with Lena, and the three women arranged to meet at a café. Lena and Miriam shared testimonies of how Jesus had changed their lives.
“How is it that you can be so kind to me when I have been so mean to you?” Paula asked.
Lena explained that her kindness comes from God and that Jesus teaches Christians to love and bless those who persecute believers. Paula revealed she constantly feels rage and anger in her heart, and she doesn’t understand why.
“God’s Word has a lot to say about anger, and God can replace our rage with peace and thankfulness,” Lena told her.
Although Paula has not professed faith in Christ yet, she did become an ally for Miriam. Miriam’s mother began giving Miriam a hard time because she had perceived that Miriam had fallen away from Islam. Paula stood up for her sister and told her mother to leave Miriam alone.
Miriam and the other believers continue to grow in their faith, and their persistence in the face of bodily harm has furthered their witness.
*Names changed for security