Umar, do you remember? You believe in me now. You can’t do these things anymore!
The young Uzbek mafia member looked around to see who was speaking to him. He saw no one. Then he remembered that only a few days earlier, he had attended a showing of the Jesus Film at the home of American missionaries in Kyrgyzstan. He had prayed to receive Christ as his Savior but hadn’t thought much of it then. He hadn’t felt any different. Nothing seemed to have changed. Now Umar stood over the beaten body of a man whom Umar had assaulted to steal his wallet. Umar picked the man up, dusted him off, and gave him back his wallet. The man ran away, yelling, “You’re crazy!”
Saved and Changed
Umar wasn’t crazy. He was saved, and now God reminded Umar that he belonged to Jesus. Nevertheless, he argued with God: Why have you changed me? I used to enjoy fighting. I am a man, but now I am crying. What have you done to me?
I interviewed Umar and his American wife, Melinda, at Almagul Church in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was visiting Almagul’s Pastor Ruslan, a native missionary partner of ANM. Ruslan introduced me to the couple returning to Kazakhstan for a Jesus Film Project workshop. Umar and Melinda met in Kyrgyzstan when she was in the sports ministry there. Her specialty was basketball. Their courtship and marriage brought together unlikely partners. Umar was much younger than Melinda, a member of the local mafia and a Muslim. They gradually developed a relationship as Umar came to faith in Jesus and began to work closely with the American missionaries in Kyrgyzstan.
Suffering for His Faith
About a year following Umar’s encounter with Christ, he revealed his faith and his relationship with Melinda to his hardline Muslim Uzbek parents. His father was furious and beat him, even torturing him all night long, and finally gave Umar an ultimatum. “You have to answer me one question, Umar. Do you love me as your father, or do you love Jesus?” Umar pleaded with his father not to make him choose because he did love his parents.
In the end, Umar chose Jesus. His father left to get an ax, threatening to cut off Umar’s head. When his father returned, Umar’s mother was crying, and his brother attempted to take the ax away from his father. Umar laid his head on the table and prayed out loud: “Please, God, forgive him. He doesn’t know what he is doing. Please show them that you are the real God. I know that I’m going to be with you, but please save my family.” The father abruptly dropped the ax, and Umar fled the house.
That was over 20 years ago. Today, Umar’s parents, though still Muslims, are reconciled to his faith in Jesus and even attended Umar and Melinda’s wedding in the United States. Melinda’s father and Umar’s father have become friends. After the wedding, Umar and Melinda returned to Central Asia and joined a sports ministry working in Kazakhstan. When their son was recently accepted at an American college, they moved to the US to help him transition to life in the States. At the time of the interview, Umar and Melinda were exploring ministry through the Jesus Film Project. They were invited to return to Kazakhstan with a Jesus Film Project team for a media workshop for local pastors.
Umar and Melinda are an amazing example of an intercultural relationship that honors God and brings the message of the Gospel to Central Asia.