Every Tribe, Every Tongue
Canada-based Joel and Margaret DeHart endured much persecution for the gospel in the mission field of Pakistan.
Here, they speak of how God’s restorative power and grace brought them from deep fear to a deeper confidence in His love.
Tell us about yourselves and your family.
Joel: I was born in Pakistan to American missionary parents — the second of five children. Some of my earliest memories are of realising I was a sinner, and of asking Jesus to save me from my sin. He started changing my heart when I was a young boy. I became interested in a distinct ethnic group near us with their own language and tribal code. I liked to wear the hats they wore and enjoyed visits to the markets where they could be found selling secondhand items.
During high school, God became more real in my life. I started to enjoy learning more about Him. I decided to go to Bible college to further grow in my faith. There, God called me into missions. While I was attending university following Bible college, I struggled with my faith. Why did so many people believe differently than I did? Maybe I believed in Jesus just because my parents did… A friend started meeting with me regularly to look into the Bible to study its truth claims. Gradually, God revealed to me more about Himself and about faith.
I returned to Pakistan to begin working with refugees from the country next door. I helped in the camps and later taught at an English centre for refugees in Islamabad. In the summer of 1991, I went to the country next door to translate for an American veterinarian for a two-week animal health training project. This short trip became a longer stay, as we were captured by local warlords, and I was held hostage for six months! But God does always have the upper hand.
Margaret and I met in Pakistan in 1997, and we got married two years later.
Margaret: I grew up in a Christian family on a farm on the Canadian prairies with an older brother and a younger sister. Our family regularly attended a Mennonite church. I realised early on that I was a sinner in need of forgiveness, and I put my faith in Jesus for salvation. Not long after, as a school girl, I began to doubt. I wondered if church and the Christian system was all a lie. Was this a trick of Satan? God taught me to go to His Word for my answers.
When I was about 10, we had a school assignment to write an essay on the topic “What I Will be Doing in 20 Years.” I imagined being a teacher, a nurse, a waitress, a secretary, and a single-lady missionary in Africa! Missionary service was already part of my thinking.
After Bible training, God led me to serve with international mission organisations, which took me from western Europe to Canada and then northern India and Pakistan. Desiring to have more direct contact with women and also seeing the importance of their educational needs, I saw God confirm a career change from office work to English teaching.
I returned to Pakistan in 1997 — this time to teach English to refugee women at the same centre where Joel was teaching. God led us together and we got married in 1999 in Canada.
Both: One Sunday morning in Islamabad, Pakistan in March 2002, a terrorist with hand grenades attacked the international church. We both experienced hearing damage and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). We saw God redeem and restore, and also prepare us for future ministry.
We went on to serve for 10 years in Central Asia as English teachers. Returning to North America in 2015, we joined a media ministry based in Canada reaching people from Central Asia. God then impressed on our hearts to focus more on that distinct ethnic group that had intrigued Joel as a young boy. Not many from that group are followers of Christ. God has now shown us an open door in Greece to serve refugees from Central Asia. We are trusting Him to lead us to some people from that ethnic group as we follow Him.
At present, we are in diaspora work (working with people who have left their home countries) in Canada, doing literary projects and resource development, as well as helping to share God’s love with refugee and immigrant families and our neighbors. We were led to this place of waiting and preparation before going overseas to Greece, because of Joel’s Canadian citizenship process which has been slowed down due to the pandemic.
Joel, you mentioned struggling with your faith during your years in Bible school. How would you encourage those of our readers who struggle with the same questions you did?
After my years in Bible school, I attended a large university for two years. There were many nice people in my department, and very few Christians. It was the same when I did a one-year language study programme abroad after that. The cultural or politically correct way of thinking that pervades academia is that everyone is entitled to their own view — and it is arrogant, narrow-minded and old-fashioned to say something like “Jesus is the only way of salvation.”
This confused me. Plus, my language study programme was in a Muslim country. I shared my faith, and expected that I would see many Muslims come to understand that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. When I couldn’t win arguments, and I saw how staunch many Muslims were in their faith, I wondered, “Who is to say I am right and they are wrong?”
It took a committed friend meeting with me regularly and going over some of the basics of the Biblical world view (epistemology) for me to regain confidence and conviction — even when I didn’t have all the answers!
You were also held hostage for six months. What can you tell us about that time in your life? What helped you keep your faith strong as you went through such a trial?
I had many emotional ups and downs — but God’s presence was so real. I think of so many little things — that were, to me, positive signs of God’s love and care. They kept happening — and they sustained me! They were things like getting a new pen the day my old pen ran out of ink. A soldier bringing eggs for me from home. A new slider for my sweater zipper provided from a village home. A down jacket when the weather started getting cold. And on and on.
Another thing that sustained me was songs and hymns. I didn’t have a Bible until the last month, but I listed over 700 hymns and choruses that I would sing every day while walking back and forth in whatever space I was allowed. So many times, Bible truths spoke to my situation and encouraged me. Some favourites from then were: “God moves in a mysterious way,” “Day by day and with each passing moment”, and “A debtor to mercy alone”.
Some days, I felt like I couldn’t handle another day in confinement. Other days, I was overwhelmed with joy at God’s presence, and the privilege I had of being where I was, and learning lessons he had for me. I remember praying, “Lord, I don’t want to leave here until I’ve learned everything you have for me.”
Those six months turned out to be an experience of great worth, as Margaret and I returned to that country for 10 years of ministry. And I must mention that it was while I was a hostage that I first “met” Margaret — through some Bible verses she sent me at that time!
Tell us about the people you minister to.
Usually, once a month, Joel teaches the Bible to a Persian-speaking fellowship online. The group is mainly from two countries. Some are single, some married, some are young and some old. They met regularly before the pandemic, and now they encourage each other through a WhatsApp group sharing prayer requests, songs, and verses.
Margaret is involved in teaching English and Bible online to students in both Canada and the USA. They are mainly ladies who have recently come to settle here. Some are believers and some are from other faiths. One non-Christian student is a mother of four, who is hoping to get her learner’s permit so she can start driving. As a young girl, she only attended school about three years before she fled her homeland as a refugee with her family. Her children were born in three different countries.
Give an example of a challenging situation you recently faced and what the Lord taught you from the experience.
We had an ongoing challenging situation with unhealthy team relationships. We were worn out emotionally from the stress of dealing with it, and struggled with effectively carrying on in the ministry.
The Lord helped us to put the situation in His hands, and we prayed for humility and healing in our own woundedness. God taught us about His powerful forgiveness. Freely given to free us through Christ’s death on the cross, we can offer this forgiveness to others who can also be released. Relationships can be redeemed and restored.
For those of us who struggle with PTSD, what does the Bible teach about how we can overcome the effects of how it can debilitate your life and hinder your spiritual growth?
The result of our hearing loss [diminished hearing for Joel and distorted hearing for me] and our PTSD meant changes in our perspective on life and our walk with God. We looked at ministry differently as a result. We learned things about our theology of healing and of serving in weakness, and that God can be trusted to use all we experience for His glory. We believe God can and does heal, but He is sovereign, and we are not guaranteed or promised healing in this temporary, broken world. We will have ultimate healing in glory.
On earth, He promises and provides the grace we need for our weakness and limits and weakness and vulnerability. So, the glory goes to Him for His grace and power working and ministering through us. It is not about us or what we do! God gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5). We are more aware of our God-given limits, and glad that we don’t have to worry or fear about not being as effective because of them. God gives us these weaknesses so we’ll be focused on His strength and power and glory, not our own.
We are less worried about what might happen to us, since we have seen God restore us and use us, as well as bring us from rather deep fear to a deeper confidence in His love. We can let go of our expecting to have good things to possess and ministries to do. We can let God use the bad things that happen in some mysterious way to bring about His kingdom.
Even in our present pandemic, we are sensing this is a gift of God’s love inviting us and other people worldwide to turn to Him and rest in His love, even if there are bad things happening at the same time. He is using it in ways we don’t understand, like in Job’s story of devastation and depression, which was followed by restoration.
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