LONDON?Patrick and Sarah Sims*, International Mission Board team leaders for London, believe in practicing what they preach.
“Our job is to engage the unengaged,” Sims said. “We can’t ask our team members to do something we’re not modeling ourselves.”
The question, during their transition to a new strategy, was this: “In the mind-boggling ethnic kaleidoscope of London, which unengaged community should we approach?”
They had been working to reach south Asians in a Sikh-dominated area of west London. Sarah was teaching English as a Second Language when she was asked to take over a class for Somali women. More than 150,000 Somalis have streamed into London as refugees and asylum seekers since civil war began tearing apart their homeland in the early 1990s. Proud, clan-oriented, wary of outsiders, strongly Muslim, they have a reputation as one of the most self-contained groups in the city.
“I was a little afraid, because I came into this class and there were all these black women, covered head to toe” in all-enveloping burqas (an outer garment worn by some Islamic women to conceal their body), Sarah recounted. “But once I got to know them, they were sweet and outgoing. They are very devout Muslims, but they are open to being friends. After about six months, everywhere I looked I saw Somali women. I really felt like God was saying to me personally, ‘This is where your focus needs to be.'”
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Despite their openness, the Somali women were initially suspicious of Sarah’s intentions. But she persisted. In England, she was a struggling foreigner like them?common ground for building relationships. She began to be invited into Somali homes for tea, to learn about their lives and struggles.
Patrick, meanwhile, tried seeking out Somali men. “It was like running into a brick wall,” he admitted. You don’t just “make friends” with Somalis who have no reason to know you?much less trust you.
One day he was drinking coffee with a co-worker in a cafe when four distinguished-looking Somali men walked in. “I said, ‘Let’s pray and ask God that I can meet those guys,'” Patrick recounted. As they finished praying, the men were leaving the cafe.
Four months later, he spotted a new Somali community center around the corner. “After going in there and introducing myself three times, I met Farah*. Sure enough, he was one of those guys we had prayed for,” Patrick said. “Now he is my best friend. He is basically the elder Somali in this part of town. Everybody respects him; everybody meets with him.”
Somalis in London face enormous challenges: educating their children, finding jobs, healing broken families, recovering from the trauma of fleeing their homeland, countering the radical Islamic groups that try to recruit Somali youths. Patrick now works with Farah and other Somali leaders to help in practical ways?including efforts to bring positive change to Somalia itself.
Farah is the key. One day while driving with Patrick, Farah unexpectedly began reflecting on his own beliefs. “You know, I believe in Jesus,” he said. “I believe in God. But I struggle with this idea that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are three in one”?a common stumbling block for Muslim seekers.
Patrick: “I just drove and listened; I didn’t say a word. We got back to his office and he said, ‘Hey, do you want to go and have a coffee?’ So guess where we ended up? Back at the very coffee shop where we had prayed I would meet these guys. I shared the gospel and Farah listened to all of it.”
Farah hasn’t embraced it?yet?but the discussion goes on. Farah believes all Somalis should have the right to understand and freely choose their own religious beliefs. Perhaps 300 of the 13 million or more Somalis scattered worldwide are followers of Jesus.
“This is a man of influence, a man of peace, a man who desires to see better days for his people,” Patrick said. “He has introduced me into the community, and it was all through prayer that our relationship grew.
“Prayer is a lot more powerful than we really believe.”