Editor's note: News editor Andrew McChesney is currently traveling in the Middle East and reporting on Adventist work in the region. For a list of all stories, follow the links at the end of this story.
Susan worked as a banker in her native Africa. Then she became a high-powered real estate agent.
Today she owns a beauty spa in a Middle Eastern country where wealthy Arab and expatriate women get body scrubs and massages to the soothing strains of “Amazing Grace.” They ply her for advice on how to become better wives, mothers, and citizens.
The tips that Susan shares come straight from the pages of the Bible and Ellen G. White’s writings — and a swelling list of clients are lining up for more.
Susan is on the front-lines in a part of the world where it’s difficult to communicate the gospel message. But a small, growing number of Seventh-day Adventists are making inroads by simply befriending people at their workplaces.
“Since I have opened this beauty spa many things have happened in my life,” Susan said in an interview in a small café near her spa. “I want nothing more than my life to share God."
Susan sat down with an Adventist Review reporter after offering a morning tour of the spa before the first client showed up. National law strictly prohibits men from being in the spa when female clients are present.
The Adventist Review is not using Susan’s real name nor disclosing the location of her business to avoid possible repercussions to her work.
Susan opened the beauty spa several years ago with no previous experience. But she spent many months researching the industry before opening the door. Now she has a team of 10 employees, including five Adventist believers, who offer a full range of beauty and day spa services to a regular clientele of more than 2,000 women.
“Many people ask me back home what I am doing now and they are shocked to learn that I am doing this,” she said. “I actually am surprised, too. But I feel good about it. Now I am working with more clients than I ever imagined.”
Clients learn that something is different about the spa. Hymns set to instrumental music play softly in the background. Repeat customers quickly find out that they cannot receive treatment on Saturdays. When they ask why, they learn that Susan observes the day as the biblical, seventh-day Sabbath. Many have expressed newfound respect and admiration to Susan for her willingness to put her faith before business on a busy day for other beauty spas.
“We have a goal to not only serve people but to also bring them to God,” Susan said. “The staff knows this very, very well.”
Susan takes extra time to get to know repeat customers, trying to understand what is causing their frequent headaches and other body aches. She grew especially close to one client, the expatriate wife of a wealthy Arab, who began to visit daily, carrying an energy drink in one hand and begging for shoulder massages.
“When I spoke with her, she broke down in tears,” Susan said. “She asked me to pray for her, saying she had a secret. She said she had a big problem with drug addiction.”
Still weeping, the woman asked Susan what she needed to do to quit drugs.
Susan replied that she had no idea but promised to do some research. At home, she prayed with her husband and researched the matter.
“This was very sensitive,” she said. “We cannot talk about it here or she would go to jail.”
Susan and the woman began to pray together every morning in person and every night by phone. After a short time, the woman announced that she had not used any drugs for two days. When Susan asked how she felt, she replied, “Weak.”
“I told her that the devil was telling her that she was weak and gave her the books Counsels on Diet and Foods and Steps to Christ,” Susan said.
The woman eagerly read the books by Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White. She expressed joy about what she learned about health. But she also said she felt a great burden of guilt and feared God would not accept her.
The two women kept praying together.
One drug-free week passed. At Susan’s suggestion, the woman stopped spending time with old friends who used harmful substances, instead going to the beauty spa in the mornings and staying home the rest of the day.
Susan ended up giving her free massages for the next two months, telling her, “Don’t give me any money for now because when you think about money, you get worried.”
“And you know something? Now she is off drugs. She’s a free lady,” Susan said. “She has not taken any drugs for three months. Praise God. Praise God. It’s amazing.”
Front-line, self-supporting Adventists who share their faith in the workplace are called tentmakers in the Adventist Church’s Middle East and North Africa Union.
“This is the only way to go,” said Chanmin Chung, communication coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Union. “Other methods are very expensive and complicated in this region.”
Adventist believers are “tentmakers” in beauty spas, restaurants, medical centers, and other sectors.
“The importance of the initiative is that these people can legally enter and work in the restricted-access countries in the Middle East and North Africa Union,” said Homer Trecartin, president of the Middle East and North Africa Union. “The gospel finds an entry point through their lives among people who normally would never meet a Seventh-day Adventist.”
Skilled Adventist women, many from the Philippines, have lined up to work at Susan’s beauty spa, eager for a job that allows them to take off Sabbath. Some of the other employees were “not that good,” Susan said. But she has no regrets.
Among those less satisfactory employees was a woman brought into the country by human traffickers. Susan ultimately helped secure her freedom from the traffickers. The Adventist Review is not disclosing details about the case to protect Susan’s identity.
“It was one of those cases where I said, ‘The Lord had a reason for why I had to employ her, perhaps take her out of this prostitution ring,’” Susan said.
Unlike many businesses, the beauty spa has never had difficulty with the authorities, Susan said. Inspectors can walk in at any time to check the spa for cleanliness and to make sure that no beauty products have expired.
“When they first walk in, they always ask, ‘Where is your madam? She is a very nice lady,’” Susan said. “But those very same people, when they walk into other spas, are giving fines of” $5,000 to $15,000.
The inspectors even alert Susan’s employees about products that are nearing their expiration date, saying: “Watch out, this is going to expire in a month’s time. If you don’t use it by then, then remove it.”
“It has been like this continuously,” Susan said. “We have seen the hand of the Lord working with us.”
Her burden now is to find a way to share Jesus through Bible studies. She has made friends with many people but isn’t sure how to open the Scriptures to them.
“They know that I am a child of God. They know exactly what I believe. They know that I close my business on a very busy day to worship,” Susan said. “But I am not sure how to go to the next level with Bible studies.”
As Susan ponders the next step, she is continuing to befriend her clients. Some have been beaten by their husbands and ask for body scrubs, hoping to remove the dark bruises. Others simply wish to relax, saying that they sense something special at the spa that helps them unwind.
One woman, a government worker, confided that she had received a visa to travel to Britain to pursue a master’s degree but her husband was threatening to divorce her if she went.
“She came to the beauty spa very depressed,” Susan said. “She cried like a baby. She said, ‘What shall I do?’”
The government was prepared to fly her back every weekend, but her husband still was telling her, “If you go, I will marry another woman.”
“What could I say?” Susan said. “I really thought about it, and then I said, ‘My advice is for the sake of your family. Just do as your husband wants because he is the head of the house.’”
The woman asked, “Do you believe in this ‘head of the house’?”
“Yes, because it is in the Bible and the Quran says that also,” Susan said.
The two women prayed about the matter for a week.
Abruptly, the husband announced one day that he had decided to go on leave from work for a year so he could accompany his wife to Britain. They would return together after she finished her studies.
“That was something amazing,” Susan said. “The government gave them accommodations, and their nanny was taken care of. They are in the U.K. now as she does her master’s. God is good.”
Stories from the Middle East trip