February 6, 2016

Seminary Graduate Leaves Comfort Zone to Befriend Muslims in Middle East

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.

YoungGi Yang was on track to become a pastor at a Seventh-day Adventist church in his native South Korea three years ago.

But then he had a mountaintop experience in the Himalayas of Nepal that convinced him to ditch his plans and move to the Middle East.

Today he is the owner of a bustling café in a Muslim country, a place where Adventist students can bring their Muslim friends for a cup of tea as they prayerfully develop relationships that they hope will lead to Jesus.

“When I gave up on my plans to be a pastor, I resolved to do whatever I could for mission,” he said. “I didn’t plan for it to work out this way, but I have really seen God’s leading.”

Yang, 31, belongs to a group of about 50 Adventist young people known in the church’s Middle East and North Africa Union as Waldensian students, named after the heroic group of Christians who clung to their faith despite dire persecution in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The Adventists, who come from various countries, attend public universities to learn the local language and pursue degrees in the Middle East. Their primary goal, however, is to painstakingly build friendships with fellow students — the only way, church leaders say, to share faith in a part of the world where relationships are held in high regard but evangelism is strictly prohibited.

“Waldensian students serve to reach public universities while they prepare themselves for long-term, self-supporting work among the indigenous people of this region,” said Homer Trecartin, president of the Adventist Church’s Middle East and North Africa Union. “Their acquisition of the dominant languages here makes this group of young people a special tool in God’s hands.”

These students have no plans to go home once they finish. With their language skills, they plan to settle down and serve as front-line, self-supporting Adventists who share their faith in the workplace.

Yang’s Mountaintop Experience

Yang was among the first batch of six Waldensian students, enrolling in local-language classes when he arrived in 2013. But he nearly stayed at home in South Korea.

Yang had planned to enter the pastoral ministry for years and was finally nearing completion of his studies at the seminary when a friend told him he should considering moving to the Middle East to join the new Waldensian program.

Yang balked. He had no interest in living so far from home. The program didn’t fit into his plans. He intended to begin a pastoral internship at a local church after the summer vacation following his graduation.

“I said, ‘No,” he said.

The Adventist Review is not using Yang’s real name or identifying his location to protect his work.

Not knowing when he might get another summer off, Yang decided to take the trip of a lifetime to Nepal for a well-deserved rest and to climb the Himalayan Mountains. One day as he was climbing with his backpack, he looked down to see a village far below. He could see small children playing and elderly people walking around, and it struck him how diverse the world was.

“I had never seen that kind of view before,” he said. “I saw a different world with different people and different lives.”

A short time later he reached a basecamp at an elevation of 5,000 meters (16,500 feet). Looking up, he could see the peak towering overhead at 17,000 meters and bathed in dazzling sunshine. Suddenly, a cloud floated overhead, obscuring the sun and casting a dark shadow over the scene. A chill of fear ran through him. He felt overwhelmed by the things he had seen.

It was at that moment that he realized that he needed to move to the Middle East.

“I felt God’s mighty power,” he said. “I had always thought that I would be a pastor in South Korea and minister to a local church. But after that I realized if God was so mighty and the world was so diverse, maybe He had a plan for me in another place.”

On the way down from the basecamp, he borrowed a fellow climber’s mobile phone. He had to walk around a little to find a signal, but then dialed the number of his friend back in South Korea.

“I’d like to be part of the project in the Middle East,” he told his friend.

A week after his return to South Korea, he entered a training program to move to the Middle East. In the fall he enrolled in a Middle Eastern university for a year of language studies instead of embarking on a career in pastoral ministry in South Korea.

Cafe Versus Club

The new café, located in a city district that is home to several universities, grew out of Yang’s initial attempts to befriend Muslim classmates. Yang, now a counselor and chaplain to the Waldensian students in his local area, unsuccessfully tried to find ways to smooth the often-difficult process of building friendships. He first encouraged fellow Adventist students to invite their classmates back to their dormitory rooms to talk and sip tea. The new friends liked the personal touch, but the Adventists found it difficult to keep their rooms tidy for guests and to serve refreshments on their small stipends.

Yang then leased a large room and established a student club where the Adventists could invite their new friends to hang out over tea and games of Uno and other social activities. But the Muslim friends found it highly unusual to visit the student club and couldn’t understand why the Adventists kept inviting them to the place, Yang said.

It was then that he remembered the ease with which he befriended his first classmate when he initially arrived in the Middle East. He and several other Adventist students had been sitting in a café, drinking tea and talking about life, when a local student had walked over and asked if they were Korean. Upon learning that they were, he asked whether they could teach him the Korean language.

“A café is a natural place to meet,” Yang said. “Cafes are where students study and talk with their friends.”

Yang opened his café several weeks ago with the support of a $50,000 donation from an Adventist group in South Korea and another $10,000 from the Adventist Church. The rent for the “center of influence,” as the church calls such places — amounts to $400 a month. Yang hopes that the café will be self supporting one day.

From initial appearances, the cafe is on its way toward achieving that goal. The café’s halls and outside terrace overlooking the city were packed with young people when an Adventist Review reporter visited this week. Every seat was taken, and students were lined up outside the entrance waiting for a seat.

While the café operates like any other eatery in the city, it does not charge the Adventists or their friends, relieving the financial pressure on the students and allowing them to focus on their real goal: to win friends for eternity.

The Adventist Review met with four Waldensian students, including a young married couple from South Korea who got married shortly before they arrived. All said they planned to stay in the Middle East for the rest of their lives, if that was God’s will.

Yang, meanwhile, has not given up on the student club. He has leased a new location for $400 a month near the café, giving students the option of alternating between the café and the club as hangout spots with their friends. As friendships grow, he hopes to start a home church that meets on Sabbaths at the club.

Then his calling will have come full circle, he said. He will be able to become a pastor after all.

“I strongly believe that God is working in this region,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t look like it, God is working here.”

Stories from the Middle East trip

Teaching a Sick Muslim Mother About the Power of Jesus’ Name

After Accepting Jesus, Former Muslim Drops Plans to Move to France

In Iraq, Adventist Church Leader Prays for New Church

Willing to Die for Their Faith in the Middle East

How I Became an Adventist in a Muslim Country and Had to Flee

Beauty Spa Offers Massages and Hope in the Middle East

Seminary Graduate Leaves Comfort Zone to Befriend Muslims