This weekend at Trinity's annual spring women's retreat our topic was Her Story: My Story. We studied biblical women and their legacy for us as 21st-century inheritors of their stories. The first night we were there we all shared about the women in our lives who have most influenced our own faith. For me, there have, of course, been many such women. My mother and grandmother are very important parts of my own faith journey. But the women I chose to talk about this weekend are Hadja, Hanizou, and Nafissatou.
These women are three very faithful Muslim women who live in central Cameroon. Nafissatou was my student when I taught English there. Her mother is Hadja, and her little sister is Hanizou. I know it may seem strange that I would name three Muslim women as important influences in my Christian faith journey, but there it is.
I have many stories that I could tell you about Nafissatou and her family. What is important to know for this story is that her mother and father took care of me, loved me, and treated me like I was their own daughter. To this day, I am Hadja's daughter, and I am sister to Nafissatou and Hanizou.
The Thanksgiving after I left Cameroon, Nafissatou's father, Sadou Daoudou (or as we called him, Baaba Sadou, or "Daddy Sadou") came in from his morning walk and fell down and died in the middle of their living room floor. He was 74 years old, and had lived a very rich and fulfilling life. He served as Minister of Defense in the Cameroonian government under President Ahmadou Ahidjo during the early years following independence. This had made him and his family very worldly people, which I think is one of the many things that so endeared us to each other.
Anyways, the summer following Baaba Sadou's death, I was back in Cameroon for a visit. Pierre and I went to visit Nafissatou and her mother and sister after church one Sunday. Hadja was still very sad over the loss of her husband. We came and sat in their living room, drinking tea and talking. When we left, Pierre forgot his small blue Gideon New Testament that he had placed on the side table. We never even remembered we had left it.
Three months later, I was standing in our kitchen in St. Paul, Minnesota, at lunch time when the phone rang. I picked up the phone and heard the familiar delay we often get on calls from Africa. "ALLO?" I heard a voice say from far away on the other end of the line. It was Nafissatou.
"Hello? Rebecca, I am calling to tell you something important," she told me.
"Is everything okay?" I was a little worried. I slumped back against the kitchen counter. It was snowing outside.
"Yes. Do you remember that Bible you and Pierre left at our house last summer when you visited us?"
I admitted to her that I did not.
"Ever since the day you left it, my mother has been reading it."
This was one of those missionary moments where your breath catches in your throat. "And?" I croaked. I wasn't quite sure I wanted to know the rest. Will these people still be the people I love if they become Christian? Part of why I love them is because of their heritage and family life that center around the practice of Islam. The selfish part of me wanted them to remain exactly the way they were.
"And, I am just calling to tell you that Muslim people love Jesus, too. We love Jesus."
I started to cry.
That is why Nafisstou and her family have had such a profound impact on my faith. I am pretty sure now that they will never become Christians, and that is OK. They don't need to. In many ways, the greatest Christian love I have ever experienced came from this close-knit family of Muslim women. Their openness to understanding my story, to having an experience with my God, and to loving me all the same has had a profound impact on how I live my life today as a Christian.
They are also a great example for me of what it truly means to be a missionary. Mission is about relationship. Hadja never would have read that Bible in the first place if we didn't have such a deep love for each other. Nafissatou never would have shared what she did with me if we hadn't already been bonded together as sisters. In so many ways, this family has ministered to me more than I could ever care for them.
Nafissatou is the reason that I have a Master's Degree in Islamic Studies. She and many of my other female students--Aissatou, Mairamou, Hadjijatou--they made me want to know more about who they are. The practices of Islam are so intimately bound up with their everyday lives that I couldn't know them without knowing about what they believe and practice. In many ways, we made an exchange... Nafissatou got that Gideon Bible, and I got a Master's thesis on Modern Women in Islam.
I wish that more Christians could show our Muslim brothers and sisters grace and godliness like Nafissatou, Hanizou, and Hadja showed (and continue to show) me. Nafissatou and her family are some of the most faithful, godly people I have ever met.