Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no knowledge of Adventist people and nothing particular to interest me in their beliefs, I returned from my Friday prayers to resume my dreary work. I am a man from the East. I was born and raised and played as a child in the desert dust, the same dust the Prophet Abraham washed from his feet at the pools of Haran. Yes, Haran is still an oasis, a wet and wonderful land on the edge of a wretched desert.
Now I am far from Haran and even farther from my childhood. The pools of my happiness are dry as I pass endless hours standing at the door of a stale concrete building. I am a doorman. Daily, I stand and watch people and cars pass like waves of the salty sea. A relentless boredom pounds my soul, and oppressive anonymity in useless labor washes over me. Is there no greater meaning to life than this? Look at the men on my street who stand and stare at the taxis, the bustling sidewalk and the city that never sleeps. What do they think about? They stand with their cigarettes, expressionless eyes and one big question in their minds, which was my question until that Friday when an Adventist man stepped into my building and my world.
He was a foreigner, Barnabas by name. I liked him from the moment we stood together in the shell of a vacant apartment and he announced he intended to turn it into a church. Had he said he planned to flood the place and make a swimming pool, I couldn’t have been more surprised and curiously delighted. When I saw Barnabas the fifth time, he kissed me on both cheeks and presented me with a fine pocket knife—a gift for no obvious reason. Regardless of the gift, I knew I liked the man, and it seemed like the aqueducts of Haran began to flow again within me.
I watched Barnabas set to work to transform the dirty cavern 80 feet above the street into a place of holy worship. I was surprised to see him work with rocks, concrete, wood and steel. I presumed he was a man of learning, yet he was oddly comfortable with trowel and hammer. Had he been a Turk of similar learning, he would never have touched these things.
Most unusual to me about this Barnabas was not his work with tools but his work with men. He looked at everyone on our street equally with the same gleam of hope in his eyes as if he saw something remarkable in each one. As I stood at my post of duty, I thought much about these things.
In the course of preparing his church, Barnabas asked me if I knew a painter. I knew such a man, though not well, and suggested him. His name was Ali. As Barnabas outlined his plans, Ali promoted himself for the job of building the walls needed for classrooms.
To make a long story short, Ali cheated Barnabas. The grim deed came to light as Ali, Barnabas and I stood face to face in the room where the thievery happened. Having seen many a man bloodied after such a crime, I waited, expecting Barnabas to explode with the vengeance the deed deserved. After all, there is something in every man, when he is wronged, that longs to play judge and executioner. But instead of allowing the devil to climb into his soul, Barnabas gave Ali a clear lecture about forgiveness, then he shook Ali’s hand, ushered him to the door and bid him a kind farewell. My eyes have never seen such a strange and noble thing. Here was a demonstration of the Christ I had heard of! Then, with good spirit, Barnabas turned immediately to start remedying the inferior work.
I feared my recommendation of Ali had ruined my new friendship with Barnabas, but the rug of forgiveness he had rolled out was wide, and he welcomed me onto it. Now I felt it was my turn to give back to this friendship. But what to give a Christian man as a gift?
In my fatherland of Haran, I had often searched for buried treasure—gold of ancient kingdoms in the tombs of men whose fame had turned to dust. Once while exploring, I found the ruin of a collapsed church. My comrades and I dug into the rubble, and to our delight we found a gilt-edged book, large and ornamented. It was a Bible no less than a thousand years old. We immediately knew it was a valuable find. We soon found a buyer willing to pay $100,000 for it. But before we could close the deal, the police swooped in and confiscated it as a national treasure.
I never received a penny for that book, but the experience left a strong impression on my mind that the Bible must really be a holy book of great importance. So when I later was given a New Testament, I did not hesitate to read it. Secretly, I determined it was the truth of God.
This would be my gift to Barnabas. In my home, I took three small New Testaments I had gathered from different places at different times and wrapped them neatly in a red package with a bow. Barnabas had invited me to a Christmas program in his new church, and I took the opportunity to place my gift into his hands. Barnabas was greatly surprised when he opened my gift, recognizing that I was revealing to him for the first time my secret interest in Jesus.
That Christmas program was my first time in the completed church. It seemed much like a mosque, yet quite different, too. As at a mosque, we removed our shoes at the door out of respect to God. But when we prayed, instead of facing east, we faced in numerous directions and prayed from our hearts.
One Saturday, on a national holiday when my building and thus the Adventist church were closed, Barnabas invited me to attend church in his home. A church that moves—how peculiar! The people who meet in that church are peculiar, too, in a good way, and I enjoy being with them. They often bring a plate of food to me on Saturday or call me to join them.
My little girl is nearly deaf in both ears. Many a friend has sighed and said, “What a dear girl. May all go well with her.” Certainly we all say such words because in some sense they are a salve to heal the awkwardness of human inability to be of real help in such situations. Words are kind, but true concern is greater. Upon learning of my girl’s condition, Barnabas searched two continents to find hearing aids to help my little love.
As I said before, every man lives with a big question mark that hovers tauntingly before his eyes. Even on the sunniest day, a man can become depressed if he reflects too much and asks, “Why life’s struggle? Why my girl’s deafness? Why? Why?” “Fate,” is the unsatisfying answer sung from minarets. The Imams sing, “The great and merciful God has damned you to a life of woe.” I flee from these terrible words. So, when Barnabas invited me one mild autumn day to witness a baptism at the sea’s edge, I was drawn to this mysterious rite of passage. He told me that a man may choose to have eternal life by being born again in Jesus the Messiah. He said it was a portal into a new life.
Twenty-some men and women gathered on the pebbled beach. Seagulls glided above us, and I sensed the presence of the Eternal One hovering there as well. He had arrived early and had hung the sun low to the west, and its light wrapped every figure in a golden mantle. I thought it a most fitting vesture for these saints. We sang songs and told testimonies, and three people went down into the water. Last was Barnabas and Ozcan, the man he would lay to rest. Barnabas held up his hand up, pointed toward heaven, and said, “Ozcan, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has ransomed you from fear and hatred. God has sent Jesus to pardon you and give you life eternal. From this water, you will rise to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.”
There were some other words, and then Barnabas plunged Ozcan beneath the waters, backward as if he were drowning the man, as if he were laying him down into a coffin. In the twinkle of an eye, Ozcan rose again, and he and Barnabas embraced. As everyone around me began to sing, I stared at the water Ozcan had arisen from. The wind began to blow, and it seemed to whisper in my ear, “You next, Ishmael.” I smiled as I walked toward Barnabas and said to him, “I, friend, I will be next.”
I am Ishmael, born in Haran. I want to become a true son of Abraham.