How does the banished son of a North African become a beloved child of God in Southern Europe? Well, over tea, served under a bridge, of course.
John’s story is the same as millions of other migrants to hit the shores of Europe in the last three years—until it diverges where he met Christ. Today he’s on the north shores of the Mediterranean, living in his pastor’s spare bedroom, serving his church, and patiently navigating the paperwork to become a legal immigrant.
The Back Story
When John’s father kicked him out of their house in North Africa, he joined the infamous European migration crises and made his way to Turkey by patching together a dangerous route—sometimes on foot, sometimes over water, sometimes at the mercy of human smugglers—always very dangerous for a young man, barely 20.
John first settled in Turkey and learned the language. He attained legal residency and a girlfriend. He even picked up English. When his girlfriend broke up with him one year in, he set out—further on and further up into Europe—in search of the good life that he couldn’t have in North Africa and hadn’t yet found in Turkey.
Like all migrants, John waited in the camps. He had to find a way across from Turkey to Greece. But like most migrants who make it to Turkey, he was kept there. The European Union is reluctant to bloat itself further with newcomers.
Like others, John searched for a way to be ferried across the Aegean Sea. He had to consider the financial cost, the reliability of whoever promised him passage, the safety and reliability of the craft. He tried for a whole year to gain passage.
At one point, John attempted passage by clinging to the underbelly of a large truck heading north and west. He was discovered and badly beaten. Those back injuries persist even now, a constant reminder of how far he’s come.
The Lord Establishes Our Steps
A non-practicing Muslim, John was depressed and wondered why Allah would make him wait on his new life. He watched as others on the trail successfully gained passage to Greece, while he grew in despair. He says he kept asking Allah, “Why are you keeping me from going? Why are others making it while my plans keep falling through? Why won’t you let me go?” He even promised Allah that he would follow Islam more carefully if only he could move on to Greece.
Finally, John’s day to cross the sea arrived. He was welcomed on the other side by Christian missionaries who staffed the migration reception on the shore. He made his home in the camps and heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But John wasn’t interested in the Christian story. He waved away the missionaries’ efforts at spiritual conversations. He continued in his pursuit of a better life.
Unlike in Turkey, John was able to leave Greece in just five weeks. He felt his fate had been reversed. But the quick timing haunted him. He wondered why Allah required him to languish in Turkey but readily blessed him in Greece. He had a sense that the timing of his journey was divine, but he couldn’t make out why.
Unbeknownst to even himself, John was living out the proverbial truth, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). The timing would lead to a divine encounter under a bridge.
Tea Under a Bridge
Alone, penniless, and homeless, John followed the path of other migrants and eventually found himself under a highway overpass with men mostly from Sudan, but also Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Iran, Mali, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. It’s estimated that between 200 and 300 men lived under and around that bridge when John arrived—right at the height of a bottleneck on the migration path west further into Europe.
The bottleneck was caused by stricter border controls. By the time John arrived, the average stay under the bridge was one to three months. Legally crossing the border to the west was almost impossible. Migrants were risking illegal paths along mountain cliffs or through motorway tunnels, often suffering death and injury.
Right around John’s arrival, missionaries and pastors from surrounding communities started visiting the men under the bridge on Thursday evenings. They brought pots of tea, snacks, and friendship. John immediately felt a connection to two of the visitors—they were like a mother and a father figure to him.
As these two missionaries began to share the love of Christ with John, he didn’t rebuff them like he did the missionaries in Greece. Perhaps he was more travel weary now, less confident. Whatever the case, he couldn’t deny his awareness that his long wait in Turkey and his speed in Greece timed his arrival under the bridge to perfectly coincide with the efforts of these new, kind, and Christian friends.
“What are you going to do with what we’ve talked about?"
Lee, the missionary who became a father figure to John says that one night after several Thursdays of talking with John about Jesus, he asked him, “What are you going to do with what we’ve talked about? You have to decide if you’re going to walk with God.”
John recounts that after almost two years of feeling alone on the migration, that night he felt the hand of God reach in and grab his heart. He was crying and didn’t know why.
In John’s distress, Lee embraced him saying, “God wants to take you into his arms. He wants to hold you.” John grew solemn and walked away alone. He needed time to think over the truths Lee had told him.
John was experiencing what Paul told the men of Athens, 2,000 years prior. God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:26-28).
In the following weeks, John began to spiritually awaken—he began to seek God and find him, as Paul said. Rather than receiving tea and snacks, he started to serve them. He became an encourager to the migrating men in his midst. He hungered for time with the missionaries.
Further On and Further Up
Just as he was learning more about Jesus, John found a way across the next border. He took his chance to move on. In his journey, God led John to an Arabic Christian—a new friend who was able to explain the gospel to him in his mother tongue and with the help of a shared cultural background. John’s eyes were opening more and more with each step of his migration.
His journey led him to a community from which one of the missionaries he met under the bridge had come. Susan, the woman who had been a mother figure to him, was there. She and her church welcomed John with open arms.
Like a grandson, John was invited to Susan’s mother’s home. Though an atheist, she had an old wall hanging in her home that proclaimed Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and be saved.” John says seeing that stopped him cold in his tracks.
It was following that encounter with the word of God that Susan and her pastor witnessed John in the fight of his life. Though he had migrated more than 5,000 miles through Northern Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea, though he had been hungry and hurt and all alone for nearly two years, this—this—was the real fight, “for we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
With Susan and the pastor by his side, John wrestled for hours with the truths he had learned. Finally, by God’s grace and through prayer and a move of the Holy Spirit, John believed.
John began his new life in Christ as he began his new life in Europe. He lives in the spare bedroom of not just Susan’s pastor, but now his own pastor too. He is serving the church and growing in his knowledge of the Lord Jesus. Church members are helping him navigate the path to legal status in their country.
John wants to get a job and move on. Though it’s no longer just Europe that John has set his sights on. Now he wants to go further on and further up in the Kingdom.