It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Yet, it was one I wasn't really sure I'd ever take.

My previous trip to Asia was well over a couple of decades ago. I was much younger, much more innocent, and much more hopeful about the world we live in. Flying did not have the security issues that are now in place. However, the opportunity was there, and I knew I had to go.
Prior expectations had made me think this trip would fulfill a long growing desire to go to Tokyo Disney Sea and experience the gorgeousness of this first class and best Imagineered Disney Resort. I even thought I might throw in a day at Hong Kong Disneyland as well as tour that magnificent city. But God had other plans.

Through some mutual friends, I was encouraged to take a group of folks to Central Asia. Our purpose there would be to care for the children of Christian leaders and pastors from five nations gathered for a time of rest, refreshment, and training. We would be gone for two weeks. I didn't want to go without my wife, who could not get the time off. Deep inside, I knew I was being selfish. All my talk about making a difference in the world, and now was another opportunity to do it, and I was ready to pass it by. What a hypocrite! I decided to go and put my money where my mouth had been- and in a whole new way.

We would take a group of fourteen: two young adults, one being my youngest daughter, and I would lead the trip. After many more applications than we ever thought we would see, me and our church leaders carefully prayed and sorted through them, ultimately choosing five teen girls, one more young adult, and four women and one man to join us. These were seasoned veterans in working with kids. The schedule with taking care of 60 kids- with only a couple of English speakers- would be demanding: two weeks at two sessions each day, 9am to 1pm and again from 7pm to 9pm.

The expense would be astronomical for all of us- about $3700 each, but we were committed to going. And we wanted to send money to these leaders to help them get to the conference as well. We each had to commit to paying our own way in full if no money came in. Big dreams, seemingly few resources.

The leaders of our church had decided that we had to fundraise outside the church. We would be doing a one-time all church offering, so they didn't want us to also approach our small congregation personally. We agreed and began doing our personal fundraising from family and friends.

After going down my Christmas card list, I thought of a man I knew who was fairly well off and very generous to causes which benefited children and furthered the cause of Jesus to reach the world. The problem was we hadn't crossed paths in eight years, and I didn't even know if he still lived in the state. I decided I couldn't contact him just for money as I did not want to take advantage of him. The good relationship we had in the past was more important. But I promised God if I ran into him, I would talk to him about the trip and the funds we needed. My daughter and I decided we would fundraise together and sent our letters out.

Two months went by. My daughter and I each paid for some of our expenses out of pocket. Family sent us most of the money that came in, but Lauren and I needed an additional $5000 between the two of us. Time was short, and our entire team was experiencing the same thing. One of our team members had received only one hundred dollars. What were we thinking?

About six weeks prior to our departure in June, I was busy in a meeting at my local coffeehouse. Who walked up to my table? My very generous friend I had not sent the letter to! His words: "I have been thinking about you the last few weeks and couldn't get you out of my mind!" I replied I had been thinking about him as well. If he only knew! We set up some time to meet the following week.

When we met, he shared some thoughts as to why had been thinking about me. Then he asked why I had been thinking about him. Before I answered, we realized he lived on the far west side of town, and I was on the far east side. He rarely came to my end of town, yet there he was for a business meeting at my coffeehouse at the same time and exact same day as my meeting. Wow!

He asked again why I had thought of him. Drawing on his good sense of humor, I said, "I'm going to ask you to give me money!" He smiled and asked for the story. His eyes lit up. He wrote me a check for $5000! I about passed out, but thanked God for him being so faithful.

Our church finally took its special offering, another $14,000. You must understand that we are a small church of less than one hundred families and are very "middle class" at best. This was a huge sacrifice. At the end of the week, another surprise. An anonymous donor gave us another $11,000! By the time we left, our entire team's way was paid for, and we were able to send almost $20,000 to the overseas pastors and leaders and their families!

Our departure day finally arrived, almost 7 months since the trip first came into our minds for consideration. Our flights took us from Denver to Frankfurt to Istanbul to our destination in Central Asia. From there, just another four hour or so bus ride to our final location. Nine thousand miles each way and over 20 hours of flight time. This would be home for my daughter Lauren and I and our team of 11 more for the next two weeks. (One man had to drop out at the last minute.)

The long bus ride gave us a chance to survey the landscape. The local people live in various types of homes. Some were the traditional yurt, some cinder block buildings and others more common shantys as would be found in Tijuana or Juarez, Mexico. Just the trip revealed much about the country and its people. Farming was rarely done by modern machinery. More often, we would see people in the fields using the traditional tools of sickles and rakes.

The region was mountainous and beautiful. The lengthy drive up the bumpy old road passed by many, many strands of cottonwood trees, red poppies, and fields of lavender.

Above- Muslim gravesites of the wealthy

Additionally, our two young adults, Lauren included, and a slightly older but young at heart woman, would be doing evening training time for the many teens in attendance. This was in addition to doing the ministry to the kids. Topics would include worship, discipleship, spiritual warfare, and living a life of holiness. They would get terrific feedback from the teens as each person taught once each week. All of us would have one day off, a Saturday in between the two weeks worth of the conference sessions. (This ended up being a great day, with a visit to the local market and a busride through town.)

We were to serve in an area that was considered closed to Christians with new laws in effect, so even teaching the kids about Jesus was illegal. We were all closely watched by security who patrolled the area, our unattended bags were searched, and our email was read by the authorities before it was sent out.

Due to the division of labor, I would not see too much of my daughter, as I would spend most of my time in the conference itself, leading discussion groups and later doing much one on one coaching. In addition to the conference times and discussion groups, my assignment was to meet with each man in my group at least 3 times for two hours each session. This meant many hours of personal coaching, but almost all of the men wanted more time with me than that, and I was happy to oblige these amazing guys. I also met two other men with whom I struck up a friendship and spent many meals and off hours with them as well.

In essence, our journey really is a story about the people.

The men I coached are really amazing. These are incredible young men, each with stories and ministries varied and impressive. All but one of my six new friends, were deserted by their fathers when they were small children. All are first generation Christians, converting from Islam. I would like to tell you a bit of their stories as the best way to share what the Lord is doing in Central Asia.

Another young man was the first man I met and one that I would also spend much coaching time and off time with. He came to Christ at 16, then shared the gospel with his three best friends, all Muslim as well. They also believed. When the four of them entered university a year later, they prayed God would use them to reach the freshmen class- and He did- everyone of them in his division became committed to Christ. He is quite the evangelist!

Currently, at 26, he is head of a local ministry in a major central asian city. Two months ago, he started a website to reach Muslim students. In two months, ten thousand visits yielded 600 conversions. He is busy following up with them and connecting them to mostly underground Christian churches. He is currently praying about opening a student center to build more relationships as the universities are now closed to religious activity. In my heart of hearts, I believe God is going to use him powerfully to change the face of Central Asia.

Our evangelist spent an evening with our team, sharing his story and then praying for us. We, in turn, prayed for him. Our teens were visibly impacted- and our prayer time afterward birthed a few new missionaries, I believe.

Our larger group sessions were full of questions- mostly mine, actually- as I wanted to learn more about life as a Christian in an area of the world where real persecution happened. I learned much about simplicity and joy- and the willingness to truly believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, as the Apostle Paul wrote. I listened, I prayed, I cried, I hugged and supported- but I gained so much more than I gave during those long hours each day!

His group is in charge of distribution of pamphlets, Bibles, videos, newsletters, websites and blogs, and an interactive ministry where he and his team of eight personally correspond to thousands of Muslims by mail, those who have questions about the Christian faith but without acess to the internet. Just a great guy!

Above- "God loved the world He created and when men walked away, He sent His only Son Jesus to die on the cross; when our trust is put in Him, we are at peace for eternity as all the questions about who we are and the wonders of life are only answered in Him."

Interestingly, there was a common theme among a few of these men when the subject of Islam came up. Almost all of them spoke of their upbringing, the hopelessness of that faith. The message of Jesus, God in the flesh reaching down to humanity out of love and dying for our sins on the cross had such a powerful impact versus the god of Islam who demands perfection to be good enough to reach him. They shared how the Muslim world intends to take over by sheer population growth. Islamic missionaries are very active in Central Asia, and there is a rising and open persecution of those Muslims who convert to Christianity. Yet, in spite of threats both spoken and acted upon, these young men choose Christ and live to share his redemptive message!

We shared "heart" stories as well, speaking about our marriages and our families, our struggles as men to live lives that would be pleasing to God- not because we had to but because we wanted to. One day, I was finally asked about what it is like to be a Christian in America. Instantly humbled and more than a little embarrassed, I explained we were spoiled by our freedoms and the abundance of material wealth. One of my new friends, sensing my growing shame, reminded me that those from the United States bring 93% of their support and how grateful they were for us!

This mindset was evident everywhere I went and with everyone I spoke. In fact, when I departed after two weeks, my suitcase was filled with gifts for me and my wife (for letting me go for two weeks!)

These guys humbled me by their love, generosity, and their willingness to really suffer for the sake of Jesus and his message. Some of them live on as little as $400 per month for a family of four, but in other regions, it is as expensive as living in the United States! As newer local missionaries, they are still building support- and simple needs such as a car, are still on their prayer list.

One more amazing story to give you a flavor for the life of a Christian here.

It is of my encounter with a young man who captured my heart. His first and middle name actually means Genghis Khan! And even though he is a gentle and kind man, he is a mighty warrior like his namesake. Now 28, he also came to Christ through English Club as a very young man. With a degree in engineering, he gave it up and now works with a ministry in the southern regions trying to reach students. But his heart is for the people of Afghanistan. He takes his missions trips to war zone areas there. He plans to one day bring his family of a willing wife and three sons to live there full time, sharing Jesus in this closed country. Explaining he knew he may lose his life for the sake of Christ, his reply was it was no longer his life to live but Christ's in him. No bravado, just simple humility. To this day, I get choked up when I think of him and his tender, tender heart.

My brave young friend was one of the men I met the first night of the conference. We were at a table together and hit off immediately. Although he was not in my group to coach, we spent many hours together discussing the Lord, praying a lot and crying- mostly me- as I was so touched by his willingness to risk his life for the sake of Jesus. Our last night in our departure city before we returned home, he gave us a tour of the city and spent the entire day and evening with us until our flight departed in the wee hours of the morning. He also shared his story with the team, and they fell in love with him as well.

These are only stories of the men I have mentioned! There are many more.

As for the conference itself, the speakers were no less impressive: a four degree professor from one of the most prestigious east coast universities who gave it up to serve the cause of Jesus in full time ministry, and a professor from a European university who shares Christ with his students off hours. Both are passionate men for Christ, with a heart to bring the truth to men and women of university age. And to worship in multiple languages to the songs of Chris Tomlin and David Crowder was quite the experience! Christians truly are one in the Lord.

Let me conclude by telling you that I am so thankful and humbled. The experience has made me rethink what it means to be a believer in Jesus and how seriously I live out my faith. Questions fill my head: How much of what I have and do really has eternal value? Am I also willing to give my life in exchange for eternal life in Jesus? What does it mean to really believe in America? And on and on. I do know obedience is the key regardless of what situation any of us find ourselves in.

What a gift to be able to have this experience and to watch the hand of God work through such devoted and compassionate young men. Kind of reminds me of the disciples Jesus left behind after his resurrection.

The trip I never expected down a road less traveled has brought me to a crossroads on my journey with Jesus. May it bring good fruit.

(Photos copyright Mark and Lauren Taft)