Absentmindedly I stirred my coffee. My brain was trying to make sense of the story I was hearing. Two Christian workers who live in southern Europe sat across from my husband and me and told us about Nelly. My eyes went from theirs to the window. As a writer, I wondered who would believe this story if I shared it. I could barely absorb it and the firsthand witnesses were sitting directly across the table from me.
This story has been in the making for about five years now, they said. They first met Nelly when she came to them and asked them to visit her husband and young son after she died. Nelly had a brain tumor and she didn’t expect to live much longer. This couple encouraged her to pray to Jesus and ask Him to intervene. As a Muslim, Nelly had never prayed to Jesus. However, by this time, she was unable to fulfill her daily Muslim prayer rituals because of her illness. So she returned home and gave praying to Jesus a try.
Nelly came back to her Christian friends and reported that as she was sitting and praying on her couch, Jesus appeared on her balcony and entered through her doors and spoke with her. He spoke to her in her North African dialect and asked her what she wanted. At this point, my husband and I had mouths hanging open and wanted to clarify, “Wait, wait. You mean Jesus—like, human Jesus—walked into her apartment from her balcony?” We had heard stories of Jesus appearing to Muslims in dreams. But, Jesus, on her balcony? And then in her living room? Asking her what she wanted?
“WE KNOW. IT SOUNDS CRAZY. BUT IT HAPPENED MANY TIMES. THIS WAS JUST THE FIRST ONE.”
The workers shrugged their shoulders and with palms up said, “We know. It sounds crazy. But it happened many times. This was just the first one.” Nelly told them that she answered Jesus’ question by telling Him that she had had a headache because there hadn’t been any cigarettes in their home for days. Nelly reported that after Jesus left, she went to her kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee and there, in the cupboard, was a package of cigarettes. Nelly ran back to the workers lamenting, “Why did I only ask for cigarettes?”
It took us a minute to absorb this. A North African Muslim woman asked Jesus—who appeared to her bodily—for cigarettes. And He gave them to her. We thought immediately of Christians back in the States who would discount this story because smoking is a sin, right? I mean, how do you reconcile God giving a gift that is frowned upon in many Christian settings across North America? As our friends agreed that it was hard to believe, but true, we began to verbally recall the many surprising ways that Jesus reacted in Scripture to those seeking Him. There was the healing on the Sabbath. The water to wine. The forgiveness of the adulteress. The washing of feet. Apparently, Jesus—in His mercy—sweetly met Nelly right where she was, as He began the process of revealing more and more of Himself to her.
Nelly saw “The Jesus Film” and other Christian movies on Satellite TV. She is illiterate and was therefore unable to gain knowledge of Jesus through the Bible. After several personal visits from the Lord, Nelly went to the Christian workers sitting across from us and told them, “Jesus is the Son of God and He’s in my heart. He will never go away.”
While these workers rejoiced, they wanted to make sure that Nelly fully understood who Jesus was. Another Christian worker and friend who spoke the same North African dialect as Nelly, sat down with her to hear more about her encounters with Jesus. This conversation in Nelly’s first language would allow for deeper communication and understanding. The Christian workers and Nelly’s friends were all elated when it became evident in that conversation that she really did understand the person of Jesus and had a rich faith and relationship with Him.
The workers told us that in the months that followed, Nelly reported that Jesus often visited her. She said that she was not sleeping or dreaming, but that Jesus was there physically and spoke to her, encouraged her, consoled her. She said that once Jesus entered through the balcony door, spoke with her, and left through the front door. Her husband heard the door open and shut and asked who was there.
THE WHOLE THING WAS SO WILD AND UNFATHOMABLE TO US. WE SIMPLY COULD NOT IMAGINE WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO HAVE JESUS ENTER THROUGH YOUR BALCONY DOORS NEARLY EVERY DAY
At one point, Nelly was concerned because Jesus hadn’t been to see her for several days. The workers had the pleasure of telling her that she was the recipient of an unusual gift and that most Christians never saw Jesus face-to-face, let alone many times over! At this point in the story, my husband and I had to pause and take a deep breath. The whole thing was so wild and unfathomable to us. We simply could not imagine what it was like to have Jesus enter through your balcony doors nearly every day.
They went on. According to Nelly, one day Jesus laid His hand on her face, where she had been suffering paralysis from the brain tumor. He massaged her cheek and told her that very afternoon she would go to the doctor and everything would be fine. Indeed, her paralysis disappeared and a scan revealed no tumor. Jesus had miraculously healed her.
Nelly said that Jesus told her to believe in Him. He appeared to her at the hospital when she underwent a surgery for another health problem too. Nelly said, “Jesus is in my life now and He will never leave.”
Over the years, Nelly’s daughter, son-in-law, and children moved from North Africa into their apartment. A year after Nelly’s conversion her husband began to believe in the Lord Jesus. Other family members became curious too. Roughly five years after Nelly first believed, a local church held an event in Arabic. Her family attended and heard several testimonies from Muslim-background believers. They said their hearts really began to open to Jesus when they heard the Arabic worship music. They purchased a worship CD and returned to their apartment.
Here’s where the Christian workers’ story began to turn from one of joy and awe to one of deep concern. Nelly reported that one recent Sunday morning, her husband and son-in-law played the Arabic Christian CD and danced in their kitchen and celebrated the good news proclaimed in the lyrics. The women who were in the living room—separated by gender as is their custom as North Africans—asked the men to turn up the music so that they could worship too. Someone began banging on their front door and a voice boomed, “Are you a Christian? This is a Muslim building!” Muslim men from the building waited on the street and confronted and beat Nelly’s husband and son-in-law as soon as they saw them later that day.
THE STORY DARKENED AS WE LEARNED THAT NELLY’S FAMILY IS FORCED BY THE THREAT OF PHYSICAL HARM TO HIDE IN THEIR APARTMENT.
The story darkened as we learned that Nelly’s family is forced by the threat of physical harm to hide in their apartment. They must be very careful as they move around the neighborhood, because their Muslim neighbors now know they believe in Jesus. The local police are reluctant to help because they know that if they intervene Nelly and her family are likely to suffer increased attacks as retribution from the community. They are seeking shelter elsewhere, but don't feel hopeful. They are in very real danger.
But, as Nelly said to these workers, “I have great faith because I know that Jesus is alive.”
My husband and I sat at the table dumbfounded. The Christian workers gave us a minute, as they gathered some food from the buffet. As they sat back down and we absorbed the immensity of the story—the joy and the sorrow—we were all deeply moved. Nelly and her family are clearly precious to these workers. They and other Christian workers in their neighborhood have been invested in Nelly’s story for over five years. Christians in the community have provided food, money, tutoring, and support in any way they can. They rejoice in what Jesus has done and they are praying fervently for Nelly and her family.
As I ask God to protect Nelly, His servant, I also ask Him for faith like hers, because I know too that Jesus is alive. And now I know it in a new, profound way, thanks to my North African sister who lives in southern Europe. May Jesus, in His sovereignty and mercy, draw many more North Africans to Himself—whether it is through the gift of cigarettes or the gift of healing or the gift of persecution.
And may we in the west stay on our knees for our Muslim-background siblings in Christ and the workers laboring for their sake in His name.