“It was the moment when everyone lined up to pray and then bowed down. I looked around and realized that there were hundreds of men bowing down, and I just froze. Then I felt peace and thought, I shouldn’t panic. I am here because God allowed me to be here.”
John1 had been invited by his university friends to a prominent mosque. After the service, they visited for a while and talked about religion. As their conversation easily moved toward talking about God as a Creator, he shared with them the Genesis story of a seven-day literal creation and pointed out how God made our wonderful and amazing bodies. They spoke for more than two hours, and John clearly saw God open doors in ways he never would have imagined. John is a Waldensian Student; and every day, students like John are engaged in the life of large secular universities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, their lives a compelling testimony to a God whose deepest desire is to bring everyone into a saving relationship with Him.
It is daunting to think of the 500 million people in the MENA region who are as yet largely unreached by Christianity. In the MENA region, Islam is the dominant religious force, and significant cultural and religious barriers highly restrict normal Christian life in the communities. The Seventh-day Adventist Church nurtures a perceptive and respectful relationship with the local culture and intentionally gives witnesses of the living gospel. One of the ways the MENA Union Mission has done this is to launch and support a frontline mission initiative known as the Waldensian Students. The Waldensian Student initiative2 facilitates the nurturing and assistance of mission-minded Adventist students in public universities in the region. While ordinarily we would advise our young people to attend Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities, in exceptional situations there is a legitimate reason for them to join secular educational networks in mission service. In this reversed situation, we send some of our very best Adventist young people to the educational world at large to in return be blessed many times over.
The secular universities of the MENA region host tens of thousands of Muslim young people entering higher education at a time in their lives when they are actively exploring and establishing their personal worldview. It is our aim to assist young people in these universities who have been educated in high-quality Adventist institutions and are ready to now use their academic and spiritual advantages to make a lasting impact in MENA. In so doing, God’s amazing model for education is not kept hostage by circumstances but is adapted by people in various situations and contexts in order to be a witness to the good news. Students are trained to be a living testimony while obtaining a university education as a Waldensian Student through solid Adventist educational work throughout their formational years in elementary and secondary schools. Adventist education embraces and supports the spiritual development of the student, enabling the Holy Spirit to make each one a testimony to the hurting world of the grace and love of Jesus Christ. To this end, MENA has focused on empowering education for eternity through the Waldensian Student program.
Waldensian Students, often the only Seventh-day Adventists in their respective universities, study in isolated and challenging environments. Yet they cheerfully and actively make friends, serve others, and allow their lives to be living channels of God’s grace and power. Mary shares her story about how an exam turned into an opportunity to share her faith with not only her professor, but also her classmate. Last semester, I was facing challenges with taking exams on Sabbath. In one of my subjects, all the exams were scheduled for Sabbath. When I went to my professor to explain my faith and why I couldn’t take the exams, he was very open to helping me, but unfortunately he couldn’t change the time slot. I was sharing my problem with my friend Selma, who at first thought I was crazy to fail a subject just to keep a day. As I explained to her why I keep the Sabbath, she began to understand, and we decided we would return together to speak to the professor.
This time my professor asked me to find a way to prove my faith. He suggested bringing a medical excuse in a formal letter, but I explained that I couldn’t lie about something like that. I said that lying about the exam would be the same as taking it on a Sabbath. Eventually, my professor agreed to let me get a letter from my pastor explaining my faith and how it connected to keeping the Sabbath. I praise God for working it out so I could take makeup exams for all the exams I missed. Though it seemed like an insurmountable obstacle in the beginning, looking back now I see these challenges turned out to be great blessings. God opened doors and gave me opportunities to share my faith with my university friends and my professor. I have shared just two of the many experiences that illustrate the power of education around the MENA region. In secular universities, through the Waldensian Student program, our purpose is to work together to reach souls for Christ. Wherever our students study, we are here to nurture their relationship with God and support them as they take the values learned in Adventist education and implement them in service that seeks restoration through salvation.
Introductory remarks presented as part of the October 6, 2016, LEAD Conference panel titled “Alternate Models for Achieving Educational Mission.”
Leif Hongisto, PhD, is President of Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon, and has held this role since 2009. He earned a BA in Theology (Newbold College, United Kingdom), an MDiv (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States), an MA in Theology (University of Helsinki), a TD in Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion (University of Turku), and a PhD in Theology (Abo Akademi University, Finland). He comes from a family of educators over many generations and spent part of his childhood with his missionary parents in Ghana, West Africa.
Leif Hongisto, ““Educating for Eternity” The Waldensian Student Initiative,” Journal of Adventist Education 79:3 (April–June 2017). Available at https://jae.adventist.org/en/2017.3.10.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- All names are pseudonyms.
- The Waldensian Student initiative is a volunteer student program in which students apply to secular universities within the Middle East and North Africa Union Mission and once accepted, live, study, and serve on those campuses. Students typically pursue bachelor’s or master’s degrees or foreign language studies (Arabic, French, or Turkish). Special orientation and training sessions take place at the beginning of each academic year, and a retreat is planned once per year. Students are encouraged to apply to their university of choice for scholarships, since limited sponsorships are available. More information is available through the Middle East and North Africa Union Mission.