CHINA The Chinese noodle shop didn't look like much, just some tables and chairs, but it was clean and cheap. The Muslim family who owned it offered a bowl of noodles for less than $1.
The restaurant quickly became a lunchtime favorite of two college students, Ashley Benson and Mandi Mapes, who were participating the missions program, Hands On.
The noodle shop was just outside their apartment building and their five new friends always took time to help them practice their Mandarin.
The Americans teased back-and-forth with the family as they ate. At some point during the meal, however, their hearts ached for this Muslim family. A mosque painted on the restaurant sign was a constant reminder of the differences in faith between them and their friends.
"We were confronted with lostness every single day. That bothered me," Benson said about their six months working in China. "In America, there are lost people but it's not in your face. These people were visible to us and they are our friends."
Ironically, just before the women moved to China, their home church, The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., began praying for the Hui Muslims. It was through this that the two learned there are more than 13 million around the world with fewer than 200 known believers. Some segments of the Hui population are considered unengaged and unreached, but all are considered unreached with almost 90 percent of the population having never heard the Gospel.
Little did Benson and Mapes know God had plans for them to become friends with the exact people prayed for by their church family. They moved to China to work with English-speaking university students, but they saw the Muslim family more than anyone because of the proximity to their apartment. They hung out at the noodle shop with their guitars and shared American chocolate from home.
After months of building a relationship, Benson and Mapes decided it was finally time to share their faith beyond the simple sentence, "I am a Christian." They memorized and practiced the Gospel presentation in Mandarin over and over, praying for God's guidance.
Sliding into the initial conversation about Jesus was easy. It was Easter and the family often talked about American culture with the young women. As they explained the meaning behind Easter, their friends looked at them with disdain.
"When we said that Jesus is God's Son, they laughed at us," Benson said. "They heard a little more. Then they got up and left.
"I was really surprised that they just walked away," Benson said. "We tried to give them a Bible, but they wouldn't accept it."
The students took the rejection in stride, but it was obvious there was a strain in the relationship. Benson said they felt compelled to rebuild the friendship, noting that Jesus was rejected. The thought of their friends not joining them in heaven caused them to press forward, even though it was hard.
They continued to eat at the noodle shop, practicing their Mandarin. They brought gifts of appreciation. They also continued praying for their friends. Eventually, the friendship was restored at an even stronger level. At every opportunity they managed to share parts of their personal testimonies, and one day the family accepted an Arabic Bible as a gift.
"We ask you to pray for them. Out of everyone we've shared with, our hearts have been stirred the most for this family. We love them and are deeply burdened for them," Benson said. "There are days it is hard to keep walking [away] from them to our apartment when I know they are not destined for heaven.
"Through our Hands On experience, an unreached people group became real people to us people we want to see become believers," Benson added. "This experience changed me so much. It's not always an easy task to share the Gospel. When we are rejected, we see Christ's great sacrifice more clearly."
The Hands On program with the International Mission Board provides college students with a chance to spend a semester or two overseas working alongside missionaries.
Hui Muslim Facts:
Location: China Myanmar, Taiwan, Kyrgystan, Kazakstan, Thailand, Mongolia
Identity: The Hui are an official minority group in China. They are renowned as sharp businessmen. A Chinese proverb states, "A Chinese awake is not the equal of a Hui sleeping."