THE CROSS OF CHRIST
IN ARABIA

An Unpublished speech given by missionary Cornelia Dalenberg
at the First Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois in 1936

The message of Christianity to the unevangelized world is salvation by way of the Cross of Christ. That was the message of Paul, and it is our message today. The need for it is as great now as it was then. The meaning of the message has not changed, and its power to transform lives has not grown less. It is this message that will reconcile the world to God.

Paul, in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, in speaking of God reconciling the world unto Himself through Jesus Christ, says that unto us has been given the word of reconciliation. Therefore, he says, "we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us, we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God."

Every missionary then, who carries this message of reconciliation to the unsaved world, is an ambassador of Christ, an ambassador sent out by the church. And when a missionary returns he is, in a sense, an ambassador from the mission field with a message for the church at home. If the people among whom I have been working could have sent you a message, it would have been about the power of the Cross of Christ in Arabia.

Arabia is a land of crosses. And let us not think lightly of the word cross. It was no light thing that Jesus had in mind when he said, " If any man would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me." He was thinking of the cruel death that he was soon to die, and He was preparing His disciples for the death that some of them were to die for His name's sake, for it was immediately after this that He said, " whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it."

The Cross of Christ has little meaning to the Muslims in Arabia. Christ is honored as a prophet, and as a teacher, but even little children are taught that, when the Jews came to crucify Jesus, God sent angels who cast the likeness of Jesus upon Judas, so that when they thought they had crucified Jesus, they crucified this other man instead. Therefore Jesus did not die on the cross, and we who say so are unbelievers. That is the reason Islam is hostile to Christianity, and the first missionaries who went to Arabia were spat upon and cursed.

And yet Arabia is a land of crosses. Here I use the word cross as a symbol of a burden heavy to bear. The greatest of these burdens is the religion of Islam. This is an Arabic word meaning "surrendered." A "Muslim" therefore is a surrendered one, surrendered to God. It sounds like a good religion, does it not? But oh, the Muslim idea of God is so misleading. He is not the God of Love to them, nor is He God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and through Him the Father of us all. His name is on the lips of every Muslim fifty and perhaps a hundred times a day, but not in a spirit of reverence. Their holy book the Koran, which they think came directly to Muhammad from God, and which to them is so holy that none but Muslim hands may touch it, is so different from our Holy Scriptures. Lying is no sin, murder is no sin. Polygamy and divorce are sanctioned; child marriage is common, and children grow up in an atmosphere like that. The followers of this religion can grow quite fierce in their fanaticism.

There is one night every year when every missionary in Arabia feels his hope in the salvation of the Arabs go down to the zero point, and perhaps even lower than that. This is the night of the tenth of Muharram, which is the anniversary of the Battle of Kerbala. Kerbala is one of the holy cities of the Shiah sect of Islam. Nejef is the other. These cities are not more than a day's journey from Amarah where I have been working. Pilgrims come in large numbers to these holy cities in Iraq just as they do to Mecca, and every Shiah Muslim wants to be buried there. The cemeteries contain thousands upon thousands of grave of Muslims from all over Persia, India, and Arabia. The corpse traffic is actually organized and regulated by the Customs and Health Departments. The Customs collects duty on the corpses and the Health Dept. keeps watch to prevent epidemics. The reason these cities are so holy is because Ali, the cousin of Muhammad and his successor, is buried there. And at Kerbala Hussein, the son of Ali, fought a battle against Ali's successors, was overcome and beheaded. This battle took place on the tenth of the month called Muharram, which the Shiah Muslims commemorate every year by performing a passion play.

The mourning for Ali and Hussein begins on the first day of the month and all the people wear black, even tiny babies. The historic account of the battle is read every night in the mosques, and the hearers work themselves up into a frenzy of grief. This is repeated every night until the tenth when the Passion play is performed. The men go to the mosques and the women gather along the road to be ready for the parade, which begins as soon as the prayers and lamentations are over. All night long we hear the voices of women and children as they go up and down the streets wailing and beating their bare chests with their open palms, the way all eastern people show grief. Sleep is impossible for us-we lie awake all night and listen to the voices that grow more and more frenzied as the night wears on. When dawn finally comes they have worked themselves up to a climax. The procession has begun. A few religious leaders head the procession, chanting words of grief. Then come the breast-beaters, stripped to the waist, beating with an even rhythm. These are followed by the chain-men, walking in a slow march, black garments cut away in the back leaving the shoulder blades exposed, each man carrying in his hands a kind of scourge made of chains. Following the rhythm of the chest beaters, these men throw the scourge over the left shoulder and then over the right, letting the chains strike on the bare back. Then comes the symbolic part of the Passion play picturing the battle.

But the worst part of the procession is yet to come. These are the head-cutters. They are dressed in white, their heads are shaved, and each one carries a huge sword. They wave these swords in the air and bring them down just touching their foreheads but not cutting them. Finally the procession reaches the mosque and they rise to their final pitch of grief. The sword cutting becomes real now, and the screams and chanting more frenzied. Blood gushes forth and the white gowns become crimson…. The first time I watched this procession I cried out from the depth of my soul, "Oh, God, where art thou?" I had never realized that people could get so far away from God and yet think they were pleasing Him. And the sad part of it is that all this is done in the name of religion-a religion that works on the emotions but gives no peace, no joy, and no hope. I am glad to say that this procession was forbidden this year in Persia, and parts of it were forbidden in Iraq. Is it not a heavy burden---a dark and dreary road?

Another cross in Arabia is ignorance and superstition. The two go hand in hand. You cannot conceive of the things people will do to themselves in their ignorance and superstition. No one could tell you better than a doctor or a nurse for it is in sickness and death that most of the superstitious beliefs are practiced. Unfortunately children are often the sufferers of their parent's ignorance. The mother hangs blue beads, animal's teeth or other charms such as amulets containing Koran verses to her baby's head or neck to keep off the evil eye, but at the same time she feeds him unripe grapes or unpeeled cucumbers and then wonders why he dies. The favorite cure for all diseases is cautery. This is based upon a saying of Muhammad, "The last medicine (that is, the most powerful) is cautery." How many of our patients are covered with cautery scars! In adults we can tell whether they have had the disease a long time by the number of cautery scars on the body. Mothers will come for days to have their babies treated by us, and then grow tired of prolonged treatment and resort to this red-hot iron on the baby's head or chest or back. But most of the deaths of children are supposed to be caused by the evil eye.

I took care of a woman one night that had had seven children die. When this her eighth was born the house was full of women. I was there all night, and realized how much it meant to them to have a son in this house. The next day I came and saw something lying in the basket beside the baby that looked like another child. I picked it up and said, "What is this?" "Oh, put it down!" said the mother. "It is a fish to keep off the evil eye." It was a fish, dry and hard as a board, prepared and salted months before and dressed in swaddling clothes and a hood to resemble the baby. Only one certain fish can be used for this purpose.

A few months later I went there again-the baby had died. What a difference between Islam and Christianity in a house of mourning! This house was full of women wailing and tearing their hair in a hopeless, despairing grief. This was my opportunity to tell the mother that no fish or any such thing could save her child from sickness or death, but it was Christ who said, "It is not the will of my Father in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish." What a difference between the heritage of Christian children and that of the children of Islam!

Another cross that is found nowhere but in Muslim countries is the degradation of women. This is a result of the low moral ideals of Islam. One must live among the women and go in and out of their houses for many years to fully realize the depth of their unhappiness. Ever since the time of Muhammad, women have been regarded as a drudge to do man's work, or a plaything for his pleasure. Very few of the women can read. One woman when asked whether she could read, said "We read? This is our life: to beat the clothes on the rocks in the river, to carry heavy loads, to spin, to sew, to weave, to bake, to bear children, to grow old and toothless, and for all of this we get only blows and abuse, and live in constant fear of divorce. Have we time to read?" This is not the life of all the women in Arabia, but it is of some; I know because I have seen it.

Another burden is poverty. People in America since the depression think they know what poverty is. I thought when I lived in Bahrain that I had learned what poverty was. But I hadn't. It wasn't until I went to live in Iraq and saw whole families living under one mat held up by two or three sticks that I saw real poverty. I have spent hours in such hovels with sick patients and know how little they have to eat and how little to keep them warm in the winter. They lie on the ground with perhaps one ragged quilt to cover all. All of their worldly possessions, with the exception perhaps of the ragged quilt, could be tied up in one of our large-sized handkerchiefs. When we begin to feed or clothe them, we don't know where to stop.

So far I have given you a very dark picture. Now let me brighten it. It is brighter wherever the message of the Cross has come. The Cross of Christ is the only answer to Arabia's need, the one thing that will lift the country and its people out of their sin and degradation and misery.

The first bright spot is where the mission Hospitals are, seven of them: two in Muscat, two in Bahrain, two in Kuwait and one in Amarah. Medical missions have been the great entering wedge in all Muslim fields, but particularly in Arabia where the people are most fanatical. Even the dark interior has been opened up by doctors on tours. People have learned to trust the doctors and the hospitals attract great crowds of every class and condition of people, with every conceivable sort of disease. Nowhere better than in a Mission Hospital can the love of Christ be shown. It is an eye-opener to the Muslims to see that people whom they hate have come across the seas to take care of their sick. There is no "Love your enemies" in their religion!

When Mr. Bilkert was killed by bandits a few years ago, it was found out what tribe was responsible for the murder. Later one of the leaders of the tribe was taken to the Mission Hospital in Kuwait. The Arabs never got over wondering why the Mission doctor instead of getting his revenge and killing this man, cured him and sent him home well. The law of the desert is simple: an eye for an eye. One murder must be expiated by another, or blood money must be given. But this Bedouin murderer while lying on his white bed in the Kuwait hospital learned that the law of Christ is, "Bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you."

If you could visit one of the hospital wards and talk to some of the patients in the busy dispensaries, what stories you would hear! If you would ask one of the women in the large crowd of 200 or more waiting in the Amarah clinic why she is willing to wait two hours for her turn to see the doctor-or if you would ask the poor servant girl, a victim of epilepsy, who fell into the fire and almost fatally burned herself, why she left off going to the government hospital and came to us for daily dressings-or if you were to ask the men who brought a woman nearly dead with dysentery, why they brought her and laid her inside the hospital gate, a small babe at her breast, on the ground beside her-or if you would ask the black slave girl I found lying on the hospital verandah one morning (we never knew who laid her there) with an internal injury to her hip which had made her unable to walk, and a large festering bed-sore on her back, her body covered with rags so filthy that I couldn't get any of the patients standing nearby to help me carry her upstairs-ask any of these why they came to the Mission Hospital and I think the answer would be "Because the Christians love us." And that after all is what mission hospitals are for, to show the love of Christ by deeds of love and service. It would be hard to find a happier sphere of work than medical missionary work in Arabia. There are times of deep anxiety and discouragement and times when we feel like running away from all the sorrow and misery, but the joy of the work more than compensates for all the anxiety and discouragement.

Another bright spot is the schools. In the Basrah Boy's School there are children so poor that clothing must be provided for them as well as books. America ships carloads of second-hand coats to Iraq and Mr. Van Ess buys hundreds of them in wintertime to keep his shivering boys warm. It means a great deal to these boys to know that someone cares enough about them to get them into school, teach them how to live and how to make a living, but best of all, teaches them the way to a more abundant life. It is the same in the boy's schools at the other stations and also in the girl's schools.

A brighter day is also dawning for the women of Arabia, even from the Muslim viewpoint. Educated Muslims are growing dissatisfied with the ways of Islam and have seen what has been done in Turkey, Persia and Egypt toward the emancipation of women. A great deal of money is being spent on education and steps are being taken toward lifting women out of their seclusion. It will be a long time, however, before the veil will be done away with. Yet I think Iraq and parts of Arabia realize that a country can never progress as long as it permits the degradation of its women.

Another bright spot is the leper camp in Amarah. Our mission has never had organized leper work on its program because we have never had the money for extra work. But this leper work was almost forced upon us. A few years ago a leper woman with her baby who had been cast out of the house by her husband, came to the mission for shelter and food. A hut was built for her and all her needs were looked after. Some time later a second leper woman came. A hut was likewise built for her. In the meantime the doctor and I were treating several lepers as outpatients. But the doctor realized that the treatment of leprosy was unsatisfactory unless the injections could be given regularly and food regulated. So a small piece of ground back of the hospital was rented, enclosed by a mud wall, and huts were built for the lepers inside the enclosure. There were 64 lepers living in the camp when I left Amarah.

There is not time to tell you more about leprosy and how the camp is conducted, but I shall have slides on leper work that I will be glad to show you some time during the winter. To an English businessman living in Amarah this leper camp is just a mud-walled enclosure with dilapidated huts and miserable people lying around. He says, "Miserable wretches. Why bother with them? Much better to let them die." But to one who looks at them through the eyes of Christ and with His compassion, each one of those diseased disfigured bodies is a fellow human being, with a heart hungry to love and to be loved. The treatment of leprosy is tremendously gratifying if patients come during the early stages of the disease, but what is even more gratifying is to see the change that comes over them after they have been living in the camp for a few months, hearing the gospel message every day and being taught by word and deed that "God so loved the world that he gave His only Son that they might have eternal life." Amarah is a very small place on the map of Iraq, and the Leper Camp is even smaller, but in the Kingdom of God it is a big place, because His Spirit is working there.

And now the brightest spot of all-where the power of the Cross of Christ has entered into lives. I want to tell you about four bearers of the Cross of Christ. One is a leper woman named Fatimah. She came to us with that melancholy look on her face that all of them have when they know they have the disease. We took her in, and it was not long before her look changed from one of despair to one of happiness. In the daily meetings we had for them in their own large hut, Fatimah was one of three or four who had begun to understand the gospel message and after some months she gathered courage and offered prayer with three or four others. It was a parrot-like prayer, for she repeated expressions she heard the others use, but I like to think that that prayer went higher then the mat roof of the hut because of the spirit which prompted it. One day Fatimah became very ill with pneumonia and she had a bad heart. For weeks there was a desperate struggle between life and death. Leprosy so lowers the resistance of its victims that when complication set in, it is usually the pneumonia or the malaria or the dysentery that takes them off.

She was only just recovering her strength when the leper camp burned down. It was a sizzling day last summer with the temperature at 116 degrees in the shade. The mat huts are very inflammable and in 15 or 20 minutes almost the whole place was in ashes. Fatimah escaped with the others but was too weak to live on a mat on the ground as the others did until a new camp could be built. A place was provided for her, and the other lepers were especially kind to her and thoughtful of her. A few months later when the new camp was running Fatimah suddenly without any warning became a raving maniac. She was not violent, but looked and acted so wildly that the others were completely terrorized and there was nothing to do but send her away to her people.

So the doctor sent a messenger to her people. They lived away off in the marshes and there was no chance of their coming for at least three days. In the meantime I locked her up in the treatment hut in the center of the women's camp, and there for 48 hours she tore at her hair and clothing and tore at the mats and reeds with which the hut was made. I went in to bathe her and feed her, and had to have a man helper from the hospital to help me give her medicines because she fought it so violently.

You know Christ said about the lad with the evil spirit, "This kind cometh not forth except by fasting and praying." We all prayed, but with so weak a faith! On the morning of the third day the messenger returned with Fatimah's mother and brother, and though it shames me to tell it, I was glad when they took her away and I thought I had seen the last of her. But Jesus Christ did not let go His hold of her. A few months later we were just leaving the chapel after the Sunday evening service. It was sunset time, and there sat Fatimah and her mother at the hospital gate. She saw me coming and hobbled up to me, weeping and begging to be taken back. She pulled at my skirts and tried to kiss my hands and cried, "I am well now, the Christ has made my mind clear again." She was still wearing the dress and old sweater of mine in which I had sent her away. We took her back on probation and kept her mother until we were sure it was safe to keep Fatimah. When I left Amarah she was living sanely and quietly with the other lepers in the camp, and I believe Jesus Christ brought her back for something more than to have her leprosy treated.

There was another girl named Ajeela. Her mother brought her to us to leave her in the leper camp, and we found that the mother had leprosy too so we admitted both of them. Of all the lepers who listened to the daily gospel lesson, none listened better than this girl. After she had been with us a year she asked for lessons so that she might read the Gospel for herself. The other women began to notice a change in her. She did not fast when the Moslems fasted, she did not observe Friday but Sunday as her day of prayers, and in other ways she identified herself with Christians.

Now this was not so difficult in the leper camp when there was very little opposition, even from her mother, but the girl went back to her people and on one or two occasions fearlessly witnessed to them about Christianity. She told them she had renounced Islam and accepted Christianity. Now to a Muslim, that is all it means to become a Christian-just to say one renounces Islam and accepts Christianity. But we all know it is more than that. It is a new birth, which is the work of the Spirit of God. This new birth took place in the heart of the leper girl, we confidently believe. Her life has shown it. There is not much hope that she will ever be cured of her leprosy for hers is a far-advanced case. Again and again I removed pieces of dead bone from the stumps that were left of her hands and feet. In the two years that I gave her injections I did not see much change in her leprosy. But I did see the change that came into her life and we all rejoiced in the transforming power of Christ's love. She was baptized on Easter Sunday.

Now let me take you into a bright home. It is just a mat and reed hut such as all of the poorer people live in, but this one is different because it is the home of a Christian woman who was once a Muslim, and a Muslim of the most pious type for she was a "mulliyah", a public Koran reader. She was a widow and had perhaps more freedom than most Muslim women, and it happened that she married a Christian convert from Mr. Van Ess'es school. He was not a very steadfast Christian at the time but marrying him resulted in having the Bible and other Christian books in the house. She was an intelligent woman, and read these books. In the Word of God she found that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and in time she surrendered herself to Him. Later they came to Amarah to live, and I have never seen a more surrendered life.

Always joyful, always helpful, she lives between the leper camp and the hospital and is ever ready to witness for Christ or help serve others in either place. I never cease to wonder at the many ways in which God is using her to witness for him. She sits on a stool among the women at the hospital and says, "I was once a fanatic like you" and then she tells them what Christ did for her. Coming from one of their own people, the words seem to have so much more weight with the Arabs. God is using her as a shining light in the dark places that surround her.

I am going to close with just one more story. This is about a girl named "Light", a daughter of the woman I have just told you about. She was a girl who had had a strict Muslim upbringing. A marriage had been arranged for her and she lived not with her Christian mother but with Muslim relatives.

"Never" said she, "will I go to Amarah with my family to live as a Christian." But one of the missionaries in Basrah of whom she was very fond prayed with her about it, and the result was that she did come to Amarah with her family to live. Almost immediately we saw that she would make a good hospital helper, of whom we were very much in need at the time. She was as keen to start as we were to have her.

We soon found that in coming to Amarah with her Christian parents she had made her initial surrender to Christ. She asked for lessons so that she might learn to know Him and follow Him. She used to get up early to study her lesson. As she progressed in her lessons I had the joy of seeing that whatever she learned she put into her daily work. It is not easy for a proud Muslim to serve others, but this girl learned the lesson of lowly service from Christ Himself. No disease was too loathsome for her to touch, no outcast too filthy for her to take in and clean and clothe. And no matter how impatient and unreasonable the patients became I never heard her speak an unkind word to any of them.

The greatest joy of my whole fifteen years in mission work has been to see the character of this girl grow in the likeness of Christ. She too was baptized on Easter. I was not there; it was just a week after I left. But she wrote me about it in an Arabic letter I received not long ago. I pictured that Amarah chapel on that Easter morning with these two, one a black-eyed sweet shy girl, the other equally sweet but sadly disfigured leper girl, standing up side by side to give their lives to Christ and partake of their first Holy Communion.

There were no Easter lilies in that chapel that day, but whiter and purer than the most beautiful lilies on earth were those two hearts laid on the altar of God! Can anything be more worthwhile than that? Now where is the dark picture I gave? Gone! Covered with brightness; the brightness of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. The brightness that shone on the dark, sad world on that first resurrection morn where the risen Lord appeared in the garden! We cannot feel discouraged when that light shines, as it has shone in Arabia. The power of the risen Lord has transformed lives and will continue to work as it has worked in other lands. Each station has its small group of converts. And in them we build our hopes for they are the Infant Church of Christ in Arabia. And in them lies our responsibility, yours and mine.

Unto us has been given the word of reconciliation. Are we carrying it on to others? Now is the time to go ahead. During the past years we have had decreased resources but at the same time there have been increased opportunities. If you have been reading the reports you know that there is in Arabia today a wider welcome to the Gospel than ever before and new doors have been opened. I believe that God is calling today for a special effort in behalf of the Muslims. Instead of retrenching or keeping at our present level, we must go ahead! And this means that the church at home must be wide-awake and doing.

I cannot help but urge more prayer because it is so important-more prayer for missions and missionaries, in our private devotions, in our homes, in our churches. If we do not carry the burden of the unevangelized world on our hearts we will never make sacrifices for it, and if we do not make sacrifices for the work of the Kingdom of God, the work will never go ahead. We all of us owe a debt of gratitude to God. How are we paying it? Those of you who were at the Chicago Mission Fest on July 4th heard about the note that one pastor found in his mailbox. This was the note: 'Geliefde leraar: Will a dit an de zending geven." It was wrapped around a $1 bill and signed with the name of a woman of 70 with an invalid husband. The pastor knew her; she went out washing for others. But she had something to spare for the Lord. How are you and I paying our debt? May the messages that come to us today from the many mission fields fire us with a new zeal, a new passion to do more for Him who died for us that we might live.


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