North Carolina businessman takes risks for the Gospel in Central Asia
By Tess Rivers
HENDERSONVILLE, N.C.—“No foreigners beyond this point,” reads the sign in a remote area of a Central Asian country. Paul Hart* notices it just as the motorcycle he is riding blows past.
“They knew I was a foreigner,” the 48-year-old entrepreneur recalls. “Foreigners are the only ones who wear helmets.”
Fortunately for Hart, the police were not working the checkpoint that day, and he and his friend — the one driving the motorcycle — passed safely in and out of the restricted area. The two men risked entering to check the status of a well Paul’s team recently installed and to visit new friends in a nearby village.
Hart’s wife, Amanda,* is glad she didn’t know about this little adventure.
Paul Hart (name changed) studies the Quran and other Islamic texts in an effort to understand and pray intelligently for the Central Asian people group with whom he works. (IMB Photo by Paul W. Lee)
“He doesn’t tell me the scary stuff,” she says.
But how did this marathon runner and seller of high-end Amish furniture from the Appalachian Mountains wind up in a war-torn, flood-ravaged region of the world?
It all began with a challenge in a typical Wednesday night prayer service at First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, N.C.
“The pastor wanted to talk about [the church’s] adopted unreached people group,” Hart recalls. As soon as he heard the name and location of the people group, which numbers roughly 50 million, the Holy Spirit gave Hart “a very clear word.”
Since that Wednesday night, Hart is doing whatever it takes to reach this people group, including praying, researching and eventually visiting them. Since 2007, he has visited the region four times and twice worked among those from this ethnic group living in other areas of the world.
“I never doubted a calling to them — not that I knew what that calling looked like,” Hart says. “I didn’t know what it meant, but there was a definite calling to that people group.”
Church leaders at First Baptist, Hendersonville, N.C., where Paul Hart (name changed) is a member, support and promote Hart’s work in Central Asia. Hart teaches a multi-week Sunday morning study on the customs and culture of the people group to help church members gain understanding. (IMB Photo by Paul W. Lee)
Amanda doesn’t share that same calling. Sitting beside her husband of 27 years in that Wednesday night service, she doesn’t doubt that God’s calling “grabbed hold of his heart.” But Amanda, a published writer and artist, is not yet ready to sell their small, mountaintop farm, leave her chickens and goats behind and move across the world to live among this people. In fact, she admits, she really doesn’t even want to visit — in spite of her husband’s urging.
“He wants me to go so bad,” Amanda says. “I’m not comfortable yet going to Central Asia. As soon as I get a word from God, then I [will] go, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
But that doesn’t mean Amanda is any less supportive of Paul’s ministry to the people, whom she has grown to love. As she listens to her husband’s stories from his visits, she’s come to see them as “real people” and to embrace his new friends as her friends, even though she’s never met them. Along with Hart, she studies the religious texts and customs of the people so she can pray intelligently on their behalf — she becomes almost fiery discussing media stereotypes of the people. Even the briefest conversation reveals that she is as fervent an advocate for the people group as her husband.
“It’s made me more aware,” Amanda says. “It’s not that they have rejected [the Gospel]. They don’t have access to [the Gospel] … They’ve never even heard about Jesus.”
No, it isn’t the people that scare her, Amanda says. She is more than willing to work personally with this ethnic group in other — safer — places anywhere in the world. Quite simply, she explains, she fears the dangers of traveling to that particular region of the world.
Her fears are well-founded. Known for assaults, kidnappings and assassinations — particularly targeting Westerners — the region is among the “Top 10” in kidnap for ransom, according to the U.S. State Department and commercial security companies. This level of violence combined with political instability and natural disasters offers a trifecta of legitimate reasons to stay away.
As a result, Hart’s decision to go in spite of the risks initially weighed heavily on his wife.
Unlike her husband, Paul, Amanda Hart (names changed) does not sense God’s call to move overseas. Instead, the published writer and artist believes God calls her to support and pray for her husband and to maintain their North Carolina mountaintop home — complete with chickens and goats — as a place of quiet refuge. (IMB Photo by Paul W. Lee)
“When he first went over there, I was pretty much a basket case,” Amanda admits. “But he kept assuring me that’s where the Lord want[ed] him.”
Over time, the Harts have come to understand that for now their callings are different. Both recognize that neither is more nor less obedient or “spiritual” than the other. Their callings may be different, but their passions are the same — for an unreached people to come to faith in Jesus.
So, while Hart goes, Amanda prays. She prays for the people. She prays for her husband. She prays for herself. She also enlists others to pray. As the overseas visits continue, she has come to see prayer as her primary responsibility, no less than the calling to go that God has impressed upon her husband.
“When he’s over there, I’m praying, and I’ve got everybody I know praying, too,” Amanda says. “I think prayer is the most powerful tool we as Christians have. We are linked to the power of God Himself through prayer.”
While Amanda recognizes the dangers inherent to her husband’s security, Hart brushes those concerns aside.
“Danger is relative to me,” Hart says. “I’ve never felt threatened. I’ve never feared for my safety.”
He recognizes, though, that dangers to local believers are very real. Very few, if any, are followers of Jesus.
“Any association with a Westerner can put [local believers] at risk,” Hart explains. “So a lot of times we let the local believers seek us out because we really can’t pursue them. We can’t put them at that kind of risk.”
Hart focuses, instead, on coming alongside villagers, building relationships and meeting human needs. Sometimes that means digging a well or teaching children. Other times it includes talking about how to build a successful business. Regardless of the specific project, Hart recounts story after story of the hospitality offered him in local villages and of shared conversations over cups and cups of tea. The picture he paints isn’t of violence and mistrust but friendship and loyalty.
“Our people group [could] be described with one of their own proverbs: ‘They make the best friends and the worst enemies,’” Hart says. “They are passionate and loyal. They love roses and poetry.
“They live in a land that is very harsh. It’s very hot,” he says. Electricity is sporadic, “but it’s a beautiful country, a beautiful place, a beautiful people.”
Of course, in a region as volatile as this one, the Harts realize that access may be restricted at any time. Visas may be denied and letters of invitation withdrawn. Amanda knows, though, that her husband will continue to support and work among this people group regardless of his personal level of access to Central Asia.
“He’s going to continue to want to work with this people group wherever he can get to them,” Amanda says. “If they shut him out [so that] he can’t go (to the region) anymore, then he’ll go where he can.”
Until that time comes, Paul will keep going, and Amanda will keep praying.
Tess Rivers is an IMB writer.
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