To live is Christ, to die is gain

At the Afghanistan border with Pakistan.

By David Quisenberry

Peshawar, Pakistan —

“Can anyone get hurt?”  That’s what I ask myself as I start to write this.  The people I know aren’t there anymore. At least the missionaries.  I don’t know about my friends and students.  

In college I was a Jesus Freak, a born-again Christian who took my faith deadly seriously and firmly believed my calling as a Christian was to represent the suffering of Christ to an unbelieving world.  To show others the depth of Christ’s love for them by undergoing humiliation, torture, and quite possibly, death.

I would sit in my dorm room and listen to sermons on my computer like “Doing Missions When Dying is Gain” which made the case for laying down your life as an expression of love.  So when I met Paul and Rose the summer of 2001 as a sophomore in college and heard of their work as missionaries in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, I was enthralled with the possibility of serving alongside them — representing Christ in an area of the world distant from Christian testimony and where the stakes were real for doing so.

The World Trade Center attacks happened about a month later.  Pakistan and the tribal areas in the NWFP became front-page news.  All of a sudden the wider lens became focused on Pashtuns, their religious beliefs, and their “warlike” nature.  It didn’t deter my desire to go, if anything it made it stronger.

My first trip to Pakistan was in the summer of 2004.  I went with three other young men from my church in Spokane and we stayed with Paul and Rose and one other missionary couple.  We took young men Paul had been teaching for backpacking treks near Natia Guli and taught English camps as a way of building relationships to plant the seed for the gospel.  It was an interesting time. The War on Terror was still young and America was trying to find its footing in Afghanistan and the border with Pakistan.

I still remember sitting at Paul’s kitchen table reading the article in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn about a “helicopter missile strike” killing the warlord Nek Mohammed, which I would later find out was the first known drone strike by the U.S.  My students sought to explain to me the quagmire of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the internal rivalries seeking to take advantage of U.S. assistance. I was trying to represent Christ but to my students I was primarily representing America.  

I went back to Pakistan for a longer stay in the summer of 2005 and returned to the U.S. in 2006.  This time, I taught English and lived in my own house. I tried to be part of my neighborhood and must have looked like a fool every day walking back from work greeting everyone I made eye contact with “Assalamu Alaykum”.  My neighbors were generous, though, and would gup-shup (chit-chat) with me about their lives, their religion, global politics.  I regularly invited students over for dinner and was invited to outings in their villages for weddings, family get-togethers, and just hanging out.  I say families. All I ever met were the men.  

My students were Muslims.  Most were Sunni, a few Hazara refugees from Afghanistan were Shia.  It was a lot like growing up in Kansas. Everyone had religion, a few were devout.  For whatever reason, I was drawn to the more devout ones. I wanted to understand what they believed and why.  I sought to show respect for their religion with the hope of leading them to Christ or at least opening their mind to another path. 

As I engaged my students in these conversations, I found my confidence in Christianity shattered. I’d like to say it waned, but it was more jagged than that.  It became crystal clear to me, that who I was as a Christian was very much rooted in where I was born, the rituals and books and sermons I had surrounded myself with, and that the internal feelings of closeness with God were more a product of connection with fellow humans and music than any supernatural entity. 

I saw myself and my close friends from my church as cut from the same cloth as those who were waging jihad against my country. Same lenses, different books, different small groups, different sermon tapes.  

***

David Quisenberry has known George for nearly 10 years now.  They used to serve alongside each other on the board of The Dougy Center, a national nonprofit based in Portland which helps grieving families.  David works as a software developer at Daylight Studio.  He’s the proud papa of 3 (soon to be 4) kiddos. He’s very impressed by George’s commitment to Rough and Rede and loves seeing what others come up with for the Voices of August.

Editor’s note: It’s been great to see my friend David evolve as he has over the past several years. He’s changed jobs, he’s served on other nonprofit boards, he’s managed his daughters’ Tee-Ball teams, he’s remarried and he’s embraced this new chapter of fatherhood with gusto.

Tomorrow: Mary Pimentel | “Chez-soi est dans le cœur” (“One’s home is in the heart.” )

9 thoughts on “To live is Christ, to die is gain

  1. You could probably write a whole book about your personal spiritual journey. The final two paragraphs of your piece certainly leave me wanting to know so much more. Thank you for sharing.

  2. It sounds like you concluded that Islam and Christianity are, at their core, the same. Is that right? Personally I don’t know. I view all religion as mythology, and the root cause of our global problems.

  3. What a compelling story- I definitely want to know more. Self reflection on what we believe and why we believe it is always fascinating to me. Thanks for sharing.

  4. At the core is the sense of structures of doctrine, liturgy, community, denominations with different approaches to us and them, etc. The beliefs are different (in some ways) but the underlying structure of how humans interact and make meaning (the mythologies are one piece of the organism) are very similar. I’m not a sociologist but I’m sure there is a lot there on groupthink and what not.

  5. David, I can’t imagine how you must have felt after having your fundamental beliefs shattered to the degree that you experienced. Also, we have heard repeatedly that some Islamic organizations have declared jihad against the West; I found myself wondering if the Islamic world sees our military presence or posturing in the Middle East as Christian-based jihadist actions against their faith?

    As a person who lives without a commitment to a higher power, I find discussions about faith a bit messy. Thank you for giving us a look at it.

  6. What an interesting experience it must have been – especially when there must have been a lot of risks in visiting that are. I would like to hear more to about your transformation. Over time I also started to realize that the religion I grew up with was about family, society and culture. No one really seems to know the truth, but everyone trysto take a stab at it. The only truth that matters is what one personally experiences.

  7. Fascinating to see the parallel. Many thoughts about the social function of any organized religion. How to do good for others with no organization? Why does that become extreme and corrupt? And what human need is fulfilled by the desire to bring another person away from their beliefs and accept our own? Would like to know more about your experience. Thanks for sharing it.

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