Project Canterbury

The Open Road in Persia

By the Rev. J. R. Richards
C.M.S. Missionary at Shiraz

London: Church Missionary Society, 1933.

Chapter V. Methods of Evangelism

THE Anglican Church in Persia is represented by three missionary societies, the Church Missionary Society, the Church Mission to Jews, and the Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society. The C.M.S. and the B.C.M.S. are working in South and South-east Persia among Moslems and Baha'is, and in some places among Jews also. The work of the C.M.J. is naturally confined to the Jewish population.

The main object of all missionary endeavour is the building up of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. The true Church is not built of brick and mortar but of human souls; all will acknowledge that; but we should be on our guard against the danger of minimizing the value of institutions as aids to religion. Many people are keen on building up the Church as such, but are wont to minimize the value of institutional Christianity, maintaining that religion is something bigger than going to church. Experience of life in a Moslem country teaches many lessons, not the least of which is a new appreciation of the value of a church building as a centre of worship and fellowship. There is a great difference between the Moslem and Christian conceptions of worship. To our Lord the Temple at Jerusalem was the Father's house; to a Moslem the centre of his religious life is the masjed (mosque), "the place of prostration," where as a slave he prostrates himself in the presence of his Lord. We hear much of the way in which the pious Moslem attends to his prayers regularly and keeps the annual fast; but the part played by the mosque in the life of the ordinary Moslem would perhaps be a better indication of the value of his religion. Few people living in Persia would think that Friday was the Moslem day of worship. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the population attends the mosques on Friday. To all appearance the day is a general holiday, and the gardens in and around the towns are crowded with people holiday making. There is more drunkenness and open immorality to be seen on Friday than on any other day.

The observance of Sunday as a day of worship by Christians is of the greatest importance in view of these circumstances. But common worship should be something more than an act of witness. Our Lord came to invite men into membership of a great family, and He taught us to call God "our Father." In the worship of the church we should meet as members of this great family with a common purpose, communion with each other in and with the Father. Such worship should be a privilege and a joy, not a burden and a bother. How can we make the church the centre of the people's life? How can we make religion a matter of importance in every branch of life? These are questions which the Church must face. If the church is to be a place to which we go on Sundays, and in which we dare not talk or smile, then it will tend to divorce religion from life; it certainly will not become the Father's house. We read of our Lord taking children in His arms and blessing them; did He never play with them? He certainly knew the games they played in the market place. Is there not something lacking when children can find the Father's house a place which tires and bores them? Jesus could receive a blind beggar who had cast away his garment; there must be something wrong when a poor man cannot come to church because he has no suitable clothes. Church-going will not be a burden when men can feel that the church is in a real sense the Father's house. We who have the privilege of working for Christ in Persia desire to see the church taking its place as the centre of the Christian's life.

Things can be done now which were impossible only a few years ago. Both the Isfahan and Kerman churches are built in the hospital compound. The first church to be built on land bought for the purpose was the one at Yezd. This church is truly Persian in both design and style, and in spite of the restricted area of the ground available, provision has been made for social fellowship and for hospitality. In Shiraz we have been able to buy sufficient land to enable us to adopt a more ambitious scheme than is possible at any other C.M.S. station in Persia. A church hall has already been built, and serves a number of purposes. On Sundays it is used as a church, and during the week other meetings such as evangelistic services and lantern lectures are held there. We have long felt the need of a club room, and at last we are in a position to do something to supply that need. Through the support of the Alliance of Honour we have been enabled to provide the hall with a table-tennis outfit and a number of other games which make it possible to start a young men's club. In addition to the hall two other buildings have been erected: a house for the caretaker and a small cottage for use as a guest house. This latter stands in a quiet corner of the land in what will eventually be a garden to which Christians can come at will. The Persian loves a garden, and the provision of one on the church premises will do much to help him to regard the church as a home. The guest house will serve a dual purpose. Christians from other towns or from the outlying villages can always be given accommodation during their stay in Shiraz; but, more important still, we have in Shiraz a number of poor Christian families, some of them living in very cramped quarters in the town, and the guest house will be an excellent holiday house for such people. When the scheme is completed there will be, in addition to the facilities already mentioned, a church building in Persian style, two small rooms for social purposes, a children's playground, and a house for the resident clergyman. Both adults and children will find that the church has something to offer them whenever they enter its gates.

One of the most noteworthy developments in Persian social life during the last few years is the growth of the cinema and theatre in the popular estimation. The cinema could be an instrument for good, but everything will depend on the type of film that is shown. The Persian theatre is still in its infancy, and it is striking that most Persian plays are moral plays dealing with social evils. Surely here is an opportunity for the Church. The very fact that people crowd to see these plays is an indication that men are conscious of the need of social reform and are interested in the question. The future of the Church in Persia depends very largely on the way in which it responds to the opportunities offered it now of associating itself with every movement which can be made to serve as an instrument for the betterment of social conditions and the advancement of the people.

The success of lantern lectures at mission stations is an indication of the readiness to listen to the Gospel which is manifest on all sides to-day. If the opportunities in the towns are great those in the villages are still greater. Yet hitherto the Church has not been able to undertake village work to any large extent. Periodical visits are not enough. In one village near Shiraz there is a small group of Christians. They have no pastor, they have no teacher. The only man among them who could read was recently called up for military service; they now depend for the most part on the services of a young girl. It is clear to all that the chief need of the Church at present is for a native ministry and a band of native evangelists, and this will be discussed more fully in the next chapter. Meanwhile there are many men and women among the Christians who are doing all in their power to help to spread the Gospel. The last four years have seen a remarkable increase in numbers at all four C.M.S. stations, and this has been very largely due to the efforts made by Persian Christians. It would not be true to say that every Christian is a missionary, but it can be said with truth that many of them are untiring in their efforts. The average Englishman rarely talks about his religion; not so the Persian.

Two stories will illustrate this. Two Christian men, one a non-commissioned officer in the army, the other an illiterate man in humble circumstances, were going to Isfahan in company with a number of others. The lorry in which they were travelling stopped at several places and the passengers alighted for refreshment. Like most Persians these two men carried with them carpets for bedding. Whenever they stopped at a town or village they alighted, and spreading out a carpet sat down to take food. Before each meal the illiterate man turned to his companion and said: "Will you ask a blessing on this food?" Then, baring their heads, they knelt in public while the soldier asked a blessing in the name of Jesus Christ. One of their fellow-travellers was so much struck by their conduct that on reaching Isfahan he gave them his address and asked them to call on him as he desired to know more of their religion. On another occasion a number of Christians were returning to Shiraz from Isfahan. Among their fellow-passengers was a Moslem mullah. The lorry was about to leave the garage in Isfahan when one of the Christians, that same man who is now in prison, stepped forward and said: "We Christians never travel without first commending ourselves to God." Then, baring his head, he asked all to join him, and amid the bustle and turmoil of that garage he led them in prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.

Even in their letters to each other their religion gets the first place. Most letters received from Christians have a cross at the top (possibly also on the envelope) and open with the words: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with you," concluding with a request for prayer.

It is remarkable how soon men who have always been accustomed to regard prayer as the monotonous recital of a fixed formula learn to pray naturally and easily. You can call on any Persian Christian to open or close a meeting with prayer and he will do so naturally and reverently. One man was won to Christ by seeing something of the place prayer was given in the home life of a Christian man and his wife. These men and women who have learnt to pray are the backbone of the Church, for without prayer there can be no real spiritual life. His Moslem upbringing has helped the Persian Christian to a certain extent, for deeply ingrained in his mind is a belief that all things are ordained by God, that God rules over all. When he learns to know that God as Father, prayer becomes easy to him, for faith is easy.

If a man desires to change his religion he is more or less free to do so in the new Persia, but even so persecution is not a thing of the past. Many have been thrown out of work, many have been subjected to constant annoyance and petty persecution in their homes. This again has proved a blessing to the Church, for the best and most active Christians are those who have suffered for their faith. Among the native Christians are many men and women whose lives are an inspiration; the future largely lies with them; but unfortunately the Church still lacks sufficient men who can lead, and this perhaps is the greatest weakness of the Church in Persia to-day.

In many Moslem lands we can see the parable of the Good Samaritan interpreted in life. The Jew considered himself the chosen of God; so does the Moslem. He regarded all other men as unclean; so does the Moslem. Yet that poor Jew in his hour of need found none to help him among the leaders of his religion, they passed him by. What have the religious leaders of Islam done for their sick and suffering brothers but pass them by? It was the Samaritan, the unclean, who had mercy on that Jew; it is the Christian, the unclean, who is devoting his life to the relief of suffering among Moslems. Medical missions are an illustration in life of that wonderful parable.

To the Moslem as to the Christian, Jesus is the Great Healer. Medical missionary work has a value of its own. Jesus did not heal the sick in order to attract the crowd; He healed them because He loved them and because to Him sickness and disease were not of God's willing. Yet on one occasion He refused to return when told that a multitude awaited Him; it was not that He was indifferent to the needs of the sick; it was that He was conscious of a wider mission and the other villages called Him. He must preach the Gospel, "for therefore came I forth." To regard mission hospitals as institutions which are necessary in order to draw people together, and thus create opportunities for preaching, is to be blind to the true nature of the Gospel. On the other hand it must not be thought that the only purpose of such hospitals is to heal the bodily ailments of men in need. Jesus healed the sick, but He demanded faith before doing so. He healed the sick of the palsy, but He took advantage of the opportunity to preach the forgiveness of sins. He healed a man with a withered hand, but He did not neglect to use the opportunity it gave Him of teaching men that love is the true fulfilment of the Law. So the ministry of healing has a value of its own while it also plays its part as a unit in a greater whole: the ministry of the Gospel of the Love of God in Jesus Christ the Lord. There was a time when the only hospitals in Moslem lands were Christian hospitals; now things have changed. In every town in Persia there are state-paid doctors, and in the cities there are state-controlled hospitals. Are these not indirectly due to the teaching of Jesus Christ? The true Moslem is a fatalist; there is nothing in his religion to inspire him to social service, it makes him indifferent to social evils. In the past some men have realized this, and while some have at times attempted to remedy the evil, others have been content to pour scorn upon the orthodox Moslem beliefs. In a book written by a man whose intellect revolted against Islamic teaching the following story is told. A man stricken with palsy lay begging on the side of a road. A passer-by for no apparent reason picked up a stick and proceeded to beat the poor beggar. Some other men promptly interfered and demanded an explanation of his conduct. He said: "God has smitten this man, and I, being a true believer, have no option but to help God."

In Persia the hospital has usually been the forerunner of the Church. For many years Isfahan was closed to missionaries, and Julfa, across the river, was the centre from which they worked. The story of the opening of work in the city of Isfahan itself is thrilling, and it is a record of medical missionary work. The part played by medical missions in the past is clear from the fact already mentioned that in both Isfahan and Kerman the church building stands within the hospital compound. In Shiraz land has been registered openly for the purpose of erecting a church, yet only a few years ago, when medical work was first opened here, considerable hostility was shown. The missionaries were told to clear out, and threatened with death if they refused to go. Love must triumph, and love manifested in the life and work of a mission doctor was the chief factor in breaking down the hostility of the religious leaders. Every missionary engaged in evangelistic work knows the value of medical missions. The influence of every hospital spreads far beyond the town in which it is situated. Patients come from long distances, and there is hardly a village or district in the south of Persia which has not had some contact with the work of the C.M.S. medical mission. The travelling evangelist is constantly being helped by people who have cause to be thankful to the medical missionary. Townsmen, villagers, tribesmen, the hospital has friends among them all. Every hospital is an evangelistic agency, and it would be hard to estimate the debt of the Church to medical missions. To his or her patients the doctor soon becomes "our doctor," and the clergyman or evangelist who preaches to the patients soon finds that a word of witness from the doctor means far more to them than any words of his. After all is said and done, it is the duty of the clergyman or evangelist to preach; is he not paid for so doing? But the doctor, well, that is a very different matter; he, or she, does not preach because there is a living to be made out of it. The medical missionary has a glorious part to play in the building up of the Kingdom of God.

The rapid increase in the number of state-controlled hospitals, and the influx into the large towns of qualified Persian doctors naturally affects the work of mission hospitals, and it may well be that in the future medical missionaries will have to devote themselves more and more to specialized work. In this the Isfahan Hospital is already leading the way. The hospital has been equipped with an electrical plant, and an X-ray outfit has been installed. A maternity block has been added to the women's hospital by the conversion for that purpose of some rooms previously used for other purposes. The general usefulness of the hospital has been increased still further by the opening of two new departments--an eye department, and an ear, nose, and throat department.

In both Yezd and Shiraz ante-natal clinics have been opened, and are meeting with considerable success. The Yezd venture is worthy of special mention. I cannot do better than quote from a letter received from the missionary in charge:--

The maternity welfare part is really quite gratifying. In April, 1930, we moved into the old boys' school--a very large house which we divided into dwelling house and maternity home. This has proved a sensible step. The patients are kept right away from the hospital, where it is almost impossible to keep friends of other patients (possibly carrying infection) from visiting a clean maternity case. The patients themselves like being in the same house as ourselves, and we are training girls especially as midwives. Don't run away with the idea that everything is perfect, or that we have a large training school for midwives; we are just at the start of things. The first person who actually offered to learn midwifery is a Christian Parsi widow. As Parsis hold that anything actually to do with midwifery is unclean, we give her Christianity the credit for her courage in taking such a step.

The Kerman welfare centre needs no introduction. In spite of many difficulties it continues to do excellent work, both as a welfare centre and as a training school for midwives.

The most important recent development in medical missionary work in Persia, as far as the C.M.S. is concerned, is the erection of a hospital at Shiraz. Previously the hospital was housed in a private house converted for that purpose. The dispensary and out-patient rooms were utterly inadequate, while the theatre consisted of a portion of the house veranda walled off, and fitted with a large window. For nine years the work was carried on under conditions which were, to say the least, adverse; but a new day is dawning, and it is hoped soon to take possession of the excellent new buildings now in course of construction. In all the hospitals regular evangelistic work is being done, and many have been won for Christ through hearing the Gospel when in hospital.

Among the exhibits at the Persia Exhibition in London were some articles sent from the "Garden of Arts," Isfahan. This is one of the most interesting of all missionary institutions in Persia. [Further details are given in Persia Old and New, pp, 33, 34.] Started in 1916 by the late Miss Biggs, to enable destitute women to support themselves during a time of famine, it has not only helped hundreds of women and girls, but has reintroduced an old Persian art. Beautiful needlework has been turned out, the designs all copies from ancient tiles in mosques and palaces. In spite of many difficulties, the work continues to thrive, and a special branch is being developed for children. Here again is an institution which reflects the Spirit of Christ, and in which evangelistic work is given its rightful place.

There are many who utterly fail to realize the importance of the part played by mission schools. No one who knew anything about the conditions in Persia would be foolish enough to question the usefulness of the C.M.S. schools in that land. We have already seen that Persia is awake to the need of educating her children; and none will deny that great progress has been made in this direction. It is easy to overestimate the value of secular education and to regard it as the panacea for all evils. Would any man who knows the Persians dare to say that Persian education is a moral force producing men of high character? Persian men of high ideals and open minds realize the danger full well. Some time ago there appeared a series of articles in a leading Tehran paper which made this very clear. These articles were in the form of an appreciation of the work done by a mission school, the American College, Tehran. The writer declared that the introduction into Persia of western inventions and modern machinery is a task easily accomplished, but what are the results going to be? Behind western civilization is western education, and behind western education is western morality. What Persia needs is not the outward manifestations of western civilization, but the moral standard and spiritual background of that civilization. The writer concluded by urging the pupils of the college to pay great attention to the ethics lessons, for on them depends the future of Persia. That man realized the value of mission schools. Where there is no mission school Christian children have to attend Moslem schools, and the moral atmosphere of some of these, whether government schools or state-aided private schools, makes one fear for the future of Christian boys and girls who have no option but to attend them. The Persian Government has now decided to close all primary schools run by foreigners. Every young child must be educated at a Persian school. We are told that there are sufficient Persian teachers with the necessary educational qualifications to conduct primary schools, so the foreign institutions are superfluous. We can sympathize with the desire of the Persian Government to order its own affairs, yet we can but feel that the loss to the childhood of Persia will be heavy.

The most important of the C.M.S. schools in Persia is the Stuart Memorial College in Isfahan, which draws its students from many parts of the country. It is unfortunate that the primary department recently opened in connexion with the college is among the foreign schools which are to be closed according to the new regulations. The hostel for boarders is doing magnificent work, and it is gratifying to know that the number of boys in residence during the last year was the highest since the hostel was opened. It is quite unnecessary to explain to Englishmen that a boarding school is one of the finest agents for the development of character, and the value of such a school in a Moslem land cannot be exaggerated. Here boys are taken out of the moral atmosphere of Moslem homes, which is only too often unhealthy, and are brought into a Christian environment. What boy can resist the influences that surround him? The regular life and discipline of the hostel is in itself a power for good, how much more so when behind all is a background of Christian ethics and morality? Very often matters arise in connexion with the discipline and well-being of the hostel which afford the masters opportunities of coming into close contact with the boys. In the hostel boys get to know their teachers in a way that would be impossible otherwise. The master is a friend as well as teacher. He joins in their games, goes for walks with them, is always accessible to them. They see that religion is something very real to him, and very soon they begin to take their difficulties and doubts to him. The majority of them may never become Christians, but unconsciously they have absorbed Christian ideas, and have gained a new idea of what Christianity means. The hostel prayers and Bible readings, the services in the college chapel, at which attendance is voluntary, the ethics lessons given by Christian masters--all are formative influences which cannot but affect the boys' character. Moslems, Jews, Armenians--boys differing in both race and religion, work side by side, play side by side. Old prejudices and hostilities give place to friendship and mutual regard. The school is a unifying force. There are special classes and religious meetings for Christian boys, and missionary activities are given a prominent place. Parties of boys and masters visit the surrounding villages giving lantern lectures and gospel talks. The non-Christian sees Christianity in a new light; the nominal Christian gains a new conception of the meaning, and value, and implications of his religion. From among these boys must come the future leaders of the Persian Church.

A recent addition to the college is the bookshop, which is unique in that it serves both the town and college. In this new building the college library is housed, and there is a reading room for the pupils; but in addition to this there is the bookshop, with a road frontage, which serves the general public. Both educational and religious books can be obtained here, and the young Persian Christian in charge is always prepared to answer any questions about his religion. This venture has met with considerable success, due chiefly to the initiative shown by the young man in charge. Shiraz is 315 miles from Isfahan, but several of the leading government officials in Shiraz are reading their Bible dictionaries, and popularizing them among their friends; they themselves first heard of the book through that young man, and it was from him that they obtained their copies. So Isfahan through the college bookshop is helping on the work of Christ in Shiraz.

The only other boys' school run by the C.M.S. in Persia is at Kerman. During the last five years it has developed rapidly; from being a small school in a house in the bazaar, it has become the best school in the town. The principal writes: "It is situated in the 'West End' of the town, outside the city walls, and as a result of money collected by a former principal, the Rev. A. K. Boyland, the school is now housed in some of the finest buildings in the town. The premises consist of eight class rooms, a large hall, an art room, and various other rooms, and at the gate is the bookshop which sells Christian literature. The school very soon increased its numbers when it moved into the new building, and has had over 150 names on the school roll; in fact, a waiting list has been started."

This school has no boarding department, but it has provided the Persian Church with some of her best sons. When housed in humble quarters in the bazaar it had a magnificent record. Old pupils of that school are found in many parts of Persia to-day, and some of them have done fine work for Christ. The school always has been, and is, one of the finest missionary institutions in Persia.

The C.M.S. has three girls' schools in Persia, and splendid as is their past achievement, it would seem that the future may be more splendid still. The new marriage laws, and the spread of new ideas have done much to further the education of girls, and one gratifying result is seen in the increase in number of pupils attending the upper schools. In Isfahan a new building has been erected for the girls' school, and this will meet a long felt need. There is abundant evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in the school, both among the hostel girls and the day pupils. The voluntary services have attracted many, and it has been found necessary to supplement these by inquirers' classes for those who desire to ask questions, and to discuss matters more fully. "The Guide promise is taken very seriously and the standard of truthfulness and straightness in the school has greatly improved. Cheating at examinations, at least among the older girls, is now a thing of the past."

The Kerman Girls' School moved into new quarters in 1929, but so great has been the increase in the number of pupils attending that even these quarters are totally inadequate, and in spite of the fact that the school is already overcrowded there is a long waiting list. Several girls from this school have been baptized, and others are receiving regular teaching as inquirers. But the influence of the school spreads further than this. Go into many homes in the town and you will find young married women who were once pupils of this school. The welfare workers will tell you that they are the most teachable young mothers with whom they deal. Go into four out of five of the government schools in the neighbouring villages and you will find among the teachers old pupils of the school. Nearly half the staff of the government primary school have at one time or another been pupils of this school. Who can estimate the influence of a school such as this?

Come to Yezd and see the girls' school there. Formerly there were two C.M.S. schools in Yezd, a school for Moslem girls and a school for Parsi girls. Religious antagonism made it impossible to have one school for all. The missionary in charge, to whose courage and initiative is due the success of the experiment, writes: "The most potent human factor in making it possible to combine the schools was the Pahlevi hat. When people said it is impossible, one replied: 'Not at all, men have changed their hats.' The hat, and all that it implies, has given greater freedom of thought and action than any other single factor." Many of the girls in this school are feeling the attraction of Christ. The lack of a similar school for boys creates many problems. I quote once more: "The most important problem facing us arises from the fact that there is no boys' school to balance the work among the girls. This is specially noticeable among the Parsis, as there is quite a group of Parsi Christian women, but no Parsi Christian young men. This makes it impossible to form Christian homes, and is a source of very great weakness to the Church." Moslem and Parsi girls work and play side by side in a town in which religious antagonism has for centuries marked the Parsi as an object of scorn to his Moslem neighbour. That school is surely justifying its existence.

There is one other girls' school which stands in a class apart from those three, the school in Shiraz. This is definitely a Christian school, but it is only a C.M.S. school in the sense that the principal is a C.M.S. missionary who has established her claim to be regarded as a Persian subject. The school has been built up on friendship. [For an account of the starting of the school see Persia Old and New, p. 58.] During the four years of its existence it has grown into an institution which is the best of its kind in Shiraz. A short time ago I had the pleasure of marking some of the ethics papers of some pupils of this school. Those papers were a revelation of the wonderful way in which Christian principles have been taught. There have been some difficulties in connexion with the school, but the loyalty shown by Moslem ladies who are acting as voluntary teachers made it possible to keep the school open at a very trying time.

Some mention must be made of the excellent work that is being done among the Jews in both Tehran and Isfahan by the C.M.J. Some of the converts made from among the Jews can be counted among the finest of Persian Christians. The two schools in Tehran are worthy of special mention. There are nine classes in each school, and the entire work is carried on by a staff of twenty-three teachers, of whom nine are Hebrew Christians--converts of the mission. These schools are definitely missionary institutions, every effort is made to attract the young to Christ, and the character of the work being done can best be gauged by the fact that at the time of writing twenty boys and ten girls were being instructed with a view to baptism. Another remarkable institution is the Sunday school in Tehran which is conducted by Jewish Christians, and which has an average attendance of 150 pupils. Many of the Jewish Christians are keen missionaries, and the way in which Moslem and Jewish converts work together for the evangelization of Persia affords a striking example of the way in which Christ is breaking down the barriers of race and religion, which for ages have divided the people of Persia into a number of sects living in an atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and mutual enmity.

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