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Faith and fury

Lieut-Colonels Yousaf Ghulam and Rebecca Yousaf
Following Christ in a Muslim country is an immense challenge.

When I meet Lieut-Colonel Yousaf Ghulam for the first time, he is scrubbing his dishes in the Salvation Army staff room at Territorial Headquarters with gusto. ‘Men are not welcome in the kitchen in Pakistan,’ he says, ‘but I am trying my best.’

‘You’re doing a great job,’ I say—and I mean it. Standard tearoom procedure everywhere is a cursory rinse of dishes, but he is going above and beyond.

‘Well, thanks for your encouragement.’

And with that, the former chief secretary of The Salvation Army Pakistan Territory becomes a fellow human being, doing his best to fit into to a new, entirely foreign culture.

His wife is Lieut-Colonel Rebecca Yousaf—in Pakistan, family names are not used and the wife takes on her husband’s first name when she marries. ‘Please, call me Rebecca,’ she says immediately.

They arrived in New Zealand just days before, to take up a two-year post as Assistant Chief Secretary  and Assistant Territorial Secretary of Women’s Ministries. This is a chance for Yousaf and Rebecca to be blessed after years of challenges serving in Pakistan. And a chance to bless us with their own, rich cultural perspective.

Their first impressions show two nations that could scarcely be more different: they entered our New Zealand winter from 48°celsius, went from speaking Punjabi to English, and instead of their staple of chapatti, are trying out Kiwi kai. They are struck by the orderliness of our traffic system. And their favourite new discovery? The electric blanket.

But, of course, these are surface changes; the biggest challenge was leaving behind four daughters and a son. They had another daughter also, but she was promoted to Glory (a Salvation Army term used to describe the death of a Salvationist) in January 2008.

Fluent in English, Yousaf takes the lead in the conversation. ‘It was really difficult to leave our children at their marriage time,’ he says. This is because it is the parents’ responsibility to arrange marriages for their children. ‘But we believe that the call from God is most important. The God who led us here is the same God who will look after our children.’

They are proud of their children, all of whom are dedicated Salvationists. One daughter is a Salvation Army officer, and another gave up a well-paid job to ‘follow her heart’ and become a candidate for officer training, working as a health coordinator.  

Born into conflict

The couple’s faith is profound, as they have known conflict close up. No promises here that Christianity will provide an easy life with material abundance.

Both Yousaf and Rebecca grew up as Christians in a country where they are a distinct minority. While Rebecca was born in a village at the heart of Pakistan’s Salvation Army movement, in Yousaf’s village there were very few Christians.

‘We have a different system; in our culture you are born into a Christian family and called Christian whether you have accepted Christ as Saviour or not,’ explains Yousaf. ‘It’s the same as Muslim; by tradition, you’re a Christian.’

He adds that others immediately recognise them as Christian because of their names. ‘Although officially there is no discrimination, there is a lot of resistance against Christians. We usually only get low-paying jobs, so many Christians live in poverty and in difficult situations.’

Some of the most shocking stories to come out of Pakistan are not considered unusual. ‘In March this year, Christian and Muslim friends were talking to each other in a Christian colony in Lahore. There was a disagreement and it was felt that the Christian had said something against Islam. Conflict grew out of that disagreement, with the result that the colony was burned and totally destroyed,’ says Yousaf. ‘This is what happens, you see. You never know when your freedom is going to be snatched from you—these kind of accidents can take place so easily and often.’

Yet, in 37 years of ministry, Yousaf has found that Christians boldly proclaim their faith. ‘People are financially very poor, but in their faith they are strong. In their poverty or starvation, we don’t recall that anyone has denounced Christianity.’

Called by God

Yousaf grew up in the Methodist Church, but was introduced to The Salvation Army in 1973. He became an envoy and planned on entering Salvation Army training college to become an officer.

‘But there is a twist,’ says Yousaf. Just as he was about to enter training, he was offered a coveted government job, which would mean good pay and security. It was an unusual opportunity for a bold, self-proclaimed Christian. He decided to take the job, but kept it to himself. ‘Then a miracle took place,’ he says.

‘The Salvation Army (then) divisional commander, Major Farman Masih, was on his way to visit someone else, but somehow he ended up coming to see me. He was looking at my books and found the letter of offer from the government—but he didn’t say anything.

‘After we’d had a meeting, he asked me to go out into the fields with him, and he challenged me: “Yousaf, are you really going to training college?” “Yes,” I replied. He asked me three times, “Are you sure?”, and on the third time he showed me the letter he had seen.’

Yousaf was taken aback and confessed his intentions. ‘We talked to the point that with my own hands, I tore up the letter. And I have never had any regrets since.’

Rebecca entered officer training college in the same year. ‘The Salvation Army is the only organisation [in Pakistan] where single women can enter training to become Christian ministers,’ she says. Although men and women train together, Yousaf and Rebecca had never spoken.

However, Rebecca’s elder sister was also at the college and noticed Yousaf. She went to the senior training officer, who talked to Yousaf, and they organised for Rebecca’s family to come and meet him. ‘So, with very little arrangement, we were engaged,’ says Yousaf.

After that, they managed a couple of sentences to each other as they passed in the corridor. They were commissioned at the end of November 1975 as cadet-lieutenants, having become engaged one month earlier. Their marriage took place soon after, in January 1976.

‘We are very happy since then,’ says Yousaf. ‘In every family, there is a little bit of conflict, but our family life is very good and we support each other. When there is joy we joke together, and when there is sadness we are sad together.’

Radical Reformers

The work of The Salvation Army in offering help to everyone without discrimination takes on a radical edge in a country like Pakistan.

Yousaf recalls the floods in Pakistan of 2010, where The Salvation Army provided cooking utensils, bedding, tents and other assistance to Muslim regions that discriminate against Christians. It meant that many Salvationists gave selflessly, while living in poverty themselves due to this discrimination. These actions make the words of Jesus—where he tells us to ‘love our enemies’—come into startling focus.

Although unable to openly speak about Christ, The Salvation Army witnesses by meeting community needs. It works in community development, ‘providing funds for a buffalo, or cow or goat so a person can have a small business—and this has been very, very useful,’ says Yousaf.

A successful programme, called ‘Sally Ann’, that teaches locals handcrafts, and then sells them to other Salvation Army countries, has helped provide an income to over 1000 families living in poverty.

Rebecca has been closely involved in a Mother and Child Club, where any child in the community can have their growth and health monitored. Mums come for antenatal care and learn skills for looking after their children.

The Salvation Army is also teaching women their rights, and raising awareness of human trafficking—a very real danger in Pakistan, where it could literally be happening on your doorstep.

Medical care is provided with free clinics, where people are checked by a doctor for malaria, dengue fever and other ‘basic health’ issues.

‘Through our community care, a door is open for Christians and Muslims to be together and have time to share prayers and Bible teaching,’ explains Yousaf. ‘In Islam, a person might accept Christianity in their heart, but will not proclaim it because your family will come against you. And if you denounce Islam, your punishment is that you’re killed. So we believe that many [Muslim] people have accepted Christ in their heart.’

Dangers and toils

In recent times, proclaiming Christ has become a very personal battle for Yousaf and Rebecca, who have come through many ‘dangers, toils and snares’—as the famous hymn goes.

It was August 2007 when Yousaf and Rebecca were appointed to senior leadership, with Yousaf as Chief Secretary of the Pakistan Territory. They were due to take up the appointment on 1 October that year. But on 15 September, their oldest daughter—newly married and expecting her first child—lost her baby when she was five months pregnant.

On 27 September, a 5 pm ceremony was held to farewell the outgoing chief secretary at the Territorial Headquarters compound, with Rebecca and Yousaf attending. ‘At about 8 pm that night, I got a call saying that Territorial Commander Colonel Bo Brekke had been murdered,’ Yousaf recalls.

Colonel Brekke, originally from Norway, was shot and killed while returning from the farewell meeting. The Pakistan Territory went into crisis mode: work was shut down and the senior leadership—all from foreign countries, including New Zealanders Majors Jeanette and Peter Scadden—returned to their home territories.

‘I had to take over as chief secretary in the middle of a murder,’ says Yousaf. ‘And I had no staff left, everyone was gone.’

The murder trial began, and Yousaf got phone calls daily, threatening his life and the life of his son because he was the Salvation Army contact person for the police inquiry. He was aware that if he stepped back from this role, then the case might have not proceeded. In Pakistan, it is usual for people to be killed when they are witnesses in a murder trial.

During this crisis, Yousaf says that the Salvation Army world leader at the time, General Shaw Clifton, was ‘very kind to us’. ‘He called me almost every day, and he sent over a couple—Lieut-Colonels Roland and Dawn Sewell from the United Kingdom—who did their best to help us through the crisis.’

Meanwhile, Rebecca and Yousaf’s daughter had been critically ill after losing her baby. ‘On 6 January she was promoted to Glory,’ says Yousaf. ‘It was an unexplainable time—a really, really hard time.’

The Brekke murder case is ongoing, and so are the personal trials associated with this. The day before Yousaf and Rebecca left Pakistan for New Zealand they received another threat saying, ‘You are leaving, but your son is still here and he can be killed.’

‘But we believe the God who has chosen us is an almighty God, and our children are in his hands,’ proclaims Yousaf. ‘We would like to ask New Zealanders to keep praying for our children’s protection. It is always difficult to leave children, but we definitely feel that this [time in New Zealand] is arranged by God.’

Their hope is that New Zealand will provide a much-needed rest, both physically and mentally. They are keen to develop skills in areas that will benefit their homeland, such as improving their computer and English skills. They also hope to strengthen the relationship between the Pakistan Territory and the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory. ‘We hope to get experience here from a developed country, that will help us in our future as a developing country,’ says Yousaf. ‘We are sure with understanding and cooperation we will be able to help each other.’

Yousaf adds that the Pakistan Territory is very grateful for the support of the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory to the Self Denial Appeal, which is important for funding the work of the Army in Pakistan. As well, there is funding of specific projects by The Salvation Army in New Zealand. ‘We are also very thankful for those who sponsor children through The Salvation Army’s child sponsorship programme,’ he says.

Rebecca and Yousauf expect to be blessed by New Zealand, but The Salvation Army here can expect to be blessed by them—not only as dedicated officers from a foreign land, but as committed believers boldly proclaiming Christ. And finally, as fellow human beings willing to share with us their tears, trials, joys and love.

By Ingrid Barratt  (abridged from War Cry 13 July 2013, p5-7)