We were looking forward to spending some time with our Operation Mobilization team members. Because they were scattered throughout the region, the distances between them and the general unreliability of public transport, it took good planning to get to them. It was easier and more affordable to travel to them, than to bring all of them to Baku.
Around the end of April 2013, we made our first visit to Sheki. Sheki (Azerbaijani: Şəki) is a city in north-western Azerbaijan, It is located on the southern part of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, 240 km from Baku. This was a five-hour drive with a passenger vehicle and seven hours with a bus. The centre of the city and the Palace of Sheki Khans were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019 because of its unique architecture and its history as an important trading centre along the Silk Road.
Home to ancient Caucasian Albanian churches, religion is highly important to the people of Sheki due to its historical religious diversity. There are many churches and mosques in the city. Some churches such as the Church of Kish in the vicinity of Sheki are thought to be approximately 1,500 years old. The Khan’s Mosque, Omar Efendi Mosque and Gileili Minaret are considered important places of worship in the city.
It was against this background that the small team in Sheki were reaching out to the community. The two couples and two single ladies had diverse interests and skills that they applied to reach a common goal: “to change lives and transform the community”, as they proclaim the Gospel. Sheki is a popular tourist destination and many adventure seeking groups visit Sheki to explore the rugged Caucasus Mountains’ rock faces. Rock-climbing was very popular in the region and one of our team member had an indoor climbing wall where locals and foreigners came to practice their skills. His wife used the same facility as a craft centre where women came to attend art and craft classes. Another team member was a registered nurse and she and another single lady were involved in visiting the surrounding villages sharing information and giving practical guidance on primary health care issues.
As team leaders our role were to help our team members to stay focussed on their calling and goals and to make sure this is aligned with the vision and strategy for the region. Each team member did a Clifton Strengths Assessment and I coached them on their individual strengths’ profiles and as a team.
Our next trip was into the neighbouring Republic of Georgia.
There are almost 300,000 Azerbaijanis living in Georgia. Azerbaijanis comprise 6.5% of Georgia’s population and are the country’s largest ethnic minority, inhabiting mostly rural areas on the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia. Azeris can cross the border into Georgia without any visa. One of our team members, an Azeri single lady, lived in a village in Georgia occupied by Azeris. She is a trained children’s worker and focussed on working with young girls in this Azeri village in South-Eastern Georgia. She organized arts and crafts sessions and summer camps for these girls. Many of them were in danger of becoming child-brides at the age of 12 and she played an important role in educating these girls about the dangers of early marriage and pregnancy and introducing them to the Gospel.
We discovered during that trip that South-Africans can also enter the Republic of Georgia without a visa and are allowed to stay for 12 months. We had one more trip to make. This time our destination was the mountainous Svaneti region in the Northwest of Georgia. We had to wait for summer because the village where our team members lived was at a high altitude and the roads are almost inaccessible during the winter. That summer we travelled to Tbilisi, the capitol of Georgia by bus. We stayed over in the apartment of our Svaneti friends and continue our trip the next day with a minibus taxi.
We took leave for one week from my Operation Mercy duties to visit our team members in Svaneti, Georgia. The Canadian-Georgian couple were running a small farm and guesthouse on the small holding. There is a ski-resort within 50 km from their village and during a good season they do get tourist a good number of tourists staying in their guesthouse. The Svans are nominally orthodox but there are still animistic practices in the remote villages too. Our team members and now, new friends, have a heart for this interesting group of people. At the time they were both teaching at the village primary school and serving the community in various ways.
We discussed their desire to share the Gospel and make disciples and strategies to do that. They were very excited by the possibility of making disciples in the village and we had some long meaningful discussions. One morning, just before the end of our stay, they shared with us that they had lost a child when their first pregnancy ended quite late in an abortion. They are not able to conceive again, but they felt the Lord spoke to them about spiritual children through disciplemaking. They invited us to a very stirring ceremony where they scattered the ashes of the unborn foetus in acceptance of the new challenge to make disciples.
Although Armenia is part of the Caucasus region, Operation Mobilization had no team members or projects in Armenia. It was also impossible to travel to Armenia with an Azerbaijani customs stamp in your passport or vice vera, because of the longstanding conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
We felt encouraged after meeting the whole team in their various locations. It gave us a good view of the focus and challenges the work in the region brings. With the problems at Operation Mercy always at the back of my mind, I was contemplating the possibility of moving the Operation Mobilization office to Tbilisi in Georgia.