The position of Field Leader for the Caucasus region had been vacant for almost 18 months when we arrived in Baku. One of the senior members of the Caucasus team filled the role as interim field leader. She was a long-term worker in Operation Mobilization and very experienced and well-respected in the Caucasus region.
She was an English-speaking South-African and lived with another South -African lady in a spacious apartment in Baku. They took us into their apartment when we arrived, and we lived there whilst we were finding our feet and looking for an apartment where we can live.
As Field Leader for the Caucasus region, our primary role was to provide emotional and spiritual support to the team members and to develop the ministry of each team member in alignment with the vision and strategy for ministry in the region. This had to be done in conjunction with the work as Country Director for Operation Mercy.
When we arrived in Baku, we had 13 team members scattered all over the Caucasus region. Some were living and working in Baku, some in a remote town in the North-West of Azerbaijan and some in the neighbouring Republic of Georgia. The team included South Africans, Koreans, Americans, Britons, a Malaysian, a Canadian, a Georgian and an Azeri. Five team members were single ladies.
Two American couples where on the verge of leaving Azerbaijan. They committed for two years, and they were ready to return to their home country. Within three months after our arrival our team had shrunk to 9 people.
A former Field Leader and his wife was still in Baku and part of the team. They were asked to step down due to conflicts in the team at that time and he decided to focus on business-as-mission for the past three years. He ran into financial trouble, and he found a way to bridge his cash-flow problems by borrowing money from Operation Mobilization for short periods, before paying it back.
One incident had a profound impact on our relationship and the functioning of the team in Baku. He approached the treasurer of the team and asked to borrow US$10,000-00 to help an expatriate businessman to register his business in Azerbaijan. It was a requirement by law that a balance of US$10,000 must be shown in an Azeri bank account to register a business in Azerbaijan. The money is usually paid back within three business days. This had been done before for other team members in similar circumstances. The treasurer called me as the new Field Leader to get authorization for this transaction. He was however concerned because he learnt that the money was not to help another businessman but to pay a business debt.
I was upset when I learnt about this practice. The field-fund was established to help team members with personal financial constraints and contained the donations received each month allocated for each team member. This money was not available to cover business debts or to fund short term loans. The risk was just too high, and I did not want to take the risk.
I called the former field leader and we met to discuss the situation. I explained my view and he made it clear that this was general practice for a long time. When I pointed out that I know that the money was for a business debt, he felt shamed and accused me of doing my job but ruining the relationship. To him relationship was a higher value than financial security and I learnt a valuable lesson in cross-cultural understanding and practices.
In the months to come it became clear that his business was in serious financial trouble and our relationship deteriorated further. I sought council from my Area Leader, but the initial response was: “Welcome to the Caucasus”! I was left with a dysfunctional team member, and I was feeling the pressure to build a team with a common vision and strategy for the region.
This was no easy task, due to the different situation in each country of the region. The Republic of Georgia is nominally Christian. Today 82% of the population in Georgia practices Orthodox Christianity, primarily the Georgian Orthodox Church. In Armenia the link between Armenian ethnicity and the Armenian Church is strong. An estimated 90 % of citizens nominally belong to the Armenian Church, an independent Eastern Christian denomination. The Republic of Azerbaijan is nominally Muslim. Today 0,02% of the population in Azerbaijan practices Christianity.
The diversity in the religious affinity, cultures, and languages made it very difficult to find a common approach for the work of Operation Mobilization in the region. We decided to visit the team members in their geographic locations to learn what they were already doing and to get to know them better.
We had regular team meetings in Baku, but we had to plan road trips to visit the other team members on location. This took us to some very interesting places.