SHALA CAME TO JESUS WHEN SHE FIRST ENCOUNTERED GENUINE LOVE AND COMPASSION FROM THE CHURCH
The Sylheti-speaking Bengali community in the UK fits any and every definition of least reached people group, despite being well established in the East End of London. ‘Things are progressing,’ says Shala, defying conventional wisdom about evangelism among Muslims. ‘The ground is not hard at all. It’s not impossible. It says in the Bible that we are made strong in weakness.’ As the eldest of five children in a Muslim household that felt unsettled and had many struggles, Shala’s own story is one of God working through pain and hurtful experiences. Her parents were illiterate and didn’t know English well. They moved around East London and money was tight. Her dad was abusive to her mum; family life was marked by frequent arguments and very little gentleness. Having been abused and subject to every kind of violence inside and outside the home, Shala left home at 18. Her family considered her to have run away. She entered the wider world feeling unloved and downtrodden. It was as a young adult that Shala’s eyes were opened to God’s care. ‘It was the first time I felt I am precious and worthy to be loved,’ she says.
This introduction to Christianity was through a South African woman, who befriended Shala during her time working in a marketing company. The woman showed interest in Shala’s life, which for her was really out of the blue. ‘When I grew up there didn’t seem to be anyone who was going to show me love and genuine care,’ says Shala. ‘This friend was full of life and joy and love. I was attracted to that. I really valued that friendship.’ So when Shala was invited to church, it was natural to accept. They went together to Hillsong on Tottenham Court Road. ‘I remember feeling so overwhelmed with emotion,’ she says. ‘It felt reassuring that this presence I was feeling was something good. Everything said in the Bible came alive. It felt safe and warm and genuine, something I hadn’t experienced in my life until then. ‘I gave my life to Christ that night. There was an altar call, and as I went up, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I thought it was my friend comforting me, but it wasn’t, it was something more than that – the Spirit, I guess.’
Shala’s first sense of release and of liberty came from attending church. ‘I just remember being immersed in the worship. It spoke to me – and felt like it was directed to me. I was able to let go of the struggles and my load.’ The next six years, however, were turbulent. Shala lost touch with her South African friend, and found herself wide open to the world with no idea how to navigate life outside the confines of her family and community. ‘I was very vulnerable and a couple of people used my vulnerability,’ she says. ‘I also made bad choices. But there is the amazing grace of God who takes evil and turned it to good.’
Eventually she reconnected with church. And here, again, Shala found an answer. An older woman became a great help when things were difficult. She used to tell Shala, ‘Every time we show you love, you run. Because you can’t believe it’s true.’ The woman became a consistent presence in Shala’s life, even taking her on holiday to Canada. ‘It was transforming my life,’ says Shala. ‘I was reminded how much God loves me. It wasn’t easy. At times I used to be scared, but eventually I learned to give everything to Jesus. I was coming from such a broken place, but I allowed my life to come back to him. Everything since that point is a gift. ‘I was trusting God with a little bit more all the time.
In small things, God has been really faithful. For example, I have never gone a day without food. These things are a proof of God’s love, evidence of how faithful he has been.’ Shala is now immersing herself again in the Sylheti community, this time with an entirely different perspective on who she is, and her place. She supports a fledgling Bangladeshi Church in the Husk community centre in Tower Hamlets, and works with people on their journey towards faith in Jesus. ‘I had a picture of me passing a lamp around – an old-fashioned gas lamp,’ says Shala, ‘and I understand that to mean that God intends me to be a blessing to others, to use my experiences to bring others who have experienced great hurt to God. ‘It is about building relationships, through showing unconditional love and giving practical help with things like Job Centre applications, benefits and helping people to stand on their own two feet. Many have been so oppressed for so long. ‘Jesus spent time with people.
It’s important to meet with people, go into their homes where they are comfortable, be free of time constraints, and be willing to show sacrificial unconditional love. ‘When I look back at my own story, it’s been the actions of Christians that made the difference to me, not just their words. ‘One lady I see says, “Nobody else asks what I am struggling with. But why do you?” Of course, it is up to God for the Spirit to work in people’s lives. What has happened for me has turned out for his glory.”