Shona recalls a time in the marketplace where a seller waited twenty minutes until the neighbouring seller left before whispering about her grandchild with Cerebral Palsy. “Can you help us?” she requested in a hushed plea. Most families in the part of Central Asia where Shona serves keep their disabled child sheltered at home in a dark room, where neighbours and the community cannot see them. Shona, an Occupational Therapist, works with children with disabilities and supports their families through Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) groups, home visits, and trainings to local staff and mothers.
Shona, of course, invited the seller and her grandchild to come to their CBR group, where there were many other children like her grandchild. In the groups the children play with one another, sing songs with basic sign language, receive a short lesson, a time of application through art and then a snack. If a family arrives earlier, the child can also receive one-on-one therapy; this is normally utilised by younger children or children who have more severe disabilities. For mothers, stepping into the small room full of other mothers and children with a range of disabilities can be quite overwhelming. However, as the town is small, connections are quickly made: “Oh! You are my auntie’s neighbour”, “You went to school with my brother!”, and so they are ushered into this new community. Shona commented, “We hope that when a child and their mother step into the room they feel a place of community and belonging and a new hope as they see God’s love through our actions.”
In this Muslim country, many mothers feel the weight of shame for having a child with a disability, not because of the child, but because they believe that it is their punishment for a sin they have committed. One of the first things Shona and her team seek to do when meeting a family for the first time is to break the cycle of bondage, hopelessness, and darkness, and speak life into their circumstances. It is here that they share, for the first time, the love of God and that He has knitted each one of them together. “To witness this part of someone’s story is such an honour”, Shona recounts. Often it is the first time they have heard this, and it is the beginning step of revealing their worth: the crack of light seeping into a dim situation. “The work isn’t just about providing access to occupational therapy for those who would not otherwise have it; it is providing access to the hope and love of God.”
Shona grew up in the Scottish Highlands within a believing family and does not remember a time where she did not know God. However, she has a clear memory of learning that Jesus was not just a story when her Sunday school teacher very seriously said, “He is real, He is a part of history; He really did live; He really did die for you, and He really did rise again.” In that moment she recalls thinking, “If He is really real, of I course I will follow him”.
In High School, Shona continued to grow in her faith, surrounded by strong leaders and mentors but, “somewhere along the way, I built an image of someone who serves God in other countries. I wasn’t it: I am not outgoing or extroverted”. The dream was moved onto the back burner as unattainable (until later). However, even before graduating as an occupational therapist, she knew that she did not want to work within the health service, with the growing pressures. She had felt that the spiritual side of people’s lives was ignored in this context, despite the profession celebrating its holistic person-centred practice. Shona wanted to give people more to grow into, not just meeting their physical and mental needs.
It was after graduating that Shona revisited her ‘childhood dream’ and felt such a strong nudge that she could not ignore. She did not feel called to a particular people group and felt quite anxious about the possibility of God calling her to a new unknown place. Despite the anxiety, she asked Him to send her where she was most needed as “the thought of not following God’s calling was more anxiety provoking than going wherever He sent me”. A vision trip to Central Asia wiped away any anxieties. She remembers walking along a street in one town and felt peace blanket her and God saying, ‘Home, you will call this place home’.
Shona is not limited to revealing God’s love through the CBR project but also through daily life with her neighbours in the marketplace and the community. People notice the way the Christian foreigners live differently and have chosen to give up their comfortable Western lives, “We want to be living examples of Christ – His light in a dark and hopeless place.” Opportunities to share stories and pray around cups of tea, or while baking together, or in the marketplace are endless. “In fact,” Shona added, “we sometimes found the number of invitations we received overwhelming.” Matthew 6: ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’ is a reality the team pray into.
Shona joined a small team in a remote and conservative area of the country. The project she joined full-time had been running for a couple of years. The decision to begin the project was built on a foundation of prayer and the work proceeds with this sense of dependency and being led by the Father. “We really see God’s hand in the work here daily, through our prayers - it really is amazing”.