When you hear the term “Israeli missionary” your first thought is probably Israeli believers who share the gospel with fellow Jews in Israel. Maybe you think of foreign missionaries coming to Israel. But did you know that there are Israeli missionaries from the local Messianic Body, who serve in foreign countries, like Uganda, India, and Japan? KNI talked with 33-year-old Miriam “Nabujeke” Tchernousov from Netanya, who has served as a missionary in Uganda for the past almost two years.
“When you tell people from this tribal society that ‘I’m from the same tribe as Jesus,’ the gospel becomes real to them. The Bible is no longer fairy tales from a faraway country. It’s real, it’s truth. I’m here before them in flesh and blood and tell them that I come from that place that the Bible speaks about.” she tells KNI. She speaks from Uganda over a shaky internet connection which keeps disconnecting back and forth throughout our dialogue.
Miriam was born in Russia and grew up in Netanya in the Beit Asaph congregation. “I loved learning about other cultures already there, with the Ethiopians in the congregations and the tourists who visited. As a kid I was active in King’s Kids, and after my two-years army service, I did the Lech L’cha program, and in that program there is an option to go to Uganda for outreach. So my first time in Uganda was with Lech L’cha in 2010.”
She was there for a month and fell in love with the place. “That’s when I realized we can’t just come there, tell them to believe in Jesus, and disappear. If we want to bring about actual change, we need to come and live with the people. They need to see how we live. That’s how they’ll see the gospel.”
When she came back to Israel, she acquired a degree in education, and then joined an 8-month program in Armenia with YWAM Disciple Training School, which culminated in a month’s outreach in Istanbul and another month in Georgia. After that, she joined Iris Global’s Harvest School of Missions in Mozambique, which took another three months. The schooling and the outreach all took place in a rural area with no running water or electricity. “After that full year of training to be a missionary, and thinking through what it would take and deciding about it, I asked God where he wanted me and where I should go – and he told me to go back home to Israel!”
In 2016, she returned to Israel and worked as a kindergarten teacher. First in a new-age community and then for two years in a Muslim community. During these years, she also guided Lech L’cha’s outreach trips to Uganda every year in the summer. They would always go to the same place – a village on the slopes of Mount Elgon in east Uganda. In 2019, she joined a three-month YWAM training called “Frontier Mission School” in Russia on how to establish a presence in an unreached area. It included anthropologic research of the people you are trying to reach and preparing a tangible action plan. She did her work on the Lumasaba tribe of Mount Elgon, came home to Israel for a week in December 2019, and in January 2020, she went to Uganda.
In a leaflet she distributed in 2019, she wrote: “When I first visited Uganda in 2010, God planted a seed in my heart of love for the Lumasaba tribe. Now, after ten years of trainings and working with education and leading outreaches every year to Uganda, I feel God calling me to move to Uganda for the coming year. I will live with a local family in a village with no running water or electricity to learn of their daily life, teach in their kindergarten, and learn their language, to bring God’s gospel and love to these people.”
She also added, “God has called us, the people of Israel, to be a light unto the nations. After 70 years as a nation, the local Body is strong and well established. I personally believe the Body of the Messiah in Israel is now mature enough to send out people to ‘declare his glory among the nations.’”
Her home congregation in Netanya, Beit Asaph, helped arrange the practical details and support her economically. People were encouraged to donate to the congregation to support her.
In 2017, Lech L’cha and Beit Asaph got involved with a local non-profit called “BIRD” which had started to build a school and orphanage in the area, as there are many orphans in the area because of aids. The school will teach children to read and write, and also practical skills like carpentry, sewing, or pottery. Every year when she had gone there with Lech L’cha she would see how the building had gone forward, but it is still in process.
“Since I have an education in teaching, I will be a part of that school. But I wanted to move there and be a part of their community some years before. I didn’t want to arrive with ‘Hi, I’m the white person who is going to teach you how to be.’ Knowing nothing about them and their culture and how they live their daily life. I wanted to come from below, live with them, go out to work in the field with them, understanding their mentality and how they think. From that point I can then think of how to advance them, how to teach in a more effective way, and how to bring them the gospel.”
She came in January 2020 to volunteer with “BIRD.” Besides building the school, BIRD combats poverty and aids, and taught in one of their kindergartens. She lived as the only white person with people in a village called Luzzi, with no electricity or running water, which was two hour’s motorcycle drive from the closest city, Mbale.
“The kindergarten had benches and a blackboard. Children as young as 3 or 4 sit silent on the benches and study. All the other teachers would teach while holding a rod. A child who isn’t silent is hit with the rod. That’s why these 4-year-olds are so disciplined, and they sit for hours looking at a blackboard. I came in to the class with no rod, and what do the children do? They walk outside and cut down a branch to give me, so I will have a rod. I wasn’t sure how to act, but I just said thank you and put it aside.”
Their term for white people was “muzungu,” and they would come to Miriam on the street in the village, saying “muzungu, give me dollar.” She answered, “I’m not giving money, but I can come and dig with you.” And then she’d go out in the field and dig with them, and pump water, carrying the water back to the village. “They would look at me and say ‘you’re a different muzungu.’ How come a white person digs in the field and carries water? But that’s what I believe in, to come and live with the people.” Miriam also attended both funerals and weddings, and even got the honor to take part in the greetings of a wedding, having to learn the correct phrases in their language. She even heard them say, “The muzungu is part of us now.”
One challenge she describes is how they often see “white people,” as gods, and will be ready to do whatever she says. They used to be a British colony, so I wondered if they don’t see the white people as oppressors, but she says it’s the opposite. “If I tell them to believe in Jesus, they will believe in Jesus. If I tell them to jump on one leg, they will jump on one leg. I especially remember a long time ago once, when we shared the gospel and they asked us, ‘If we accept Jesus, will we become white?’ Uhm… no, let’s start over. And because of that, I need to be careful what I say all the time. If I crack a joke or say something in irony, that thing can be spread as ‘the truth’ all over the village. It forces me to be square and official and makes it hard to just be myself. That’s exactly why I went to dig with them and do regular daily tasks with them, to show that I’m one of them. I’m not God. I’m trying to change that mistaken perception they have.” She received the nickname “Nabujeke,” which means “little girl,” from running and playing with the children in the village.
Another challenge Miriam had is what to do with polygamy. What do you tell a polygamist who has come to faith? Is he required to divorce three of his four wives? How does he decide which ones? These are not easy questions.
Often, white people come to the village in a white car, give out candy, and then they leave and go to their hotel. In Lech L’cha, Miriam explains, they made a point of staying over and sleeping in the village, and they were the first white people to do so. “We went to the market to buy things, and people stared at us. We asked why, and they explained they had never before seen white people who walk by foot.”
She worked in Luzzi for three months, and then COVID-19 arrived. She happened to be in Mukono, a city close to the capital Kampala, visiting a friend, when the lockdown order came. She had no way to return to Luzzi. “I brought with me the bare essentials, just one dress and my Bible, because I thought I was going for three days. I ended up staying in Mukono for six months.”
When Uganda imposed the closure, it happened overnight. They outlawed all traffic on the roads for three months, and people who happened to be away from home on that day simply got stuck where they were. Most international missionaries flew home, since the schools and churches they were supposed to work in were shut down. “They felt they couldn’t do their work when there were no schools, but I had planned to be in Uganda for about a year in any case, and I realized that especially in a pandemic, when there are no schools, is when the parents need someone who can do something with the kids.”
When Miriam describes the closure measures of Uganda, it sounds surreal. If the police catch you driving between cities during a closure, the punishment is flogging. “The policemen have these batons they will use. They can’t give people a fine, they are too poor,” she explains. But perhaps one of the most devastating results of the COVID closures she has seen is the high percentage of teen pregnancies. “I don’t know if there’s official statistics, but I’d say well over 50% of all teenage girls got pregnant during COVID. I’m not sure if it’s boredom, or abuse, or if they are just hungry, but there’s a wave of teen pregnancies in Uganda now.”
Miriam stayed in Mukono and worked with CAIM, Children Alive Ministries, teaching Sunday School in parks and backyards, as the churches were closed. Because it was outside of the church, the neighbors noticed, and some children from Muslim families joined. “It was such a blessing. Muslim children walked around singing Christian songs afterwards, and we had the opportunity to preach the gospel to their parents, and tell them stories from the Bible.”
When Miriam noticed that many children lacked Bibles, she wrote home, and asked if children from Israeli homes wanted to donate to buy a Bible for a child in Uganda. She raised money for forty Bibles, and the Ugandan children wrote thank-you letters and drawings to the children in Israel.
After those six months in Mukono, Miriam decided not to go back to Luzzi for now. The schools in Uganda are closed for COVID as they have been almost continuously since March 2020, and the school she will work in is still not ready. For her next time going there, she wants to come with a team and not be the only one. Instead, she came home to Israel, in October 2020, to rest, meet up with family, and speak in congregations about her work. And then another COVID closure forced her to stay in Israel for five months.
“I looked for ways to go back to Uganda, but neither of the two places where I had been were good options for now. So I contacted YWAM, and for the past six months I’ve been teaching in a Disciple Training School that YWAM runs in Arua, in western Uganda. We have twenty students. Some have a Muslim background. Some are deaf, so I’m learning Ugandan sign language. We teach them what Christianity is, how to live according to the gospel, and then they were supposed to go for a two-month outreach. But during those months, Uganda was in lockdown, so we just went to the villages around here. Part of it is also just visiting believers and pray with them and encourage them. The churches are closed, so they have nowhere to go. Arua also has one and a half million refugees from South Sudan, so we have many opportunities to serve among them. In another two weeks, we will finish the program.”
When the program is over, she will stay and teach at YWAM Frontier Mission School and work with the refugees. Since Arua is close to the border with South Sudan and Congo, which are both frontier countries, some missionaries get their training there before heading out. The long-term plan is to go back to Luzzi and Mount Elgon eventually, but it depends on the building of the school, and on how the COVID closures develop. For now, schools are closed, and no one knows when they will open.
Miriam stresses that just coming there is a testimony in itself. “Walking by foot in the village, and not just driving through, staying over with them in their mud huts instead of going to a hotel. These actions are a testimony to the love of the Messiah. But it’s not just that. We tell them how far we have come. We took two airplanes, and then a motorcycle, and a truck, and walking, and we came all the way here to tell you we love you. We could have just sent a letter with a check, but we wanted to hold your hand and see you face to face, learn about your difficulties and live with you. And do you know why we can do that? Because a long time ago there was a king who left everything behind and came down from heaven to live with us humans. He lived with us, spoke to us, ate with us, and suffered like us. His name is Jesus, and because he is our example, we want to be like him.”