Following God's call in struggling Mozambique


By Chris Shearer and Emma Halgren

February 7 2019Life can be hard for a woman in northern Mozambique, one of the poorest regions of one of the least developed countries in the world. Political turmoil, nature’s wrath and antiquated ideas have wreaked havoc on the people here, and many women struggle – or suffer – to provide for their families.

“Extreme poverty is all they’ve known,” says Michelle Turnbull, a missionary with Iris Global and  an assistant pastor at Oaktree Anglican in Melbourne’s south-east. “These women have come from families that have known civil war, AIDS, famine, floods, cyclones, pretty much everything.”

This is where Iris Global comes in. Founded in 1980 by Heidi and Rolland Baker, the organisation sends missionaries around the world to provide humanitarian assistance and share the Gospel with struggling communities. The Bakers first came to Mozambique in 1995, just a few years after the end of the devastating civil war.

“They really wanted to put the Gospel to the test,” Michelle says. “They wanted to see what it would be like, really, for the Gospel to be presented to the poorest of the poor and how it would stand up, you know – what Jesus would do. Would he turn up? And He’s turned up in such big ways, it’s incredible.”

Michelle Turnbull and Maria

Indeed, Iris Global’s base in Pemba, on northern Mozambique’s coast, sounds more like a bustling village than a missionary outpost. There’s a church, of course, but also a school, medical centre, orphanage and soon a maternity centre. There’s a ministry to young men, a lunch program for 500 local children, a well-drilling project, prison- and hospital-visiting ministries, even a computer skills training centre.

Amongst it all is Michelle’s project Iris Arts, a vocational skills program through which women are taught how to make jewellery or sew. The program involves some 100 women who have been rescued from hardship. Many are mothers, with limited options available to provide for their families.

“They’re taught some very destructive practices, really, from a young age about how to fend for themselves, how to feed their families,” says Michelle. “So the women that I work with come from that cultural understanding and it means that they will have been … in abused marriages and many will have been street workers or will have been selling themselves, even in their homes, just to feed their families a tiny bit of food.”

But despite these hardships, Michelle says these women are full of life. “They’re very, very precious to work with. They’re warm, they’re dear, they’re very beautiful. Most of them are full of joy. Most of them are slowly coming out of the background that I just described to you; it’s certainly not an overnight thing that can happen.”

Understanding that this is a gradual process is important to Michelle’s personal philosophy and sense of faith, which she wishes to share with the women.

“I’m taking a long-term view and really my eyes are on their children in terms of breaking of poverty, through the kids getting educated, but for the women it’s all about sharing the Gospel, sharing God’s love with them and helping them understand how much God cares for them and how much he wants to provide for them.”

In fact, Michelle says she felt God call her to Iris Arts. When she arrived in Mozambique over three years ago, the project was on the verge of closing down.

“There hadn’t been a missionary there in six months and it looked like an amazing project, but financially things were just right near the end,” Michelle says. But that’s when God brought what Michelle calls a “river of life” through the area.

“He suddenly started bringing in sales that just weren’t happening [before], so the money started coming in. He increased creativity. He increased the whole program on every level and it was phenomenal to just see His hand touching this ... and bringing it to life in a way that only He could do.

“I’ve got a bit of background to contribute, but what was happening was way beyond anything I could have done … So within three months He had everything back on track to the point that I was able to double [the women’s] salaries. It was just beautiful.”

As the project began “soaring and sailing”, opportunities to help these women grew beyond the vocational focus of Iris Arts. Michelle says she listened for what God wanted her to do, and since then some of the women have learned farming techniques, received healthcare, put their children into school and even received secure housing.

“I was brand new to the mission field, about three years back, and I thought, OK, I’m just going to listen to you and ask what you want me to do day-by-day,” Michelle says. “Because they’re His women and He knows what he wants to do with them.”

In June last year, terrorism struck Mozambique. Michelle estimates that about 1500 people – mission students and short-term missionaries mostly, who had been a market for Iris Arts jewellery – left or stopped coming to the Pemba base, and there was a corresponding drop in sales.

“So I’ve had to partially close it down,” Michelle says.

But despite these worries, the women are still sewing and making jewellery in Pemba, and Michelle is selling their wares through an online store via Melbourne. There are some positive opportunities on the horizon too: two new missionaries will soon be heading to Pemba to help run Iris Arts, there have been talks to have the jewellery distributed in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, and at the time of writing Michelle is in the United States speaking with Iris Global’s headquarters about a potential export market.

For Michelle, the next step “is like the last step – it’s always to seek God”.

“If seeking Him means a season of little happening before the long-term promises of a fruitful future and a slow walk out of poverty are seen, then that’s the way it should be,” she says. “I don’t do anything without first hearing from Him as to what He wants done … It’s not my ministry – it’s His.”

See www.etsy.com/au/shop/IrisArtsPemba