The Salems

Paul and Charis

Story by Jordan Cox | | Photography by Eleanor Stenner

Paul and Charis Salem were in the United States in 2019 to serve a stateside assignment. Paul had lined up an opportunity to teach a course at Gateway Seminary for a year, and as they were preparing to travel back home to southeast Asia, they decided to take a road trip back to the Deep South for a final tour of goodbyes with family and friends. 

When asked if they’ve been given any timetable to return to the mission field, Charis says, “Sans a miracle, maybe this summer. If you’d asked me a year ago, I would’ve been horrified by that answer. But now I’m praying we’d be able to get back that soon.”

Paul and Charis have similar stories. They both grew up as third culture kids on the mission field, both in southeast Asia. The Salems have both known about Jesus their entire lives and followed Him nearly as long. But in terms of life directions, they both anticipated living the comfortable, middle-class American life. “My goal was to work in graphic design for Nike or Coca-Cola and have the white picket fence, two-and-a-half kids, two-car garage – the whole bit,” Paul says.

When it came time for college, both Paul and Charis returned to the U.S. to attend school. Paul chose Samford University to major in graphic design; Charis opted for Auburn to study journalism. During this season, the Lord began to refocus the trajectories of their lives. “About two years into my Samford experience, God was reaching out to me,” Paul explains. “I was in cruise control spiritually, and I felt like I couldn’t keep going [with graphic design]. I started reading Scripture, praying, and journaling. It began as a calling to Christ, and I knew I’d do something vocationally in service of Christ. It felt like it would be something different than what I was heading towards.”  

Paul admits he had a somewhat arrogant approach to Christianity. He’d grown up in a ministry home, knowing what he perceived as all there was to know. This experience – this encounter with God – gave him a fresh faith. “I began to read the Bible to know God,” he says. “That began to develop into a calling to ministry, which began to develop into a cross-cultural call to ministry.”

Samford offered a trip to Indonesia, and Paul fully expected that trip would prove to God he wasn’t ready for the call. “God showed me something different,” Paul says through a chuckle. “He showed me I was ready for that.” That trip to Indonesia is what confirmed Paul’s calling to missions, and from there he’d head to seminary and eventually overseas.

Certain aspects of Charis’s story mirror Paul’s. While she loved her growing-up years overseas and she saw the value in what her family did, she didn’t see herself as a future missionary. “In fact, one of my sisters was called to missions, so one of the four of us was called,” Charis says. “So, I was going to be a journalist. I was going to live somewhere exciting.”

However, as her time at Auburn neared its end, Charis found herself unready for the next chapter. Rather than stepping into a job a and feeling stuck, she checked out the International Mission Board’s Journeyman program. She served in Uzbekistan, not long after the former Soviet Union had broken up. “I partly went because I’d never heard of it. I went to check out the country,” Charis says. “But it was really the Lord. I did feel affirmed He wanted me to do it, though my motivations weren’t the deepest or most amazing. But during the first six months, I could feel the Lord changing my trajectory and my heart because of how I was spending my life there.”

Charis had grown up in a minority Christian environment, but her experience in Eastern Europe was different. There was no Christian presence. Because of the location and time period, it was a different way of living culturally. Charis recalls knowing her phones were bugged and email read because of former Soviet intelligence still in the region. “I would say it was a slow process of the Lord working on me there. I didn’t have the one moment like Paul, but I did have a lot of extra time,” she says. “Life was not nearly as busy as it had been in college, and so I had a lot of time to pray and spend time in the Word, in addition to what I was doing on the church planting team there.

“He didn’t have to rip away the [career] I was going to go do; I was really ready for what God had.”

The Salems met at Gateway in California’s Bay Area. Greek class bonded the two, and they developed a good friendship during their first year there. They dated other people initially; then they co-led a trip to Indonesia to the place they’d eventually serve, and it was on that trip that Charis began to see what Paul had known: The Lord was bringing them together to pursue marriage. After Paul and Charis had dated for a year, trusted friends affirmed their relationship. “They showed us this index card they had signed their names to that said, ‘Paul and Charis should be together,’” Paul remembers. “They all signed it after they heard about our first date,” Charis adds. “They gave it to us when we got married,” Paul says.

They’d both gone to seminary knowing they would eventually serve on the mission field, and they found each other. That first trip to southeast Asia allowed them discover how they worked together in a stressful, cross-cultural environment. Though God had clearly been directing their steps, once they got on the field, they needed to discern more about themselves and their calling.

“The first place we served, we were in a city, but we had a friend who referred to it as a mega-village,” Charis says. “There were probably 200,000 or 300,000 people, but the overall way of life was still like a village. During our time there, we both realized, ‘The Lord is using this to teach us things and to shape us, but we’re probably going to burn out pretty soon if we stay in this place.’” They were in southeast Asia, but in their formative years, they had lived in big, global cities. Both Paul and Charis knew they were wired for that environment. “We wanted to stay on the field, but we needed to see if there was a better fit,” Charis says.

Internally, the Salems battled through perception. “I used to think that the real missionaries serve in the rural places,” Paul explains, “and that if you went to a city, you lost your missionary card. Part of what God taught us during that time is that He had wired us for cities.”

This processing for Paul and Charis aligned with the IMB’s refocus toward reaching urban areas. Around the time they were waiting for their first of two sons to be born, Paul received an email about an opportunity to work in an urban context in a different part of the region. He and Charis prayed about it and felt the Lord leading them move to one of the IMB’s five global cities. “It was a new term in a new location, and we really felt the Lord affirming a lot of things in us,” Paul says. Where they then found themselves was no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to ministry. They now lived and served in a thriving, multi-cultural nexus of the eastern part of the world. They met and engaged people of different languages, cultural backgrounds, and religious backgrounds. Their focus and philosophy of ministry became personalized rather than grouped.

“Our giftings are different,” Charis says. “Living [there] gave us plenty of space to exercise what we’re good at. I don’t do well staying boxed in the four walls of the church. I want to be out in the harvest more, and there are many opportunities for that among all kinds of people groups. [Paul’s] happy place is discipling, training, teaching, and networking. It immediately was a great fit for both of us.”

The Salems currently oversee eight church planting teams in southeast Asia, but that’s certainly not all they do. Their broad giftings and interests bring a lot of different work their way. From theological education to language and culture development to church planting, the Salems touch many aspects of the budding evangelical movement in southeast Asia. “Even in all that,” Charis says, “we make sure we’re rubbing shoulders with locals, whether they’re local believers or all the non-believers who live around us.”

Ministry has evolved for Paul and Charis, especially the longer they’ve called the area home. They still are connected with the church they helped plant and the discipleship methods there. But Charis spends a lot of time coaching their sons’ soccer team. “That’s an area of contact for me with lots of local families,” she says. “Our neighborhood also has lots of families, and children have been a major conduit to some of the other families and getting to know them.”

While Charis keeps up with a lot of relational activity, Paul teaches graduate courses in addition to overseeing the church planting teams. “We had one young man who took one of my church planting classes. I had gotten together this group of pastors who cared about reaching the city,” Paul says. “God used this young man to help develop a church planting network where we train and equip cohorts of church planters. The goal is to have church access near every train stop in the city.”

“Use whatever God has put in your life for gospel witness,” Paul adds. “Allow God to use your skills, your profession, and your interests.”

In their current setting, neither Paul or Charis can assume the people they engage are religious. They ask questions, but there aren’t many traditional types of evangelism in the city because of the diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds. For the native, it’s highly relational. “We’re asking them to make a 180,” Charis says, “we’re just asking so much. The few we know who have come to faith have said it was due to seeing real love. I know going in it’s going to take a lot of touches, and some walking through things with them.” With other people groups, you can help someone ease into Christianity. “It really is a lot of pivoting; there are a lot of people with whom I don’t even know where to begin,” Charis says.

During their COVID year in America, the Salems have learned that Birmingham also offers a lot of opportunities for diverse types of ministry. While it’s important to diligently pray about how God might be stirring you to join in His work, Charis says it’s okay to consider your local environment your mission field. “I would say don’t wait for something to fall in your lap,” she says. “He starts working incrementally and starts to broaden your perspective on what’s out there.”

“I realize I probably have a weird perspective, but what we do is ministry,” Paul adds. “There are challenges anywhere, and people are messy. Don’t feel like you need to have some class, but if God’s given you a love for people and a love for Jesus, you’ll do pretty well.”

“You don’t have to quit your job to even start,” Charis says.

“Use whatever God has put in your life for gospel witness,” Paul adds. “Allow God to use your skills, your profession, and your interests.”

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