A few days ago, just miles from war-torn Mosul as the battle to retake the city rages on, Christians gathered together in prayer. With ISIS less than 100km away, they sang, wept, and worshipped God. People of all different denominations and creeds, united in their desire for peace.
The group were led by a team from Burn 24-7, a US-based organisation that grew out of a college movement, and is headed up by Seun Feucht and his wife Kate. They have links to Bethel Church in Redding, California, and send out teams all over the world to share the love of Jesus through worship.
Each team holds regular 'burns' – prayer and worship events – that can last anything from 12 to 100 hours. "We try and have them consistently hosted in a city once a month, and the heart is to gather Christians of different backgrounds and different denominations, to come together and take the time to worship and exalt God in their city," says Kelsie, who works with Burn 25-7 in Kurdistan.
"It's missional, too – it's not just to worship and pray but from that place we have teams going out to evangelise and share the love of Jesus, [and] heal the sick," she told Christian Today. "The heart is seeing people ignited with a first love for Jesus, to gather together in unity to see his presence established in a place."
Of course that's easier done in some places than others. Burn 24-7 has teams and prayer centres all across the US, but also around the world. Short-term teams are placed in Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Paraguay, China and Russia; some of the most difficult countries in the world for Christians to live out their faith, either because of government opression or vigilante groups. Kelsie and her team have been working in Kurdistan – an autonomous region of Iraq – since the beginning of this year, serving displaced people forced to flee their homes as ISIS advanced.
"Our hearts began to burn for what was going on here," Kelsie says of 2014, when Islamic State militants overran the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq, slaughtering thousands and taking women and children captive. She and a couple of others felt "the need for hope" in Iraq, and began making arrangements to move there. "In 2015, a small team came here with the basic, simple goal of worship, prayer, and loving whoever God put in front of us," she says. "From there, we saw the need for those people to be shown the love of Jesus, and it felt like an open-window time, so we responded, and it was that simple – a simple 'yes'."
Kelsie moved over in January this year as part of the 'Light a candle' project, and she and her colleagues partner with a local House of Prayer, where they hold 'burns' once a month. These usually involve 12 hours of constant worship and prayer with local believers – singing and crying out to God in English, Kurdish, Arabic and Farsi.
Their latest 100-hour gathering, though, was different. It's the second of its magnitude the team has held in Kurdistan. Last year, they gathered workers from Jordan, local Arabs and Kurds, Iranians, Americans, Brits and Canadians. During monthly 'burns', they've ended up actually praying for ISIS militants – the very people that forced many of those in the room to flee their homes and communities.
"It's one thing to pray from afar for ISIS, and another to pray here, where we're 80km from the city [Mosul] with people and believers who have lost everything. Who have fled from a people group which is blatantly wanting to destroy them, and they are still praying for their salvation and for the mercy of God: that he would show up to these militants," Kelsie says. "That is quite powerful. Every time we pray for ISIS it's a powerful time. To see people who have lost everything as a result of ISIS, praying for them, is a beautiful thing."
She tells the story of a little Yazidi girl, just two or three years old, who fled from ISIS in Sinjar. Kelsie and her team were visiting a displaced persons camp, and had brought their guitars along to sing. The little girl came and sat next to her, holding her own tiny, broken toy guitar. "She started strumming as I was playing, and started playing with me," Kelsie recalls. "She began singing the name of her city in Sinjar, and it was just one of those powerful moments. I don't know how to describe it, but people started listening as this little girl was singing the name of her city.
"God spoke to me in that moment about the power of singing over a region. It was a beautiful moment."
Kelsie and her team work regularly with 11 Yazidi families who are living in an abandoned building. They, too, fled Sinjar in August two years ago. UN researchers have confirmed that as ISIS took over the region, up to 5,000 Yazidi men were killed in a series of massacres that forced more than 400,000 people to flee. Thousands of women were taken captive and disturbing accounts of have emerged from those who have since managed to escape. Women and children have been brutally raped and abused; bartered and sold among jihadists for pennies.
In the weeks following the insurgency, 40,000 people – mostly Yazidis, a religious minority considered "devil-worshippers" by ISIS – were stranded on the Sinjar mountainside without food, water or shelter. Food and water drops were made by international agencies, but at least 300 people, most of them children, perished in the blistering temperatures.
Among the stranded were some of the families now cared for by Kelsie and her team.
They spent days trapped on the mountain with just the clothes on their back, she says, some of them with newborn babies. Other families the team support fled Mosul, ISIS' last stronghold in Iraq. Some of them actually lived in Mosul while ISIS were there, and escaped later. A number still have family living in the city, which is now the subject of a major offensive led by Iraqi troops backed by the US and other forces.
"If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where it's groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encounter there - Jesus Christ.... The transformation of all things occurs where the riddle of human life reaches its culminating point. The hope of His glory emerges for us when nothing but the existentiality of God remains, and He becomes to us the veritable and living God. He, whom we can apprehend only as against us, stands there - for us." - Karl Barth
In addition to practical and financial support, they use music and art to reach out to these families. "God uses them to open doors for healing and to share about Jesus and who he is," Kelsie says. She understands that some people will see these activities as frivolous – even a waste of time, when there's so much practical need. "That's something that came up when we came for our first trip," she recalls.
"You see the need, you're moved by how many people are in need, but the story that comes to mind is the woman who poured the perfume at the feet of Jesus (Matthew 26:6-13). People came to her and said 'you could have used that for the poor – you could have used the money for this or that' – and she was like, no. This is a worthy act of worship of the one I love.
"For us, worshipping Jesus is one of the most effective ways to see change. When we are worshipping Jesus, we get his heart for the poor, for refugees... the best place is to be spending time with him. It's the best strategy for these things. It's not one or the other. It can be seen to be wasting time, but when you start to see change happen, when the prayers you've been praying are answered, you see it's so effective."
And they are seeing change. Despite the seemingly endless cycle of violence, there is hope for the Middle East, Kelsie says.
"God is using this time to turn hearts towards him. God is moving here, and one of the biggest things at the heart of 'Light a candle' is to displace fear. The most generous, hospitable and incredible people I've ever met live here. The world looks on Kurdistan, Northern Iraq and Syria with eyes of fear, but God is just so in love with this place, and the people here, and he really is using it to turn hearts to him."
She adds: "We don't know when Syrian refugees will get to go home, or when our families from Mosul will get to go home. But we see that God is meeting people.
"In the midst of all this, God is raising up resilient and courageous leaders."