October 2010


Sometimes this work is about the big stuff – political systems, principles, and most importantly, people’s lives. But sometimes the petty stuff rears up its head and threatens to take over. As this week wound down, it was flooded by the petty stuff.

The trouble with the petty stuff is not only that it’s a distraction from the big stuff, but that sometimes it can have serious and devastating implications for our work and the very people we are trying to support. This week’s petty theme was visas.

A few months ago, my organisation invited someone from one of our focus countries to travel to the UK as a keynote speaker at a series of speaking engagements all over the country. This person has suffered enormously over the past few years but through it all, her faith has not only stayed strong, it has grown. She has the potential not only to motivate the hundreds or even thousands of people who might have the chance to hear her to speak out on behalf of the Persecuted Church, but also to inspire and challenge people in their own walk with God. At the same time, she has not found the last few years of tribulation easy, to put it mildly, and this visit would be enormously encouraging to her as a reminder that she and her family are not alone in their ordeal.

We did everything right: provided all the paperwork, gave her the materials and the money she’d need for the application, assisted her through the process of filling out the forms, all well in advance. This week, less than two weeks before she is due to travel to the UK we were informed that her visa application was denied.

It wasn’t denied because she forgot something or missed something, but because they felt the pay slips which they asked her to provide to prove she was employed were “insufficient”. Considering that my organisation explicitly stated, in writing, that we planned to cover all her costs while she was in the UK and that we have a great twenty year track record of inviting people just like her to the UK,  it just seems ridiculous to me that they would throw out the whole application because of a pretty irrelevant detail. Petty.

The worst part is that the whole process has been outsourced to a private company – so whereas in the past we’d have been able to call up the consulate or the home office back here to find out what was going and to clarify the situation – now no one seems to have any idea at either end who we should talk to to try to sort this situation out. The rejection letter she received has no name, no contact details, just a reference number for the person who apparently reviewed and rejected her application.

She’s heartbroken, feels that she’s failed us somehow, and is deeply disappointed at seeing what she told me was the fulfillment of one of her dreams slip through her fingers. My colleagues who have been working hard over the past few months to set up a series of speaking engagements for her and to arrange all of her accommodations, translation and other logistics are discouraged and anxious. I don’t even want to think about the amount of money and resources that have been invested in this visit at a time of economic difficulty. I am frustrated.

One of my directors reminded me though of a phrase often quoted by one of our founders, “We don’t believe in miracles, we rely on them.”

So here’s to miracles – it’s good to remember that even when the petty details loom large in our life, threatening to derail everything, God is still in control and will, if we trust Him, work things out exactly as they should be.

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I’ve received a message from the wife of a prisoner in one of my countries asking for prayer. Her husband, a pastor, has been in prison for 3 1/2 years. He is serving a seven year sentence on trumped up charges and was targeted, we believe, because of his leadership of a rapidly growing network of non-denominational churches. They have two pre-teen children who have spent the past two years growing up without their father present.

Over the past few months, in an attempt to improve relations with the outside world, the government of that country has been releasing political prisoners. The catch is that the political prisoners who have been freed and their families have had to leave the country permanently. Some prisoners have refused freedom if it means going into forced exile.

Over the past few days, the pastor and his wife have both received phone calls from government officials, offering them this “deal”. The messages came as a surprise given that the pastor was not a member of the group of prisoners originally discussed. They are now forced to make an extremely difficult decision. Accept the freedom offered to the pastor but leave behind their ministry, their extended family, community and country; or stay and remain in prison in awful conditions, separated from each other for the next four years.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Luz over the past few days. I met her on my first trip to Colombia – when I was investigating reports of persecution of Christians and trying to establish what was really going on there. Her testimony was key in convincing me that Christians were suffering direct violations of religious freedom. We visited her where she was staying, in a large town in the heart of FARC territory. She was an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) – a refugee inside her own country.

She’d spent most of her life living under the authority of the FARC, a leftwing guerrilla group that has been waging war in Colombia for almost the last half century. She told me that the FARC had closed the churches down and forbidden Christians from meeting together for worship or prayer. She also told me, however, that Christians had still found ways to meet together in very small groups despite the frightening potential consequences for disobeying FARC orders.Until then, I’d known nothing about the severe repression under which Christians in FARC controlled areas live.

Eventually, Luz had chosen to flee her town, leaving everything behind. she sought refuge in the town where I met her – an island, mostly under the control of the government with the help of US military contractors and soldiers, in a sea of guerrilla controlled land. Her options there were very limited – the only safe way in or out was by air, and someone like Luz couldn’t afford a ticket on a plane. Because of the insecurity of ground transport, goods had to be flown in as well, making the cost of living in this town disproportionately high – prohibitively high for the impoverished IDP population. Many women and children were caught up in prostitution, an unfortunate byproduct of the presence of the military and contractors. I have no idea where Luz is today. I haven’t been able to return to that town since then because of security concerns. She’d be in her late 20s by now – maybe married, maybe a mother.

I remember taking this photo and being struck by her beautiful smile, full of joy despite the harsh life she’d lived and was living.

Luz isn’t her real name. Although ten years have passed, I still don’t think it’s safe to publish her real name or the name of the town where I met her online. Luz means “light” in Spanish and I have given her that pseudonym because she was one of the first people to help me to see the reality of persecution in Colombia. She took a huge risk telling me what life was like for Christians in FARC territories – the consequences for sharing information like that can be severe.

I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking so much about her lately. I have been able to keep in touch with many of the people I’ve met through my travels, but not Luz. I am so grateful to her for sharing her story with me – she’ll probably never know but it served as part of the foundation for my organisation’s work in her country.