Despair


Omar and Kenia

Working on religious freedom can be a real drag sometimes. Not in the sense that it ever becomes boring, I love that this is my actual job, but in the sense that cases can drag on and on for what seems like forever. Oppressive regimes and intractable conflicts stay intractable for decades, until suddenly one day they’re not.

Even following political reform, however, justice can remain elusive and some of the cases I work on are almost thirty (THIRTY!) years old. One of those thirty year old cases, has been dragging through the court system for a decade now; the strategy of the defendants and the Ministry of Defense, behind them, appears to be just to stall the process much as possible until the government gives up and the victims run out of resources (which unfortunately is exactly what’s happening).

So… seeing a case positively resolved is something we seriously celebrate at my organization.

Today we closed a case.

After five years of advocacy, prayer, press releases, report writing, regular skype calls and yahoo chats, the Gude Perez/Denis family arrived as refugees in the United States.

Note I said positively resolved, not ideally resolved. Ideally, they would have stayed in Cuba and continued to exercise their ministry. Ideally, they would have done so free from harassment and threats of imprisonment. That, however, wasn’t a possibility, so they made a painful decision to do the best thing for their family, especially for their children who had been excluded from school, and accepted an asylum offer from the US.

Even that, however, became an ordeal as Cuban state security tried to block the family from leaving, or to force them to separate. First they were told none of them would be allowed “white cards”, the equivalent of an exit visa, a requirement that was abolished on January 14th. Then after months of pressure and prayer, the government gave Kenia and their thirteen year old daughter permission to leave, but not their fifteen year old son or Omar. Months after that, following more pressure and prayer, their son was given an exit visa, but still nothing for Omar. In the meantime, someone in authority decided that the kids should no longer be allowed to attend school – never mind that they weren’t going anywhere until they could leave with their dad.

Press releases were published, verbal promises were made, then reneged on.  I started to have frequent random visions of Cuban Communist Party officials in Pharaonic headdresses shaking their heads to the tune of “Let My People Go”.

This situation went on for a full year and a half – as the family discussed, debated and prayed over what they should do: stay firm in their decision to only leave as a unit or if, in the best interests of the kids, they should separate knowing a separation would be indefinite and likely prolonged.

Finally, after a very courageous decision in November 2012 by Kenia to travel to the US on her own, with the intention of returning to Cuba to be with her family, in order to put the spotlight on her family’s situation, something shifted. Someone, somewhere apparently decided that the costs to Cuba’s public image outweighed the benefits of punishing this family and making an example of them to other church leaders on the island and the wheels were set in motion.

More verbal promises were made but this time they were accompanied by the signing of mysterious papers.

Then nothing. For two months.

Until mid January, when in despair Omar wrote an open letter denouncing the regime and explaining the impact of their intransigence on his children – his son had lost more than fifty pounds and his daughter much of her hair, due to the stress put on the family over the past year and half. We prepared a press release.

Maybe someone was monitoring our communication (actually, not maybe, definitely) but for whatever reason, literally just as everything was about to be published, I got an e-mail from Kenia saying they’d just had a visit and been given the final white card.

In the final days of January they boarded a plane and left the country, to their new homes, where they were met by an amazing church family who arranged a welcome party at baggage claim.

Exodus 15:12-18

“You stretch out your right hand,
and the earth swallows your enemies.
In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.

The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the peopleof Canaan will melt away;
terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, Lord,
until the people you boughtpass by.
 You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.

“The Lord reigns
for ever and ever.”

A number of friends of mine, all fellow alumnae of my university, have been posting this video today. Anderson Cooper asks Jennifer (another alumna) and Matt Hubbard, who attend St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut, how they are dealing with the death of their six year-old daughter, Catherine Violet.

I wanted to share it as well. Though it doesn’t relate directly to persecution, it does deal with how we process unexpected and senseless death. Personally, I can relate to the decision to honor a loved one by choosing to remember them with joy. I have also heard similar sentiments expressed again and again over the years from people who have seen loved ones murdered for their faith.

Pray for this family and others like them, thanking God for their faith and testimony. Their hope and joy is evident, and in some ways they make it sound easy, but as they say at the beginning, their life has changed irrevocably and can only, at times, be handled hour by hour or minute by minute.

Click this link to watch the Hubbards tell Anderson Cooper why they have hope.

***

Updated to share that I’ve just come across an open letter written by Catherine’s mother which is worth reading as well.

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I wrote something! I really, really wrote something!

Please excuse my giddiness… after a couple of rather long years (longer than they should have been) I am finally able to announce the publication in electronic version of the biography of my good friend, Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua.

Julio was my first ever “case” at CSW; a case which turned quickly into a life long friend, and gave me a new Peruvian family. He and his wife call me sister and named me goddaughter to their beautiful daughter Candy, an honor which still overwhelms me.

I met Julio in a remote Peruvian prison more than ten years ago. He was innocent of the charges against him and we were sure he’d be getting out, but a year later I returned to only to find him still inside. We toured the maximum security prison with him as he introduced us to brother after brother… all members of the church he’d planted during his time as a prisoner. We laughed together, prayed together, sang together and I still clearly remember the emotional disconnect it was to walk out of that place, heavy metal doors slamming shut behind us, leaving him behind. I carry an image in my memory of his face, behind dark metal bars in a tiny window, smiling at us, as he called to us to remind us to pray for him, his family and his ministry.

He is without a doubt one of the most impressive and at the same time, most humble, people I’ve ever met.

If you want to be inspired, need a story to help you put your own life in perspective, are looking for a good (cheap) gift for a friend or yourself, please consider buying this book. We’ve kept the price low in the hopes that more people will read it; for the same reason, it’s also available for free rental if you are a member of Amazon Prime. All proceeds will go to support Julio’s ministry. If you’re wondering, yes, they’re still poor and living at or below the poverty line, yet he and his wife are dedicated to this taxing but rewarding work, so everything helps.

*Please note that this is a true story, and as such deals with some difficult themes. There are scenes involving torture and other severe human rights atrocities. They aren’t gratuitous but they are honest – so it’s probably a good idea to exercise some caution when sharing with younger readers. I’m not necessarily of the mind that teenagers shouldn’t read it (quite the opposite, as I think it might challenge them to think about some of the injustices in the world and what they can do about it), but I do think it might be a good idea for the adult in their life to read it first in order to be able to discuss some of these issues and events with them.

The link and the book description are below – please read, review, recommend. Thank you and a very very Merry Christmas to you!

A Light in the Darkest Corner

The extraordinary and inspiring story of a young man raised in poverty and violence in the highlands of Peru, A Light in the Darkest Corner, is the testimony of Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua. After his father died from complications related to alcoholism and his mother spiraled into addiction, Julio and his chronically ill sister were left to fend for themselves in the town of Ayacucho, the epicenter of Shining Path terrorist violence. As a teenager he was falsely accused of terrorism, tortured and imprisoned but after a miraculous escape, Julio fled to the city of Lima where he followed his parents’ example, immersing himself in alcohol and parties to bury his pain and anger. A young woman helped lead him to Christ and later became his wife. The pair started a family and a vibrant new ministry only to be hit by a series of tragedies. In 1999, Julio found himself in prison again facing the same false charges as before but this time with a wife, two small children and mounting debts. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, Julio realized God had brought him to a new mission field. Putting aside agonizing questions about his future and the welfare of his family, he began to share Christ’s love with the most despised and rejected of all society, working to transform a nation from the bottom up by bringing God’s light to some of the darkest places on earth.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
― Anne Lamott

Two weeks ago we celebrated Veteran’s Day. I woke up thinking of my Uncle S. I went to church thinking of him, cried, went home and thought of him some more. Uncle S was a veteran of Vietnam, an experience that contributed to his untimely and ugly death in 2006.

He was also one of those people who had never not been there – a constant through my childhood and into my grown up life. He had no children. He had two nieces and a nephew and for my brother, sister and me, he was our beloved uncle. He was gentle, kind, patient and encouraging. He always listened, no matter how inane our chatter or obnoxious our questions. He treated everything we had to say as if it was important and deserved thought (even if it didn’t).

His home in the mountains was always open to us: for family breaks, holidays, and when we needed to get away on our own. He dared us to dip into the icy water of the creek that ran through his property (and paid handsomely when we took him up on the dare), led us on off-trail hikes in search of old gold mines, and taught us how to map the stars and spot satellites moving across the night sky. I can still see his slow smile and hear his easy drawl.

So when he died, while it wasn’t wholly unexpected, it was devastating. It was and is painful. But I learned something through his death, as I watched as one of the solid looking pillars that I thought held my life together crumbled and disappeared. Although I could no longer see it, he was still there. None of the love he poured into me and into my life over thirty years went anywhere. It was still there, and so was he.

And the pain never goes away. I’m not even sure it diminishes. But even so, something else increases. I know I have a choice to make: to be thankful for what I’ve been given, or to embrace bitterness over what will not be. In choosing thankfulness, I also choose the pain – “the broken heart that doesn’t seal back up”. I also choose the joy of memory and of faith – of being sure of what I hope for and certain of what I cannot see.

I am thankful for my past. I am thankful for the love I’ve known – bound as it is to pain. I am thankful for friends who love me and for a church that supports me. I am thankful for the shipwrecks that have deposited me on unexpected shores and sent me down new paths. I am thankful for my work and those I know through my work, which constantly remind me to keep my own struggles and sorrows in perspective.

I’m so thankful for Uncle S. I am so thankful for all the others who I have loved who have gone on before me but who I will see again. I am thankful for a Maker who gave His life to give me a hope and a future.

 I am back at home, my comfortable, quiet, safe home, after eleven days in Colombia. These abrupt transitions can be challenging to process mentally and emotionally and I’m still not really there yet. Part of me wonders if it might have been healthier in the olden days, when one had a weeks or months long, physical journey during which to think it all through before arriving back to one’s everyday life.

It was an intense eleven days, as a few colleagues and I traveled to four very different parts of the country, meeting local partners, viewing projects and listening to lots and lots of personal testimonies. I’ve visited Colombia so many times in the last eight years that I’ve lost track of the exact number, but, as always, the country continues to surprise me and teach me new things. Who knew, for example, that the drug wars of 1980s Medellin could be traced directly back to Woodstock[1]?![2]

It was a trip of contrasts, as Colombia always is, of alternating tears and laughter throughout each day. We facilitated a workshop run by one of our Peruvian partners, working with local Colombian partners on care for staff who are all too often overloaded with the trauma of the issues and people with whom they work. As a couple of the local staff volunteered to share what they were feeling and experiencing, their stories of helping others blurred over into their own histories and personal experiences of atrocities, massacres, forced displacement, threats and loss. Later that night, we walked with a few of them, and our Peruvian partner, to watch a soccer match between rivals from two of the major cities and spent a laughter filled night, highlighted by a random snack vendor who apparently found our group fascinating and inexplicably hilarious.

Towards the end of the trip, we sat at the front of a rural church, facing around seventy or so people. It wasn’t the safest area and our time there was limited so they, before we had arrived, had selected five people to give their personal testimonies as representative of the others. The majority, if not all of them, were forcibly displaced people who, at different points over the past decade had been forced to flee their homes – which for them represented all they owned in the world, their sustenance, and their future – because of attacks by illegal armed groups. They had come to this place of very relative safety (the armed groups were still present, just not as blatant in their activities – one woman told me how in that same town five of her brothers and sisters had been murdered over a seven year period) and built up a church that looks outward into its community – a church which, despite the ever present risk and with limited resources, still manages to offer spiritual support and material care for the masses who arrive on its doorstep seeking the very basics: shelter, food, clothing as well as spiritual and emotional support and affirmation.

I still find myself thinking about the words and voice of one of those who was chosen to share her testimony. An elderly woman, she told a story of intense hardship – of threats, violence, forced displacement and loss but she concluded by giving thanks, “I have lost much but I have much to be thankful for. I give thanks to God for this church, for these clothes that I am wearing, for food I have to eat, and for these hands with which to work.”

Every time I go to Colombia I am deeply challenged by men and women like her and like the partners and friends at the workshops who told their stories. People who’ve lost pretty much everything but still praise their Maker. People who’ve experienced horrific trauma, who would have every right to shut themselves away from the problems of the country and focus on themselves but, filled with God’s love, keep reaching out in love to others who’ve been traumatized.

While, in theory, I know the answer, I still wonder just how they do it, especially after so many years, decades, and so much horror.

I do know that I, we, are called to do it with them in small and less small ways – at the very least and maybe the very most, in prayer.

“Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s load to bear; that all may live in true accord, our joys and pains to share. Amen.”

Adapted from a prayer by Charles Wesley


[1] The 1969 music festival, not Snoopy’s avian sidekick – though that would make for an interesting Peanuts strip.

[2] For the record, this direct connection may or may not exist – but it certainly wasn’t a theory I was familiar with…

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few years now, since I first chose the name for this blog. I didn’t just choose an ancient martyr at random, though based on what comes up in a google search for Biblis, it might seem that way.

I had finished reading Eusebius’ History of the Church, which as one might expect, was filled with all kinds of amazing historical characters and inspiring stories. For some reason, however, Biblis, who only gets one paragraph in all of written history, stuck with me.

She stuck with me because she wasn’t named by Eusebius for her strong fortitude in the face of persecution or her stoic insistence on staying true to her faith. She wasn’t one of those early Christians, whose reported superhuman endurance in the face of horrific ordeals I tend to associate with the stories of the early martyrs.

Biblis broke. Biblis recanted her faith. Biblis denied Christ.

Eusebius describes her as having been “handed over to punishment by the devil, who imagined he had already devoured her…so he thought – a feeble creature, easily broken.”

And our faith is the faith of broken and weak people. Our faith is the faith of people who buckle under adversity far less serious than that faced by Biblis. Our faith is the faith of people, myself included, who disappoint each other and God all the time.

But our God is a God who is full of grace and mercy and seeks out His lost sheep. Our Church, when we’re behaving the way we should, holds up those who are struggling and receives the fallen penitent with love, forgiveness and encouragement.

I’ve met many men, women, and even children who have been persecuted for their faith. In my experience, the person who never faltered, never doubted, and stood strong and unflinching in faith is the very rare exception. The vast majority tell me of periods of intense doubt, of anger at God, of confusion and of despair. They also tell me that the support of their brethren, locally, nationally and internationally, was key in reminding them that they were not alone and encouraging them to persevere, beyond what they thought themselves to be capable of, in faith.

Biblis made a comeback. Eusebius tells us that, while on the torture rack being pushed to accuse the other Christians of horrific crimes, “she came to her senses, and, so to speak, awoke out of a deep sleep…she flatly contradicted the slanderers… From then on she insisted she was a Christian, and so she joined the ranks of the martyrs.”

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that even after they learned Biblis had denied Christ, her fellow Christians continued to pray for her and to lift her up to God’s mercy. Somewhere, somehow she found the strength in her utter brokenness to take her stand.

I chose Biblis to head this blog as a reminder to myself never to fall into the trap of promoting members of the persecuted church (or any church for that matter) into some superhuman tier of perfect faith, never to impose upon them standards that were only ever met once in all of history. It reminds me, too, that those men and women out there today, suffering discrimination and persecution, rely on our support in ways that we can’t comprehend and as part of the same Body, we are commanded actively to pray for them, to encourage them, and to suffer with them.

I Corinthians 12:24b-26 But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

In addition to prayer, which is the first and most important thing we should be doing, in some cases there are other simple ways to encourage and build up a persecuted Christian: Connect & Encourage

From The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith:

The greatest burden we have to carry in life is self; the most difficult thing we have to manage is self. Our own daily living, our frames and feelings, our especial weaknesses and temptations, our peculiar temperaments, our inward affairs of every kind, — these are the things that perplex and worry us more than anything else, and that brings us most frequently into bondage and darkness. In laying off your burdens, therefore, the first one you must get rid of is yourself. You must hand yourself, with your temptations, your temperament, your frames and feelings, and all your inward and outward experiences, over into the care and keeping of your God, and leave it all there. He made you, and therefore He understands you, and knows how to manage you; and you must trust Him to do it…here you must rest, trusting yourself thus to Him, continually and absolutely.

Next you must lay off every other burden, — your health, your reputation, your Christian work, your houses, your children, your business, your servants; everything, in short, that concerns you, whether inward or outward.

It is generally much less difficult for us to commit the keeping of our future to the Lord, than it is to commit the present. We know we are helpless as regards the future, but we feel as if the present was in our own hands, and must be carried on our own shoulders; and most of us have an unconfessed idea that it is a great deal to ask the Lord to carry ourselves, and that we cannot think of asking Him to carry our burdens too.

…Let your souls lie down upon the couch of His sweet will, as your bodies lie down in their beds at night. Relax every strain, and lay off every burden. Let yourself go in perfect abandonment of ease and comfort, sure that, since He holds you up, you are perfectly safe. Your part is simply to rest. His part is to sustain you; and He cannot fail.

[Please excuse all the dashes and the commas – I’m reading an 1888 edition and apparently back then they were rather liberal with their punctuation marks.]

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