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.”

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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.