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.

“The truth ain’t like puppies: a bunch running around and you pick your favorite. One truth! And it has come a knockin’!” Emerson Cod; Pushing Daisies

Truth is what we do at my organization. It isn’t always easy to find out what the truth actually is – but we are called to investigate, weigh up, analyze and then make sure that truth is exposed, using discernment to choose the most constructive form of exposure (choosing the most constructive way to expose the truth is a good way to deal with the truth generally – i.e. avoid telling the truth in a way that is unnecessarily hurtful). But it goes beyond that; truth should also be integral to our every interaction. We must be truthful to our colleagues, those in authority over us and those under our authority, to our enemies, to our friends, to our families – to acquaintances and strangers alike. That means admitting it when we aren’t sure what the truth is.

Our concern with truth is an inevitable expression of our concern with God. If God exists then he is the measure of all things, and what he thinks about all things is the measure of what we should think. Not to care about truth is not to care about God. To love God passionately is to love truth passionately. Being God-centered in life means being truth-driven in ministry. What is not true is not of God. What is false is anti-God. Indifference to the truth is indifference to the mind of God. Pretense is rebellion against reality and what really makes reality is God. Our concern with truth is simply an echo of our concern with God.
By John Piper. ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org

ImageWould you give your life for Christ? If your answer is “no” you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If your answer is “yes”, here’s another question for you: would you attend church if doing so put your life at risk? No? Ok, skip ahead. Yes? Here’s another: would you encourage your spouse or your children to attend church with you, if doing so put their lives at risk?

To be very honest, I am not sure what the correct answers are to the second two questions, and I’m certainly not sure what my actual, as opposed to my theoretical, response would be if I was personally faced with these choices.

What I do know is that tonight many of my brothers and sisters in Egypt will make these decisions, just as our brothers and sisters in Nigeria did thirteen days ago. Twelve Christians there were killed in attacks by extremists on two different churches.

The Nigerians didn’t unwittingly choose to put their lives at risk. Attacks on churches have become part of the regular news cycle, and they would have been very much aware that acts of violence on a significant holy day are of particular interest to extremists as they look for high profile publicity to spread their brand of terror.

Tonight, on the first Christmas Eve celebrated under a new Islamist constitution, Egyptians will also make this choice. They know the risks and are painfully aware of the threats that have already been made against them. And yet, a very great number of them will venture out of their homes and neighborhoods to join together to worship and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. They will do so with the full knowledge that the act of physically coming together in fellowship transforms them in the eyes of extremists into a high value, high profile target.

This great country, which once served as a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing persecution, is becoming a place where it is unsafe to celebrate the birth of their Son.

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. Each person who tonight stands in a church in faith stands against that darkness. Each one of their non-Christian Egyptian brothers and sisters who stands with them in solidarity tonight stands against that darkness. Each one of us who tonight stands with them in prayer, stands against that darkness.

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Image

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’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