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“These Stories Are Our Stories”

As we crossed the border, we felt nervous. The coronavirus was still raging in this Southeast Asian country, and a recent military coup was wreaking havoc. Reports in the news left us grieving and deeply concerned for the safety of our church planters. However, after two long years, the government finally announced that tourist visas were available, and visitors were welcome. Despite the risks, we felt the Spirit say, “Go!”

When my husband and I arrived, we saw a team of pastors waiting for us. We all broke down and cried together. They gave us flowers and one by one shook our hands. We felt like royalty, and they looked weary. Some had just been released from jail and others were still recovering from COVID. Despite their friendly smiles, they looked older.

We had planned to be together for four days at a hotel in the capital. The city was barely recognizable to us. The lively hustle and bustle of the masses had disappeared. The streets were dead quiet. Even at our hotel, it was dark as we struggled to find our room. Once inside, we closed the door and the pastors started praying out loud.

Suddenly, there was a knock. We all held our breath as I slowly opened the door. A security guard peered in and asked, “Are you Christians?”

“Yes,” we answered nervously.

“So am I!” he said with a big smile.

“Do you want to join us?” we asked with a deep sigh of relief. 

The hotel conference room that we used in the days that followed was small and suffocating with the intense heat. But we dared not complain, because the pastors were just so filled with gratitude to be together. It had not been easy for them to make their way to the capital.

One pastor said, “I am so thankful to be here. Thank you for not forgetting us. I had to pass through twenty security checkpoints on my way here, and I only got slapped across the face once! Every time, I prayed that the soldiers would not stop me from coming here.”

Another pastor who had spent a whole year in jail said, “Really, I’m not sad about my time in jail. It was the most fruitful time of ministry in my whole life. All of my fellow prisoners put their faith in Jesus, and I became their pastor. We studied the Bible together every day, and when I left, they cried. Sometimes I want to go back!”
Everyone laughed, but we all pleaded with him, “No, pastor!” 

“After I became a believer, Jesus spoke to me in a dream,” said another leader. “He told me to go to a mountain across the valley from my home, so I could tell the people there about having their sins forgiven. When I woke up, I immediately made plans to move to that mountain. After I built my house of bamboo there, I began to tell the people about Jesus. They threw rocks at me and beat me numerous times. But I heard the Lord say, ‘Don’t fight back.’ It took years before the first family believed, but today there over one hundred baptized believers in our church there, and we have a reputation for loving one another and caring for each other.” 

In that crowded conference room, we rejoiced together at hearing these beautiful testimonies of growth and unity in the face of opposition. One after the other, pastors shared similar stories and we came to realize that their numbers in the country had tripled during the chaos of a pandemic and a military coup.

At this point, we felt it was important to remind these pastors that they have brothers and sisters around the world who are praying for them and who have similar stories of God’s faithfulness in the midst of suffering. My husband, Dave, took the time to share about the global network of Mennonite churches and the Anabaptist heritage that we held in common.

During the next few days, we told stories from our history about church reformers who became fugitives among their people because they chose obedience to Jesus rather than conforming to religious rituals. We talked about how Jesus taught us to be merciful just as God was merciful, and to love our enemies. We told stories of those who were so inspired by that command that they refused to fight in the military. We told the story of a man named Dirk Willems, a sixteenth century Anabaptist who turned back to rescue the soldier who was chasing him, when the soldier fell through the ice. Upon being recaptured, Willems was tortured and killed for his faith.

Dave also explained how this movement stayed alive as a network of small house churches where the Bible was read and disciples were made by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even though thousands were martyred, the churches kept growing and the movement thrived.

After listening to numerous stories from Anabaptist history, one of the pastors said,

“Teacher, these stories are our stories. This testimony is our testimony. We encounter the same opposition from our people and from the military, but we keep following Jesus and our churches keep growing.”

Then our lead pastor stood up and said, “Ethnic groups within our nation have been fighting against each other for decades. When will the killing end? What do we have to show for it? I want the Holy Spirit to rest on us just like the Holy Spirit rested on the Anabaptists and gave them courage. Jesus laid down his life for us and told us that we should be prepared to lay down our lives for others. This is how we will win our nation for Christ, not by picking up guns, but by demonstrating the love and humility of Jesus.”
When Dave and I heard our pastor’s challenge to his leaders, we were stunned. We knew that the Holy Spirit was leading this emerging MB conference of churches forward with the same purpose and joy of the radical sixteenth century Anabaptists.

As I think about these church leaders in Southeast Asia, this is my prayer for the rest of us:

Lord Jesus, you said, ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.’ Father, loving our enemies is so hard! Yet we believe that your grace can empower us to live above the chaos of war and hatred. We ask you to send us, your laborers, into the harvest with a powerful, forgiving, and merciful love. Amen.

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