Released Without Charge in Central Asia
1 Jan 2005
‘Moloko…’ (‘Milk…’ for sale), ‘Smetana… (‘Sour cream…)’ — the chants of early morning vendors rang out as they walked up and down the dusty streets of the neighbourhood. Their voices blended with the many noises and bustle of a typical Central Asian morning. A little more noise added to the medley shouldn’t be a bother, but for “Rick and Elizabeth” this proved to be untrue.
As Elizabeth got up that morning and began thinking through the plans for her day, the arrest of her husband was certainly not on the ‘to do’ list. But, unknown to them, their neighbors had called the police in response to an early-morning outdoor prayer meeting they had held in the courtyard of their home.
The police came, and Rick was charged with disturbing the peace. Now, she and the children sat at home praying as they awaited news from his trial and word of whether they would be able to stay and minister in the challenging environment of their Central Asian town.
Life in Central Asia holds many joys, but for many of God’s people, strong spiritual resistance is woven into the fabric of existence. And why should it be surprising for Christians to undergo attack in the midst of seeing God’s hand move in drawing people to Himself? Rick’s arrest wasn’t an isolated incident. In recent days, Elizabeth and Rick had been threatened by the parents of a young man (‘Mr. T’) and his sister who had come to the Lord under their loving ministry. The young man’s wife had also embraced Christ.
Rick and Elizabeth shared about this incident in a recent letter, ‘Saturday evening we had a surprise visit by the parents of Mr. T. … They came to our home and accused us of breaking up their home. Because we came, they have lost their son, daughter-in-law and daughter to Jesus.’ Being particularly concerned about their daughter, these parents were threatening to sue Rick & Elizabeth if she didn’t return home within three days and revert to their religon. They later wrote to say that the parents backed down when the daughter agreed to return home often to help her parents, even though she refused to revert.
As she awaited news from the trial, Elizabeth expected that her husband would refuse to answer in any other way than how the apostle Peter did centuries ago, ‘We can’t stop talking about what we’ve seen and heard.’ She knew him well. Perhaps she needed to prepare her heart, yet, she didn’t want to be like the slow-to-believe group that was praying for the apostle Peter when he was miraculously freed from prison!
But the story that greeted her ears in the courtyard as her husband returned home was far more amazing than her faith had allowed her to pray. Yes, Rick was released without charge, but he never even had to answer any questions. Earlier, he had made friends with a policeman in their neighborhood, and this same officer had answered on his behalf before the judge. A coincidence? Before the trial, this police friend had questioned Rick, and Rick had been true to his wife’s expectations, unwilling to cover up his faith and practice. But the policeman acted as his advocate, shielding him from the judge’s probing questions.
It is common for foreigners to come under scrutiny in Central Asia, but usually it is the local believers who face the deepest persecution. Mr. T. decided to step down as the leader of the small fellowship Rick and Elizabeth had started, after he was interrogated by the police and forced to sign a paper saying he would not preach or teach. His sister has faced persecution as well, with police harassing her to sign a similar paper and threatening to remove her from her teaching job at a local institute.
Sadly, the persecution against Mr. T. and his sister didn’t begin with the authorities. Their parents turned them into the police, and their father accompanied the police when they went to threaten them. New believers face heart-breaking rejection from their families.
While it is true that resistance and persecution accompany the work of God in Central Asia, the church is taking root and beginning to grow. When the Soviet Union dissolved back in 1990, there was only a handful of believers in any of these countries. Yet, this number has grown to include many thousands over the past 15 years. A Gospel workforce is emerging from among these faithful believers, and a spirit of partnership is forging a hopeful path into the future.
Rick and Elizabeth are among many others who are benefiting from the partnership of Central Asian believers. In October they shared, “Since the police visit 2 months ago, we have had two brothers come and encourage our believers. Both challenged us to be bold and not fear the local authorities. One brother sat in the prison for 10 days, and he said that compared to what Jesus suffered on the cross, the 10 days were nothing. It also gave him the opportunity to share the Gospel with those in the prison. He said that since the church usually doesn’t go to police officers, prisoners, and intelligence agents to share the Gospel, God brings them to us in such opportunities such as ‘questioning’ times. But in truth, God wants them to hear the Good News for themselves!’
Probably the majority of those who come to a new culture have high hopes that God will use them to see many souls into God’s kingdom. But, in some cases, foreign workers are seeing few conversions, but are facilitating local believers to bear much fruit.
In another Central Asian country, Grant and Gretchen have been pouring into the lives of their neighbors. They’ve worked hard opening a business that would employ farmers in their economically-depressed area. This, too, has opened the way to build relationships. The Lord has enabled them to build great respect in the community, and Grant was even asked to say a prayer at a community function. He prayed in the name of Jesus. They are doing all the ‘right things’ that would facilitate God’s work in their community. They long for fruit, and have been faithful to inform prayer partners of the progress and prayer needs.
Last year, together with their teammates they began a ‘Firm Foundations’ chronological Bible study, and invited their closer friends. There has been true spiritual openness among those attending, but still, only one woman in their community has embraced Christ.
Grant recently wrote: ‘We hired a believing couple from a bordering Central Asian country to train new [work] crews. They were an incredible blessing—both to the project and to local fellowships. Since they had work visas to freely cross the border of our two countries, they were able to encourage and network a number of small isolated house fellowships on both sides. Plus, nine people made professions of faith this summer. In the past, work amongst the more conservative peoples in the south has seen little fruit. The Lord used the business to gain access to new areas and new hearts! Praise Him.’
Jack and Marilyn too, have been persevering with their team in a desert oasis of yet another Central Asian country, pouring into lives in their local community while living in subsistence conditions with their family. They’ve recently learned that the last of their foreign teammates are moving out within the year. As yet, they know of no other foreign families who have expressed a willingness to come and join them. They recently wrote about how they are being encouraged by the involvement of local believers: ‘A group of five university students visited today who will begin a long-term outreach in our city using a development centre approach. I wasn’t sure when it will open, but that is their plan. They visited [our city’s fellowship] today to explain their vision, hearts, etc. This is great news, that more workers are devoting themselves to coming to a place where most people want to leave as quickly as possible.’
In most parts of Central Asia, believers are still being persecuted and those who come to serve there continue to live day to day not knowing how long they will be able to stay. It isn’t easy. But one thing is certain: the unchangeable nature of God. He is still our all-powerful, heart-pursuing Lord of the Harvest. His promises haven’t changed, and He will establish His church in Central Asia.
There is no need to fear the challenges. It is His delight to work in strength on behalf of those who feel defenceless in the face of iron-fist political systems. More workers are needed— not super-heroes, but ordinary people with a heart for partnership who trust an Almighty God to do what He promised to do.
By E & E- Regional leaders, Mid Asia