I snapped awake to the sound of the bus door opening, and a cacophony of shouts flooded my way through the sweltering heat.
I had only just managed to fall asleep on my little cot in the middle of the bus, surrounded by sweaty locals, dirty luggage and the constant humidity of Southeast Asia.
Then the cops came in. The bus was dimly lit at best, the dome lights in the cab illuminating a few scrappy-looking lawmen as they went from cot to cot demanding passports. I scrambled to retrieve the passport from my backpack, and handed it over with baited breath. The cop looked at it suspiciously. Foreigners didn’t belong in these mountains.
“This is it,” I thought to myself. “This is the end. After all we’ve been through.”
Before I finished my thought, the jackboot handed my passport back and moved on. I breathed a sigh of relief, finally having woken up enough to take stock of my situation.
As part of a nine-month missions trip to the Far East, I and a few others in my group were at the start of a weeklong trip to Southeast Asia to spend time with local missionaries. The first leg of our journey included a 14-hour overnight bus ride through the mountains.
It’s important for you to know that it’s not legal to do any kind of evangelism or even to openly practice Christianity in many parts of Asia (specifically where I spent most of my time). That’s why, when I made the decision to be a college campus evangelist there for nine months, I didn’t take it lightly.
When I was a kid, my family attended a Christian Missionary Alliance church where it seemed every Sunday we heard stories of horror and triumph from the front lines of missions — unbelievable tales of faith from places like India, Russia and the Middle East, where just the word “missionary” spelled trouble. I heard stories of imprisonment, beating, even torture — all for sharing the gospel in unwelcoming places. It seemed so heroic — even glamorous — and comfortably distant.
Even when I arrived in Asia, the idea of persecution still seemed far away. As a white American, I felt more than welcome there, despite the fact that I was there for illicit religious activities.
A few days after our encounter with the police on the bus, we met a missionary couple who organize a missions school for national Christians. The man told us it had been part of a larger operation in a bigger city, until the authorities found out and shut it down.
“We had to relocate,” he said. “But at least we can farm.”
At first, I didn’t understand. It was a school. Why were they farming?
We were driven to the remote location in unmarked vans, bumping and rattling through dirty backroads until we reached the place. When we arrived, I observed the “school” was just a motley collection of shabby, sheet-metal buildings surrounding a small field of home-grown crops — crops that were being cultivated as a much-needed sustainable source for food and income.
At first, I wondered if we were in the right place. Then, I understood — as the students flooded out of the ramshackle buildings, I realized I was looking at the faces of persecution.
I spoke with a student who couldn’t have been older than 17 or 18 who said her parents threatened to report her to the local authorities if she didn’t publicly renounce Jesus Christ.
“First, they stopped giving me money for food at school,” she said in broken English. “Then they said I had to stop being a Christian, or maybe they would tell the police.”
Another student said his parents had become increasingly abusive toward him when they learned he had been evangelizing — and it got to a point where he knew he had to leave for his own safety.
One student said her parents didn’t even know where she was.
“They told me to leave,” she said. “So I did.”
Somehow, those three and about 20 more youngsters with similar stories had landed at the missionary school, and were learning everything they needed to know to become missionaries to places like India, Africa and the Middle East. They had all lived a tough life already, and were headed for harder times beyond those sheet-metal walls — and they knew it, but each one had at some point decided Jesus Christ was worth it all.
Before we left, all the students gathered around and sang hymns in their language. They all had their arms around one other, and many were weeping openly as they sang. These weren’t heroes — they were kids. There was nothing glamorous or romantic about their stories. They were only stories of sheer grit and faith in the promises of God — that in this life, we will have trouble, but that the Messiah has overcome the world.
As we drove away that night, I got to thinking about my own faith. I was forced to ask myself some hard questions: If my family threatened to disown me for being a Christian, would I still put my faith in Jesus? Given the choice between a normal life and a life of poverty or persecution, which would I chose? Is Jesus worth it all to me?
The Christian life was never meant to be easy, no matter where you live. But when the idea of persecution comes into the picture, it begs the question: If Christianity was a risk, how many of us would still be Christians?
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.