I’m not sure I ever saw this coming. Even though I preached about the possibility more than once, I never expected it to come to this. Nevertheless, here I am, locked in a dark, damp prison cell, no windows and no light.
No. This isn’t the local jail or even the state prison. It’s a special facility designed for those of us who refused to comply with the law. I’ve been labeled as a terrorist threat, and under the guise of “security,” I’m being held until officials can decide how or if to charge me.
I’ve been here 1,263 days. One thousand. Two hundred. Sixty. Three. I know this because I’ve marked every single day of my captivity on the wall beside my bed. There’s been no due process, and no “jury of my peers.” I’m simply waiting.
The authorities list a slew of charges — terrorism, hate speech, conspiracy to overthrow the government. Truly, I only preached the gospel, the same gospel I’ve been preaching freely in my country for 25 years. Now, that is illegal.
Here’s how it happened.
You know I pastor a large church in a city on the East Coast – about 2,000 members, 800 in Bible Study groups around the city before “Bible Study” became illegal. Before the law, we televised our services every Sunday at 11 a.m., and our podcast drew more than 500,000 subscribers.
(We so appreciated having you speak to us all those years ago about the persecution in your country. At the time, your sermon was one of our most highly viewed.)
I’ll admit I’ve preached against “controversial” sins — homosexuality, abortion, the transgender movement. But I always tried to counter the “negative” with the hope and truth of the gospel: We are all sinners. We all need a Savior. Regardless of who we are or where we’ve come from, God loves us all. He wants to have fellowship with all of us. Certainly, at least in my mind, the “controversies” I preached against were balanced with an appeal to accept God’s grace and forgiveness.
Then the law passed. Those of us in the evangelical community heard iterations of the law early and lobbied against it. Those who crafted the legislation marketed it as a means of addressing the threat of Islamic terrorism within our borders. In fact, our legislators modeled it on a similar ruling that went into effect in Russia a few months before. Billed as an anti-terrorism law, it limits evangelism to recognized church buildings. With the stroke of a pen, sharing our faith publicly, including within our own homes, became illegal.
Of course, appeals are in process, but that didn’t help me. When the law passed, I received a cease-and-desist order to suspend our Sunday morning television broadcast and take down the podcast. Yes, “limiting” includes no digital evangelizing either.
Some of our small groups meeting in homes began to receive visits from the police. They were friendly visits at first; after all, some of the police officers were members of our church. Then, slowly, over time, the police we knew were replaced with those we didn’t know. These new officers were much less accommodating.
After praying with our elders and leadership team, we decided not to abide by the cease-and-desist order. It was a hard decision. Many feared the repercussions, but we decided to trust God anyway. First, there were fines. Then there were threats. When the government assumed control of the local networks, they cut our Sunday morning broadcast. The podcast continues to run because the authorities don’t yet have the resources to disable the Internet, but I went to prison, along with many of our elders.
Our wives and children are still relatively safe. They’ve banded together and are keeping a low profile. The authorities occasionally harass them but don’t view them as a real threat. Thank God.
I’ve now been branded as a radical Christian cleric, similar to the label once given to Muslim clerics. The law says the teaching that Jesus is the only path to God is divisive, hate speech. Our lower courts reinterpreted the religion clauses of our constitution to uphold the law. No one, the law claims, should be subject to any religious view that undermines that person’s right to define his or her own path or that limits freedom of choice in religion or morality. As the courts interpret it, parents can no longer instruct their children in religion, and churches can no longer provide religious instruction to children. They argue that children are especially vulnerable to radical, terrorist propaganda like ours.
These are dark times. Still, there is hope.
In my captivity, the words of Scripture comfort me. I’m amazed at the number of Bible passages I can recall. As you did, I try to write them down as often as I can. The prayers of my wife and children sustain me. Remembering your story and the dark days you experienced inspire me. Every day, I model your example of standing and singing a praise song to Jesus. It annoys the guards, but it helps me make it through the darkest days.
As alone as I feel, Jesus predicted these days would come. I know that many around the world are suffering the same way, just as you did.
Pray for me, Dmitri. Pray for my wife and children. Pray for the small groups who continue to meet secretly. I’m grateful for the lessons you taught me. Your stories inspired our leaders to prepare our members for this day. So by God’s grace, the persecution is strengthening the body of Christ in this place.
I know the day is coming when the light of Christ will shine again brightly, and one day we will see Him face to face. Until that day when my faith is made sight, I can say without question or doubt: He is worth it.
Until He comes,
By Ann Lovell.
This story is fictional, and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Dmitri’s story is factual. You can read it and other stories of persecuted believers in “The Insanity of God” by Nik Ripken.