Light in the Most Unlikely Places

My Thirty-Year Trip Around the World

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In 1994, I became the first appointed international editor at World Magazine, an enterprising Christian news outlet with admirable ambitions to cover global events, but without a travel budget.

To blaze the trail, I asked several denominations to send me missionary letters. They arrived in large manila envelopes. There was little overseas email traffic to my AOL account until the late 1990s. But studying the photocopied letters, I began to learn ground-level life in hard-to-reach places. I found contacts I could reach at odd hours through static phone calls or exchanges sent by fax machine.

Church in Ancient Homelands

A year later, I received an invitation to an excursion through Turkey with other journalists billed as a tour of “the other Holy Land.” Turkey wanted to become a member of the European Union, it wanted acceptance in the West, and promoting church tourism apparently was a way to do it.

The organizers hoped we journalists would highlight religious sites lost to the Ottoman Turks’ conquest of Christian Constantinople in 1453. It was all eye-opening for me as our group toured from Istanbul to Bursa, then east across to Cappadocia and as far as the border with Syria.

The group was emblematic of new frontiers opening in the 1990s. A newspaper editor from South Africa was traveling abroad for the first time since apartheid ended. A reporter from East Germany was making her first foray since the Berlin Wall fell. Learning I was an American, she said, “You have so many brands of laundry detergent. My whole life I could buy only one.”

Turkey’s bid for Western clout mirrored other changes in the Middle East. Israel that year signed onto the Oslo agreements and was normalizing relations with neighbors after decades of war. For me it was a busman’s holiday, learning just how much I had yet to learn about the church in its ancient homelands.

I learned also that it was easy to confuse the new openness with genuine liberty. After the trip, I discovered that Turkey continued to jail Christians, especially converts from Islam. It refused to license new churches even as it campaigned for Western cachet.

In similar ways and at the same time, as new mission efforts spread across the former Soviet Union, Communist holdovers would meet them with authoritarian restrictions under the banner of democratic reforms.

Early the next year, I traveled to areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear site, covering the tenth anniversary of its explosion. I discovered how little had changed in the orange and yellow contamination zones of Belarus and Ukraine, and how desperately they needed Christian revival.

Nothing, Yet Everything

It was not in the Middle East, but in Africa, where I first glimpsed a rising threat to Christians. Sudan’s long-running civil war pitted Khartoum’s Islamic regime in the north against the south’s mostly Christian population. Government campaigns featured wholesale brutality little understood by the outside world. I witnessed forced displacement, starvation, and death.

One day with local aid workers and armed Sudanese escorts, I hiked to a burned-out mission compound destroyed years ago by government forces and only recently liberated by rebels. We walked single file under a fierce sun behind our escorts to avoid landmines.

The missionaries who opened the church and school in the 1930s had been gone for decades. Locals in those days had been slow to come to Christ, but surrounding tribes were now overwhelmingly Christian, with tens of thousands of believers. As we walked, children came out of huts to stare at me. They had never seen a white woman.

At the site, signs of battle and destruction remained. When government forces attacked, they locked some congregants inside the church and set it on fire, they raped and beat others, and they either killed or forced to flee everyone else. They laid the landmines so no one could rebuild the church, and left it a roofless, twisted maze of destruction. They tore pages from church Bibles, using them to roll cigarettes. Bible pages also turned up as food wrappers in the nearby market.

I have kept to this day a clasp from the church’s metal roof that I found on the ground, a daily reminder at my desk of the unbearable suffering and inexplicable resilience I witnessed in south Sudan.

As we left the mission compound, we discovered a gathering of Christian believers under a nearby tree. With the area in friendlier hands, they walked back from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. They were building a new church, using saplings to support a thatched roof. Under a tree, they sang as we approached, and then asked to pray with us.

“Our brothers and sisters,” the little group explained to us, “had been carried to Jesus while we were carried to exile and back again.” “This is our Jerusalem,” their pastor said, spreading his arms wide to encompass a desolate scene of rubble and weeds. “We have nothing, but we have everything.”

Resilient Joy

Overseas reporting allowed me to go deeper into unspeakable horrors Christians suffered at the hands of their enemies, and there I discovered a resilience and joy that were nearly unexplainable. In the heat of Sudan, surveying the destruction with enemy lines less than ten miles away, comprehending the impoverishment, losses, and dislocation that come with deep persecution, I also found my reporter’s feet.

It didn’t arise from a rush of adrenaline as I skirted landmines. I would return again and again to Sudan, then to other places of conflict, because of the joy that might be found, the light overcoming the darkness, the singing under the trees in the shadow of fiery furnaces.

“Stripped of earthly comfort, they found a priceless joy, the joy of being more like Christ. And with it, radical hope.”

As my work after 9/11 took me increasingly to the Middle East, I’d begin to think of these as journeys to find water in the desert. The enemies would change, the politics would tilt and shift, and the disappointment hover, everywhere. But the harder things got, the more resilient and determined became the people of God. Stripped of earthly comfort, they found a priceless joy, the joy of being more like Christ. And with it, radical hope.

Desert Water

As al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups gained ground in Syria and Iraq, churches were devastated. The Christian population of Iraq fell by 75 percent from the time I made my first trip there, in 2002, to the invasion of ISIS in 2014. The loss of whole communities and destruction of ancient landmarks was heartbreaking. From the new frontiers that had defined my first years of reporting, I now watched the world again fill with checkpoints and no-go zones.

Christians in Iraq formed its middle class. They were its shopkeepers, newspaper editors, schoolteachers, and symphony conductors. The devastation when terrorists targeted them with bombings and kidnappings not only leveled their communities, but also hurt the whole country. Churches that outlasted Mongol invasions now operated out of tents in sprawling camps.

Even this desert held water, the church becoming something new as it fought for survival. Members of the old ancient churches were attending evangelical Bible studies, reading Scripture on their own for the first time, and for hours, one mother explained. Muslims, shaken by atrocities done in Allah’s name, were coming to Christ.

One convert, who came from a completely Islamic area, told me he’d never thought about Christianity until terrorists forced him from his home. Then, “I was asking and asking for more information about Jesus,” he said, “because what I received from Islam is only trouble.”

It became common to see Muslim families, the mothers veiled, attending evangelical church services in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. At one, I dropped in on a meeting where Muslim women were invited. I expected maybe a dozen women to be there, but when I opened the door, I discovered more than four hundred, a sea of head-to-toe burkas common to the Shia community.

Researcher David Garrison more formally has documented the undeniable trend: an estimated two to seven million Muslims have converted to Christianity since the start of the twenty-first century. They occur in all parts of the Muslim world, including areas most hostile to Christianity, like Afghanistan and Iran. More than 80 percent of such movements began after 9/11. “They were content to see Islam as the answer for the world, and after 9/11 they no longer could believe that,” Garrison said.

In my 2016 book about Iraq, They Say We Are Infidels, I wrote,

Christianity at its truest stretched and recast harsh realities, turning them upside down, inside out. Its people took mustard seeds and with them moved mountains, which I learned as I watched [the Iraqi Christians]. Destruction brought comfort, in the words of the prophet Nahum; impossible hardships became possible to endure, and death became life-giving. Augustine said it well: “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” (296)

Light in Dark Places

For journalists, “what bleeds, leads,” and evil remains the world’s constant. But the believers I encountered overseas had something American society seemed to be losing: community-mindedness. It resides in the DNA in parts of the world we often think of as poor and unsalvageable. And to think and believe well, writer Jeffrey Bilbro has said, we must belong well.

“The believers I encountered overseas had something American society seemed to be losing: community-mindedness.”

Dislocated and distraught, the Iraqis could form new communities, teach their children to change the diapers of the new widow’s baby, launch churches in muddy camps.

I also learned how Christianity could be contextualized the world over, much like Islam, looking very different from Africa to Asia. Yet Islam largely increased by conquest, while Christianity grew by the example of love. The Islamic State fighters, the Taliban, and others seek to impose a global jihad, not unlike the armies of Muhammad in the seventh century. Christianity thrives where the weakest and most dispossessed love their neighbors in word and deed, following the example of Jesus. They seldom make headline news but can teach us just the same.

My time at World Magazine came to an end as darker forces again rose, closing borders and threatening a generation’s worth of democratic progress. The Taliban rule in Afghanistan and Russia’s war on Ukraine will change world orders and threaten not only Christian believers.

The frontiers I traveled along may shut again. My check-ins with faraway contacts happen in real time through video chats and text messaging, even from bomb shelters or tent cities. But there in the dark places we may find light enough to say with the pastor in Sudan, “We have nothing, and we have everything.”

covered wars and war victims in the Balkans, Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as a writer and editor for World Magazine. She is the author of They Say We Are Infidels (Tyndale, 2016).