As you probably know, I was recently in Moldova, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, serving as a representative of the Presbytery of Milwaukee. This experience was powerful, difficult and inspiring all at once. Our experiences are too numerous to recite in a short newsletter article, but suffice to say that we met many people who labored day in and day out for the health and dignity of their fellow humans. We met those who worked to bring humanitarian aid to families who were starving, those who sought to recover the dignity of women who had survived human trafficking and domestic violence, those who strove to develop their communities and economies, through agricultural, business, family and career training, those who took in children thrown away by society, and those who toiled to prepare their populations for natural disasters. For the people we met, helping is a way of life, a choice made in love and faith. This is an amazing thing about travelling, about meeting people of faith in different places: They have different perspectives about what it means to live faithful lives. Different things come easily and naturally to them.
One way this came out was in our discussions with a number of these faith leaders about what life had been like for them under communism. They described how being a person of faith was strongly discouraged by the communist government. So at that time, there was choice to make for people of faith, for if a person chose to have a religious practice, they would likely become social outcasts. We heard of former doctors and lawyers being forced to work as window washers for their faith. We heard of church buildings being transformed into museums of atheism, and monasteries transformed into mental hospitals. A man named Roman, who had founded the orphanage we visited recalled how he was harassed by government officials in Ukraine. They were angry because his work with orphaned children was drawing attention to a problem that they weren’t prepared to admit was happening. These officials came to the orphanage and beat Roman in front of the children. They tried to plant drugs on him so that they could frame him. Roman spent time in jail, just for having a ministry to the neediest of the needy. It seems that for many of these people of faith, a government crackdown on churches and ministers could come at any moment. The communist state did not tolerate competing values and ideas, and if someone spoke critically of the state, they may be sent to jail, or reduced to shoveling human waste for years on end.
Someone in our group asked of our travelling companion, and communist dissident, Jan, “Why, then, did you you choose to be Christian?” He replied, “It provided us with freedom and identity. It was the only place the government couldn’t define us.”
Why, then, are you a Christian? As another pastor on that trip, Jim Rand, noted: “that question came home on the plane with me– no longer just for Jan, but as one we all should ask ourselves.” This seems like a foreign question for those of us in this world who have never been forced to think about it before, for those of us who have never had to make a choice between our communities and our faith, for those of us who have not faced any sort of persecution. But, all the same, it is an important question, one that we all would do well to strive to answer. And so I ask you today: “Why, then, are you a Christian?”
Yours in Christ,