The following is the story of a small, young Iranian church in western Asia that workers with International Teams are walking alongside through a ministry of discipleship, encouragement, training, and teaching.
It was a group of misfits who gathered that Sunday morning in March. As individuals they were outsiders: political dissidents, former drug addicts, illegal immigrants, and religious outcasts. But together in that small apartment, with bowed heads and lifted voices, they were something altogether different: a church.
Few things about that morning’s small gathering of Iranian refugees in western Asia* resembled the conventional notion of a church. There was no church bulletin, no pews, no membership classes or statement of faith. The two-year-old church didn’t even have a name. But none of that seemed to bother the small congregation.
“In Iran it wouldn’t be like this,” said a 32-year-old man named Amir**, sipping traditional Persian tea with his fellow believers after the service. Those around him nodded with a murmur of agreement. ”It would be very dangerous in Iran. But here, we aren’t afraid.”
In reality, each person’s presence that morning was something of a miracle, and those who gathered knew it. Few had made it this far without risking their lives in some way, enduring prison, slipping across borders, or facing threats and persecution. Many had lost everything when they left Iran: family, friends, stability, and status. But if anything in their lives was unassailable, it was their testimonies, stories of captivating hope worth a lifetime of struggle. And stories like that are meant to be shared.
“Come, Amir,” members of the group invited their friend as a fresh round of steaming, mahogany colored tea was brought from the kitchen. “You share first.”
A serious expression spread across the tall Iranian’s typically grinning face as he began to share. Amir is a genuinely jovial man with a handsome face and sharp, dark eyes. But two years ago it was a different story as he lay writhing on the floor with his face contorted and eyes closed by drug-induced convulsions. “I was very addicted to hard drugs,” he explained in a sober tone. “After eight or nine years I was really in a bad situation.”
But that night on the floor, in the midst of excruciating withdrawal pain, Amir had a dream that changed his life. “I dreamed I was walking along a dark street in a foreign city,” Amir said. “A man found me and asked what was wrong. ‘I am addicted to drugs and I want to stop,’ I told him. He looked at me and said, ‘There is someone who can cure you.’”
Amir remembers the light he saw next, a bright, pure beam shining down from the sky. “The closer we drew to the light, the less pain I felt,” Amir said, the corners of his mouth lifting a smile back to its usual place. “And once I reached the middle of the light, my pain was gone. ‘How did you cure me?’ I asked the man. But he just pointed up toward the stars, and when I looked, I saw what I somehow knew was the face of Jesus.” When Amir awoke, the pain that had gripped his body was gone, and in its place was only a deep thirst to know and follow this man named Jesus.
A murmur passed around the group as Amir finished his story. After a moment’s pause, a quiet young man in his late 20’s volunteered to follow. It was the first time he had spoken all day, but Hassan isn’t the kind for unsolicited chatter, especially about himself. But as he began to share, a gentle passion seemed to swell from somewhere inside.
Like Amir, Hassan too had abused drugs for nearly half of his life. “I was addicted for 12 years,” he said. “I tried so many things to quit, but nothing worked.” That is, until the day he decided to attend a Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) class, which was the day he met Amir. “We became good friends,” Hassan said, tossing a glance and a grin in Amir’s direction. “One day, Amir told me that everything in the N.A. books really comes from the Bible. He showed me and I started to think that if those books could help me, couldn’t the Bible help even more? I began thinking that Jesus could change my life.”
As the two mens’ stories intertwined, their narrative did as well and Amir shared how they began attending a Christian church together in Iran. “One day while we were worshiping the police came and arrested us,” Amir said. “I don’t know why, we had done nothing. But they imprisoned our pastor, charged us, and gave us a day to be in court.” But by then, Amir and Hassan had seen and tasted real hope and there was no turning back. Facing the likelihood of imprisonment and perhaps worse, the two decided to flee from Iran before their day in court. “I have changed so much,” Hassan added with a grateful look at the community gathered freely that day. “I used to be an angry and aggressive person. But when I come to church I feel relaxed and I forget my past.”
As Amir and Hassan talked of prison, a 26-year-old girl at the front of the room began to nod, her eyes closed in reflection. Lila is all too familiar with Iranian prisons, but her “crimes” were not religious. “I was a political girl and my family was political too,” she shared. “When I was 14, I wrote a paper criticizing the government and read it in class. They told my family I had to change schools after that.”
Lila isn’t one to mince words and it doesn’t take long to recognize the fierce determination that made her a well-known political dissident in Iran. Several years ago, Lila became a central figure in the opposition movement in Tehran, helping to organize protests against the government. Even after being thrown in prison for a period and fleeing to Malaysia for two years, she continued writing and protesting against what she calls the “Iranian regime.” “On the day they arrested me in Tehran, a group of men threw me in a car, and took me to a house where they said they would kill me.” She paused for a moment, caught in the memory. “They didn’t. They just said it to scare me. But I was terrified.”
Lila always believed it was the world around her that needed change, but after she left Malaysia and met the believers that surrounded her that morning, the greatest change of all began inside of her. “In the Bible, I discovered so many things that had always been important to me, like people’s rights,” she said. “I saw the Bible was always talking about being kind to all people…I think that’s when I started giving my heart to Jesus.” Looking out the window and spinning the tea in her glass, Lila added, “I used to be so proud. I think the best thing Jesus has changed in my life is me. I love it, and I needed it.”
For another hour, the stories continued: stories of oppression and deliverance, of healing, miraculous dreams, and irrepressible conviction. Theirs were stories with an unmistakable author and together they traced His careful pen strokes across the pages of their lives. In that small apartment, each person truly belonged, and as night fell and the tea grew cold, there wasn’t a soul that wanted to leave.
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Please pray for the believers in this Iranian church, that the Lord would bless them as they seek to follow him in a land that is not their own. Pray that they would grow in maturity, understanding, and grace and that the Lord would guide workers with International Teams as they seek to support, disciple, and encourage those like Amir, Lila, and Hassan.
*The specific location in question has intentionally been left out for security reasons.
**The names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of those mentioned, given the sensitive nature of these stories and the cultures they come from.