The following is the story of a pastor that workers with International Teams are walking alongside through discipleship, encouragement, and ministry support as they minister to refugees and seek to see God transform the community they.
The prison warden was livid.
“I know someone made the call! Who was it?”
The bellowed accusations fell heavy upon a blanket of silence and wide-eyed stares as guards and prisoners alike shuffled awkwardly. With pulsing temples and bulging eyes, the warden cast a venomous stare about the room, a white sheet of paper with the words “Release Order” clenched in his hand.
But the warden already knew the man he wanted. “It was you, wasn’t it?” he roared as his eyes fell upon a silent Congolese prisoner in his early thirties. “I know it was you! How else would they know you were here?”
One word brought a pack of prison guards into the cell where the man was searched from head to toe. “I know you made the call!” screamed the warden, a chord of exasperation ringing in his voice. The search for any type of calling device proved fruitless.
Without a word, the prisoner slowly reached for a book not far from his feet. The collective stare of the prison shown like a spotlight as he held the worn, dog-eared Bible in front of the warden’s face. “This is my phone,” he said in a think French-African accent. “No matter where you put me, I can call on God.
David’s* eyes grow wide and his strong accent fills the room as he tells the story of that day nearly eight years ago. “The warden, oh he was absolutely furious,” he says, his eyes melting into crescents as his shoulders bob with reminiscent laughter.
Today David walks freely in the same country** where he was arrested eight years ago. And every day, he commits the same offense that kept him in prison for eight months: proclaiming the word of God in a predominantly Muslim country. “It’s a big miracle,” he says, glancing around the restaurant. “We can talk freely here now, but it wasn’t like that before. It’s by the grace of God.”
David’s story of imprisonment is one he’s shared many times. Yet if you sat across the table from him in the restaurant that day in March, you might have guessed it was his first. His fist pounds on the table, his eyes grow wide, and his expressive tone swells and ebbs along with the flow of his narrative. David is passionate, fiery, and charismatic individual: the kind of man who might just be crazy enough to risk his life for the sake of the Gospel across Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe.
But that kind of life was not by David’s design. Since his college years, when he felt the Lord’s calling to become a pastor, David’s ministry has time and again been plagued by persecution that keeps him on the move. After struggles in his homeland and then the Middle East, David attempted multiple times to cross into Europe illegally in 2005. However, his efforts were thwarted when he was captured and thrown in a high security prison near the Bulgarian border.
“They put me in prison, a place filled with murderers and thieves,” David recalls. No friends or family knew his whereabouts, no charges kept him behind bars, and no court date promised him hope. “Not even the warden knew why I was there or how long I should be kept,” David says. Yet the endless darkness of a prison cell is precisely where David’s favorite story begins.
In the midst of the darkness, David began doing the only reasonable thing he knew: he prayed and he preached. “The warden thought I was a fanatic,” David recalls with a chuckle. “He said that if I changed my religion he would let me go. But I refused. So every day I worshiped and preached from my cell. And the people around me, they listened.”
Among the listeners were three Ethiopian men in a nearby cell. As was true of every denizen of that prison, they were eager for freedom and asked David what they should do. But David’s answer was of a different tune. “I don’t preach for you to be free,” David told them. “You must accept Jesus Christ and you will be truly free.” Five days later, from the dank floor of that prison, all three had committed their lives to Christ.
But David’s preaching was not well received by all who heard, particularly the warden. “If you keep preaching like this every night, you will be in trouble,” the warden growled one day. “We will see about that,” was David’s bald reply. “This is not my place.” That response earned David a severe beating as a spectacle before his fellow prisoners.
However, strange things began happening after that day. “The warden’s wife suddenly died,” David remembers, his voice growing more intense as his story begins to crescendo. “The same week, the chief’s office suddenly lit on fire, and they never could figure out why. One month later the chief broke his ankle. And that’s when I felt God saying that this was the week we would be free.”
It was Sunday when David told his Ethiopian friends. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday they fasted and prayed. “Thursday, nothing happened. Friday, nothing happened. I was growing worried,” David says. But then Saturday came, and with it, a mysterious government-issued release order for four men that sent the warden into a frenzy.
“Who called the government? Who made the call?”
As David later discovered, one of the Ethiopian’s sister was married to a United Nations worker who had called the government to make an inquiry into the whereabouts of his brother-in-law. To this day, there is no rational explanation for how David’s name appeared on the release order clutched in the warden’s fist that morning. “No one called,” David assures. And how could they have? “It was God!” he says with bright, effusive eyes.
On Sunday, the four men were still in their cells, breath baited, wondering what would happen. “The night before, one of the Ethiopians had a dream,” David recalls. “He said we were all holding hands as I led them from the prison.” At 6:00 pm that night, exactly one week since their hopes had risen on the wings of faith, the four comrades received the word: they were free.
But before the road led David away from that dark cell for good, one of the prison’s Muslim leaders, an old Imam, approached him. “I know you pray to the real God,” the man said, his rheumy, wrinkle bound eyes fixed on David’s. “Don’t leave this God.”
And eight years later, David hasn’t. Today, David remains in the city he was so desperate to flee from all those years ago. But now he is no fugitive. He is a pastor, one who leads the city’s first French-speaking African church. “I had a dream one night,” David says, remembering the days after his release from prison. “God said ‘start a church here.’ So I did.”
“In October it will be six years since the church began,” says David, sighing as he leans back in his chair for a rare pause. The meal before him remains nearly untouched, the only victim of David’s unflagging enthusiasm that afternoon. “We want to bring together French speakers in this city,” he adds. “To bring them to the Lord. And doors have really started to open. Today there are about 100 people in the church.”
David’s story trails off as he sips the last of his drink. There is a sense of incompleteness in the air, as if quiet chants for an encore were left unanswered. But to David, that story is just one scene in an ever changing, beautiful, and unpredictable drama. And it’s message? Even now, the meaning he holds onto is as luminous and inescapable as it was eight years ago. “This God we serve is real!” he says. “What the Lord starts, he will finish. But only God knows how.”
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Please pray for David, that the Lord would bless his ministry and give him strength and wisdom as his ministry and influence grow. Also please pray for workers with International Teams as they strive to build up, encourage, and disciple leaders like David.
*A pseudonym has been used for security reasons.
**This location has intentionally been left obscure.