Many of us are familiar with the accounts of the Apostle Paul, who in his missionary journeys faced a myriad of hardships, many to a degree that we cannot even fathom. Ridicule. Rejection. Intimidation from the Jewish power-brokers under the guise of religious leaders. Shipwreck. Hunger and deprivation. Paul found himself imprisoned more than once, and many of his great letters were written there. These are often referred to as the “Prison Epistles”: Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon.
It is easy sometimes to just gloss over the fact that Paul wrote these letters from a jail cell. We focus instead on the content of his teaching, parsing his thoughts on marriage, legalism, the fruits of the spirit, the supremacy of Christ, and a number of other matters. It’s tempting to discount any contemplation of Paul’s mistreatment and deprivation, interrogation, accusation…
Until it happens to one of yours.
Our hearts were shattered when we were informed that a former ministry partner of ours in China was detained by authorities five weeks ago. Esther was the business manager of a day care center, located within the most upscale government subdivision in our former city. This center was the most high-end of its kind: the teachers were educated, the children received a quality educational experience and were provided with nutritious food. The parents enjoyed the added benefit of classroom webcam access. They could go online and “check” on their child at any time of day that they wanted.
This day care center also offered weekend seminars for the parents of these children, focusing on physical health/hygiene, healthy relationships and nurturing skills for the home. Many of these subjects were addressed from a Christian perspective, all of it sanctioned and approved by city officials.
Esther and her husband moved to our city 6-7 years ago. They came from another province, having started their Christian work in Sichuan province, ministering to victims of the 2008 earthquake. Esther put her administrative skills to practice, coordinating resources for scores of search/rescue and volunteer activities. Her reputation was well-known, and she was given permission from the government to move away from her home province and set up this business in the city where we worked. Through a network of national friends, we were introduced to this couple with the objective of partnering together. We were nervous at first, not knowing whether or not we could trust Chinese nationals whom we’d never met before. As time went on, however, we determined that they were genuine believers and not local residents recruited to spy on us and report any unlawful activity (which basically included all of our work.)
We enjoyed a warm relationship with this couple. We visited their day care center a number of times, playing with the children in the outdoor playground, watching them sing and perform, and letting our girls play with them. Most memorable of all were the weekends. After their morning parenting seminar, we would enjoy a monstrous feast of Chinese dumplings prepared by Esther’s husband. Stew became an expert at making these dumplings after serving several times as our friend’s apprentice.
So why has Esther been detained? Why was she accused of running an “illegal business” when the day care center remains open in full operation? Why is she completely cut off from all communication with her family? We think the answer lies with her husband who conducted “activities” outside the home, mostly with students from a nearby university. He carried out a growing “work” under the umbrella of his wife’s business, which gave them permission to live in the city. Although city officials more or less turned a blind eye to his activity, there must have been somebody who did not approve.
Clever authorities: they know that the best way to punish a man is to take away his wife and place her in an unknown but notoriously harmful environment. We can only speculate because there are many reasons that fine, upstanding citizens are detained by the police: intimidation, a chance for an official to get promoted, retaliation for loss of “face” (very important among the group societies of Asia), or directives from provincial police or from Beijing itself.
Whatever the reason, the current situation is heartbreaking. Dad and boys are at home alone. The boys, aged 5 and 2, cry for their mother. Dad has run out of explanations why Mommy won’t come home. They suffer in isolation because nobody wants to be associated with them, not even their fellow brothers and sisters. He got word that even his attorney is unwilling to stick his neck out and pursue Esther’s release out of fear of retaliation. Our stocky and spirited friend has been reduced to tears every day of the week. He is discouraged and worried sick about his wife.
Paul’s imprisonment has suddenly come to life.
We pray for this couple. Like Paul and Silas who were supernaturally released from prison, we pray for Esther’s release. We pray for strength for our friend who is wilting in his grief and racked by the pressure of the unknown. Join us in prayer, will you?