Brother Andrew said once, "Show me a closed door and I will tell you how you can get in." (He added, "I won't, however, promise you a way to get out.") Erstwhile "God's Smuggler" (and author, with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, of the book by that name), Andrew goes to places most of us avoid to interact with people most of us dismiss in order to aid Christians in circumstances most of us know little or nothing about. He founded the (aptly named) Open Doors ministry to champion the cause of the suffering church around the world and to facilitate his enigmatic ventures of goodwill. Both he and the ministry have come a long way since the 1950s when he started smuggling desperately needed Bibles to Christians behind the Iron Curtain, hiding them in the back seat of his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle.
This year Brother Andrew turned 70, celebrated 40 years of marriage to his wife, Corry, and welcomed their first grandchild. He will tell you, looking back on his life, that his dreams have come true. Open Doors has made a significant impact and has grown into a force he never imagined: "The curtains have come down in the communist world. That is what I worked for. I am very happy about that."
God's Smuggler introduced his burden for Christians behind the Iron Curtain to fellow believers all over the world, which created a network of support that multiplied the reach of Open Doors. Today the ministry has offices in 20 countries and 200 full-time workers. (Brother Andrew serves as president emeritus.) Through Open Doors, Brother Andrew has brought Bibles and Christian materials to struggling churches in the one-time communist Eastern bloc, to China, Cuba, Vietnam, Africa, and Latin America. They have sponsored "congresses" (like the Love Africa Congress in the 1970s that brought together leaders from all over the continent for prayer and ministry support), prayer campaigns (such as Seven Years of Prayer for the Soviet Union that began in the early 1980s), and "projects" (Project Pearl delivered clandestinely a million Bibles to China in 1981 and Project Crossfire distributed Christian literature throughout Latin America in 1985).
In this decade, Open Doors has sponsored Project Samuel, which supplied a million schoolchildren in the former Soviet Union with their first Bibles; distributed 20,000 "unofficial" copies of a Chinese Study Bible to church leaders; presented the first complete Albanian Bible to the president there; and initiated Ten Years of Prayer for the Church in the Muslim World.
In 1997 alone, Open Doors distributed 814,041 Bibles; 210,908 New Testaments; 87,606 Gospels; 650,843 "spiritual books"; 387,050 other forms of Christian literature; and trained tens of thousands of pastors and lay leaders in seminars and workshops. (This does not include their visits to imprisoned Christians, emergency help for families of martyrs, church repairs, medical aid, legal support, relocation assistance, vocational training, and just plain being there. A church leader in Lebanon recalls the time when his home was bombed; as he staggered amidst the rubble, he saw Brother Andrew making his way through the wreckage just to be there with him.)
But there is one dream (with two parts) that remains unrealized: The church in the Middle East is dwindling, and the Islamic strongholds are not being penetrated with the gospel. "Communism proclaimed that there is no God, which is stupid and schizophrenic," he says, "because they say there is no God, and then they fight him. The challenge now is not that proclamation; it's the challenge of Who is God?
"Islam confronts us with that question."
When God's Smuggler came out in 1967—powerful as it was in rallying support for the those languishing behind the Iron Curtain (it sold over 10 million copies in 27 languages)—it ended Brother Andrew's access to these countries. "I could not go back there, and it caused me a lot of heartache to even make the decision [to do] the book."
At that time, he took a trip to the Middle East. He foresaw a power shift taking place that he sensed would pose a critical challenge to the church: He anticipated the disintegration of the communist stronghold; he was witnessing the moral and spiritual collapse of the Western world; and he predicted the ascendance of Islam as both a world power and a religious force.
In 1973, during the energy crisis, the opec oil cartel doubled the price of a barrel of oil (from $2.55 to $5.09). Western nations gave in to the price hike, which sent the signal to these oil-producing nations that they had power. This, says Brother Andrew, became the defining moment in the realization of his prophetic insights. "Islamic eschatology teaches that in the end time, Islam will conquer and rule the world. In 1973, Islam woke up to the fact that Allah had put oil under their sand for 'such a time as this.' "
Oil, it turns out, is the lifeblood of the West, which has placed these desert kingdoms in a position of near-apocalyptic importance. This has created a complicated network of colliding realities that Western Christians face when it comes to understanding the Middle East. This network consists (in broad strokes) of the following aspects:
- Oil is in high demand in the West;
- Demand has heightened the power and influence of these Islamic nations;
- Islamic power and influence have shaped American politics in the region;
- Politics is driven by the requirements of a consuming culture ("The moment we discover you can run cars on water," says Brother Andrew, "we'll drop the Saudis.");
- Consuming culture has (to a greater or lesser degree) influenced the outlook of the Western church;
- The Western church has inadequately understood both the politics of the region and the religious sensibilities of Islam;
- Islam is asserting itself (both politically and religiously) and expanding its influence.
Brother Andrew says that Islam threatens the viability of Christianity in this region and internationally, not because these nations have oil (integral though that may be in this picture), but because Islam has forced the question Who is God? and Western evangelicals have been unable to answer that question.
He describes a conversation he shared with some leaders in Hamas (the fundamentalist Islamic resistance movement in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem whose aim is to reverse Israeli occupation and establish an Islamic state in Palestine):
"I challenged the Hamas leadership about the suicide bombers, and they denied that they had suiciders. 'There is no suicide in Islam,' they said.
" 'Then what about the bombers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?'
"One man said with full conviction, 'It is religious.' "
They have an endless supply of "suiciders," Brother Andrew says, because everybody wants to go to heaven. Crying 'Allahu Akbar,' they blow themselves up (and those around them) and are ushered straight to heaven proclaiming "God is greater!"
"Greater than whom?" Brother Andrew asks. "Than Jesus, than Jehovah, than the God of the Christians," he says. "One Muslim terrorist, before he got himself killed, made a video recording of himself. He said, 'Our love for death is greater than your love for life.'
"Unless we come willingly to enter into dialogue—not to win, but to witness to the point of laying down our lives—we won't get anywhere. This is what I saw the Russian and the Chinese Christians do under communism: lay down their lives in the gulag, in the re-education camps, in the labor camps. That's why the church won.
"We've entered a very difficult time of total misunderstanding, miscommunication, misinformation, hostility, and not talking to each other.
"I want to change that," he says.
So his most recent—and perhaps most controversial—ministry focus has shifted to the Middle East where he witnesses boldly about Jesus (by invitation) in the gatherings of Hamas and Hizbollah (the latter—the Party of Allah—is a Lebanese fundamentalist movement within Islam) and extends encouragement and solidarity to the dwindling Christian population in the land where Jesus walked.
Brother Andrew's propensity to defy the odds has contributed to his being widely misunderstood. The answers to the many questions his activity provokes (What is he doing hobnobbing with terrorists? What about the ethics of smuggling? Why doesn't he use a last name?) are grounded in who Brother Andrew is: he is a no-nonsense doer, with no patience for committees. This can be seen in both his nature and his nurture.
Brother Andrew is, by nature, unfazed by the prospect of dying. When his beloved older brother Bas lay dying of tuberculosis, the young Andrew (age 11) determined that "if Bas was going to die, then I wanted to die too." He threw himself on top of his dying brother and "kissed him again and again on the mouth." (Bas died a few months later while the young Andrew remained "healthy as ever." He felt as if God had "betrayed [him] twice.")
He is, by nature, spirited and adventurous. When the Germans bombed an airstrip four kilometers from his home in Holland on his twelfth birthday (May 1940), he acted out his self-confessed "fantasies of resistance" by sneaking out at night, taking the family's highly treasured sugar ration, and dumping it into the gas tank of the "fat little German lieutenant." "Everyone in the village was amused when the lieutenant's staff car began to give him trouble."
He is, by nature, a risk taker. On another occasion during the occupation, late at night he tossed a cherry bomb onto the lieutenant's doorstep, purposefully waiting until the village patrol was in sight. ("I thought it would be fun to have these old men in their heavy boots run after me." He was the fastest runner in his hometown.) In his fantasizing, he didn't reckon on guns. When one soldier cocked and aimed his, the young boy tossed the firecracker and bolted. Running in zigzags, darting over bridges, and taking cover in the cabbage patch, he evaded them and was "elated by this success," which inspired him to start brazenly "discharging volleys" in broad daylight.
He is, by nature, stubborn and impulsive. At the age of 17, wanting to be treated like a man, he joined the army and broke his mother's heart. ("She had seen enough of armies," he said.) While in training, an officer asked him, on the spot, if he could drive a Bren carrier (a tank). Not wanting to appear weak and dumb (and feeling sure he could figure it out), he said that he could—failing to mention that he didn't even know how to drive a car.
He was right when he thought he could drive it; he just couldn't figure out how to stop it. The tank quickly picked up speed: "Arms flailing and feet flying, I tried every button and lever I could find. … [A]nd with one last surge of power we plowed into the row of Bren carriers parked at the curb. All seven of them bucked forward, each slamming against the other until we came to rest, hissing and smoking."
But other external forces—what I refer to as his "nurture"—have tempered his extremes.
For example, by "nurture," he has reckoned with calamity. The German occupation meant hardship and squalor for Andrew's family: all electricity was reserved for the Germans, so the family's oil lamps were fueled by oil they made from cabbage seeds; the Germans took all the vegetables from their gardens, so they ate tulip bulbs; the military took over Andrew's school building when he was in the sixth grade, so he never completed his education.
By nurture, he has been softened by personal loss. On the day he left home for the army to serve in Indonesia after the war, as he said good-bye to his mother, she pulled her little Bible from her apron. Handing it to him she asked, "Will you read it, Andrew?" (She had taken him to church every Sunday as a boy, but he had always managed to sneak out and enjoy the morning skating the frozen canals or sitting in the fields.)
He put the Bible in his duffle bag "as far down as it could go" and promptly forgot it. That encounter was the last time he saw his mother.
He has, by "nurture," been broken by his own misguided adventures. He found himself in a situation in the army when he realized that he had been wrong about this "adventure." He and his company had been in combat in Indonesia for weeks when they entered a village that was riddled with land mines. When they stumbled into the mines, fatigued and disoriented, the company "went berserk:" "Without orders, without reasoning … we shot everything in sight"—including unarmed civilians.
"I wanted to kill myself after that," he said. And he bought a bright, yellow straw hat that he wore into combat, making himself an easy target for enemy fire. He was eventually shot, but not killed, as he had hoped. The bullet shattered his ankle, making the fleet-footed, dare-devil Dutch boy more or less a cripple.
These external forces eventually broke him and precipitated an inner crisis. Standing at his mother's grave after he returned, he said, "I did read your Bible, Mama. Not at first, but I did read it.
"Mama, what am I going to do now? I feel so useless. And guilty. Answer me, Mama."
No answer came from the grave that day, but his answers did eventually come. At one point, during his weeks in occupational therapy at a nearby veterans' hospital, a young woman invited Andrew to attend a tent revival. Motivated more by the desire to escape the hospital than by spiritual sensitivities, Andrew and a friend attended the meeting. By the time they entered, they were giddy with amusement, having finished off half a bottle of alcohol they had snuck in. They sat in the rear of the tent so they could finish off the rest. They choked back the laughter when a "funny-looking man" took to the podium.
Andrew's hilarity stopped short, however, when the speaker announced from the podium that "there were two people in the congregation who were bound by powers they couldn't control." Later in prayer the speaker prayed for "our brethren over whom foreign spirits have gained influence." He ended the service with the song "Let My People Go."
Andrew did not "go forward" that night. But the song's words—"Let them go; let me go"—haunted him for days, to the extent that he picked up the Bible his mother gave him, which he hadn't looked at in years. "All the passages that had seemed so puzzling when I struggled through them before read now like a fast-paced action yarn."
He spent so much time in his bed reading his Bible that his father and siblings were alarmed. "Papa says it's shell shock," his sister said to him. He started attending church—this time to learn something (and not to mock the speaker). But as sincere as his newfound spiritual interest was, he couldn't apprehend the faith in a way that made it seem real to him.
Then, during a winter night in 1950 (Andrew was 21) when a storm descended, he seemed to hear in the wind: "Let my people go . …" It was as if the wind was telling him what he needed to do. He prayed, "Lord, if you will show me the way, I will follow you." In that moment, he says, "I let go of my ego," and all those no-holds-barred attributes that he possessed "by nature" were under new command. (He opted not to tell his family about his conversion because, he said, "they were worried enough about me already.")
Gospel with a G-O
He spent two years at the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade (WEC) missionary school in Glasgow, Scotland (1953-55), taking Bible classes, systematic theology, homiletics, linguistics, and car mechanics. As "an exercise of faith" the students (in groups of five) were sent out throughout Scotland on a four-week missionary tour with only a one-pound note. They were expected to pay for their transportation, lodging, food, any advertising, and renting of halls (plus refreshments); they were not allowed to take up offerings or mention monetary needs; and they were expected to remit the one pound upon their return. (Andrew's team came back with enough extra money to send some to WEC missions overseas.)
As he prepared to return to Holland in 1955, after completing his schooling, he stumbled upon a magazine that advertised a youth festival sponsored by the Communist party to be held in Warsaw, Poland, that summer. He wrote and told them he was training to become a Christian missionary and asked if they would allow him to attend the festival to exchange ideas. (They would talk about socialism; he would talk about Jesus.)
"Most certainly," was their reply, and the festival organizers gave him a student discount. This trip was to be the turning point in Andrew's life.
He visited an unregistered (and thus struggling) Baptist church while he was there and was unexpectedly asked to bring a message. Afterward, the pastor said, "Even if you had not said a word, just seeing you would have meant so much. We feel at times as if we are all alone in our struggle."
Andrew pondered the situation of this church, with hardly any young people, comparing it to the other more "successful" "state approved" churches he had visited. He also recalled a student march he had seen with the young, robust, clean-cut socialists marching eight abreast. "They marched singing, and their voices were like shouts."
His heart ached for the Communist youth who had so zealously given themselves to this cause, and he was troubled by the lack of resources and support that the nonstate-approved churches faced, which diminished their numbers and stifled their ability to grow in spiritual maturity. He asked God, "What should I do?" He found his answer in the Book of Revelation. The words jumped out at him: "Awake and strengthen what remains, and is on the point of death" (Rev. 3:2).
From that moment to this, "serving the suffering church worldwide" has defined Brother Andrew's (and later Open Doors') mandate. This meant, he says, "We find out what a church needs, [and] we come back and supply it, whatever they ask." In most cases, during the early years in the Eastern bloc, they desperately needed Bibles. He prayed before each border crossing: "Lord, in my luggage I have Scripture that I want to take to your children across this border. When you were on earth, You made the blind to see. Now, I pray, make the seeing eyes blind." Sometimes he would lay a few Bibles in open view on the back seat of the car and answer honestly when officials asked what they were (to disarm suspicion that there might be more). As far as was possible, he chose to operate within the bounds of the law. When the civil law co-opted God's law, however, he would "obey God rather than man." (In 1981 he orchestrated the secret delivery of one million Bibles to China on a single night. The idea came from the Christians in China, and they told Brother Andrew's team how, when, and where to do it. That was "very illegal," he says.)
His desire to go to the suffering Christians ("you can't spell the gospel or even God without first spelling go") ultimately compelled him to stop using his last name. The more he traveled (and had an impact), the more difficult it was becoming for him to register at hotels and to cross borders. "Anonymity was becoming a problem. If I kept using my real name when I spoke, wouldn't I jeopardize my freedom to come and go across borders?" Last names had "almost ceased to exist among Christians" behind the Iron Curtain. So for all these reasons, "God's smuggler" decided to drop his last name. Henceforth he has been known only as Brother Andrew.
Where Jesus walked
His mandate to "strengthen what remains and is on the point of death" has led him to prisons, refugee shelters, and house churches in the farthest reaches of the globe. But most recently it has led him to the land of Jesus—specifically, to the churches that are struggling for survival in the West Bank and Gaza.
"I have never seen so much despair that leads to running away, and to violence, and to conversion to Islam," says Brother Andrew of the Christians in Bethlehem. "There is one tiny evangelical church in all of Gaza, and I preach there every year. Every time I'm there the numbers are down. The last time I preached a couple of months ago, there were only 12 Christians."
Fifty years ago the number of Christians living in "the Holy Land" (Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza) hovered around 30 percent, according to Brother Andrew (other sources estimate 10 percent). Today a generous estimate would put the Christian population at 2.3 percent of the 5.7 million Israelis and 2.5 million Palestinians. (Andrew thinks it is more like 1.8 percent.) Some of this is due to the massive influx of Jewish immigration in recent years, but there has also been a significant exodus of Christians, who endure severe hardship if they choose to stay.
"If a bomb goes off or a boy throws a stone, then they close all the schools," he says. "The schools are closed most of the time. The [Bethlehem] Bible College was closed." And even when they are open, very often students and staff cannot get to schools if they are coming from outside the area. So the cumulative loss of days adds up. The high unemployment rate in Gaza and the West Bank makes finding jobs very difficult. So, on one level, diplomas, when they are earned, "are worthless"—not academically so much as in the sense that many graduates feel, What is the use of having a diploma if I cannot get out of my 'prison'?
"There is no electricity for long periods of time because they cut it off," says Andrew. "They shut off the water, so they take their laundry to another village. They can't travel—a farmer cannot go to his field because in between is a piece of Israel that he cannot cross."
Unemployment in Bethlehem hovers around 50 percent, according to Jane Handal (quoted in the Religious News Service [RNS]), an architect and Catholic Christian who lives in Bethlehem. "All the younger generation want to leave. All who study abroad stay where they are and try to find work. Opportunities are rare here." Many Christian families who have lived there for centuries (some since Pentecost) have decided to leave, "besieged by wars, unemployment, and the unstable peace between Arabs and Jews," writes Steve Chambers (for RNS).
Heaped upon the church's struggle for survival is the insult of Christian tourists and pilgrims "walking where Jesus walked" while sidestepping their hurting brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza. "Pilgrims come and go. They visit churches, visit the stones, but not the living church," says Claudette Habesch, who serves as secretary general of the Caritas Jerusalem charities office (quoted by Chambers). "Many pilgrims come and go without ever realizing there are Christians living in the Holy Land."
But Brother Andrew's concern for the dwindling Christian presence in the West Bank and Gaza encompasses only one aspect of his larger concern about the exponential and unchallenged rise of Islam in the Middle East. Muslims' "influence is growing while [Christians] are declining in influence," he says. "Christians are losing ground in the Muslim world."
The rise of Islam has remained largely unchecked because of negligible Christian activity in this region. ("There is one missionary to every 250,000 Muslims," says Brother Andrew.) Both of these phenomena (the rise of Islam and the marginal Christian response) can be understood in terms of a modification of the "network of colliding realities" mentioned earlier:
- Islam is asserting itself because of increased prosperity from oil and meager Christian activity by the Western church;
- The negligible Christian activity is due, in part, to the outlook aroused by the politics of the region and a general lack of understanding;
- The politics of the region exists to secure access to oil in order to accommodate Western lifestyle demands;
- Western lifestyle demands have distorted both the Western view (including the Western church's view) of the Middle East and the Middle Eastern understanding of the West (including Western Christianity).
This is what Brother Andrew means when he says that Christians in the West and Muslims in the Middle East have "entered a very difficult time of total misunderstanding, miscommunication, misinformation, and hostility."
As he has come into relationship with many Muslims, including leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah, he has found that they are surprisingly open to Christianity—that is, once they understand what it is really all about. He has been invited to speak at gatherings of both groups, and in one instance, drew a crowd of 400.
"You see," he says, "every Muslim is afraid of the judgment day because, in their concept of good deeds and bad deeds, the bad angel is gloating: 'Your bad deeds are a lot greater than your good deeds.' Every Muslim lives under that condemnation and there is only one way out—and every Muslim knows it: to die in jihad.
"We must confront them with a greater determination," he says. Like the time he told some leaders in Hizbollah that he wanted to exchange his life for a hostage they were holding. Brother Andrew said, "Chain me to the radiator in the dark basement and let him go. He has suffered enough. Let him go back to his wife and children."
The Hizbollah leader's "eyes almost popped."
" 'I don't know how you can say that,' he said.
"That's the spirit of Jesus," Andrew said. "He gave his life to let me go. Now I come to give my life so he can go." ("He did not follow my advice, but we became friends.")
This same leader came back to Andrew later and said, "Andrew, you Christians have a problem."
"What is it?"
"You Christians are not following the life of Jesus anymore."
"What do you think is the solution?"
"You must go back to the book, the New Testament."
"I figured if we Christians could go back to our book, we would obey the scriptural injunction: love your enemy. The moment I love my enemy," he says, "I have no enemy.
"I have lectured officially at the Hamas University on the subject 'What is real Christianity?' Every time I mentioned the prophet Muhammad the front row of Hamas leaders would whisper, 'Peace be upon him.'
"You can have that, I thought. But I am proclaiming Christ, and peace comes through him.
"I stand there and I open the New Testament and I read about the cross, about forgiveness, and this concept of God's love. Forgiveness is unknown. Allah forgives or he does not forgive, according to his will. They know nothing about the assurance of salvation. They're such uncertain people. Why are we not crying out with compassion and pity on a billion people like that? We're not dealing with structures. They are human people that have the same fear and pain and anxiety and love that I have.
"According to 1 Peter 3:15, we're supposed to 'give an account of the things that you hope and believe.' As we are transparent, and not political, they will accept you as their brother or sister, and together you can study the Scriptures and find out who God is.
"I tell them, 'You don't have to blow yourself to pieces. There's another way.' "
A plea to the church
Brother Andrew cites the last verse in Hebrews 11 to articulate his appeal to the Western church: "They [the suffering church] will not be perfect without us." But he puts on an addendum: "Nor will we be able to survive in the so-called free world without them." Why? Because the plight of our struggling brothers and sisters in conjunction with the rise of Islam is forcing the Western church to answer the question, Who is God?
Islam rises in strength and numbers and the Christian presence dwindles, either because of outright persecution and discrimination or lack of governmental support. And there is little or no advocacy asserted by Western Christians for their struggling fellow believers. So Islam proclaims the victory of Allah over the God of the Christians, whose people are weak and whose churches are dying.
Brother Andrew extends a two-sided plea to American Christians. First, he asks that we actively advocate on behalf of Christians in the Middle East and offer financial support to the floundering Christian institutions there. That means, for example, when Christians visit Israel, they should seek out and encourage struggling brothers and sisters, even if that means going off the standard tourist trail.
"Christian evangelicals could make a point of insisting at the tourist office that they go to places like the Bethlehem Bible College," he says.
"I took a group to the Palestinian hospital on top of the Mount of Olives. The Muslim director was very helpful. We met a number of born-again Christian nurses in the hospital. It was the highlight of the whole trip."
Christians will be flocking to the Holy Land, especially as the new millennium approaches, many enamored with end-times prophecies. But, Andrew says, "The end-times prophecies can never be fulfilled if there is no church in the Middle East. There is no 'holy city,' only 'holy people.' There is a living church, and so there is a responsibility.
"We have a surplus of liberty, of knowledge, of goods, of resources that fit exactly their need," he says. "If we do not reach out to them, we are not fulfilling our God-given purposes for life. God gave us this for them. But keeping it, we commit spiritual suicide. I spoke at a prayer conference some years ago and said, 'Stop praying for revival [in America]' because God will not create a monster of the body of Christ by letting half of it grow huge beyond proportion and the other half shrivel into oblivion."
Brother Andrew's other plea involves becoming more aware of and concerned for Muslims. "Nothing will change until we begin to spell Islam 'I Sincerely Love All Muslims.' We Christians are not praying for Muslims. One [Christian] brother in prison told me that he was praying for his torturers. We are not even praying for our irs men or gang members. It's one reason why America is in a mess—we're not praying for those who are 'enemies' of our society. We have to learn that lesson from the suffering church.
"Get prayer letters, read books about persecution—make them bestsellers!—and begin to pray. Very soon God will say, 'Why don't you answer your own prayer?' "
Not going to places that are more easily avoided, not interacting with people who are more comfortably dismissed, and not advocating for believers who struggle in situations we know little or nothing about will leave unanswered the question that Islam poses to the West. And going, interacting, and advocating can be, as Brother Andrew puts it, "a dangerous business."
"But the doors are not closed," he says. "Only when you are there can God tell you what you should do. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 to go. He didn't say 'Go, if the doors are open'; or 'Go, if you have an invitation or a red carpet treatment.'
"He said, 'Go,' because people need his Word."
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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