Pastor Joshua from Myanmar was sitting alone in a prison cell, feeling forgotten and hopeless. His persecutors had won. Then a pair of strangers paid him a visit in prison, and everything made sense...
It is Sunday morning at Pastor Joshua's church in Myanmar. The worship of believers from Buddhist, Muslim and animist backgrounds fills the air. Pastor Joshua folds his hands in respect, and greets them with a broad smile, giving the children high fives.
A few years ago, he wasn't sure he would ever smile again, let alone pastor a church. Then, at his lowest ebb, encouragement came and Joshua saw his whole life in a new way. It's a perspective he's eager to share with his fellow believers – being a Jesus-follower in Myanmar can mean you are persecuted, often badly.
Pastor Joshua wasn't always a Christian. "My grandparents, my father and mother were from an animist background," he said. "My forefathers worshiped the gods by sacrificing animals so that they will be blessed and have good health."
Joshua first learned about Jesus at a Christian camp and came to faith there. He said: "When I got back home from camp I called my family together and prayed for them and told them how to be disciples of Jesus Christ."
His whole family followed suit and became believers.
Out into the margins
Pastor Joshua had originally planned to be an army officer, but instead he studied theology. On his return home, his old church invited him to become the pastor. However, he felt that God had another calling for him.
"I heard God call me to minister to Burmese Buddhist believers." He started working in the slums of one of Myanmar's cities, where he reaches out to the poor and neglected.
Not everyone was happy about his work. "One day, I met a Buddhist nun, Mimi (whose name has been changed for security reasons), who was selling buns in the street," he recalls. "I bought all her buns and then started sharing the Gospel with her. Not only she was a strong Buddhist believer, but she was also a high priestess and worshipper of spirits."
Eventually, Mimi left Buddhism and stopped worshipping the spirits. She refused to conduct rituals and ceremonies. Mimi's husband told her to invite the Pastor over to their house so he too could hear about Jesus.
However, when he arrived, Mimi's husband was waiting for him with a knife. Pastor Joshua turned tail and ran. It was just a taste of the persecution he was to experience.
Pastor Joshua and his little house church began to grow. The local authorities and government officials began to take an interest, and they started issuing letters and threats to stop the worship services.
"The government officials started investigating me and telling me I cannot do ministry here. They would come on a Sunday with a prison vehicle and pull me out of the pulpit."
Finally, the government issued an order to close down the church. Pastor Joshua was arrested and imprisoned.
"I was alone, and nobody was there to encourage me," remembers Joshua. "Other pastors were scared to come and see me because they worried that their church would be closed down too." Feelings of loneliness weighed him down inside the cold prison walls.
A new hope
However, news of Pastor Joshua's imprisonment reached two partners of Open Doors. They visited him in prison, praying with him and encouraging him.
Joshua was released shortly after this and the men remained close friends. They invited him to attend a training course in 'persecution preparedness'. It may sound too late for a course like that after everything he had been through. However it was a revelation to him and helped him to make sense of all he had suffered.
"I was so happy, I cried every day. When I see how Jesus Christ has suffered for me, and when I see how other Christians are persecuted and suffer, I can see that what I've been through is nothing in comparison."
He has even become a trainer himself.
"I preach to ministers who are discouraged and lonely - running on an empty tank of faith and hope.
"Every day, I can see the changes in their faces and their behaviour, as they are strengthened and renewed by the training."
"Some ministers come to me with tears in their eyes, saying, 'We were going to give up our ministries. Now we will carry on, even if we die.'
"Money is not the most important thing for the pastors serving here. What is important is knowing God's Word and having the God-given courage to face persecution."
- For Pastor Joshua, that God will protect and guide him as he continues sharing the gospel, serving believers, and encouraging other ministers in the field.
- That persecution preparedness training will be available to the believers who need it most
- For the second generation of local trainers to be strengthened so they can reach out to the farthest corners of the country.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is 19th on the Open Doors World Watch List, of nations where it is most difficult to follow Jesus.
Learn more about the charity Open Doors.