Prisoner sees harvest of souls
CENTRAL ASIA (BP) -- "Dad, I think we're being followed."
Yasemin* drummed her fingers nervously on the car door. Her father kept on driving the familiar route to drop her off at English class, singing a praise song to Jesus as he drove.
Yasemin turned around and looked back.
"Dad, we're being followed."
He sang louder.
"Would you take it seriously?"
Not missing a beat, he changed songs mid-verse and belted out lyrics of his own: "I'm going to prison today!"
James* knew the signs. He'd already been in prison once for his faith in Jesus. That day made it a second.
In the region where James and his family live in Central Asia, people bend over backward to show hospitality. Go to a neighbor's home, and they spread out a feast and heap a visitor's plate high with food. Leave your wallet somewhere, and people will guard it until you return.
"In lieu of an armored car, I've seen cars left unattended with the trunk open and piles of cash inside," a friend of James said. "No one would dare bother it."
In his country, they take care of each other.
But share Christ openly, and they may torture you.
"James has been blindfolded, handcuffed and held in solitary confinement," his friend said. During the day, he has faced confinement in a room where three compressor units were blowing hot air on him, and he was not given any water or food.
Officials interrogated him, asking why he left his former religion.
"I am on this way because of Jesus and what He has done for me," James said.
At the beginning of his imprisonment, he was put in a small jail cell at night, his hands released just long enough for him to eat a small piece of bread and drink one liter of water.
But James hardly slept -- he stayed awake praying and singing praises, just as he did in the hot room during the daytime.
James has lost nearly 50 pounds since being imprisoned, his friend said.
But he has seen a lot of people found -- many of them from places where he could never get access to go and share his faith. One of them had heard part of the Gospel message nine years earlier, and when he met James in prison, he heard the whole message and believed on the spot.
"This man had been waiting for nine years to hear the rest of the Gospel, just wanting to meet someone who could tell him," James' friend said. "He knew immediately it was God's plan to send him to prison. He danced for joy."
The guards came and began to beat the new believer.
"He cried out for Jesus to rescue him, and he stood firm," James' friend said. "He's still standing firm with James in prison today."
James is seeing more people come to faith in Jesus Christ during his months-long imprisonment than in the rest of his 20 years as a believer, his friend said.
"He is enduring all things, and all the time more people are coming to faith," his friend said. "He is torn between two things -- his release and the work God is doing there through him. His family is very anxious for him to be out of prison, but he is telling them to be patient, because God is doing great things."
When James' wife Ashti* and Yasemin got to visit him in prison, tears ran down their faces.
"He put his hands on our heads and said, 'Why are you sad? God has a purpose for me here and He is not finished with it yet,'" Ashti recounted.
He prayed for comfort for them then told them he had a job for them to do.
"He said a man had come to believe in Jesus and wanted his wife to know," Ashti said. "He asked James to get us to go and share with his wife."
With nerves on edge, Ashti and Yasemin loaded up the car and went straight to her house from the prison.
"I didn't know what we were going to do, how we were going to tell her or how we would be received," Ashti said. "But when we got there, she said, 'I want very much to hear what you have come to tell me -- there is light all around you, and I want to know why.'"
Ashti knows the difference that the Light -- Jesus -- can make.
She herself came to faith when she encountered Light during childbirth, seven years after James first believed in Christ.
He was a devout Muslim -- even to the point of planning terrorism -- before someone gave him a copy of the Gospel of John. In the middle of the night he felt someone call his name, shake him and tell him go to read.
He lit a lamp, got the book from the shelf and started reading while his family slept. The words jumped off the page at him. By the following year, he was a wholehearted follower of Jesus.
"I had been so angry with him for becoming a believer," Ashti said. "I tried and tried to get him to return to Islam. I got my mat out and prayed with the kids in front of him on purpose."
He didn't change his mind, or his heart.
"Finally after years of trying to get him to come back to Islam, I was at the lowest point in my life. I decided to divorce him, even if it meant I had to leave the kids," Ashti said.
Then she learned she was pregnant.
She headed straight to a clinic to have an abortion, not wanting to have the baby of an infidel.
"But the doctor said I was too far along to abort, so I decided I would have the baby, but that was it," Ashti said.
She packed her bags and left to live with family until she had the baby. James didn't see her again until he got a call while she was in labor. It wasn't to let him know she'd have the baby -- it was to let him know she'd decided to come home.
During labor, she met Jesus. "All I could see was light," she said.
And now all her children have met Jesus, which has helped greatly with understanding why their father is in prison.
But they still struggle with his absence.
"As the trial with James has continued, remaining upbeat has grown increasingly harder," James' friend said. "His family struggled greatly with sadness and frustration. That being said, however, the Father has been working powerfully to strengthen their faith through it all."
And the Father has made such an impact on James' fellow prisoners that many of them, after their release, have traveled great distances to let James' family know he's safe, his friend said. "His wife and kids are encouraged by the reports from the former inmates, but they are also dearly missing their dad and spouse."
But they know that God put him in jail with those men so that their families could also know the truth, his friend said. "Keep James lifted up so that the spirit of love pours from him into their lives and his light burns ever brighter every day."
*Names have been changed. Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board based in Europe.