I stopped by Willie and Betty Murray’s home in NW Calgary on Christmas Day to give them a copy of my newly-released book, reGeneration: Stories of Resilient Faith in Communist Romania. As I drove there, I rehearsed a little speech for my presentation of the book to Willie. I’ve given that speech many times. Every chance I get, I tell Willie that because of him I can tell this story. Long before his memory began to fade and his world became confused and befuddled by dimentia, I’ve thanked him many times for his impact on my life. As I stood in the doorway on Christmas Day, unable to go in because of COVID restrictions, I handed him the book and said, again, “Willie, in 1983 God used you to change the course of my life. I’ve come to thank you — and bring you a copy of my book.”
In the early 80s Willie and I served together on the pastoral staff of First Alliance Church in Calgary, he in a missions capacity and I as pastor of children and families. Willie and I shared a passion for the nations that my birth in China had ignited, but it was Willie’s influence that made that little fire burst into flame. As a student at the University of Calgary in the early 70s, instead of going every Friday night to the bar with my friends I sometimes found myself on my knees at an old-fashioned prayer meeting at Willie and Betty’s home, praying for suffering believers in places like Albania, Czechoslovakia and all the east bloc nations. It was Willie’s stories from Eastern Europe and his bold cries to God on behalf of suffering believers that opened my heart to God’s call to Communist Europe.
In June of 1982 Willie realized he had inadvertently double booked himself. He needed someone to take over a commitment he’d made to teach 20 short term mission participants in Hershey, Pennsylvania, all of them excited about a summer in communist Europe, smuggling bibles to believers, bringing encouragement to churches in fascinating places they’d never dreamed of visiting — Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine. . . Because he was so late in asking me to replace him, he apologetically offered me notes he’d begun to collect for his daily lectures on topics like how to think as a Christian about Bible smuggling and an apologetic for ministry in contexts where, if the regime knew what we were doing they would not approve.*
It was a life changing week in Pennsylvania that summer. While there, I met Tom Lewis from Vienna, who shared the teaching with me all week. Tom came from the trenches, mesmerizing the young people with stories about men and women whose decision to follow Jesus meant they were fired from their jobs, they were followed relentlessly by the secret police, their food ration cards were cut, attempts were made on their lives,;some landed up in prison. The young people listened with rapt attention — and so did I.
During that week Tom Lewis told me about a group of educators who snuck into eastern bloc countries, right under the radar of the secret police, teaching a full-blown seminary curriculum to pastors who might otherwise not be trained. My heart told me, “I want to do that!” It was the conception of the stories I tell in the book I handed to Willie on Christmas. Day. His eyes looked past me, but his face lit up with some measure of distant recognition. Our love for Europe and for the persecuted church was a bond that even dimentia cannot totally erase. After I made my little, rehearsed, one-minute thank-you speech, Willie looked at the book in his hands and gazed intently at the cover. And I heard, quite distinctly, the words, “That’s so cool!”
And it is.
*Chapter 3 in the book, “Doing Ministry in Hard Places: Ethical Issues” had its beginnings in the rough notes Willie passed along to me when I took his place in Hershey, PA in the summer of 1982. His ideas were lived out in the experiences of twelve years behind the Iron Curtain, which is what the book is about. That’s so cool!