After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I heard about Islam for the first time and about how it was a religion of peace. There was a lot of nonsense about how Muslims were just like us and that we were all going to go to heaven. That troubled me because of my understanding of The Bible and the teaching that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. In February of 2002, the effects from the attacks were still being felt as I left for a “mission” trip to Honduras. The trip was awesome as the members of the team could feel the very presence of God and see his work in action. Meanwhile, God would not let me get Islam and the fate of Muslim people out of my mind. On the way back from Honduras, we changed planes in Houston Texas. I saw a long line of Arab people lined up for “special screening” as part of the new airport security program. My heart ached as I saw the people enter a room one at a time where I knew that they were being strip searched. My heart cried out at the thought of the people being forced to endure that. I knew how horrified I would be to go through that and the humiliation that I would feel. God had been prodding me several months now, and I finally agreed that I would find a way to go to Iraq as God had been telling me.
Upon arrival at home, I studied everything I could including learning the Arabic language. I searched for any and every opportunity to get to Iraq but it seemed that nothing worked. It took five years but God finally gave me the opportunity to go to Iraq. I didn’t know exactly what I would do when I got there but it seemed like God kept telling me to just go and He would tell me more as needed.
The military name for the war in Iraq was Operation Iraqi Freedom while the name for the war in Afghanistan is Operation Enduring Freedom. I did not actually know that when I left for Iraq. Once I learned of the names, it made me uneasy. Most Americans probably will not believe this but it is true and you can actually do the research to prove it. While going through the processing for my deployment to Iraq, I learned that it was against United States law to attempt to share the gospel with anyone (proselytize) while in Iraq. We were also informed that if we chose to disobey that law we would be treated just like we were in the Army as far as punishment went. At first, I was shocked but took comfort in the story in the Bible (Acts 4) where Peter and John were before the Sanhedrin. I resolved that, like Peter and John, I would go on with what God had told me to do in Iraq. It just stunned me that we had Americans fighting and dying to “bring the Iraqi people freedom” but we could not even give them a Bible thanks to the edicts of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
With the resolve to obey the Law of God instead of the law of men, I was overjoyed on the flight from Dubai into Baghdad International Airport. I remember how when I caught a glimpse of Baghdad from the air I could not hold back the tears. I remember turning my face to the window of the plane and trying to quiet the sobs so those around me would not think I was crazy or afraid. I remember God speaking to me and telling me that what I saw could not bring freedom to Iraq. I was pointed to Psalm 146 and especially verse 7 where it says “…the Lord sets prisoners free.” The teaching from The Bible about us, as Christians, being known by our love also stuck in my mind. Don’t misunderstand, I am a veteran of the U.S. military and have nothing against defending our country. But, God kept telling me that without Him and His Word there was no hope for Iraq or any other place.
I spent my first night “in country” at Camp Victory in Baghdad. Upon arrival, I was told that we had to be ready at all times for shelling of the camp and in fact the camp had been shelled heavily the night before. By the time I had my things stored for the night, it was very dark and I could not sleep. I walked around part of Camp Victory that night and was praying out loud as most people were asleep. I thanked God for allowing me to go to Iraq and for the opportunities that I knew He would provide. I prayed for the people in Camp Victory and for their protection. The night passed quietly and the next day I left for the base where I would be working.
Upon arrival at the base, I quickly learned the way things were done and could see that the majority of the people on that base had no illusions of helping the Iraqi people find freedom. I settled in and prayed every day for God to show me how He wanted me to do His will. In His time, he told me how to proceed. My wife and I set up a system where I would have her mail me a “care package” with as many Bibles in it as we could get away with. In my daily travels, I had access to just about every part of the base. On my daily travels, I would carry as many Bibles as I could safely conceal. I would place them where I knew they would be found by the Muslims and Hindus. I came to call them my “little droplights” because I knew that amid the darkness all around me His Word was the only thing that could provide any light. There were many times where I was really close to being caught but that didn’t bother me at all because I knew that it was in the hands of God.
Another part of the effort to share Christ was through music. I was amazed when I first got into a truck on the base and noticed it was equipped with a CD player. I called my wife and had her to send me the Christian music that I had regularly listened to at home. Although I knew that many of the people around me would not be able to understand the words, God said to play the music and play it loud and so I did. As we were driving one day, the man with me (who was from Bosnia and only spoke broken English) turned down the radio. Jars of Clay had been playing “it is well with my soul” through the speakers and the man looked intently into my face and asked “what is soul?” I did not know how to speak Bosnian and could not explain it to him but the closest thing I could get him to see is that it was inside like your heart. We listened to the CDs over and over and I must trust that God used them to touch that man as well as others but I felt so inadequate at not being able to communicate effectively.
The company that I worked for, used sub contracted workers from many countries and most of them were poor Muslims or Hindus. Many of them were not allowed to even go into the dining halls and eat with us or to go to the base exchange to buy anything. They were for the most part looked down upon if not out and out treated like slaves by most of the Americans. It seemed like they were always hungry and scared but they had to put up with everything because they had to have the money. As a Christian, I saw them as my lost little brothers and did everything I could to show them the love of Jesus. This did not go over very well with the Americans I worked with. Each morning I would greet all of the sub contract workers with a hand shake and a smile and many times I was asked how I could do so with such dirty nasty people.
“Blue” was one of those workers and was a devout Muslim. Most people could not pronounce his real name and he always wore a blue shirt to work so that became his name. Each Friday, at the appointed time, he would go behind the shop and perform his prayers. We became friends and I started to greet him every morning with an orange or two. You could see the extreme gratitude in his face and he would say thank you over and over with a big smile on his face. Every time we met he would say “you my friend” because he could not speak much English. I used what Arabic I could to talk to him and could see the appreciation in his eyes as he knew that someone did care about him. I held the hope in my heart that someday I would be able to tell him about Jesus but I dared not do so at work or face military court martial.
I made no attempt to hide that I was a Christian and began a daily Bible study in the shop before normal working hours. It started with me and another American that said he was a Christian. He was very good at quoting scripture especially parts of the Old Testament dealing with blessings and curses. During our Bible study time one morning, we were looking at the Book of Acts. He got off the subject for some reason and made a comment about the dirty Iraqis and how he hated them. I immediately asked him to show me, in the Bible, where we were told it was acceptable to hate anyone and explained that Jesus didn’t give us that option. He became very angry and I do believe that the Holy Spirit convicted him right then and there. Anyway, that was the end of the Bible study for him and I continued it alone for the rest of my days in Iraq.
It was then that God showed me just how precious it was to meet with other Christians. I guess the old saying that "you don’t know what you have until it is gone" is true. Anyway, God showed me how great and awesome it was to have the opportunity to be a part of a “church”.
Things started to go downhill from there as I really felt the presence of evil all around me. I felt totally isolated from fellow Christians but I held onto Jesus and knew that He was beside me all the way. Things got very bad but God also used them to show me that He was in control. Through this time, I wore a Martyrs’ Cross around my neck. I knew there was nothing magical and no power in that cross but it did give me the physical knowledge that I wasn’t alone. Many times I felt it poking my chest and was reminded to pray not only for myself but for those around me (even those that had the hate in their eyes).
About this time, my supervisor devised a scheme to falsify the records and steal from the government. The contract that we had all signed required us to work 12 hours per day and seven days per week. The people in charge of my department devised a plan where they would make it look like everyone was working but in fact one half of the workers would get Sunday off each week. The records and bills to the government would all be falsified and everyone would be paid whether they worked or not. As a Christian, I knew that, no matter how tempting it was, I could not dishonor Jesus by going along with the plan. I told those in charge that I could not go along with it and told them that I would be working the hours and days that I was supposed to. I asked them to transfer me to another camp in Iraq so that I would not have to be a party to cheating. Within hours, a muscle bound American threatened me and basically told me to get with the program or else. He looked at me with hate in his eyes that said “I will kill you and you will never be found”. My reply was that I was going to keep doing what I was required to do by the contract.
The next day, I was demoted from the job as a repairman and put on the washer crew. This was basically where you hauled around a group of sub contracted workers and watched them wash air conditioners. The man that I replaced in the job was the same one that had angrily left the morning bible study group. He was given my position and we were basically swapped. The crew that he had been working with was very glad to see me replace him. I didn’t know why at first but it quickly became clear. This was all during the middle of summer and at times the temperature reached 130 degrees. I noticed that they actually ran and worked like they were possessed even during the midday heat. It took a few days but I was finally able to get them to see that they were not required to work like slaves. I began to get them to take breaks and I would get them extra food every day. It seemed like things were all working out for the best but then came Saturday evening. I was told once again to take the next day off but kindly explained that for me that was not an option.
I worked in the shop all that Sunday repairing air conditioners and wondered what was going to happen. The next day, I was once again approached and informed that if I “messed things up for the rest of them, I would be sorry”. The message was delivered loud and clear, with a little reminder that I was living in an open tent and “things happen”. We had been trained and warned about how flammable the tents were and how quickly they would burn. A little voice inside told me that that was what was planned for me. I resolved that I would pray about it that night and see what God told me to do. That night I lay in bed and wrestled with the problem as I felt the Martyrs’ Cross that I wore around my neck. I plead with God to show me what to do and my heart was torn by the two options that were available.
I could leave Iraq, the mission that God had given to me, and “Blue” or I could stay and see if they really would come that night or the next and burn the tent with me in it. As I felt that cross and it replaced the hug of a fellow Christian, God told me that it would not help anyone to see Jesus if I was burned alive. Nobody would ever know or even care and still the people would be lost.
I decided to leave Iraq and it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It took a couple of days for the travel arrangements to be made and I still wondered if the tent I was staying in would be burned. I didn’t get much sleep but I spent a lot of time in prayer.
The day before my flight out of Iraq, I had to go through out processing and part of that process was going to the shop and getting papers signed. I went with a heavy heart and saw “Blue” for the last time. As we said goodbye, tears streamed down his face and I couldn’t get the thought “What about Blue?” out of my mind. His final words to me were “you my friend, if you go I go” but I told him that he had to stay and I couldn’t. As I was on the way back to my tent, I saw the washer crew that I had worked with. They were back to running around like a bunch of scared slaves. A few of them pulled me to the side and begged me to stay with the words “You good man, he’s very bad”. It pained me to know that the “very bad” one they were referring to considered himself to be a strong Christian. With a broken heart, I told them that I could not stay and watched their faces change from hope to resignation. I felt so sad that they had hoped in me and I couldn’t tell them about the True Hope.
The next day, I flew out of the base and into Baghdad airport where I was to catch a flight out of the country. On the flight, I kept asking God why He had sent me and then I had to leave. I knew in my heart that He could do anything and begged and pleaded for Him to miraculously make everything better. Then, God stepped in and showed me grace like I had only seen once before. (That had happened nine years before when He intervened to stop me from ending my life.) The flight that I was supposed to take was full and everyone but me was on it. I was left in the airport and allowed to sit and talk with some Iraqi people. A little boy came up to me and shared a piece of candy and we were able to playfully pass the time. It was like God telling me that I had been faithful and that it was ok for me to leave. It seemed to me like a little reward and I was truly grateful. (Isn’t it amazing how God can use the smallest of things to get His point across?)
It was good to get back to the United States and to see my wife but I was completely flabbergasted the first time we went to Church. I could not believe that the building was not overflowing with people that had come to worship God. My thoughts during that first service went back to Iraq and the people all over the world who did not have the freedom to worship together.
That evening as I attended the service, I was shocked even more by the fact that only a handful of people chose to come and worship. I couldn’t believe how we had gone from meeting together to worship our awesome God to making it a “family evening”. It struck me of how, even in the most restricted of countries, they are allowed family time but worship time was what was not allowed. Even so, we freely give away what many would die for because we have never been told that we can’t have it.
At times, there was a little voice that said “What about Blue?” and it would often add “you abandoned them”. Over the next 18 months, I tried in vain to get back into Iraq. Sometimes after the voice was finished with me I would be so angry at myself for leaving and at God for not letting me go back. I went through a time of acting like a spoiled brat where I told God that, “if I couldn’t go back to Iraq, I wouldn’t do anything”.
Looking back now, it reminds me of the story in the Bible where Jonah sat under the tree and acted the same way about the plant and the shade. Even as I write this, the arrogance that I had astonishes me and I hear the music from a Word By Ten practice CD. I hear the song He Came and ask myself the question “Who am I and how dare me to tell God what He will do with me”. Once again, I must fall on my face and cry in repentance.
Finally, God was able to penetrate through all of the self pity and to show me that He had other plans. I grudgingly accepted the fact and agreed to go to another country. Once again, God stepped in and showed me unbelievable grace. I received a call from the leader of the team and we were able to talk for a long time about the trip and the fact that there are only two Christians in the area surrounded by 18 million Muslims. God blessed me as the leader of the team told me of the time he had spent reviewing the information packet about me. He recounted how tears filled his eyes when he read the story of how Jesus had saved me from suicide. I was quick to explain to him that it really had very little to do with me and was only by the mercy and grace of God. I explained to him that I in fact knew what it was like to be totally isolated like those two Christians and that God was working.
It was the Friday of the Christmas drive-thru at church, when I was told of a friend having problems and was asked to keep him in my prayers. I agreed to do so and went about the task of being the prophet in the drive-thru. In doing so, I got to talk to another friend about her day. She informed me that her delivery truck had broken down again and that her husband was trying to fix it. We prayed about it and that was it for the night. The next day, I was praying for my friend and God told me to give him the Martyrs’ Cross that I had worn in Iraq. That night, at the drive-thru, I talked to the couple that was having problems with their truck. I asked about the truck and was told about how they were there despite the problems with the truck. I was amazed that they were there and were being faithful regardless of the problems. We also talked about the upcoming week and how she was going to run herself ragged with ministry practices, preparing for three shows, as well as her regular job of delivering packages.
The next morning, during my prayer time, God said look at the faithfulness of this couple. The story from the book of Daniel about the writing on the wall (chapter 5) kept coming to my mind and finally I opened the Bible and read it over and over. Verse 27 especially hit home where Daniel told Belshazzar “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” God convicted me that I had been lazy and not performing up to his plans for me. In short, God said you’ve been acting like a spoiled brat. I had to agree and immediately repented of my attitude and my thinking that I knew better what God wanted than listening and letting Him tell me. He placed the phrase “If you are hungry for God, you leave nothing on the table” in my mind. I had to confess that I had left much on the table and I could see it as me slapping Jesus in the face. The thought absolutely horrified me and the song “He Came” ran through the mind.
At church, I gave my friend the Martyrs’ Cross but knew that I could not make myself explain what it had meant to me in Iraq. That day, is when God told me to begin Enduring Freedom Ministries. I know the Sunday School answer that God is always with us but I do not want anyone to have to feel the isolation and evil that I did in Iraq. It is true that God is with us but it is also true that He wants us to help each other. God willing, nobody will have to feel that they are alone in carrying out what God has told them to do. We are called to build each other up in the faith and by His grace that is what we will do.
This was written today because of what God told me in prayer this morning. I have been hesitant to talk about this period of time because it is quite painful but also because I don’t want anyone to think too much of me. Every day God reminds me that I am merely a redeemed drunk saved by His grace. This morning I listened to some worship music before prayer and it was another song from the Word By Ten practice CD that touched my heart. I listened to Voice of Truth by Casting Crowns and as it spoke of courage and faith it touched me. During prayer, this kept coming to mind: “It’s your faith, own it!” So, this story, even though it hurts to tell, is the result and I have to “own” my faith as well as my faults. As the song said, I had to step out of my boat and stand before my giant. God has provided the stone, the giant is down and through His power the mocking voice will die.
If you are hungry for God, you leave nothing on the table.
P.S. I guess I wont get to know whether “Blue” found Jesus or not until I get to heaven but that is the thorn I must carry in my side. (see 2 Corinthians 12)