Fresno Pacific University students get taste of dangerous reality for persecuted Christians

Footsteps pound toward me as I crouch behind the car. The policewoman bellows in my face as I stand up. “What are you doing out so late?” The questions come like angry slaps, with no break for a response. “What do you think you are doing? Are you a Christian?”

She blindfolds me and shoves me into a van, yelling at me for tripping even though I cannot see. As I sit in the back seat, I am caught in an instant of confusing silence; then a male voice joins the female in screaming at me. “What were you doing out so late? Are you a Christian?” A waving flashlight intersects the darkness, disorienting me, as the van lurches off. The yelled questions continue until the van finally stops. The police drag me out, leave me alone in the darkness and drive away. I feel shaky as I slowly lift the blindfold and look to see if anyone is watching. Seeing no one, I pull off the blindfold and walk to the Bible study. Now, in a small way, I know how Woudineh Endayelalu felt.

A student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Endayelalu spoke at “Night of Persecution,” April 2 at Fresno Pacific University. The event simulated experiences of the persecuted church around the world. “The program was designed to give students just a sample of what it is like to live in a country where Christianity is illegal, because that is the situation of most Christians worldwide,” said Julia Ciupek-Reed, the student organizer. 

Endayelalu spoke about the rejection he faced by family and community after his adoption of evangelical Christianity. In Ethiopia, said Endayelalu, evangelical Christians are not persecuted by Muslims or Communists, as in other countries. Instead, they are persecuted by orthodox Christians. When Endayelalu became a Christian at 15, his family refused to support him emotionally or economically, forcing him to find food and education on his own. Firm in his decision to stay with Christ, he lived off the generosity of other Christians.

The persecution continued when Endayelalu was a university student in Ethiopia. The administration was made up of Communists and orthodox Christians, and evangelical students had to hide their Bibles in their dormitories. Students conducted Bible studies by concealing copied verses in their textbooks. They prayed with their eyes open, trying to avoid any behavior that would get them into trouble.

As Endayelalu spoke to about 40 FPU students, the classroom was kept dim with flickering candles to emphasize the necessity for secrecy many persecuted Christians face. We watched a video from an organization called Open Doors about the persecuted church in Sudan, China, Korea and other countries that encouraged Christians in America to help by using political influence and prayer.

After Endayelalu spoke, leaders split us into three groups representing China, Colombia and Iraq. They gave each group a campus map with a specific point we had to get to without being captured by other students playing police.

My group spots a policeman across the university Green shortly after leaving the classroom. As we take the long way around the campus, we can hear occasional running and yelling. The cold wind is blowing the clouds away from the moon, and the grass is still wet from the afternoon rain. My feet are chilly and damp, but I ignore it as I anxiously look in every direction for a dreaded police officer.

As we walk along a row of parked cars, a man in black appears and we hide. He discovers my companions first, and I listen breathlessly as he interrogates them and puts them in the van. Then the policewoman finds me.

After my release, I make it to the meeting place and share my experience with my original companions and several other Christians who have walked through danger to get here. We read Scripture, pray and sing, all with the edgy awareness that these very activities could create more fear and pain. In the middle of a prayer, the lights go off and police storm in, yelling, “Kiss the ground!” They order our leaders to stand while the rest of us lie oblivious to what they do. I cannot bear the ignorance and look up just slightly as our leaders boldly stand and let the police lead them away. Someone sees me and hollers, “Face to the ground!” Police bang on the tables above our heads and scream that our Jesus must not be real, for he is certainly not helping us.

Student and faculty leaders wanted the event to create empathy for persecuted Christians. “I was hoping that the students on campus would get a reality check,” Ciupek-Reed said.

Other students don’t believe the simulation is the best way to remember persecuted Christians. “I feel like it makes a mockery of what really is happening in the world,” Natalie Askew said. “In American culture, where we don’t even live Christian lives most of the time; we play a game to help us realize it.”

Leaders said the presence of international students from persecuted countries and the poignant viewpoints they shared made the experience more genuine. “Students do make light of it, and they shouldn’t,” Ciupek-Reed said. “We do our best to make them understand it’s real. Our actions and prayers affect Christians in other countries.”

The police suddenly leave and I get up and turn on the lights. I am surprised at how scared I still feel as others stand up and look dazed. We know the event is officially over and it is time to go back to the classroom to discuss our experience. But I think of all the places in the world where Christians cannot remove themselves from the threat of death and pain. I have taken too much for granted.