Chipping Away at Their Faith
by Jonathan Carswell, OMF writer
It had been three long years since Paul, Stephen and Philip were sentenced to a five-year jail term. Their crime was fabricated, but the three devout Christians had no defence. In Laos, when the authorities want someone in jail they can ensure that it happens, especially if those concerned are committed Christians.
From the courtyard of the prison, the hustle and bustle of the busy town could be heard. Beeping horns, animals in the market place and people shouting and talking were all familiar sounds to the prisoners.
Of course they never saw any of it, unless they were assigned a work project. Usually, the only view the prisoners had was of a dusty courtyard, containing a water canister in the far left corner and a few thorny weeds that could withstand the force of the baking midday sun.
The weeds had more stamina than the prisoners, who would cower in the corner waiting for the sun to go behind the peak of the building before venturing out for a stroll round the yard. Round and round they went, happy for any activity to break up the tedium of prison life.
On one surprisingly cool day Paul and Philip were in their cell, sitting cross-legged with their hands tied as usual. It had been raining most of the morning and puddles were beginning to collect on the floor. Their roof leaked, and the rainwater was a dirty brown.
With the afternoon came the sun, which did its best to break through the dense, grey cloud. The change in weather resulted in a surge in business in the town: those who had taken shelter from the rain were now busily getting on with their shopping.
Unbeknown to Paul and Philip, seven middle-aged women had gathered outside the town’s police station located diagonally opposite the prison doors. They prayed together quietly, bowing their heads as they stood in a circle.
“Why don’t we sing,” suggested one.
“Are you mad? Do you know what could happen?” another quickly replied.
“No, I really think we should.”
Softly and gently the women began to sing John Newton’s Amazing Grace. By the second verse their voices resounded with confidence. Passers-by turned their heads; some smiled wryly, others looked confused and frowned.
The melody travelled over the prison walls to Paul and Philip, whose eyes lit up as they recognised the hymn. Humming along to the tune, they pretended to conduct with bound hands, their voices and laughter bouncing off the cell walls.
The other prisoners glowered at them but, assuming they were mad, decided not to do anything.
Philip and Paul knew the singing was for them. It had made their day.
The soldiers on duty found it less funny, however, and two days later a large but powerfully built guard stood outside their cell, holding a bunch of keys. His green uniform was smartly pressed and fastened round his girth with glistening silver buttons.
“Paul,” he said gleefully, “I have a little job for you.”
The expression on the guard’s face worried Paul. He knew harsh treatment awaited him; it always did.
The guard took Paul, who was flanked by two skin-headed soldiers, into the courtyard and through the large steel gates to the town.
“We have a problem,” the guard began. “You see, this police station here used to be an evangelical church. We removed the cross from above the front door, but a shadow remains, the sun having bleached the exposed stone wall.
“Tourists stop and pray here and we want it to stop. You are to remove the shadow of the cross.”
The command, Paul felt, was a deliberate challenge to deny his faith. In Laos, animists believe that the essence of a god’s spirit is contained within the god’s image or idol. So if someone can be persuaded to destroy their idol, they’ll destroy any belief in the god it represents.
This, Paul knew, was exactly what the guard wanted him to do. He also realised that if he did remove the cross from the police station, he would probably secure an early release.
Paul replied wisely. Aware of the subtleties of the Laos language, he stated, “I am unable to do this.” (As in English, the Laos word for “unable” can mean physically impossible or unable for any other reason.)
Thankfully, the guard took him to mean that he was physically unable to carry out the duty and retorted sharply, “What do you mean? Why not? Look I’ll show you. It’s easy.”
As the guard reached the top of the ladder, he shouted down for a mallet and chisel. One of the soldiers quickly rummaged around in a bag and handed the tools up to the guard before returning sharply to stand beside the prisoner.
“Look, this is what you have to do…”
The guard placed the chisel on the bricks and drew back the wooded mallet. Embarrassingly he made no real impression with his first strike, and so tried again.
This time, as the mallet and chisel met, the stone splintered, sending little shards in all directions – one of which went straight into the guard’s eye. He dropped the tools, only narrowly missing the soldiers and Paul below, and clutched his face.
This tough guard started screaming. He was in agony. He stepped back down off the ladder slowly – unable to see in both eyes.
“Oh just forget it,” he snorted as he ordered a soldier to take him back to the prison.
To this day, the shadow of the cross remains above the door of the police station. The guard has now regained his sight, although it took three days before he could see again; and none of the believers in the prison has denied his faith or any symbol of it.