By: Karen Raber
Genocide, war, school shooting—these are no longer new words in our vocabulary. Do these hopeless acts of evil have no explanations? Does God care? I don’t have solutions, but I have come to look at these happenings as dark splotches of paint defiantly hurled at the magnificent canvas on which God is painting the history of time. These sinister smears of paint are the desperate actions of one who has withstood the Almighty from the beginning. But God, the master painter, is not hindered by these interruptions on the canvas. He is able to turn these awful happenings into something that amplifies His glory. Join me as we review some history and see the compassion and supremacy of the God we serve.
It was the late 1980s. The place was one of the northern provinces of Iraq, called Kurdistan; the people were the Kurdish residents. Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, had one goal in mind – to exterminate the Kurds. Compassion wasn’t a characteristic of Saddam Hussein, and the plans for accomplishing his purpose were ruthless. He ordered crop-dusting planes, loaded with chemicals, to fly over Kurdish villages, dousing the residents with a substance that literally ate their flesh away. People were killed by the thousands, and entire villages were wiped out. It was one of those dark splotches of paint hurled at the master canvas.
Nearly twenty years later on our side of the globe, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, another black splotch was in the making. It was a bright, lovely October forenoon, but inside a small, white schoolhouse, the atmosphere was dark and ominous. Ten young girls lay in a row, facing grave danger A gunman ordered all boys and adults to leave while he lowered the window shades and nailed barricades across the doors. Authorities had been alerted and were pouring into the schoolyard. They commanded Mr. Roberts to come out, but he was spurred to action instead. Several minutes later, five young girls lay lifeless, five were wounded, and the gunman himself lay silent and unmoving. It was the Nickle Mines School shooting.
What do these incidents have in common? At first glance, nothing. In fact, there is a huge disparity in the aftermath of these two happenings. The Kurds who had survived the onslaught of cruelty were these years later still struggling with depression, anger, and frustration. In contrast, the Amish community of Nickle Mines chose to forgive. They believed that because God had forgiven them, they would, by His grace, forgive Mr. Roberts. To demonstrate their forgiveness, they showed compassion and care to Mrs. Roberts and her children.
No one knows how it came about, but a documentary written about the Nickle Mines incident found its way across the world to Kurdistan. By this time, the Kurdish people were desperate for something different. They recognized that by taking the path of retaliation and fighting, they were only causing more anger and frustration. The Nickle Mines story amazed them. They realized that if they could embody the principles portrayed in this documentary, they could change their nation for good.
The Kurds approached an American who was working to help them rebuild their villages and requested that he find these Amish people and bring them to Kurdistan to teach them this philosophy of forgiveness. At first, this seemed like an impossible feat. But after some research, the American contacted some Amish people from Lancaster who agreed to fly to Kurdistan. This group flew over, prayed for the people, and taught them the words of Jesus. It’s hard to estimate the extent of this influence, but it was after this introduction to the Gospel of Jesus that Kurdistan turned a corner.
Why are we looking at this segment of history? It’s because, out of these dark tragedies, a mission opportunity was recognized. God enabled believers to carry the light of the Gospel to people who were completely closed to Christianity before. The stories of Kurdistan and Nickle Mines form the backdrop to this mission’s beginnings, and the next few stories reveal how God orchestrated events for His own purpose.
Several years later, the people of Lancaster provided aid for a disaster that occurred near Kurdistan. The roof of a missionary training school blew off in a storm. This school is located in Armenia, to the north of Kurdistan, and works with the ministry, Back To Jerusalem. The pastor in charge of the school reached out to Back To Jerusalem for help. They told him, “We are only sheep and rice farmers and know very little about construction, but we know some carpenters from Pennsylvania who could help.”
Shortly after, a group from Pennsylvania flew to Armenia to repair the roof. When they got there, they looked at the disaster and marveled. Was God showing them something? The roof had folded over neatly in the storm and landed in the courtyard, which was barely as big as the roof! Neither the building nor the courtyard had sustained any damage. This was more than coincidence. When the volunteers arrived back in the States, they starting praying that the Lord would show them what He wanted them to learn from this experience. What was it they felt He was asking of them?
Soon, another message came. It was an email asking if they could come once more. This time, a group of 9,000 refugees had flooded into a village in Kurdistan and had moved into concrete houses with no windows or doors; some of the houses had hardly any roofs. Could they provide plastic coverings and twelve men for about two weeks? The difference this time was that the ISIS crisis was in full swing. Nearly everyone in America had heard of ISIS, and the word sent shivers down their spines. Nevertheless, when the Lancaster people received the message, they prepared to go.
The group had been there only a short time when they discovered that this was a much larger project than anticipated. It was September, and winter was coming. Cold winds blew through these unfinished shelters while rain and snow found their way inside, further chilling the occupants. Not only did these refugees have inadequate housing, but they were also sick, both physically and emotionally. They had just fled some of the most horrific scenes of bloodshed and violence, and thousands of their people had been killed or kidnapped. Many had no idea if their family members were still alive, and if they were, they had no idea where they were. The team sent a message back home saying, “We need more people, more money, and we won’t be done in two weeks.”
One day, as Ramon Stoltz was making his way through the village, a woman came running up to him. In broken English, she stated that her baby was sick and needed a doctor. The fact that she approached a man, a man she didn’t even know—which is unthinkable in her culture—portrayed her desperation. Ramon stopped, considered her dilemma, and then told her, “We didn’t bring doctors, but I will pray.” Disappointed, she said they’d already prayed, and it hadn’t helped. “But,” Ramon said, “I can pray to Jesus.” She finally agreed, desperate for anything that might help.
Ramon prayed for the child, then found his way back to the rest of the team. During lunch, he related the incident and said, “We all need to pray. That baby won’t make it through the night unless the Lord performs a miracle, and what’s more, I just put Jesus’ name on the line. This lady believes that Jesus is only a dead prophet, and if He doesn’t heal this child, it will only confirm her beliefs.” The entire team prayed and also sent messages back to the States asking people to pray. The next morning, the girls from the team paid a visit to the lady. The baby showed no traces of having been sick. The Lord had performed a miracle!
As the days went by, more and more people came for help. When the team members were out walking, people would come running, asking for doctors. The answer was always that they had no doctors, but they could pray. While they prayed, more would line up with the same requests. Seeing the people healed was most amazing! The refugees kept asking, “Why do you come? Don’t you know that ISIS is going to kill you if they catch you? Don’t you care?” They replied, “Yes, we know, but we are here because we serve a God who reigns with love, and in turn, we love and care about you.” To the refugees, it was inconceivable. All they knew was serving a god who reigned with fear.
It didn’t take long to realize that these disasters and tragedies had swung the door open wide for the church in Iraq. There, the opportunities were endless. Back home, people were giving money faster than the budding mission could put it to use. People wanted to know more about the ISIS crisis and ways they could help. Mike Stoltzfus returned home and helped to organize what is now Plain Compassion Crisis Response; a non-profit organization operated by conservative Anabaptists and Mennonites. Mike said, “We hadn’t planned on organizing a mission. We didn’t even know how. We only knew there was a need and the Lord was providing for it. As Henry Blackaby said, ‘God is always working somewhere, and it’s our job to find out where and partner with Him.’ We really feel we simply stepped into what God was already doing.” Mike and his family spent many hours traveling about the country visiting churches who were interested in the work, and God kept connecting the dots.
In Iraq, the missionaries realized that the only thing that would stem the tide of the ISIS violence was the Gospel of Christ. They prayed for ways to reach the ISIS soldiers. It was at this time that Mike and some others from PCCR were shown drones that had the capability of being programmed to fly to a specified location and drop things from the air. When Mike saw them, he knew they were exactly what they needed.
The mission smuggled several drones into Iraq and then tried to formulate a plan. If they tried to send messages to ISIS, they reasoned, it would look terribly suspicious, and the Kurds would think they were spies. That would turn the Kurdish army, with whom they had great favor, against them as well. That was no option. Finally, they decided to be up-front with the Kurds, and showed them what they wanted to do. They showed them the drones, the audio Bible players with small solar panels on the back, and the earbuds. These would be put into small tubes, fastened to the bottom of the drones, and then dropped on ISIS outposts. They told the Kurds, “The Gospel of Jesus on these players will make ISIS stop fighting.”
The Kurdish soldiers responded with, “That’s the most ridiculous thing we ever heard. You are crazy!” One soldier, however, asked for a player and walked away, holding it to his ears. He was gone for a long time, and when he returned, he looked at them squarely and said, “This is not only good for ISIS; it’s good for my people, too.” The soldiers gave the mission the GPS coordinates to the villages where the Bible drops could be done. It was ironic. Iraq was closed to evangelizing, yet here were soldiers who were helping them do so!
This went well for several months until the news leaked out to the wrong people and the mission was thrust out of the country. They were threatened that if they ever set foot in Iraq again, they would be killed. Within one week, the team was back in Iraq. Mike said, “If God tells you to go, you just go.”
This time, they settled in a village that desperately needed help but was decidedly closed to the Gospel. During their work there, they met a young Iraqi army general whose nickname was “ISIS slayer”. His looks belied his nickname; his soft face projected an agreeable disposition which discredited the fact he was a hardened killer. The team repeatedly invited him over for an evening meal on the rooftop of their mission outpost. He finally accepted and came with two of his bodyguards. When the general turned to leave, he stepped into the little room where the project coordinator kept his table. He pointed to the Bible lying on the table and asked if he could have one in his language. The project coordinator’s jaw sagged. He would be delighted to find one! Hadn’t he been praying for this?
It took two weeks to procure a Bible in the right language, but then the coordinator hastened to give it. The general then told him why he had requested a Bible. He had heard of an ISIS general in Syria who had found a Bible, and after he had finished it, told his soldiers to lay down their weapons and go home. He told them they had been fighting the wrong fight; they’d been deceived and they had to stop following their way and follow Jesus. This story had caused the Iraqi general to think. How could such a small thing do more to stop an army than a whole truckload of bombs? He was forced to compare their cultural way of fighting in which, for every man killed, three more are honor-bound to take his place, with the Gospel, where not only does one man stop fighting, but all his followers stop as well. It’s sad that PCCR was forced out of this town soon afterward, and contact with the general was lost.
One fact that PCCR recognized during their work was that they could be much more effective when disasters strike if they had more training. Back home, some of the leaders wanted to put together a training program that included escape and evasion, emergency response, and even helicopter operations. Mike told them he knew exactly what they were getting at—they wanted to have fun!
“No,” they said, “we want to know how to work around helicopters safely, how to signal them to land, how to create safe landing zones, and how to communicate with the pilot over a radio.” The training program would also include instruction on how to control a panicking crowd of people, what should be done if any of the team were captured, and what to do if they escaped. Mike still felt skeptical, but the team was given the go-ahead. It was the last time he was doubtful about training; on the day of the graduation, an immense earthquake hit Nepal, and PCCR had a whole team of people who were trained and ready to go.
The team headed to Nepal, partnering with an aviation mission that was flying aid into remote villages. At one of the distributions, the president of Nepal was present. He had been flying through the country, checking on villages, and after the distribution was done, he commended the team leader. He told them it was one of the most organized aid distributions he had ever witnessed. “You must have been doing this for a long time.” The team leader enjoyed telling him it was their first time.
A door for the Gospel opened in Nepal with the aid distribution. One village was ruled by a Buddhist leader who had driven all Christians out of the area. Partnering with a Christian church that had been trying to reach this village for some time, PCCR prepared to do a distribution of rice. The team leader had bought the rice at a market, and not knowing there was a difference, he bought the best rice. After the distribution, the ruler approached the local pastor and said, “All these years I’ve been persecuting you, and now you are the people who come to our aid. Not only that, you don’t bring us cheap rice; you bring us good rice! You are welcome in my city, and if anyone ever gives you trouble, you let me know.”
Then PCCR heard of the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh. Over 1.2 million refugees had fled a most cruel slaughter from their Hindu countrymen and were crowded into what used to be a national forest. This area has over three thousand acres, but with such a large mass of people, nearly three hundred individuals inhabit each acre. Think of that many people on each acre of your own property and then think about the lack of latrines, water, and food. Unfortunately, this area was also the migratory route of herds of elephants that did not appreciate the intrusion. Adding to their atrocious nightmare, the Rohingya now faced having their shelters destroyed—and themselves being killed—by elephants.
The staff of PCCR felt the Lord calling them to go. A group left for Bangladesh, though they had no connections within the country. When they got there, they had no clue of what to do or where to go. Bryson, a volunteer from the group, started walking down the beach, praying that God would show them what to do. Presently, a man came running toward him. “Are you American?” he asked. After talking with him for a bit, Bryson discovered that the man was a courier who assisted people coming into the country. He was able to lead the group to the right government officials, who helped them obtain the paperwork for access to the camp. Within two weeks, PCCR had access to one section of the camp. God was at work again.
Here, they went to work drilling wells. They weren’t the only organization drilling wells, but it didn’t take them long to realize that most of the other organizations never checked back to see how the wells were working. It was not unusual for a pump to be installed and, a short time later, be broken. Nearly two thousand people used each pump, inflicting considerable wear. So, teams started repairing pumps as well as putting in latrines. While doing this work, they began to notice the widows. The camp had a large number of widows who, in their culture, had no voice and no husbands or sons to care for them. Many were left to the mercy of their neighbors who were willing to share some of their own food rations. Currently, PCCR has access to the entire camp and provides aid for widows while sharing the love of God, as well as doing the ongoing work in the camp.
PCCR continues to work in Iraq and Bangladesh and, as the Lord leads them, respond to new crises and disasters. They have responded to hurricanes occurring in the US and in Puerto Rico.
The vision of Plain Compassion Crisis Response is to spread the love of God through disaster relief and humanitarian aid and to equip this generation with the leadership skills needed to live a God-honoring life in today’s world.
Is God able to use the world’s darkest moments for his glory? I know He can. I also know that the Deceiver will one day be thwarted and there will be no more dark splotches on the canvas of our lives. But in the meantime, the canvas is in God’s hands. It’s in good hands, don’t you think?
Plain Compassion Crisis Response
Michael Stoltzfus • 717-833-4727 • www.plaincompassion.org