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INTERVIEW
Christian Monitor – Interview with Glenn Penner, The Voice of the Martyrs, Canada
Glenn Penner is Communications Director for The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada. He is also Visiting Professor at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, and author of a unique new book exploring the Biblical theology of persecution and discipleship.
In this interview with Christian Monitor he discusses the work of VOM, he gives advice on how Christians in the West can help the persecuted church and he discusses his new book.
The Voice of the Martyrs is quite well-known among Christians concerned about persecution. However, the various regional branch organisations have their own histories. Please tell us a little about VOM in Canada.

Perhaps the first thing to clear up is the misconception that there is an international headquarters for The Voice of the Martyrs and that the rest of the offices are, as you say, "regional branch organisations." The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere are each independent missions that are jointly part of an association of missions started by or through the influence of Richard Wurmbrand called The International Christian Association (ICA). There is no international headquarters for The Voice of the Martyrs, per se. The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada is a completely independent mission from VOM-USA, for example. We share common purposes and serve together in joint projects and things like that, but each mission is functionally autonomous. This is very important to us here in Canada and is something that we are trying very hard to communicate to others in Canada and internationally.

The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada began in 1969 as the Lord used the testimony of Richard Wurmbrand to motivate a young couple named Klaas and Nellie Brobbel to begin a work in Canada that would raise a voice on behalf of and seek to assist Christians behind the Iron Curtain. The Brobbels are still with the mission (Klaas is the Executive Director) and in the last few years, we have seen the Lord expand our ministry considerably. Frankly, we are having a hard time keeping up.

Does VOM in Canada organise its own campaigns, separate from other VOM offices?

Definitely. An increasing amount of the work that we do is quite separate from our sister missions. This is not to say that we are trying to distance ourselves from our ICA partners. Far from it. But we in Canada are increasingly seeking to stress our own unique identity as a mission. We also have a few priorities (based on our corporate values) that we feel we need to focus more on, such as educational ministries, micro-loan and other non-dependency creating projects, creating strategic partnerships with other international organizations such as the World Evangelical Alliance and extensive use of the internet to raise a voice for the persecuted. We also feel that we have a unique role in our mission family of deliberately looking for countries and opportunities that have been inadvertently overlooked and seeking to see if we can help fill the gaps.

Please tell us a little about your own story. How did you become involved with VOM? What are some of your responsibilities?

I joined The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada in the fall of 1997, after spending a number of years in pastoral and mission work. They were looking for someone to help raise the profile of the mission in Canada and that has been my primary role. I believe that the best way to raise our profile and the trust of Canadian Christians, however, is not through advertising or telling everyone how great you are, but by demonstrating competency and integrity. We needed to show Canadians that we were not only talking about the Persecuted Church but that we were doing something to help them. Thus, I became involved in travelling overseas a lot, recording testimonies, ministering, teaching, developing programs, and then going back to Canada and sharing what we had found and how people could help. By God's grace, this approach has worked. My role as Communications Director causes me to wear a number of hats from editor to writer, to spokesman for the mission to researcher to teacher to coach to learner. But God has, in recent years, blessed me with a team of three other men on the Communications Team who take on a lot of the load of being a voice for the martyrs around the world.

Is the persecution of Christians becoming worse? Which are the worst countries? Why?

That is always a hard question to answer, because it's hard to know whether persecution is getting worse or if our ability to report on it has gotten better. I suspect that it is both. I do believe that the rapid growth of the Church in the southern hemisphere is a primary cause for the rise of persecution and will only increase. Also the rise of militant Islam and the dying embers of Marxism (afraid of seeing a repeat of the Soviet Union) have helped contribute to this.

To say which are the worse countries is also difficult to answer because it depends on how you define "worse". If you mean, "where are the most number of Christians persecuted?" the answer is undoubtedly China, where unregistered Christians are facing an increasing crackdown in recent years. If you mean, "where is it the most dangerous to be a Christian?" then Saudi Arabia and North Korea would need to be on the top of the list, where even becoming a Christian can mean execution. Eritrea, with its recent campaign to wipe out evangelical Christianity, deserves special mention as well.

Many Christians would like to do more to help victims of persecution, but feel that as individuals there is little more they can do but pray and donate money. What other actions can they take?

First of all, the need to pray and to donate should not be minimized in any way. Especially prayer, as this is the first and foremost thing that persecuted Christians ask for. To be honest, I have yet to meet anyone who has prayed or given too much to assisting persecuted believers.

But beyond that, letter writing and other forms of advocacy work are very important. This is often key to the release or better treatment of prisoners of faith.

Raising awareness by telling others about the persecution of Christians is a vital way of helping. We can’t do it alone.

Mobilizing prayer meetings, conferences, inviting speakers from VOM or other organizations to your church, school, or organization.

Perhaps going yourself to a restricted nation to serve alongside the persecuted church. There are no closed nations, in God's eyes.

Can you tell us any inspiring stories of martyrs that VOM Canada has worked with?

Oh my, where do I start? This is really a more difficult question than you can guess because "inspiring" is really very subjective. Let me share with you what I have found perhaps the most inspiring testimony in my personal experience of the persecuted church to this point. A few years back I visited Ethiopia for the first time. While there I met a young woman named Ababa who lived in a tiny little shack with two other young girls, all of whom had been thrown out of their homes because they had come to a living faith in Jesus Christ. Each of them had stories of terrible physical and mental abuse, often at the hands of their own loved ones. Each had been disowned and for periods of time had been forced to live on the streets of Addis Abeba, sometimes having to resort to begging to survive. Can you imagine; having to beg because you are a Christian? Well, I have seen it.

Each of them found it difficult to find meaningful work for two reasons; 1) they were evangelicals and, therefore, considered cursed (and who hires "cursed" employees?) and 2) they had been forced from home while still teenagers and were unable to finish school, to say nothing of being able to learn a trade.

After they told me their stories of what they had endured for the sake of Christ, I asked them what would happen if they would deny their faith and return to their family's religion. Every one of them told me that their families would gladly welcome them back. Looking around at their tiny, crowded, one-room home, I asked Ababa what Jesus meant to her. Eyes shining, she said, "Everything. He gives me everything I need. I love my Jesus."

As I looked at her home, her tattered clothing, the fact that she often begged to provide for her and her two friends, all I could see was what she lacked. Talking to Ababa, it was clear that her focus was on what she had in Jesus.

This spoke to me then and three years later when I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, a slow-growing, but incurable form of cancer. The day I was diagnosed, I remember lying in bed, pondering my future, and these three young women came to my mind. And I thought to myself, "If they can stay true to God in their circumstances, so can I!" and I said to God, "Lord, I will not deny You." And this has kept me going for over two years now. The God who is with the persecuted is the same God who is with us and we rob ourselves of such practical help when we refuse to expose ourselves to the testimonies of those who are paying the price to follow Christ.

Can you provide any inspirational stories of the Lord at work among persecuted Christians?

Way too many. This is not to criticize the question, but everyday I receive such stories and we often report on them in our monthly printed newsletter and our weekly email news service, The Persecution and Prayer Alert. I find it difficult to identify which ones are inspirational and which ones are not, if you know what I mean.

Let me share one, though, that comes out of my most recent trip to Ukraine and Belarus in December.

Seventy-six year old Mary Yovdick still has difficulty talking about the events that forever changed her life over a half a century ago. First her father was murdered because he refused to collaborate with the Communists and was labeled a traitor. Then in 1946, when Mary was just 16-years-old, she witnessed the execution of her mother and brother.

“My brother and mother were executed in the yard of our house. Then I hide from the government because they were looking to arrest me. I was arrested many times. I was beaten and tortured in prison. My finger was broken during the torture. They put needles into my fingers to torture me. They also tortured me with hot metal. My back was almost broken. I almost lost consciousness, but I heard the KGB who tortured me say, 'Look at her, she is so young and so brave.'”

The torture continued but Mary refused to renounce her faith or betray anyone in the church. At one point, she was forced to spend ten years in hiding from the authorities. Eventually she returned home and worked in the underground church. She converted one tiny room of her apartment into a chapel where more than a 100 people would gather together to worship.

“Only because of my faith in God, His help, and prayer that I have been able to survive all these years," Mary told us. "I tried to get jobs and made small money. But I understand everything is from God and that I have victory because I am still alive.”

She understands that the only reason she could stand was because God had given her the grace to go through it. This is grace, when we suffer for Christ and endure, as Peter says in his first epistle. This is how we know what grace is. Grace is not just something we get to make our life better.

You use the internet quite extensively. How important is the internet, compared to more traditional means of publicity, such as magazines, newsletters, etc?

Our vision is to be Canada's most effective and reliable source of information and support for persecuted Christians around the world. Hence, we put a lot of emphasis on finding effective ways of raising awareness in whatever way we can. For many, that is the internet and we have two websites that we are very proud of (our main site www.persecution.net and our multimedia site, www.persecution.tv).

We are finding the internet extremely important in reaching those who would never have heard of us or the Persecuted Church any other way. The internet is a high priority to us. It has to be in today's world. We have also found it helpful in supplementing our printed material and in attracting people to receiving our printed monthly newsletter. It does not take the place of our newsletter; this is still where we give our best stories and testimonies; the internet tends to get used more as a news outlet. Our weekly email news service, The Persecution and Prayer Alert is an example of this. The internet is also more useful when we need to mobilize rapid prayer and letter writing campaigns. Printed material can be out-of-date before it gets in people's hands. But our printed material tends to be more helpful in building personal links between the persecuted and those in the West, since we can take the time to tell their stories, use more pictures, show ways that people can get involved and the link. People can also pick it up on more than one occasion and look it over at their leisure. So both are very important. We are increasingly trying to find ways to link our internet ministries and our printed ones as well. We often have features on our multimedia site www.persecution.tv that can only be accessed through passwords found in our printed newsletter and which relate to or go beyond stories in the newsletter. For example, we may tell the story of a believer and then have online a short segment of an interview with her so people can hear her in her own words.

You publish a magazine, “Bold Believers,” specifically for those aged 6 to 12. Please tell us a little about this. What sort of response do you get from young people?

“Bold Believers” is a six-page quarterly magazine that we put out that seeks to introduce young people to what it is like to live in many nations of the world where Christians are persecuted. The stories tend to be not as graphic as in the monthly newsletter (although we insist on sending the newsletter to the children's parents or guardians, in order to reinforce what their kids are learning). They learn basic geography and history about the country. Perhaps something about the culture, the food, the predominant religious climate and the how Christians are being persecuted. We suggest ways that they can pray and remember their brothers and sisters in that nation. Do keep in mind that many of the reports of persecution we receive involve children either directly or indirectly. We share so that kids in Canada will learn how to think of others and live bold Christian lives in their setting.

The response has been very positive. It is a unique product. No one else in Canada has anything like it. Also we find that families like to do things together and so when we asked them to draw pictures or write letters to kids overseas, we often get a pretty good response

For the last two years, you have been a Visiting Professor at a university in the United States and recently The Voice of the Martyrs released your first book, "In the Shadow of the Cross: A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship." How does this relate to the ministry of The Voice of the Martyrs?

One of the things I discovered early in my ministry with VOM was the dearth of teaching almost anywhere in the world on what the Bible taught about persecution. Most of the teaching and books that I could find tended to deal with the subject very shallowly or came up with inadequate and even incorrect conclusions. Even the believers in restricted nations often did not have a very good idea of what the Bible taught. Most of their teaching (when they had any) and books came from the West which almost never dealt with the topic specifically. No educational institution anywhere, from what I know, had special classes on the subject. But I was continually being asked to teach on the subject by those going through persecution. Yet I, myself, didn’t have a very good grasp of the whole topic.

So I started to research, partly out of interest and partly in preparation to teach others in nations Iike Sudan and Colombia. My research let me into a pit that I am still in. The subject of persecution in the context of Christian discipleship is a deep subject and is, in my opinion, one of the major themes of scripture. Oklahoma Wesleyan University asked me to help them head up a new academic program two years ago focusing on persecuted church studies and one of the classes we felt that we needed to teach on was on the biblical theology of persecution and discipleship. Out of my class lecture notes came my recently released book, which to my knowledge is only the second such book in the English language. I am still studying and researching; I suspect that it will be a lifelong journey. Perhaps this will be my legacy.

What means a lot to me is the knowledge that Richard Wurmbrand had a vision for such an educational ministry. He was always chastising colleges and seminaries for not teaching on the subject of suffering and persecution. The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada is helping to fulfil this vision by providing the tools to make this possible. My heaviest burden right now is to find men and women who will join me in this so that this kind of teaching can become more mainstream in educational institutions around the world. Faithful handling of God's Word requires that we teach on the subject far more than we are. I believe that educators need to see their role to develop Christian disciples who will willingly embrace the sacrificial and all-encompassing purposes of God of reconciling the world to Himself. Can you imagine what a difference graduates from such training could make in today's world? Men and women who are paying any cost in order to bring others to Christ in a hostile world; these are the kinds of messengers God needs. I want to be part of that; the training of suffering, sacrificial servants who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.

Glenn, thank you very much.

* Glenn Penner’s book, "In the Shadow of the Cross: A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship," is available through the US and Canadian VOM websites.


-Martin Roth (23-May-2005)