Magazine Features

‘I Stand For Jesus’

At least a year before he would be arrested and languish 735 days in a Turkish prison, Pastor Andrew Brunson began to hear the rumblings of an impending storm.

Praying friends told Brunson and his wife Norine, as early as 2015 that a difficult trial was ahead that would so test the couple’s faith that they would want to leave the Muslim–dominated country, where they had preached the gospel for 23 years. One person even told the Brunsons they would stand before “rulers and politicians,” a proposition Norine dismissed as “ridiculous.”

Just prior to his arrest in October 2016 after a coup d’état attempt in Turkey, Brunson heard God tell him, “It’s time to come home.”

He remembers asking, “Are you calling me to heaven, Lord?”

Brunson’s calling included two years of brutal imprisonment after Turkish officials accused him of terrorism and spying. Brunson saw it as Christian persecution. His imprisonment spawned tremendous growth in his personal faith, and an international movement of prayer as “Pastor Andrew” became a cause célèbre.

Brunson was finally released in October 2018. By this time, his plight had captured worldwide attention. News media carried his story throughout the United States. Seizing the moment, religious leaders embraced him; political leaders claimed him. At a meeting at the White House, he literally stood before “rulers and politicians” and actually laid hands on and prayed for the president.

The 51–year–old Brunson will present his powerful testimony in a new book, God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance, to be released next month.

“What I told the Lord in my struggle is, ‘If I ever get out of here and can speak or write about this, I will have a testimony of weakness.’ I actually came out strong, but I’m going to be very open with the brokenness and the struggles because I think there are a lot of other people out there who actually struggle in these situations,” Brunson said.

Brunson, who pastored the Izmir Resurrection Church in Turkey, had been shot at and threatened before. He fancied himself a “toughened–up missionary,” but nothing could have prepared him for what was coming when he and thousands of others were arrested.

The test begins

While most Americans may think of the movie “Midnight Express” when they hear about a Turkish prison, Brunson said his situation was different. While the prisoners in that film were largely kept in a common area, Brunson spent eight months crammed with 21 other inmates in an eight–person cell. He was mostly in the cell 24 hours a day. There was one shower and one toilet.

Norine could visit for 35 minutes a week, but only after getting permission from the government and undergoing an eye–scan before entering the prison. Their conversations were monitored, and because of Brunson’s high–profile, a convoy of heavily–armed soldiers accompanied him whenever he was transferred.

“I never left my cell except to go out and see a lawyer or have a visit. Even then, there was a glass between us,” Brunson recalls. “Other than that, I’m in that cell. You could be there for years and never meet anybody from another cell. It’s claustrophobic, contained, tight, and intense.

“One of the reasons that I had such a hard time in prison is because I didn’t have the right mindset. I hadn’t been prepared to pay that price because it wasn’t an option anyone thought about at that time. I’m really the first person to be put in prison like this in Turkey for a long time. My mentality wasn’t ready for it, and my expectations were different.”

Brunson says his book will outline the “existential crisis” and spiritual struggles he faced. He has read about other people imprisoned for their faith, especially those in communist China, but found nothing similar to what he endured.

“This is one thing that really surprised me,” Brunson said. “I’m expecting there will be joy, there will be all this strength, maybe encounters with God. Some of these people saw angels, Jesus appeared to them, they even heard the voice of God. I thought, None of this is happening to me. At one point, I even asked, ‘God, do You exist?’

“I said to God, ‘I could die in here. They could keep me here for the rest of my life. I may never see my family again. Yes, You exist because if You didn’t, I wouldn’t be in prison. The fact that I’m here is confirmation that You exist because they put me in here to punish me because of You.’”

God seems distant

Brunson, who earned two seminary degrees and a doctorate before becoming a missionary (and is an admirer of Salvation Army Founder William Booth), found himself asking fundamental questions about his Christian faith.

God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance will be released on Oct. 15 by Baker Books. The 256–page book can be purchased at Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

“I had all of this spiritual wealth and theological training, and yet I go into prison and I’m just devastated and I’m really struggling through the basics. I’m asking myself, Does God love me personally or is it more of a collective thing? How does this work out with what He’s allowing to happen to me? I didn’t see His kindness. I didn’t see Him intervening for me. Not that setting me free is necessary to prove His love, but where is He in this? I was questioning.”

While in his cell, Brunson wrote a song called “Worthy of My All.” The lyrics include:

“You are worthy, worthy of my all
This is my declaration in the darkest hour
Jesus, the Faithful One who loves me,
always good and true
You made me yours, You are worthy of my all.”

Brunson began “leaping” in his cell. “It was this intentional choice to declare the truth about God’s character and I did it again and again,” he said. “I sang that song every day. It wasn’t intended to go out in the public. It was just my love song to Jesus and a declaration of His character.”

Norine said Andrew faced several highs and lows as his case—often in the headlines in the U.S. and Turkey—proceeded. He was suicidal after one high–stakes negotiating session failed to result in his release.

“In prison, I was really broken, but by the time I got to trial, I said, ‘I really want to make a stand for Jesus, and I want to declare with pride that I belong to Christ. This is my identity. You can call me a terrorist and evil and all these things, but it doesn’t matter. I stand for Jesus.’ This is what we need our generation to do, in a loving way,” Brunson said.

Free at last

Brunson would often quote 2 Timothy, which was written near the end of the Apostle Paul’s life. The themes of enduring hardship, suffering, running, finishing the race, and being poured out like a drink offering resonated with Brunson.

“I prayed, ‘Lord, I want to be able to finish like Paul did.’ I was consciously saying, ‘Lord, I am in darkness, but I need to learn to stand in the dark, even when I don’t see or understand my future,’” Brunson said.

In July 2018, Turkish authorities granted Brunson house arrest. They subsequently found him guilty of aiding terrorism and sentenced him to time served. Three months later, they released him in the midst of great international fanfare.

“I came out of prison feeling more confident in my relationship with God,” Brunson said. “I didn’t have all these questions and trauma left because I had come to this point of surrendering and saying, ‘I’m going to follow You no matter what.’ Because I went through these things, endured, and won some victories spiritually, I have a different sense of confidence rather than feeling like a victim—no answers, but confidence.

“I didn’t betray the Lord. I passed the test of seeking Him in difficulties, of not giving up, but rather enduring. I didn’t turn away from Him, but toward Him.

“Until my love for God is tested, it’s an unproven love. Once it’s been tested and I’ve come through and kept that love, it’s proven.”

The Brunsons are grateful for the tsunami of worldwide prayer on their behalf and believe it is going to pay eternal dividends in Turkey.

“We’re aware that this happened because of the prayers,” Norine said. “It spread to other countries; total strangers were praying. People we didn’t even know were saying, ‘I’m waking up in the middle of the night to pray for you.’ It was just supernatural.”

Brunson said he thought the prayers would stop, but they only gained momentum the longer he was in custody.

“It was really a God–movement,” Brunson said. “It was clearly not a normal thing. God had a bigger plan and He was just using me to accomplish it. It wasn’t because I’m important or well known, it was because there was something God was accomplishing.”

Brunson explained that Turkey, the backdrop for much of the New Testament, was for centuries, home to the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim world and spearheaded the spread of Islam. He said only one of out every 116,000 people there are Christians.

A heart for Muslims

“In a spiritual sense, Muslims are a key to the Middle East,” he said. “There’s a spiritual legacy there. When many more people come to Jesus in Turkey, and there is a breaking of spiritual power, I think that will influence the countries around it.

  “I think God raised this huge prayer movement to bring change to Turkey. That will then bring change to the Middle East spiritually. Setting me free happened to be the immediate cause for it, but it went so far beyond that. It’s an investment for the Middle East. That’s how I see God’s hand in it.”

Despite the risks, the Brunsons feel God is drawing them back to the Middle East. They’ve been married for 30 years and have three grown children. The couple is now living in North Carolina.

“It’s our calling,” Norine said. “I don’t think we can say ‘no.’ We’re waiting on the Lord and seeing what He has for us next.”

“We do have a calling to Muslims and the Middle East,” Andrew said. “We do expect to return there someday. It’s not that we’re attracted to the Middle Eastern culture as much as we believe God wants us there and that He’s preparing for an awesome move. We want to be a part of that. We had no desire to leave Turkey. We were there for life.”

What the future holds

Norine had been released 13 days after the couple was arrested, however Andrew was not assigned a lawyer for two months. For this violation of his rights, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions took his case and decided in his favor. The group said Turkey should publicly expunge his record and award him compensation. Brunson called their decision stunning.

“I don’t expect the Turkish government to acknowledge this or accept it in any way, but I feel like there’s some outside vindication at least that this was religious persecution,” Brunson said.

Brunson said he has a “real feeling of urgency and heaviness for this generation” of Christians who he says can expect persecution.

“I think there’s such an acceleration toward marginalizing Christians in this society, ministry is going to become more and more difficult,” he said. “There will be a price to pay to stand unapologetically for God, and for truth, and for His standards. We need to prepare. If we’re not ready for persecution, and perhaps prison, then these events will surprise us, and we won’t have the right mentality or perspective to deal with them. I think the possibility needs to be talked about more.”

by Robert Mitchell

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