I woke up reflecting on the past two weeks here in Kenya. Of course, it has flown by, as it always does. My little theory (which may be too strong a word for my musings), is that the human brain becomes accustomed to what it thinks is "normal". When we put our sensory systems into overload, time expands. So much new information is coming in that it feels like we have been somewhere a lot longer than we actually have. So these two weeks feels a lot more like six months. But... what do I know from neurology?
I came to Nairobi as a support team member for a small, efficient crew with producer and cinematographer, John Northrup, of Asheville, North Carolina. John sees the world in a way we'd all like to see it. Light and shadow, rules of thirds and broken rules and all of it second nature. The third member of the team is Noah who is primarily here to make sure everything we film has the right sounds. But he... and John are so much more than their tasks. Noah lives in an idillic setting with his wife and children. He's well traveled and intelligent and somewhat of a closet prepper.
We weren't supposed to be in Kenya. At least that's what you'd say if you looked at our original itinerary, and had listened in on our preproduction plans. We thought we'd be heading to another part of the world, to a refugee site with a lot of people that have left their homes due to civil war. Long story, short, the government where these people lived insisted their citizens worship their way or die. Not everyone agrees with that. Eventually, the country split in two, and ever since has had a hard time getting along.
While on the flight into Nairobi two weeks ago, we were told that the plans had changed. Our client had their reasons, as clients tend to do. And so we held here and waited to learn how we would pivot and maintain the objective.
A long time ago, not far from here, Jesus Christ chose to allow others to end him by hammering spikes through his extremities. It's not an unfamiliar story I realize, and some have tried unsuccessfully to prove it a myth. Before he died, he was tortured, whipped until he bled, spat upon, mocked, nailed through his wrists and feet until he bled some more, raised on the crossbeam of wood and left there until he breathed his last, and speared in the side until he bled again one last time. As he hung there, on the cross he said a few words. Two of those words were, "forgive them". And by "them" he meant, those that accused and murdered him. And mysteriously too, he also meant us, as in all of us including myth-sayers.
His were strong words. The point of our being here, is to capture the stories of people who are alive and among us even now; people that have shared in some of Christ's persecution, and lived to tell about it... so far. Some of them will be tortured again... and die, ultimately, because of their refusal to reject Jesus' own death on the cross. There's way more to that story too, but it'll have to wait. Suffice to say they are brave men and women who are also willing to forgive their captors.
The people we have met so far on this project have strong words too. They tell their captors that they love them, and forgive them. Even as they are being beaten and broken, they sing. They teach other prisoners to sing. They counsel their guards.
Don't get me wrong, it's a hard-won thing they do. To the man, they describe the battle they waged with their own bitterness and hate. As they reflected on the events that preceded their arrests, they, every one of them, felt the desire for revenge for the brutal torture and deaths of their friends, and members of their families. And over time, as their hearts transformed to reflect Christ's love for their enemies, the self-consuming feelings of anger left. Gone. Only joy remained! Story after story, it's clear to me. These guys suffer, survive, and thrive. Sometimes only to suffer again.
I have an enviable job. I maintain eye contact and look into the faces of these men throughout the interview. John has lit them perfectly for the lens. Noah stops us from time to time because the audio hears a horn honk or the scraping of a chair in the room above us; because of him, audio is perfect. And I sit, literally not breaking my gaze as I see the face of Christ in their faces. They tell us stories that wrench my gut, and stir my own feelings of revenge and hate. And then they laugh. Something always strikes them as ironic. "They threw us out of prison because too many others found Jesus." Laugh. "They beat us less because our love for them raised guilty feelings." Laugh. "The same guy that asked me advice about his wife during the day, beat me the next night!" Laugh. "Can you believe it? When they persecuted us, more people came to Christ, we grew stronger!" Laugh.
I don't know what has made a larger impression on me these past two weeks. Was it the irony of their laughter and even their gratitude for their suffering? Is it the real-time representation of Christ's own torture that I can hear in their stories? Or perhaps the realization that while I think I would not last five minutes in the foul-smelling cell, with a gun to my head, with bruises and bleeding... that in reality Christ would come to me as He has to these men? Or the ridiculous things I've prayed for, worried about, or worse, complained about.
We pivoted in Nairobi. We brought the stories of persecution and of God's work to us here, rather than going where we'd planned. These are just the tips of the termite mound, so to speak. It's frustrating, sometimes, trying to sort out the changes. We lost some time, something that apparently is of little concern to God. In the end, we gained mobility and privacy and peace for those whose identities we keep confidential for their own protection, and for the protection of those with whom they live. Because, and this blows my mind even still, they survived being persecuted and tortured, and then they stay. Who does that? They know they were preserved for a reason. It was not to flee to the west where the only hangnail-sized persecution we can come up with is a bakery boycott.
Someone recently told one of our new friends that they wished God would bring persecution to the United States... His response was wide-eyed. "No! Do NOT pray for that. We are prepared for persecution. I'm afraid Christians in America couldn't survive it". I can only speak for myself - I can't imagine surviving it. May God be present with His mercy now and forever.