If you’re at least 40 years old, you remember the cold war, the iron curtain, and the communist regimes that dominated Eastern Europe from World War II until they successively collapsed during the late 1980s and early 1990s. If you attended church in the 70s and 80s you may also have heard Bible-smuggling stories from behind the iron curtain where the Scriptures had been outlawed. Transporting contraband such as Bibles and Christian literature across national borders could result in arrest and imprisonment. Nevertheless, thousands and thousands of Bibles and other literature were illegally smuggled through borders and joyously received by the people of Eastern Europe.
My dear friend Laura was a smuggler. Still in her early 20s, Laura left home and her safe American life to smuggle the Scriptures to strangers she had never met. She took great risks because she believed in the life-changing message of God’s Word, and the right of all people to hear the name of Jesus.
I did not know Laura in those days, but she has since shared with me some of her experiences. I would like for you to hear them too. Laura leaves this Friday to return to Eastern Europe. On this trip she will visit an English-speaking school to address a crowd that, despite regaining access to the Scriptures, holds little value in God’s Word. Will you pray with me for Laura’s journey? Following is her address to the Polish students she will encounter:
By Laura Waweru:
The last time I was here was 27 years ago, July of 1989, when I transited the country on my way to Sweden. We took the ferry from Swinoujscie to Ystad where we picked up Bibles in the Czech language from a storage unit. After packing our van with the books, we delivered them to a chubby-faced man in Czechoslovakia. He smiled so big his eyes closed! He was so happy to receive the children’s Bibles he had been hoping for. His response was a heartfelt, “Praise the Lord!”
Well, my journey begins in Southern California just a couple of hours south of Los Angeles, not too far from the Mexican border. Sunshine, palm trees and sandy beaches were some of my first memories. I grew up with a father who was a university professor, and a mother who took care of my brother and me. We attended church weekly where I learned the typical Bible stories like Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, and Jesus of Nazareth. I can remember the day when I picked up my Bible to read it for myself and I read the story of Cain and Abel. I was mad at my own brother that day. Cain was angry too, and he killed Abel, and in my 10-year-old mind I knew it was wrong to hate my brother. You see, God’s Word was already working in my life. Around that same time I heard from a friend that Jesus would be returning to earth one day and would take the people who love him back to heaven. I already loved Jesus and I wanted to be ready to go when he came back. I thought about packing a suitcase and putting it beside my bed just in case he might come when I was asleep!
I continued to love Jesus and read all about him in the Bible. Now, I wasn’t a perfect child by any means. I did my fair share of stupid teenage things. But the Bible says that God is always at work in us who believe, changing us and making us more like Him and He was working on me.
When I was 18 years old a man named Brother Andrew spoke at my church. He talked about his experiences smuggling Bibles into Eastern Europe. I was on the edge of my seat! I had never heard of any place in the world where people couldn’t get a Bible. I thought everybody had one. Well this news certainly changed the course of my life.
While I continued on to university for the next four years I was often in thought about this strange place called Eastern Europe where Bibles had to be snuck in. I really wanted to be a part of correcting such an injustice. So at 22 years old I told my parents that I would not be pursuing a career after university, but instead I would be breaking the laws of foreign countries by smuggling Bibles across their borders. That was not what my parents wanted to hear, nor was it the dream they had for my life.
I soon discovered there were organizations out there whose purpose it was to get Bibles to the Christians throughout Eastern Europe. I filled out an application, and it wasn’t long before I said goodbye to my family and traded in the warm California sun and beaches for the life of a Bible smuggler.
I would like to ask you to consider tonight not why a country would want to keep this book out, but what is it about this book that would cause people to endure hardship in order to get it. Why would they endure loss of job and opportunities, prison, or torture? And why would people like myself, college graduates who could be building careers and starting families, spend weeks on the road taking Bibles across communist borders?
While you consider that let me tell you what life was like for your neighbors southeast of here in Romania where they were suffering under the cruel dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu for 24 years (my entire life) until Christmas Day in 1989 when it all ended. Billboards of the man dotted the countryside, every city and small town touting his greatness. While his wife Elena was building a marble palace in Bucharest, the whole country was suffering from lack of the very basics of life. Ration cards were still used for things like cooking oil. Medicines were impossible to come by. If you were a Christian you could lose your job. And the only way to get a Bible, was if it were smuggled in. Some churches had only portions of the Bible handwritten on paper. I had seen one of those myself.
To a visitor, the first indication that this was a government threatened by God’s Word was evident immediately at the border where the guards would ask if you were bringing guns, ammunition, drugs, pornography…or Bibles…into their country. Sometimes they would just ask, “Bibles?” I had a rather friendly guard once put his hand on my shoulder, look me in the eye, and say, “Laura, Bibles?”
What is it about this book that put it into the category of such contraband? A Romanian believer told me of a case where she witnessed the court trial of 4 men who were caught with a box of Bibles. This woman, who was in the courtroom, stood up and said to the judge “It seems that in Romania a Bible is as dangerous as a gun.” The judge replied, “That’s right. To give a person a Bible is the same as giving them a gun.” One of those men went to jail.
I met a man in April, 1989 who had spent two years in a Romanian prison. Why? Because he attended church more than twice a week. Yet he was willing to risk prison again by accepting large amounts of Bibles to distribute to his fellow countrymen. And he continually asked for more. The thousands of Bibles that we took to Romania didn’t just stay in the towns we left them in. Further risks were taken when the Christians delivered those books on to the furthest corners of the country.
These people had every reason to fear. One pastor I met was poisoned by the secret police, the family home was burned down, their young son was beaten by the police so severely that he was permanently handicapped. So what kept these people passionate about risking everything to receive Bibles from Westerners and then redistribute them again?
In the words of one Romanian man whom I snuck Bibles to: “Jesus is my life.”
Taking Bibles to our Christian friends in Romania required many hours of driving, followed by many hours of waiting. It meant watching other travelers pay bribes to security guards so they wouldn’t have to wait. It meant standing by as guards stole from us. It meant every inch of our vehicle being searched, panels unscrewed, mirrors slid underneath. It meant being taken into small rooms where we were frisked and questioned by border guards. It meant giving up restrooms and showers for days at a time, wearing the same clothes day after day, sleeping in a car on the side of a road, in mid-winter, and waking up surrounded by gypsies. It meant committing maps and addresses and names to memory then walking around for hours searching for an address in a town we’d never been to before. It meant carrying incredibly heavy bags or suitcases of books long distances until our arms hurt and we wanted to quit. It meant meeting in a remote and dark place to transfer our books in secret. It meant watching out for the secret police. It meant trying to communicate in pictures or charades because we didn’t know one another’s language. It meant being careful what we said because the phones were bugged. We had code names, I was Emma. We had code names for our vehicles and countries. Romania was called Cliff. Our hiding places were called “wallets” and the Bibles were called “money”.
Recently I came in contact with an old high school friend who made his career in the US military. When he found out what I did in Eastern Europe he said I was braver then he ever was. He said that if he had been lost behind Communist lines he knew he had the entire United States military to search for and rescue him. But he said if a civilian goes missing in a Communist country, there would be little hope for rescue.
People often ask me if I was ever scared. The answer is yes. I was afraid I might be stuck in Romania. It happened like this.
In late December 1989, we heard from the BBC news that Nicolae and Elena Ceasescu were captured. On Christmas Day we heard even more shocking news that they were executed before a firing squad. We thought it was a hoax. The BBC reported that the Soviet Union and Great Britain had pulled out all the wives and children of their diplomats. We heard that Libyan and Arab terrorists were fighting alongside the secret police and that 60,000 had died. The news showed dead bodies in the streets and burned out cars. After our Christmas celebration two of my friends and I began to load up a van to the ceiling with every bit of food we had on our shelves, all the used clothing we had, and every box and bottle of medicine. We took a quantity of Bibles that normally would have taken us 20 trips to get in. And this time we didn’t hide them. We were filled to the ceiling. We had heard from other smugglers in Vienna that the borders were flung wide open. All three of us were nervous and unsure of whether we should go or not. I sat on my bed Christmas night, looking through my Bible. I read in the gospel of Mark where Jesus and the disciples were on a boat in a storm. Jesus was asleep and the guys were scared. They woke Jesus up and said “don’t you even care that we are scared and about to die?” Jesus’ response was, “Why are you so fearful? Don’t you have any faith?” These words of Jesus reminded me that night that no matter what difficult situation I might find myself in He is with me and he cares. So on December 26th the three of us drove through Hungary to Romania.
The borders were different now. The familiar guards were gone. There was no more questioning or vehicle searches. The people were warm and friendly. The contact with whom we were to leave our gifts with lived close to the border, but he wasn’t home. Our backup contact was a couple hours away. We began a two hour drive that lasted all day. At each little village we were stopped by gangs of soldiers or civilians with guns and sticks. They were intimidating but once they saw our American passports they waved us through. When we were finally on the outskirts of the city of our contact, we were stopped by about 25 soldiers with their guns dangling in front of them. There were tanks and other military vehicles. When we explained that we needed to go into the city they said we couldn’t go there because there was shooting. When we decided to turn around and go back they said we couldn’t because there was shooting back there too. Finally after making telephone calls and much discussion amongst themselves a group of soldiers escorted us into town. They took us to the hotel which was lined with soldiers along the sidewalk. We were taken to a room while a soldier looked for a television that worked. Together we sat on the bed, my two traveling companions and two Romanian soldiers, and watched the trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. This was not a hoax.
So why did I do this? To put it simply, it’s because Jesus is my life. And everyone should have the opportunity to hear His good news so that they might be saved.
I want to tell you about another group of people who also faced strong opposition not unlike the Romanian people. They lived a little further south of Romania in the Greek city of Thessalonica about 2000 years ago. When the apostle Paul came to their town to tell them that Jesus was the promised Messiah, died on the cross and rose from the dead, they changed their way of life and began to live to please God. From living lives of paganism and immorality they began to face life with faith, love and hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. The hope that God’s word gave them inspired the endurance they needed to carry on in the face of persecution. Their faith in God became known everywhere. They turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. When they received the word of God they accepted it, not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God which is at work in those who believe. They lived to please God and the Lord made their love increase and overflow to each other and everyone else. Then they began to suffer. They suffered from their own hostile countrymen. Paul warned them they were destined for persecution. And it turned out that way. But Paul dared to tell them God’s good news in spite of strong opposition. And like the Romanian Christians, in spite of severe suffering they welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. The gospel came to them not simply with words, but with power, and with deep conviction. They knew Jesus suffered and they became imitators of Jesus in their own suffering.
And they stood firm in the Lord. Why was that? Because they came to realize that Jesus offered a hope that the world couldn’t give and His words gave them encouragement to endure life’s difficulties.
You have all lived long enough to know that life is hard. It’s hard in Poland and it’s hard in the United States. We don’t face the same persecution that the Romanians did 27 plus years ago. We don’t face the hardships of the Thessalonians 2000 years ago. But life is hard nonetheless. If you’ve lost a parent, you know the pain of death. If you’ve lost a job, you know the fear of an unknown future. If you’ve ever parented teenagers you know all the hardships that come with that. But there’s worse news.
The book of Romans (3:23) tells me that I am a sinner and have fallen short of God’s standard. His standard is perfection, impossible to attain, and my sin is worthy of God’s wrath and there’s nothing I can do to fix it. Romans 6:23 says that my sin earns me a death of permanent separation from God. But don’t stop listening now because Romans 5:8 says that while I was still that sinner, Christ died for me. Ephesians 2:8 and 9 says we have been saved by God’s grace through our faith. Not by works. Not by anything we have done or anything we can do. It is simply a gift from God. Even faith is God’s gift. That is indescribable hope!
When I am deep in the struggles of life my faith in Jesus Christ gives me hope. Jesus said that in this world we will have trouble. You and I have already experienced that. But take heart, because Jesus has overcome the world.
In conclusion I would like to remind you of what I asked you to consider. Why would the Romanian Christians risk so much to get the Bible? Why would my friends and I sacrifice comfort for trouble in getting Bibles to them? And why did the Thessalonian Christians welcome the message of God in spite of strong opposition?
Romans 15:4 says that everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Because life is hard, but Jesus gives hope.
The Bible is such a unique book. Here is what Martin Luther said about it: “When I am tired, the Bible is my bed. Or in the dark, the Bible is my light. When I am hungry, it is living bread, or fearful, it is armor for the fight. When I am sick, it is healing medicine, or lonely, throngs of friends I find therein. If I would work, the Bible is my tool. Or play, it is the harp of tuneful sound. If I am ignorant, it is my school. If I am sinking, it is solid ground. If I am cold, the Bible is my fire, and it gives wings, if boldly I aspire. Does gloom oppress? The Bible is a sun. Midst ugliness, it is a garden fair. Am I athirst? How cool its waters run, or stifled, what a vivifying air. Since you have given yourself to me like this, how should I give myself, great Book, to thee.”
It is my prayer for you that you will also find that hope in the pages of this great book.