God’s Hostage

Andrew Brunson, a missionary in Turkey, was arrested and put in prison. “You got the wrong guy. I’m not brave like the saints in the books who go to prison.” That is why I like Andrew Brunson. I like the way he prays. See that small cross he is holding in the picture of the book cover? Brunson writes, “All the prisoners had their pictures taken one day. I asked that the photographer take an extra picture, and he relented. I held a small cross that a Chinese Christian had given me before my arrest. I covered my heart with this cross. I belonged to Jesus Christ. I was Andrew of the cross.”

Brunson writes:

The Early Days. How do you start a church when only one out of every sixteen thousand Turks is a Christian? When we arrived in 1993, twenty of us started a language course together. Four years later only five of us were still in the country. Eventually, Norine and I were the only ones left from that group.[1]

We hesitated to rent the small building where we started the church; it was about all we could afford, but it was in the transvestite red-light district—would anyone come? Soon, however, we discovered it was a great location, with thousands of people walking by every day on their way to the sea and to busy pedestrian streets packed with shops and restaurants. At some point we started stocking the two windowsills with Christian books and left a sign telling people they could help themselves. And they did. Soon we were giving away over one thousand New Testaments each month.[2]

As introverts, Norine and I were not a good fit for this very social culture, but God tied our hearts to the people living in Turkey.

Years went by. We started a church and had many adventures. One morning I was shaving, just standing in front of the fogged-up bathroom mirror in our apartment, barely noticing the typical sounds of hustle and bustle and traffic that drifted up from the narrow streets below. The city and I were both getting ready for an ordinary day that lay ahead. That’s when it hit me. A thought, from out of the blue. It’s time to come home.[3]

The thought kept whispering in my mind, “It’s time to come home.” I could not shake the sense that this was God telling me to prepare to meet him—to die. Five and a half years earlier I’d stepped outside the church during a prayer meeting. It was typically busy in the street, and I was talking with a member of the church. A few of the transvestites were leaning out of the windows above us, smiling and waving at passersby just like they always did. Suddenly, a man in a camouflage jacket caught our attention. He stood out for one simple reason; he was pointing a pistol at me from about twelve feet away. He was quiet but looked utterly determined, and his eyes were bright with rage. I froze. All I could focus on was the pistol that was trembling in his grip. Six shots rang out in quick succession. Then he dropped the gun, reached into a back on the ground beside him and pulled out a shotgun. My brain finally started working. As he struggled to close the gun, I knew he could not miss with a shotgun. And if he went into the church after he got me . . . it could be a massacre. I rushed over to the gunman and wrapped my arms around him from behind in a bear hug. He was bigger than me, stronger too. I held on desperately. As we struggled, he pulled the trigger, and the shotgun went off. The gunman started screaming, “You started a church, and we will not permit this! We will bomb you. We will kill you. You will give an account.” I felt nothing. I was numb. All I knew was that my life—and the lives of others—depended on me not letting go. Finally, the police arrived and put the gunman down on the ground. Once they had taken him away, I walked into the church. Adrenaline had helped me hang on to my would-be killer, but when I sat down the shock hit like a hurricane. My body started shaking and I could do nothing to stop it. As the tension bled off, I realized I was not afraid. God has spoken so many words about my future that I was confident that he still had plans for me in Turkey and would keep me alive until they were completed. So, when the government assigned to police officers to me as bodyguards, I turned them down after a couple of weeks.[4]

Arrested. Norine and I made the ten-minute walk to the police station, for what we thought was the renewal of our visas. “It says here,” the officer said, “that there’s an order to deport you both. Follow me.” “What? There must be a mistake.” The officer said nothing. The chief called us over: “The order says G-82—Threat to National Security.” I’d heard of G-82 before—it was a catchall that had been used to depart other missionaries. I leaned close to Norine and kept my voice low. “Is it Eyup’s doing?” Eyup was a troublemaker. After we asked him to leave our church a few months ago he had repeatedly threatened to accuse of supporting the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group. This was nothing to his accusation, of course, but could he be the one behind this?[5]

The police phone rang. “An order has come down; we’re placing you under arrest.” Things moved quickly after that. We made some phone calls. Taner Kilic, a human rights lawyer and president of Amnesty International in Turkey, agreed to come down. But as soon as he learned we were being held as a threat to national security he looked for a quick exit. He gave only one piece of advice: “Let them deport you, and then appeal from the US. If you appeal now, they may keep you locked up for the two weeks it takes to resolve.” And then he was gone.[6]

It was Friday night now and a dark-haired man in his thirties was clearly unhappy to be stuck at work so late. pointed to a paper on his desk: “Sign here.” I reached out to pick it up, but paused, “Can I read it, please?” With a shrug, he handed it over. But Norine and I speak and read Turkish well, but when it comes to legal matters, a lot of official documents use old words and that we don’t know well. The document read, “We understand that we have been informed of the reason for our deportation,” followed by a list of various offenses. He had ticked the box next to the one labeled G-82—Threat to National Security. After Norine and I conferred, we both signed it and handed the sheet back. The phone rang. “I have it,” he said. After listening to the caller, the officer took out his pen and placed a tick in a second box. Even reading it upside down, Norine and I knew exactly what it said: “Those who are a manager, member or supporter of a terrorist organization.” He looked up at the two guards behind us. “You can take them now.”[7]

Ripped Apart. Norine and I talked a lot in the beginning, but as the days slipped by, we had less and less to talk about. We sat in silence—glad to be together, but with a growing sense of dread. “Your friends brought these in for you.” There was a table covered with belongings from home. The clothes and toiletries were all welcome but when I saw my Bible, I felt my heart race. I reached for it, so glad that finally we would be able to spend our time reading Scripture, but as my fingers brushed the cover, Melih reached out and pulled it away from me. “No,” Melih said, “We won’t give you this.” I was genuinely surprised. “We are Christians, we should be allowed to have our holy book.” Melih shrugged, “You can only have books that we have provided for you. That’s the rule here,” he said, with a touch of disdain and cruelty.[8]

“Norine, what I’m really afraid of is that we will be separated. I won’t know what’s happening with you. And I don’t know how I’ll cope if I’m alone without you.” The doorway opened and a female police officer came in. “We’re releasing you,” she said, looking straight at Norine. “Wait, Can I go too?” “No. We’re taking her to the hospital now to be checked.” The next minute, Norine was gone. I was taken to the cell and locked away on my own for the first time.[9]

Alone. I was transported to a high-security prison. They like to transport you at night. When the roads are deathly quiet and dark. It’s more intimidating that way. I was not in a panic—I was numb. Sometimes when bad things happen to me, part of me locks down and it’s almost as if I’m an observer, sitting outside and watching myself from a distance. The tried to pray or remember the sons we had sung together, but it was no use. The best I would do was inhale the scent of Norine that still hung on my clothes and wait. The lights came on early the next morning. Soon the guards were banging on the door, shouting that it was time for me to get up. Minutes later the door crashed open, “Get out of here,” yelled the man in uniform. “What are you waiting for? Why aren’t you ready?” “Please,” I said, holding up my hands, “Stop yelling at me. What am I supposed to be doing?” “Get out.” Guards escorted me to a room where there was Turkish tea and bread on a table. I was so stressed I couldn’t think of eating. They took me back to my cell. The door slammed. The lock turned. I was alone.

At lunchtime my door opened, and I was given food. But I could not eat. It was the same with sleep. I knew my body needed it; throughout the afternoon I tried to lie down and close my eyes. But a massive surge of adrenaline would startle me awake. The cell was its own torture. It was just me and a bed. I did not have a chair, and I could not sit easily on the bunk because of its low height. So, I either lay on the bed, or stood, or walked. There was nothing to do, no reading, no writing, nobody to talk to. Piece by piece I could feel myself falling apart. For the first time I realized I was in the hands of a dreadful, malevolent spiritual power.[10]

Sometime in the afternoon of my first day at Harmanndali a guard told me I had a visitor. “Who? Is it my wife?” The guard shrugged. “I don’t know. But you are to come with me now.” Norine was standing there. As soon as I hugged her, she started sobbing. She got control and told me she had begun working for my release. Our time was running out; I was led away. A minute later I was back in my room. Alone.[11]

Holding on. I am not just crying. I am sobbing. After I was transferred to Harmandali, memories of my early years in Mexico began to surface. To be the only Americans in a small city brought a lot of negative attention for me as a young boy, and for much of my early life I was an outsider. These painful memories intensified the pain I felt now in prison.[12]

I spent hours each day looking out the window of the Turkish prison cell. I kept a lookout for Norine. She came every day. As soon as it was light, I’d stand sentry, my eyes locked on the point in the far distance where she would come over the crest of a hill and follow the narrow road that snaked its way up to the parking lot opposite the center. Norine wasn’t always allowed to see me. One day, just when I’d given up hope that I’d be allowed to see her, the door opened. A guard was holding a slip of paper, gesturing at me to come and take it. It was a note from Norine. I’m still being the persistent widow, and there are lots of new friends who care about you. I drive here and try to visit every day. Don’t give up hope, my love. N. It was like holding a priceless work of art. I read it over and over. Then one day she did not show up. Immediately I thought the worst. What has happened to Norine? Has she been rearrested? How could I keep going if I was now completely on my own?[13]

Her regular visits began again. One day she smuggled in a thin book, barely 40 pages long, called Prayers to Strengthen Your Inner Man by Mike Bickle. I needed all the help I could get. As the days passed by and the effects of too little sleep and too little human contact accumulated, I found it harder and harder to keep myself steady. No matter how much I paced and prayed and meditated on the pages of my little book, I could feel myself slipping. I felt the thoughts of my childhood—that God just wanted to toughen me up some more. It was a terrifying thought. How much tougher did I have to become before God rescued me?[14]

Just Breathe. On November 4, 2016, a US consular official, Robert, came to see me. I was so relieved to see him. During my first week at Harmandali a Turkish officer had pressured me to write a statement saying I did not want to meet with any US officials. I refused. The harassment continued. Robert had  brought me my Bible and a notebook. I started to write: The kind God, the gentle God, the God who cares about my heart.” This is what I am thinking, tears welling in my eyes, at the end of a difficult two or three days that really tested my heart—days when I expected that you would remove those things that I care about, strip me, to make me tough and bulletproof. But my heart screams, “I don’t want to be tough! I want to be your little boy…” Thank you. I have pen and paper, books and a Bible. Glasses returned. This is the best room I’ve had—now I will be able to see Norine more easily. May I leave here knowing that as I walk through the valley of wolves, you are with me, and that even in the presence of my enemies you are doing good things for me.[15]

But one day, without warning, the words spat out from my mouth. “Do you even exist, God?” I started to weep. I had failed. How could I have gotten this low? “Papa! Save me,” I prayed. “I’m afraid of my own mind and thoughts.” After this I decided that I needed to discipline myself to state some very basic truths. Each day I made my declarations: “God, you exist, You love me, and you are in this. I am a prisoner for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am suffering for Jesus. This gives meaning to my pain. It is precious to God, and he will give me eternal reward. At some point you will rescue me. You said, “It’s time to come home.”[16]

Another prison. Sakran. The Counter-Terror Center. The stress was greater. I would be the only American prisoner, the only Christian, and the only missionary. I had no idea how to even begin to prepare for a situation like that. One day a guard called my name. “You wrote your wife and talked about ‘the Lord’ and how you wanted his help. You’re obviously referring to Fethullah Gulen. You’re sending secret messages.” This was absurd, but he was serious.[17]

The cruelest whisper that came in the darkest moments—that Norine wasn’t missing me, that she had moved on and would forget me. When I could talk with her, she reassured me of her love. I said, “Keep telling me.” I read the biographies of great Christians who had kept their courage in prison. Time and again I said, “God you chose the wrong man.”[18]

Not long after being taken to Sakran some friends put Norine in contact with a Turkish businessman named Mustafa. He explained that his lawyer knew the prosecutor and the judge who had sent me to prison, and he felt confident that his lawyer could get the case dismissed. All we needed was to pay $35,000 to cover the lawyer’s fees. It was a lot of money—money we didn’t have. Mustafa had been attending the National Prayer Breakfast for years. Norine was able to gather $25,000. She wired it, but within a few days she grew uneasy. Mustafa claimed that the money hadn’t arrived. When she put in an official request for the wire to be recalled, the bank replied that the money had been deposited. Mustafa had scammed us.[19]

The inmates were watching tv when one of them yelled, “Andrew, you’re on tv.” The foreign minister was talking about me on the news. What he said crushed me; he was declaring I was a terrorist. No court in Turkey would ever let me go now. The headline the next day said, “Give us the Imam—Take the Priest.” The mouth of hell had opened.[20]

The Turkish media dug up the story about the gunman who tried to shoot me. They announced that I was able to defeat my attacker by relying on what they ridiculously alleged was my advanced CIA training and started calling me Rambo Priest.”

As far as I could tell, I was the only man in the cell wrestling with my God. The others could not understand my anguish, my doubts, my cries to God. But I looked to him as a Father, and the silence and distance I was experiencing from him were deeply confusing. For my twenty-one cellmates, however, things were different. As Muslims they didn’t share my expectation that God would comfort me with his presence, that he would demonstrate his love by letting me hear his voice even in prison.[21]

A new prison. Buca. I arrived a broken man. I began to sleep even in ten hours of the daytime, yielding to lethargy. I read that Wurmbrand had danced in his prison; I decided to dance like Wurmbrand. For a minimum of five minutes a day, I would leap around the courtyard. No matter how much I didn’t feel like doing it, how hot the sun or how cold the rain.[22]

From the President of the United States. Tony Perkins handed us a letter from President Trump: Dear Pastor Andrew, we are praying for you, and we are working to bring you home. Keep the faith. We will win! God bless you. Sincerely, Donald Trump.

Release. It was 1:30 am when we arrived at the US base at Ramstein. The US ambassador to Germany was waiting in the cold air to greet us, holding a US flag. “Welcome home,” he said, handing me the flag. I buried my face in it and wholeheartedly said, “I love my country.” The next day, we landed at Andrews Air Force Base. I could see my children lined up on the tarmac. And then, we were driven to the White House. Within minutes President Trump walked in. He was taller than I imagined, an imposing figure, but with a smile to big and so genuine. “It’s good to have you here,” he said, shaking my hand. “Do you want a Tic Tac?” How often does the president offer you a Tic Tac? “Sure,” I said. After several minutes in the oval office, I spoke up. “Mr. President, we would like to pray for you. We pray for you often as a family.” “Well, I probably need it more than anybody in this room, so that would be very nice, thank you.” As I knelt down beside him, he bowed his head. The room was still. “Lord God, I ask you pour out your Holy Spirit on President Trump, that you give him supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country….”[24]

Brunson, Andrew. God’s Hostage : A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019.

[1] Andrew Brunson, God’s Hostage : A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019). 17

[2] Ibid. 18

[3] Ibid. 15

[4] Ibid. 20-21

[5] Ibid.24-25

[6] Ibid. 26-28

[7] Ibid. 30-31

[8] Ibid. 45

[9] Ibid. 49

[10] Ibid. 58-59

[11] Ibid. 59-60

[12] Ibid. 61

[13] Ibid. 65

[14] Ibid. 68-69

[15] Ibid. 73-75

[16] Ibid. 77

[17] Ibid. 103

[18] Ibid. 112

[19] Ibid. 115-116

[20] Ibid. 122 The imam mentioned here is Fettullah Gulen, residing in exile in America.

[21] Ibid. 135

[22] Ibid. 166

[23] Ibid. 173-174

[24] Ibid. 241-242