Feature

Prisoners of Hope

Christ's freedom for a people trapped in darkness

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When Alliance missionaries in Thailand caught a vision for evangelizing the largest unreached group in the country, they knew that such an undertaking would require faith-filled risks. With a population of more than 22 million, the Isaan people live in the northeast, a spiritually dark region where vast areas have no evangelical presence. Less than 1 percent of them have a relationship with Jesus. About 430 Isaan die every day without knowing the Lord.

A God-sized Challenge

“The task is urgent,” said Norm Ford, a member of Team Isaan, an Alliance church-planting initiative. Historically, response to the gospel has been slow among the Isaan. Customs and traditions run deep. Their religion mixes the teachings of Buddhism with appeasement of animistic spirits and ancestor worship. Moreover, the desire to preserve their culture has led the Isaan to resist Christianity as foreign.

Despite overwhelming odds, a movement toward God has begun among the Isaan people. In partnership with Alliance missionaries in Thailand, a team of more than 1,000 intercessors in 38 churches from 15 countries has been praying regularly for the gospel to penetrate the hearts of the Isaan. A God-sized opportunity came when Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) began transmitting Christian messages throughout the area where Team Isaan has focused.

About 90 listeners, many outside the reach of churches, wrote to the station to request more information about God. Team Isaan has been working with FEBC to reach these contacts. The team sent them Christian resources, including audio and video tapes. Among those who responded to the mailings were several prisoners.

In one prison, two men began sharing the material they received with others. One man sent the information back to his family, but the other stored his media in the prison library. As a result, all 350 prisoners and guards have seen the JESUS film. And many have gone to the library to listen to the Bible stories.

Spreading the News

In April 2007, Ford and fellow team member Jim Sappia visited Sawang Daen Din Prison (SDD) and met with the two men who were sharing the videos. After many visits to the prison, a group of 14 men was formed with whom Sappia began sharing the gospel. Using a story set, he taught about Creation, the fall, Moses and the Exodus, the sacrifices of animals and Jesus—the perfect Sacrifice.

The men not only listened to the stories but also retold them to other prisoners. Finally, Sappia shared his personal testimony and challenged them to make a decision to accept Christ. After eight weeks of meeting with Sappia, seven of the men received Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

On November 24, 2007, the first church in SDD began with the new believers. A women’s group also was started, taught by Sappia’s wife, Kathy, and Stacy Maikkula, a C&MA missionary apprentice. Thus far, nine women have received Jesus. In addition, God opened the door to minister at yet another prison, where Jim Sappia and Jon Chase have been meeting with 15 men, and Joy Chase and Deb Holonitch (CAMA) have been meeting with more than 20 women, with many more listening from outside the classroom.

The men at SDD have started a second group. Those who are part of the new church there invited eight friends to hear the gospel stories, and six of them were added to the church. In early May a big baptismal service was held at the prison. “We are looking forward to the day when the message will reach outside the prison walls and we will see entire villages impacted by the love of Jesus,” said Jim and Kathy.

Hope in a Dark Place

God restored my hope when I felt there was nothing left to live for. You see, I first heard about Jesus and His love for me in a very strange place. Let’s just say I had made some wrong choices and was put in prison. My cellmate at the time told me about a God who loves me no matter what I had done and would forgive me and give me another chance if only I asked Him to. So, I did.

My cellmate was released, and I quickly felt alone. Then I heard that my oldest son had taken his own life by eating poison. He felt abandoned because his father married another woman, and I couldn’t be there for him. I felt guilty and began to get discouraged. I forgot about the joy I had found in Christ just a couple of months earlier.

Then I started receiving letters from Team Isaan. They were a lifesaver. As I read them, I remembered God’s great love for me and how He had truly forgiven me—and my hope was restored! One day Kathy and Kit from Team Isaan came, the very first time anyone ever visited me! I cried as I shared my story and thanked them for encouraging me.

Please pray for me. I am worried about my other three children. They have recently moved in with my mother, who will raise them until I am set free in a year and a half. I was supposed to be here another three years, but I asked Team Isaan to pray that I might be released earlier, and God granted the request. I want my family to understand that Jesus has truly given me new hope, and He can do the same for them.

Also, pray that I might be a living testimony of God’s love here in the Nong Khai prison. After many months of waiting for approval from the officials, Team Isaan can now meet with me and my friends so they, too, can find true freedom in Christ. Pray that they in turn will share this truth with their loved ones and those around them when they are released. I found hope in one of the darkest places a person could be, and now it is my desire to share that hope with others.

—Chonja, a prisoner, as told to Kathy Sappia

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