In September 1991 I headed to Poland as part of the first Polish one year graduate team sent by IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) to teach English in a high school by day, support students at the University in the evenings and travel most weekends and school holidays to support and encourage the newly formed Christian student groups all over Poland. I had to trust that the Lord would enable me to serve and do things we had been sent to do.
It was an amazing time to be there and it was such a privilege to meet these students and hear their stories. I didn’t really know the full situation in Poland. I found I learned so much from the students I met and they were a great support to me. Yes they did have difficulties and struggles to overcome and God did give us opportunities to encourage and support them and share the Gospel and give out bibles too.
Their hospitality was so gracious and generous yet they had so little materially but what they had they shared with us. They showed us such love and you could see the joy and contentment in what they said and in their worship while often packed together in a small dormitory of bunk beds. So they served us as we sort to serve them.
They were so hungry for the Word. One said they were desperately looking for hope and found none in the state of the country or the Catholic Church but had found hope in coming to know Jesus. Their faith in Christ was so vibrant and alive. They had such a desire to share the Gospel with others no matter the cost to them.
There had recently been a Spiritual awakening especially among the teenagers and students in the Catholic Church which was the main State church. Their eyes were opened to the error, idolatry and lack of Grace of the Catholic Church.
At that time The Catholic church had become a political power. I was told that often the sermons would be mixed with political speeches. Although this church had been instrumental in bringing about an end to Communism it was now misusing its power. They were told what to believe by some priests. Bibles were difficult to come by due to the lack of resources and limitations, restrictions and controls imposed still in place. The State had banned Christian literature due to fear of another uprising through the church after the Gdansk shipyard. Some restrictions were still in place when I was there, but we gave out bibles without being stopped. Some students had a new testament and Psalms and some had been given English bibles by American missionaries who came in to Poland when Communism fell, but many did not have their own bible in Polish.
One student (who has become a very good friend of mine ) told me her priest was open minded and told her she could leave to follow Christ in the way she believed – He was calling her to, but in most cases Priest were not happy about this awakening and tried to suppress it. They were also shunned by their families. By 1991 if parents had enough money they would help their children to get accommodation and some parents had threatened not to help the students with housing if they continued to turn their backs on the Catholic Church. (Before that there had been a housing register and children lived with their family until they were married.) Some parents threatened to throw them out of their family home and some had done just that.
They had left the Catholic Church, but sadly were looked on with suspicion by some in the few Evangelical churches. I think this was because they were still dealing with the effects of Communism and wary of this new movement because of past problems. As these teenagers became students at University they came together and asked for help. Some students formed their own fellowships but they needed sound teaching to support their growth.
I found the situation shocking that these students who just wanted to follow Jesus and have a living relationship with Him were being treated so badly. I knew Jesus said to expect ill treatment (Matt 5v11) but it didn’t really hit home until I saw what was going on first hand. It made me appreciate my bible and all the Christian literature and input I’d had even more and the freedom I had to read the bible.
Thankfully there was group of Christians in Katowice that saw their plight and sort God to come to their aid. They were led to set up the Polish Evangelical Christian Student association (IFES). They came along side these students along with the international student movement and stood against the oppression and vilification of these Polish students. They had been through hardship growing up in a Communist Poland and now the country was free they were coming under religious oppression. However I saw in many cases that their experience under communist rule was been used by God to strengthen and given them endurance to stand now.
I remember at the end of my year in Poland as we headed back to Britain to worship freely in our own fellowships across the country, the team pondered if we would have the courage to stand as these students were doing. There by the Grace of God we trusted – He would enable us to stand if persecution did come and we prayed we would not take our freedom to read the Bible or meet together for granted.
That was my first experience of how a religion can oppress and mistreat born again Christians. I also had the invitations to visit students and a church in the newly formed Czech Republic and in Sofia in Bulgaria which I visited before heading back to Britain and heard more accounts of persecution and hardships because of their faith in Christ.
So I am passionate about prayer for the persecuted church. I feel it is important that we are aware of the mistreatment, harassment and unjust imprisonment that many brothers and sisters face every day around the world that is not reported in the world news but still goes on.
I thank God for the religious freedom we still have in this country and I pray we don’t take that for granted and do all we can to support and encourage our suffering brothers and sisters in prayer, giving and writing (as the Lord leads us to do). Paul says in Gal6:10 we are especially supposed to care for those who belong to the family of believers. We are all part of one Body, and the persecuted part is hurting and so we are to seek God to make it better and bring comfort and healing. Just as I know the hurting part prays for us too and has so much to share as I found in meeting and hearing stories from those in Poland who have gone through awful things just for saying they follow Jesus.