"Hundreds of cartons of milk. I had never seen so much milk in one place, but there it was--all stacked up behind a glass door at the....supermarket? Is that the right word?"
Someone had asked Susanna what she felt the biggest difference was between growing up and living in a remote region of Senegal and now living in Maryland.
"I never knew I had a 'milk problem' until I moved to the US." She went on to list many things that you or I take for granted each day.
However, there was one thing that stood out above all the others:
"I don't have to look over my shoulder when I want to pray out loud or talk about God."
When Susanna was in her teens, the spread of radical Islamic ideology was on the rise in Senegal and other countries in the region. Today, groups such as ISIS or ISIL, who are in the news nearly every day, make targeting professing Christians a top priority.
I had heard Susanna's story as a part of a missions conference in Washington, D.C. At the time, it was 2012. And yet there are millions around the world who had to fear for their lives because of their faith. How was this still happening?
The subject of the persecution of Christians, at least for those of us living in the United States, tends to find its way in the news cycle around this time of year. Pundits will shout about the epic struggle between "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" and its implications on God's Kingdom here on earth. And no matter your feelings on the issue, I think it's fair to say that people like Susanna understand more than most of us what it's like to feel persecuted for their faith. Here was someone who lived a daily struggle to care for her family — who when they prayed, 'Give us this day our daily bread...' they meant it. Yet, they had to think twice about crying out to the Lord or to give thanks in front of others.
Part of my job as a Pastor at Church of the Reconciler, and helping to lead Missions and Advocacy work for the conference, is interacting with people who have very little to call their own: no home, money, or assurance of where their next meal will come from. Yet despite the lack of basic necessities, they know they have a God who listens when they call and have no reason to fear for being thankful for what they do have.
As people of faith we believe that our faith is priceless — it is more important than any material possession and it guides each and everything we do (or, at least, it should be). When nothing else is certain, our relationship with Christ remains steadfast.
Few of us will ever know what it is like to make agonizing choices about our homes, families, and safety. Even in those times when life becomes too much to bear, those of us in this little corner of the world we call the North Alabama Conference can find comfort in our faith and in our family of faith.
Sadly, there are still some places in the world where a vocal cry to God will mean public persecution and bodily harm; not only to yourself, but to those you love.
What can you do? As United Methodists, you are already helping. The United Methodist Committee on Relief [UMCOR] and General Board of Global Ministries [GBGM] are working on the ground in areas where fellow Christians are being persecuted and driven from their homes, such as countries being affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. United Methodist missionaries are serving in areas where public expressions of faith are seen as a threat,and yet continue the work of making disciples. [See www.umcmission.org/find-resources/new-world-outlook-magazine/2015/sept/october/0929umcorfocused]
The first two Sundays in November have been designated days of prayer for all those who risk their lives by sharing their faith. Invite your church to participate in this event. [Find downloadable resources at http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/dia/track.jsp?v=2&c=igbchGS1tdjZYu0wMyISdOvwmNWU0VBR]
As Susanna finished her testimony, she shared that even though she has more freedom to express her faith, she is no less grateful for what God provides. "Everything... every little thing... comes from God. And no one can ever take away God's gift of love for me and you."
After hearing her story something stuck with me: here is someone who really understands what it's like to hear the Good News; news so good you can't help but shout despite who is listening or what it might cost you.
Rev. Matt Lacey
Senior Pastor Church of Reconciler
Director of Mission and Advocacy, North Alabama Conference