by Wonda Elizabeth
As a child I had read many an exciting tale of missionary adventures. Stories of native tribes dwelling in remote places within the Amazon, of the Maasai in Kenya, Hindus and Buddhist scattered throughout the Himalayas, the indigenous people living in remote villages in the Andes and many others had been my bedtime delight and morning devotions in family worship. The missionary stories of Eric B. Hare were a favorite of my older sister Wilda and I and we read them often. So I’ll admit I had pretty romantic ideas about mission work.
Now all these years later, a missionary myself, I have learned that this work is not always as romantic and picture perfect as I’d imagined. Sometimes it can be downright trying and your only stay is in knowing, “that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.
On our way back home to Quito, Ecuador from Guayaquil — where I’d been assisting an elderly lady with breast cancer — my fiancé Oneal and I were apprehended and taken off our bus and before we knew it we were sitting in the back of a police car.
Now in Ecuador it is customary for the police to stop public transportation to review the travel documents of the passengers. In the past few years Ecuador has been inundated with illegal immigrants especially from China, Cuba and neighboring Colombia. Thus the Ecuadorian government has implemented these border checks as a means of handling unauthorized migration.
Of course we were not in this category and therefore had nothing to worry about. We had duly filed our paperwork with an immigration attorney and our status in the country was lawful. Or so we thought. To make matters worse a friend of ours had our passports. Ecuador is a relatively safe country, but one thing you have to worry about is pickpockets. They’re everywhere! With this knowledge and knowing we had our driver’s licenses with us, we were content to leave our passports with our friend.
Upon arriving at the Oficina de la Policia we were told that are status in the system was clearly illegal and that there was no record of any paperwork having ever been filed for our permanent residency or anything else for that matter. We were shocked. However there wasn’t much time for all this to settle in as we soon found ourselves being patted down, told to leave our belongings and were again seated in the back of a police car.
I must be dreaming. That was the thought running through my mind. And where were they taking us? To jail of course! I had read stories about foreign jails, the women always got raped. Was I going to be raped? Were they going to separate us? I couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from Oneal; surely if we were separated something horrible was going to happen to me.
The police car pulled up to a semi-opened building where four other officers were seated just a hairs breadth away from at least twenty men behind bars. One of the officers requested that we fill out a form with our full names and a few other details and then we were told to take a seat. While at the police office we had contacted our friends Bairon and Liz Gomez and Andres Aguilar and we were hoping they would be able to help. Andres is one of our only friends in Ecuador who speaks English and he had helped us out of tough situations before, but nothing like this. All we could do was pray for a miracle.
Then came the moment I’d been dreading. A policeman walked over to us and said that Oneal was going to be taken to another cell. Apparently the ruffians that were in the cell directly behind the officers were the worst offenders, hence the reason they were next to so many guards. Since Oneal and I had committed, albeit unwittingly, a lesser crime he had to be moved to the other side of the compound. This was more than I could bear. I don’t cry easily, especially in public, but I could feel the tears threatening to roll down my cheeks and for a few brief moments I couldn’t catch my breath.
Oneal was quite affected by my distress and I didn’t want him to worry; I managed to regain my composure and mumbled to him that I’d be okay. Not being able to do much else he handed me his cell phone, I’d had mind stolen only a few weeks prior. Oneal a naturally caring and protective sort was clearly out of his element and feeling a little more than helpless. He hoped that the cell phone would bring me some comfort, at least that way I’d have contact with my family and our friends back in Quito who were trying to help us.
I felt numb. Oneal was gone and although I was surrounded by people, I felt all alone. I remained seated in that one place for more than four hours. The men in the cell behind the officers tried endlessly to get my attention, fascinated that I was a foreigner and a Christian in prison. The chair I was seated in directly faced another building where I noticed another group of men were being held. These were more lewd and perhaps had been locked up longer because they kept making rude gestures at me.
The girls who were to be my cellmates offered me a mattress that looked like it had been placed in a mud pile and put out to dry. I was really tired, but the thought of sleeping on that thing made sitting upright on the half broken, dirty chair I was seated on seem pleasant. Finally, yielding to nature I was forced to get up and use the bathroom.
Opening the bathroom door I was immediately overtaken by the smell of old urine. By now it was dark and there was no light inside the bathroom. Using the dim light Oneal’s cell phone supplied, I could just barely make out the used toilet paper decorating the floor. The toilet and basin were both filthy and appeared as though they had never been cleaned. A barrel in one corner, lined with a brown, mossy film contained water for bathing and flushing the toilet. Okay, so this was definitely not the Holiday Inn; I realized then that like it or not, I was in jail and I resolved to make the best of it.
Had God not been with Paul and Silas in the Philppian jail? Ironically enough I was currently reading the book Acts of the Apostles and had just started the chapter detailing the experience of Paul and Silas. My mind began to rehearse the things I had read that very morning. I hadn’t even suffered the half of what the apostles endured and yet I had been wallowing in a pit of self pity. I’d been scared and untrusting. I reminded myself that God was leading and must have brought us here for a reason and I knew He would see us through.
Even then, as I learned later, Oneal was sharing the precious word of God with his cellmates. God in His divine providence had placed a prisoner who spoke fairly good English in the same unit with Oneal and he was happy to translate for him. Another prisoner had a Bible. And thirty-two men, some of them for the first time, had a Bible study. The next morning several of them were up bright and early, waiting for their chance to read their one Bible.
In total, although to me it seemed much longer, we were incarcerated for a little over twenty-four hours. During this time many of the precious people we had been given the privilege to work with called encouraging me with their kind words, their tears and tender regard for us. Never before had I realized how much they appreciated the work we had rendered on their behalf and I was so humbled. I thank the Lord that before one of the guards confiscated the cell phone I was able to receive so many of their calls.
I noticed how the ladies in my cell listened as I spoke on the phone with each one, offering cheer to those who feared that we would be deported and reminding them that God was in control and had not forsaken His children. My fellow inmates watched as I studied my Bible and prayed. Though it was a small thing, I knew a seed was being planted.
A male trustee who was free to walk the grounds and who often ran errands for the guards and the inmates took particular interest in my reading of the Bible and asked me many questions. He told me he desired to serve God, but didn’t think he could. Our conversation was frequently interrupted. Still I managed to tell him that of himself he was indeed incapable of serving God, however that through Christ he could. His eyes seemed to sparkle at the prospect of living a life in Christ. He realized for at least a moment that though he couldn’t make himself righteous, that through Christ he could obey the divine law and live above sin. I don’t even remember his name, but I believe seeds of righteousness and hope were sown in his heart that day. And when he hears the word of God again those seeds will bear fruit, his understanding will be sharpened and the conviction that he experienced then will lead to conversion.
My one night locked-up overseas taught me how truly unprepared I was for a real crisis. For as long as I can remember I have had a terrible fear of rats and during the night in jail I watched as a large rat scurried back and forth busy about his work. At first I was petrified and couldn’t sleep, but I kept thinking of what the early Christians, Reformers and all the martyrs throughout the ages had endured and what the saints of God would be called upon to face again. My present “light affliction” seemed very small in comparison.
God was amazingly gracious to us, and with the help of our friends we were able to leave the jail the following day. We were told that most people would have been deported within twenty-four hours, yet we were given eight days to gather our belongings and leave the country. Our lawyer had been less than honest with us and had received money without filing certain essential documents. As a result we were forced to leave Ecuador and the work that we started there.
It was very hard to leave knowing so much was still undone and that so many precious souls were yet to be reached. Nevertheless we comforted ourselves with the words of the apostle Paul when he said to the Corinthians, “…my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 15:58. The laws of Ecuador prohibit us from returning there within a year, so until then we are in Peru and have found a large field of labor here as well. We see that Providence has opened the way for us to be here and we are praying that the Lord will use us in this part of the vineyard for His glory.
“God expects personal service from every one to whom He has intrusted a knowledge of the truth for this time. Not all can go as missionaries to foreign lands, but all can be home missionaries in their families and neighborhoods.”—Christian Service, 9.