Go Make Disciples: Strengthening the Church in Suffering
Chad Burchett | October 20, 2023
As Southeastern equips students to be sent on mission to hard-to-reach regions of the world, thousands of Southeastern students are already there serving in difficult places. Through Southeastern’s Persian Leadership Development Initiative (PLDI) and its partnership with Mojdeh Ministries, students like Hope* and her husband Ethan are being equipped to fulfill the Great Commission in closed countries.
As a part of Southeastern’s global community, Hope and Ethan are making disciples amid suffering and are now using their training to serve where churches are scarce and few have access to theological training.
Raised in a nominally Muslim family in the Middle East, Hope did not know any Christians in her community. However, when Hope was a young adult, a devout Muslim neighbor came to faith in Jesus Christ and shared the gospel with two of her sisters. Captivated by the truth of the gospel, Hope’s sisters became disciples of Jesus and began secretly attending a house church.
When Hope eventually found out, she confronted them, fearful of the danger it could bring to the family. Bold in her faith, Hope’s younger sister gave her a Bible, and Hope began reading the Gospel of Matthew. Fascinated by what she read, Hope brought the Bible with her everywhere she went — on buses and in public spaces — not knowing it was illegal to own a Bible in her country.
In his kindness, God protected her during that season. As Hope continued reading the Bible on her own, she became increasingly convinced that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Yet, out of fear, she kept her faith a secret.
A few weeks later, the same Christian neighbor who evangelized her sisters shared the gospel with her, and she revealed that she believed in Jesus. He invited her to join their house church, where she later prayed in repentance and confessed her faith in Christ for the first time.
Before coming to faith, Hope had been planning to marry Ethan, a devout Muslim. Once she became a Christian, she knew Ethan would disapprove of her faith, but she was still eager to find ways to share the gospel with him.
During a particularly challenging season at work, Ethan had vowed to perform 40 weeks of prayer at a holy site and mosque in their region. Each week, he would visit the complex and perform his rituals, praying to Muhammad for answers. However, Ethan never received an answer, and Hope recognized the opportunity to plant a gospel seed in Ethan’s heart.
“I told him, ‘You have tried praying to Muhammad, but you still have no answer,’” recounted Hope. “‘You believe in Jesus according to the Quran, so why don’t you pray in Jesus’s name?’”
Ethan agreed and asked Hope what to do. She told him they should go to church. So, she brought Ethan to her house church, and when worship started, she waited for him to say they had to leave, but Ethan stayed quietly until the service was over.
When they left, Ethan was still resolved to go back to the Islamic holy site to complete his vow. However, that next week, Ethan asked Hope to return to her church even while he finished his prayers at the mosque.
After attending the house church together for several weeks, Hope looked over during worship and noticed Ethan crying. When they walked out, Ethan told her, “This is what I was looking for but in the wrong place before.”
Praising God for answering her prayers, Hope shared the gospel with Ethan and brought him to her neighbor who had led her to Christ. Ethan confessed Jesus and became a follower of Christ.
Ministry in Unlikely Places
Now united in Christ, Hope and Ethan got married in a traditional wedding before moving to the north, where their house church sent them on a Christian couples retreat in a neighboring country. There they were married in a Christian ceremony and received deep biblical teaching for the first time in their Christian journeys. Hope and Ethan returned to their home in the north, eager to see how God would use their life together.
One day when Ethan was buying flowers at a local shop, the shop owner noticed Ethan’s necklace — a golden cross — and asked him if he was a Christian. Ethan said, yes, and the shop owner revealed that he was also a Christian. The shop owner shared that his house church desperately needed Bibles, and he asked if Ethan would be willing to smuggle some Bibles to a region further north.
“That was an ‘aha’ moment for us, and God just really changed our hearts and helped us realize why he had directed us to move to the north,” recalled Hope. “We had been sent to serve the Church in the north.”
That was an ‘aha’ moment for us, and God just really changed our hearts and helped us realize why he had directed us to move to the north.
That realization sparked their life-altering commitment to smuggle Christian resources. During the week, Hope and Ethan gathered materials and stored them in a secret compartment in the floor of the flower shop. On the weekends, Hope and Ethan made the three-and-a-half-hour drive to the north to smuggle Bibles and Christian materials. The Lord blessed their efforts and enabled them to make more ministry connections in the north, expanding their smuggling network throughout the region and into a neighboring country.
On every trip, Hope and Ethan had to stop at check points where their car was subject to mandatory searches by officers who did not need a permit to search for contraband. However, in God’s providence, each time they would pass through the check points, something would happen with the car in front of them or behind them, and they would pass through without being searched.
“God always provided for us,” recalled Hope. “Officers would confiscate goods from the cars around us and randomly let us pass. Once, an officer was too busy retying his shoes that he let us pass unchecked. On every drive, it was clear to us that God had gone before us.”
On every drive, it was clear to us that God had gone before us.
Hope and Ethan’s home became a hub for Christian retreats in the north as people would gather there weekly and monthly for classes and spiritual retreats. As they grew in their faith and surrender to God’s purpose for their lives, he continued to give them opportunities to disciple people in their home. When they led others to faith, Hope and Ethan would baptize the new believers in a small pool on their property.
Hope and Ethan became increasingly bold in their testimony and often left Christian symbols out in their house even when Ethan’s devout Muslim family would visit, hoping to spark conversations with them about the gospel.
When their two children were born, Ethan and Hope realized maintaining these networks across national borders was too difficult to manage with a growing family, so they decided to move back to the capital so that Hope’s family could help take care of the children while they continued to minister.
After four years in the north, Hope and Ethan smuggled over 3,000 Christian books and Bibles along government-monitored roads to Christians with little access to biblical resources.
Prison, Asylum, and Divine Provision
During those days, Hope and Ethan’s house church often rotated between houses to avoid government surveillance. On one Sunday, they decided to host church at Ethan’s mother’s house.
As they were preparing for people to arrive, Hope and Ethan heard their kids running toward them from the garden, and they looked up the hill behind their kids to see secret police descending on the garden and house. Grabbing Ethan, the police pinned him to the ground. At the same time, more secret police came around from the front of the house, escorting other church members who had just arrived. The police took Ethan and three other leaders inside for interrogation, even as their children cried for the officers not to hurt them.
Meanwhile, the police were also deploying search teams to confiscate evidence of their Christianity, and they arrested Ethan placing him in isolation in prison.
Hope heard nothing from Ethan for the next couple weeks.
When she finally received a call from the prison, Ethan just wept with her on the phone. Psychologically tortured night and day, Ethan had resisted their efforts to coerce information out of him. After confining Ethan to a month in isolation, the officials allowed his family to post bail for his release until his trial. Forced to surrender their house deed as bail, they secured his release. When Ethan rejoined his family, his appearance was so altered that their younger son no longer recognized him.
During that time, the police often interrogated and threatened Hope as well, making it difficult for her to care for her children. Surveilled by secret police, Hope and Ethan had to find ways to warn missionaries and other believers in their network to stay away, further deepening their isolation.
As they waited, they continued trusting God to care for them and guide their family. As Ethan’s court date approached, they learned who his judge would be, and they knew execution was a likely outcome. So, they prayed for God to open a door to serve in another country, and in his timing, he provided an opportunity to flee to a neighboring country through their missionary connections there.
Without time to pack, Hope and Ethan and their kids fled the country, leaving their family and belongings behind.
When they reached the airport, the police were waiting for them. However, in God’s providence, the officials agreed to let their family leave, revoking their rights to ever return.
Rejoicing in God’s sovereignty, they began their new life in a different country. However, even after Hope and Ethan fled their home country, their government continued to track them and threaten the family that they left behind. So, they stayed for a month in a neighboring country before seeking asylum further west toward Europe.
Training and Ongoing Discipleship
Even before Hope and Ethan were forced to flee their country, Christians in their network had told them about the training available through Mojdeh. Hope had started courses in their home country and planned to continue — that is, until Ethan’s arrest and her interrogation. When the police confiscated their Christian resources, the government denied her access to training, and she supposed she would no longer be able to continue her education.
However, when Hope and Ethan fled the country, Kambiz Saghaey, director of PLDI at Southeastern, heard about their story and invited her to join the pilot cohort of Southeastern’s new bachelor’s program completely in Farsi. Amazed at God’s provision, Hope jumped at the chance to be further equipped to serve.
“Kambiz told me that they were inviting around 30 students to join the first cohort, and I knew I needed to be one of them,” recalled Hope.
As they settled in their new country, Hope began her bachelor’s program, and Ethan enrolled in Mojdeh’s certificate courses. Already refined by years of suffering, Hope and Ethan were eager to add biblical depth and theological understanding to their faith.
“Before we fled our country, we were disciples of Christ, but our understanding of the Bible was very basic,” noted Hope. “We didn’t have access to much teaching, and even in our house churches, we lacked training. Now, however, through Mojdeh and Southeastern we have been equipped to learn deeply about theology — about God and his word — and are now able to teach what we have learned.”
Through Mojdeh and Southeastern we have been equipped to learn deeply about theology — about God and his word — and are now able to teach what we have learned.
“As we’ve studied online and participated in seminars in Europe, we’ve been trained not to fall for false teaching, which is so common in our regions,” commented Hope.
Even as new students, Hope and Ethan became active again in ministry — resolved to remain faithful to God’s calling on their lives. They started a house church in their home and began outreach and discipleship in their new community. Even as refugees, Hope and Ethan have been intentional to maintain connections with people in their home country, discipling people through social media and ongoing ministry connections.
Ministry in their new country has not been easy, however. In the past 8 years, the government there has interrogated and even beaten Ethan on 3 occasions for their ministry in the region as house church leaders. Nevertheless, even as Hope and Ethan suffer for making disciples, they remain confident in God’s strength and thankful for his grace.
“We thank God that he saved us and that even through much trial he gives us strength,” noted Hope. “At points, we have thought our life was done and our story was finished, but we are still here serving him and learning more about him. It is unimaginable how God has blessed us.”
We thank God that he saved us and that even through much trial he gives us strength.
Would you join us in praying for Hope and Ethan’s ongoing ministry and for them to be continually strengthened in Christ as they make disciples?
*Names have been changed for security reasons.