I first met David Curry at a LAX terminal prior to boarding a flight to the Middle East. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but his demeanor of grace and humility seemed contrary to most who hold a position of influence and power. From the terminal at LAX to the very troubled environments of the Middle East, David maintained an ease and sincerity that drew me into his world of compassion for those living in persecution.
David serves as the President of Open Doors USA, an organization that works with Christians living in highly oppressive environments around the globe. Much of the work done by David and Open Doors is done in secret due to its dangerous nature. David is tasked with carrying on the radical praxis of Brother Andrew, the man known as “God’s Smuggler,” who famously began his ministry smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960’s.
Most men who accomplish great things want the world to know about them. There is a vast and successful resume of greatness David could share with us. Instead he chooses to talk of others and make their stories famous. Stories of men, women, and children who do not know justice or religious freedom and are facing daily persecution. This is David’s cause…and it’s a worthy one. -Joel Parker
Tell us about the reality of Christians living in persecution.
Christians around the world don’t have the freedom to share their faith openly or even practice their faith secretly in many countries. I want to see that change. And I want to see the body of Christ brought together in this. That’s the only way we’re going to see a healthy world. I want to see Christians integrated and using their gifts in a larger society. We see this in persecuted countries where that is their only expression. Wherever they’re at, they have to be a Christian in that place. And sometimes they’re even restricted from those simple things because they are a Christian. My heart feels good when I see Christians using their particular gifts in context. I think that’s healthy. You see it in persecuted countries because pastors don’t have the ability to make a living being a shepherd. They can still use their gifts as a shepherd even though they might run a shop or be a lawyer.
How would you define advocacy and what does that mean in a practical sense?
Fighting for others. Speaking up for others. Advocacy should never be done in isolation. When people are advocates and nothing else, it weakens our argument. I worked in the homeless field for nine years, and I always thought that homeless advocates were devoid of wisdom because they never actually helped any homeless people. They just advocated for homeless people. When you help homeless people, you actually get a better idea of what they need. I don’t think advocacy in and of itself is good; you need to get your hands in there and help, in some small, practical way. It’ll make you a better advocate when you hear their story and you know them. So don’t just say, “I’m going to advocate for something.” No, help them and advocate for them. Otherwise you’re just talking about someone you don’t know.
Where is God moving in the Middle East?
Egypt and Iran have the biggest movements in the Middle East, interestingly enough. Egypt has a strong youth movement— more Christians are in Egypt than anywhere else in that region. The Iranian underground church is huge and growing all the time. My sense is that what God is doing in those two epicenters is going to spread.
I think the story of Iraqi Christians is in influx right now because they’ve been scattered. But they’re also being refined. The persecution of ISIS is breaking orthodoxies. Christian groups relying on their religion find that [their orthodoxy] only goes so far in this kind of situation. They need Jesus, not their religion, not their buildings, not their relics. Only Jesus. But it’s also breaking the orthodoxy of moderate Muslims who see what’s happening and say, “Is this what my religion is about?” I don’t think that has a happy ending yet, but I can see good coming from it. So God’s moving there. Muslims are coming to faith as never before in Iraq.
Who are the faces that inspire you to advocacy?
There are several. Every day I get a confidential briefing that tells me what happened overnight in a particular area. So I’m in it all the time. I don’t lack motivation. Dealing with the persecuted church is not a situation where you have normal days.
Today it was kids in Ethiopia who were going to have a youth group meeting but they were attacked by extremists. When the police broke up the attack, they assaulted the girls in the group and arrested the Christians. Today I’m stirred up about that. Let’s see what we can do in Ethiopia. I get motivated about stuff like that.
But let me tell you about one particular story: I was in China recently. There’s a lot of freedom in China; it’s lower on our World Watch List than it would have been thirty years ago. The government itself is struggling with how to deal with Christianity, so they’ve allowed some freedoms. But in the Northwestern part of China, there is a Muslim area called the Uyghurs. And we have a guy there, his “name” is James, and he works for us running small groups of Muslim-background believers. But he is under tremendous pressure. And for me to meet with James is dangerous for him. Our meeting was like this: we drove down the road, and when he saw our car, which is identified a certain way, he jumped in the car while it was moving because we can’t be seen in public together. We drove for hours having a meeting in this vehicle, just hearing about what he’s doing, what’s happening with the Uyghers, how we can help his ministry. Lovely person. He has the largest ministry in that area, I’m sure. He was telling me what he’s doing, and I just fell in love with the guy. You think of him as embattled, but no, great, funny guy. We went through this whole thing, and at the end of our hours together, he jumped out of the car. Two weeks after I met with him, I got a note— they’re after James, they’re going to track him down. He’s been on the road hiding since that email. He’s basically been a fugitive for almost a year now. When I think of what’s happening — and China is easier than some places— I think of people like James who are just trying to do Jesus ministry and now he’s a fugitive. He can’t go home. They’ll arrest him and put him in jail. His partner who was helping him has been in jail for seven or eight years. You can see that these aren’t criminals. They’re just Jesus people sharing the love of the Lord and helping people. And because of their faith, they’re criminals, they’re imprisoned, and they’re on the run.
What’s the biggest problem facing the persecuted church today?
Hopelessness. They don’t think anyone in the West knows what’s going on. To some degree they’re right. But the Christians in Iraq really think people have forgotten about them. They’ve been displaced for a year and already all the aid workers have pulled out.
What should we—the Western Church, the uninformed—do for the persecuted church?
First thing, we need to be praying daily for the persecuted church. Nothing is going to happen until we pray. We should be advocating for our Western governments to use its power to encourage freedom of religious expression. We give billions of dollars to countries that persecute Christians. I think supporting ministries that are doing presence ministry in difficult regions is very important. If you add up all the money that’s spent in the Middle East by Christian agencies, it’s a fraction of what’s spent in Mexico. We just don’t think of reaching out and being salt and light in the Middle East. We’ve kind of given up on them.
I think writing to your congressman, electing the right people who will support Christians in foreign countries and protect the right to freedom of religious expression— all of that is important. We’re feeding refugees from Syria and Iraq: 300,000 Christians who are at loose ends because of these wars and ISIS. We’re doing practical things as Open Doors, but we’re not suggesting that we’re going to see a spiritual revival through food. What we’re saying is we’re going to be the loving extension of Jesus to persecuted Christians. I don’t think we should see this as a political endgame— we just need to be expressing the love of Jesus in every region in the world, even places where it’s oppressed. Don’t people in North Korea have the right to know who Jesus is, what he said, what was written about him? Yes, of course, they do.
And what shouldn’t we be doing?
Christians should not accept political answers for what God is doing around the world. This will not be a political solution, it will be a spiritual solution because it’s a spiritual problem. You can’t solve a spiritual problem with a physical or political solution.
How would you define a reformer?
A reformer is somebody who is in a system, loves the people in the system, but cannot accept the conclusions of the system. We have people who see what’s happening to Christians in the Muslim world, and their first response is, “Can we close the borders and keep Muslims out of America?” I want to reform what the Christian church thinks about the Muslim world. These people love God, they just don’t know who He is. When you introduce them to the loving person of Jesus, they’re interested. We have to reach out to the Muslim world, and it’s not going to be a political solution. It’s not going to be through closing our borders and being afraid of them. It’s about going to their places, getting to know them, and inviting them in for dinner. We need reformers; we’ve got to reengage. We’re never going to be able to deal with extremist Muslims — al-Qaeda, ISIS— unless we reach out and love Muslims as a whole and find a way to engage them.
Who is your favorite reformer?
Pope Francis. He is a pastor working in a religious political system. And I see exactly what he’s trying to do. He’s conservative theologically, but he loves people. And it’s a shock to religious people when you don’t follow their rules but you love people the way Jesus would. I think Pope Francis is trying to make the Catholic church about Jesus again. He went to church the other day, just walked in and sat down in the third row without any guards. People freaked out because popes aren’t supposed to go church. Religious orthodoxies need to be broken and people need to get back to Jesus.
What piece of advice would you give to this generation?
Reject everything you know about Christianity that has nothing to do with Jesus. Because Christianity is broken, but Jesus is the real deal. I tell my son, follow Jesus and only Jesus. Don’t get caught up in religion. Reject religion. And use your gift in every context. If you’re an engineer, be an engineer. If you’re a journalist, be a journalist. It’s good that Jesus people are in these fields. And then engage in all of the important areas. Engage in the Middle East if that’s where God has called you. Engage in poverty. Engage in your particular passion.
If you find that nexus between what you’re good at, what Jesus is all about, and the points of issue that are painful for people in the world today, you will never be bored.
Where people struggle is when their Christianity is devoid of any action, any fun, any interest… they’re Christians, but it’s such a safe word. They’re not really engaging. Or they feel like to follow Jesus, they have to do something they’re not good at or not excited about. If you don’t have those three things together, you’re going to be miserable and/or ineffectual. I want to do what I love to do, what I’m called to do, and I want to do it where it’s important. That’s where the fun is. I don’t lack interest. Not to say that you won’t have problems [doing what you’re called to do], but wouldn’t you rather be doing that than something else?
What would the ideal relationship between the persecuted church and the western church look like?
It would look like a brotherhood. We learn from them and help them, and they learn from us and help us. Because they can help us. They are experiencing things we are going to experience. We can help them because we have resources now; they may have resources later. It should not be paternalistic; it should be a family. Saying, “tell me how you go through hard times because I’m going through hard times. What do you do when you’re in depression?” Because they do have to serve Jesus at the end of a knife or gun. And we don’t yet. We have to learn what it is they’ve got that we need. Because hard times are coming.
Where can the western church begin to engage?
Step one, there are millions of Muslims in this world, and there are some that live in your town. Get to know them. There are students from other countries, people that own shops or drive taxis. When I meet a Muslim, I ask them two questions: how long have you been in the United States? And has any American ever invited you over to their house for dinner to welcome you to this country? And the answer is, 100% of the time, NEVER. Never has an American welcomed them to this country. If you invite a Muslim over to dinner to get to know them—and not prosthelytize them—but as an act of love in the name of Jesus, that would be the greatest thing you could do. And/or go to one of these countries just to be the presence of Jesus there. Go see Morocco and love people along the way, enjoy it, pray for it while you’re there. Go to Istanbul. Go to Cairo. Just be there, see it, and fall in love with these people. Realize they are people. Those things are important. Presence ministry.
Written by Joel Parker
Photos by Ryan Longnecker