On Brother Andrew, “God’s Smuggler”
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Andrew van der Bijl, known around the world as Brother Andrew and “God’s Smuggler,” recently died at the age of 94. We have lost one of our great Christian adventurers. Brother Andrew’s ministry should remind us to put the Bible at the center of our faith and work, and also remind us that there are persecuted and neglected churches around the world—sometimes in our own backyard.
Growing up, I always thought of Brother Andrew as a missionary who took the gospel to lost souls on dark continents. The tales were miraculous, and true! In his blue VW he crossed the border into European Communist countries, praying that just as God had opened the eyes of the blind, would He now close the eyes of those who had sight? God answered this prayer over and over again. In Asia, Brother Andrew and his associates from Open Doors International floated one million Bibles in waterproof wrapping into the surf. On moonlit nights, unsinkable Boston Whalers were used to push the bundles of Bibles to the shore where Christians waded into the water to collect the desperately needed Scripture.
The fundamental thing driving Brother Andrew for many years was the needs of the persecuted church. The Holy Spirit put this verse in his heart: “Awake and strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Revelation 3:2). His primary mission was to equip persecuted believers.
As a young man, Brother Andrew visited Warsaw as a Christian observing a Communist Youth League international conference. Andrew had heard about the conference and wondered, “What had happened to Christians behind the Iron Curtain?” When visiting a church in Warsaw, a Baptist minister told him, “We want to thank you,” he said, “for being here. Even if you had not said a word, just seeing you would have meant so much. We feel at times as if we are all alone in our struggle.”
For decades Christians behind the Iron Curtain were overjoyed at his visits because they, barred from international communication and fellowship, wondered if anyone even knew they existed. Where religious literature was illegal in the Communist bloc, Andrew traveled there, shining the light of God’s love and carrying Bibles and religious materials. He observed, “What persecuted Christians want is spiritual communion and companionship. They need to know they aren’t alone in their struggle.”
In later years, Brother Andrew’s visits to Muslim majority countries created the same reaction by beleaguered Christian communities. Jack Sara, president of Bethlehem Bible College, recalls, “He had a soft heart for those in pain, the persecuted, and those usually considered on the other side, the enemy. He was willing to step into a difficult place and talk with difficult people, but never compromise the message of the gospel.”
Early on Brother Andrew was deeply moved by seeing a Czech woman holding a Bible up in a crowd so that all around her could read its precious words. He knew that the fundamental power source for spiritual transformation and sustenance was the Bible. So he lugged Bibles and additional discipleship and pastoral training materials in order to mature the work within the persecuted church.
Andrew’s courageous journeys, with his beaming smile and explicit love-of-neighbor, opened doors to share the Good News around the world. Furthermore, his genuine compassion for everyone made him a champion for all who were oppressed. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussain, a practicing Muslim, tweeted this on learning of Brother Andrew’s passing, “He advocated tirelessly for religious freedom, a source of hope to persecuted Christian communities around the world.”
Brother Andrew’s model has practical ramifications for us today. The first is the centrality of the Bible to every part of our lives. Too often our religious lives are made up of content that is at best faintly scriptural. When talking about our faith, many of us are often more likely to invite someone to an entertaining program rather than answer hard questions about the Bible. Not Brother Andrew. His confident belief was that the Bible was the wellspring from which Christian love and charity emanated, and it was the sustenance needed by the soul in times of social and political tyranny.
Second, we must recognize the existence of both the truly persecuted church and hidden congregations even in our own backyard. Evangelicals in the West have a role to play in praying for and supporting the persecuted church in hostile environments such as China and some Middle Eastern countries. Too often we think of mission trips as “us taking the Gospel” to them, without realizing that there are tiny, tenacious Christian minorities in these lands living faithfully. They deserve our help and support.
“Tiny and tenacious” Christian communities may be closer than we think. I am not speaking about persecuted churches, but rather modest and often neglected churches in our own cities. How often do our plush suburban churches partner with the unnoticed congregations just a few miles away in the inner city? Resource disparities, not just when it comes to money but of hope and manpower, may be calling us to take increasing responsibility for our Christian family close in our own city or county. The same may hold true for foreign-language, diaspora Christian communities that are living as immigrants right around the corner from us. Are we following Brother Andrew’s loving commitment to share with the church in need?
As Brother Andrew exhorted, “That is what our ministry is all about—going into the world and simply being there as the hands and feet of the Lord. Going to our hurting brothers and sisters and saying, ‘We are the Lord’s presence with you. We share in your pain, and we care that you are suffering.’”
Who is making that same pledge today?
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