Interactive Prayer for the Persecuted Church Inspires Arizona Church, CWC
By Amanda Mahan
In November, I was invited to a prayer meeting that was entirely different than anything I’d ever experienced. Let me tell you about it.
The One Community Church building is a house renovated to better suit churchy things so, when you walk up to the door, it feels very much like you’re visiting a friend. On this day, the door was closed but, as I approached, it opened for me, though only wide enough for me to slip through. Kevin kept his hand on the doorknob and asked, “Are you alone?” The question caught me so off guard that I laughed a “Yes” back and passed him to enter.
It was dark inside. Much darker than a prayer meeting “should” be. The only light came from two tiny lamps sitting on a coffee table in the middle of the room and the very faint glow that leaked in from outside. A handful of chairs and kneeling pillows circled the table. The rest of the space was empty. I was the last to arrive before the meeting started and only had the choice of one place to sit, back facing the door. One of the kids asked if I was from the military. I was already confused, but this took the cake. Why would she think I’m from the military and why would that matter? I answered, “No,” but she really wasn’t interested in my comments. She was looking for assurance from one of the adults she knew. The first to notice where the question came from chuckled quietly and vouched for me. About then, I noticed I was wearing a jacket that had a camouflage design. OK, but why would it matter if a person from the military attended this meeting? All at once, it hit me. In Pastor Sarah’s text a few hours before, she’d mentioned that this was a prayer meeting to focus on the persecuted church and that they’d be doing things a little differently. It was all starting to make sense.
In places where practicing Christianity is highly restricted or illegal, church meetings are usually illegal. In order to meet, believers might gather in an abandoned building or another kind of secret place to keep from being seen. They wouldn’t use any kind of bright lighting and would avoid traveling, arriving, or departing in large groups. Often, they wouldn’t have childcare and there wouldn’t be a nursery or children’s class for the kids to break off into, so whole families would be together. Finally, in these places, the restriction of Christianity is usually enforced by militarized groups. As all these realizations flew through my mind—and despite knowing I was perfectly safe—I suddenly felt very uncomfortable with my back to the door, and was very interested in keeping everyone as quiet as possible.
The meeting started with Pastor Sarah handing out Bibles, though they weren’t like any Bible I’d ever seen. They were the size of a thick magazine. She explained that where Christianity is illegal, Bibles are illegal. To get around that, believers in these places would tear Bibles into pieces to make them smaller, less obvious, and easier to conceal. I was handed a section that started with Ezekiel. At first, I was little disappointed in my chunk of Bible, but then Pastor Sarah ran out; the rest of the people in the room didn’t get any piece of Bible. The kids who received Bible pieces traded theirs back and forth until they were happy with their pieces, but I became very protective of mine. It was understood that these magazine-sized chunks of pages were our only access to God’s Word. Using a Bible app wouldn’t be appropriate in this setting, knowing it would also be illegal for persecuted believers. For the duration of our meeting, I held on to my piece of the Old Testament very tightly.
After the Bibles were distributed, we prepared to receive Communion together. This also was very different than anything I’d ever experienced. Jesus establishes Communion during a Passover Seder in the Bible, where all those in attendance were partaking in a meal together. Communion in our secret church meeting mirrored that. We were each given a handful of bread and a cup of juice and, for the next twenty minutes, we ate and remembered Jesus by reflecting on his life and sacrifice and by sharing our most recent or impactful Jesus experiences. It was a precious time in the Holy Spirit with God’s people. The epitome of Christian unity! I can’t remember a time when Communion made more sense or when there was so much time allowed to truly soak in the depth of this remarkable gift.
Throughout our meeting, we sang songs of praise (quietly) and prayed fervently over different aspects of the persecuted church. Even the children joined in and were encouraged to continue to do so. What an incredible way to teach the younger ones the importance of prayer and, through that prayer, the importance of caring for others! As one of the girls prayed for the Christians who were having “to meet in abandoned buildings and be afraid of being caught,” I had to think, How often do we see kids truly thinking and caring about the well-being of other people, especially people they’ve never met? We all agreed with her as she prayed on, and I had another thought—how often have I found myself or other adults agreeing in prayer with a ten-year-old?! This is truly the way God’s family is supposed to be!
The sun had set not long after the meeting started, and it became very dark outside. Kevin continued to watch the door the whole night and there were several times he moved behind me to check on sounds made outside. Even though I knew we were perfectly safe, every time he moved a pit formed in my stomach. Two of those times, he was letting more people in. They had come from other meetings and joined us very late which only added to the underlying discomfort of this secret church meeting.
At one point, we were asked to read several passages from the Bible. The pieces we’d been given earlier made one complete Bible. When Pastor Sarah asked for someone to read a particular passage, she wasn’t asking who wanted to read, she was asking whoever had that section of the Bible to read it. As each passage was called out, the person holding that section of Bible read without hesitation. It was so dark, though, that the reader had to first position her or himself in the dim lamp light to see the words. I struggled as they read because I’m so used to reading along on my phone or from my own Bible. It was very different to simply listen, and listen well. There was no going back to re-read what was already shared, and I noticed that I wondered what came right before or after each passage that had been read. This would be one of those moments that my lack of memorized Word was underscored for me. I imagine it felt a bit like an honor to be able to read that night. Unfortunately for me, there were no passages that needed to be read from Ezekiel, Daniel, or Hosea.
The team at One Community Church was able to create an environment that allowed us to see just a glimpse of what persecuted believers experience every day around the world. I’ve never wondered who was at the door, or if we were being too loud (at least not for fear of being discovered). I’ve never even considered what it might be like to only be able to access three books from the Old Testament. What if I wanted to study Romans or read about Jesus’ life? Would I have to trade for those? Would I have to study those with a person who held them? Would I only get to read or hear someone else read from them in secret meetings? How would I even get my hands on a piece of the Bible? What would happen if I was caught with it?
That night we gathered, we prayed for persecuted believers all over the world. We prayed for local, state, and national leaders who have been, are, and will be sympathetic to those who are persecuted. We prayed for those risking their lives to deliver Bibles and other Christian supplies, to teach and disciple new and growing believers and possibly most at-risk, those who dare to share their faith with non-believing friends or family members.
Editor’s note—Following Amanda Mahan’s experience at One Community Church (pictured atop this page), our Church of God congregation in Queen Creek, Arizona, she hosted a similar gathering for the Arizona Christian Women Connection (CWC) in January at Arcadia City Church, our Church of God congregation on the east side of Phoenix. Amanda Mahan serves as state coordinator for the Arizona CWC.
Email email@example.com to request a basic outline of the “secret church” prayer meeting held in Arizona. For more information about the persecuted church, visit www.opendoorsus.org. Learn more about the international scope of ministry in the Church of God at www.chogglobal.org.