“When Satan fell to earth, he fell in Kabul”—Oft-quoted Afghan proverb
No matter what your politics may be, the images coming out of Afghanistan this week have been horrendous. For the desperation demonstrated by the Afghans who flooded the airport runways in Kabul is all too palpable. And now some are reporting that Christians in that nation are fearing for their very lives at the hands of Taliban extremists.
All of which has made me think of the godliest man I have ever known, Christy Wilson. For born and raised in Tabriz, Iran, where his parents were American missionaries, from the age of five Christy’s calling from God was to take the gospel to a place where it had never gone before, the closed nation of Afghanistan, known to some as “the forbidden harvest.” But as missionaries were not allowed to enter, he found a back door in, that of becoming a teacher in a country where 97 percent of the population at the time couldn’t read or write.
Even with that enormous need, it still took four years from first applying to the Afghan Embassy in Washington before he finally received permission to go in 1951. And when he arrived, he felt the power of evil everywhere all around him. Nonetheless, Christy quickly made an impression on others—he would say God showed him favor—and soon he was the acting principal of a government high school, as well as teaching private English lessons to the Crown Prince, and conducting an English course for Afghan diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ordained during World War II to be a Presbyterian chaplain in the U.S. Navy, Christy and his wife Betty, who had started a school for the blind in Kabul, then started a small and secret house church in their home for other Christians who had come to teach or work with the U.N. agencies. And then in 1959, he heard that President Dwight D. Eisenhower (named for the evangelist Dwight Moody by his mother) was coming to Afghanistan on his Asian tour. And using a connection back in the States, Christy made a rather bold request: “Since a mosque has been built for the Muslim diplomats in Washington, on a reciprocal basis, we should have a church build here in Kabul for Christian diplomats.” And the President responded by presenting to the Afghan king that very request which was granted.
It took another ten years to raise the funds, provided by people from all over the world, and to construct the building but in 1970 the first and only evangelical Christian church on Afghan soil opened, with Christy Wilson as its pastor. Three years later, however, after a relatively peaceful forty-year reign of King Zahir Shah, everything rapidly changed. Christy and Betty were given three days’ notice to get out of the country, carrying only one small bag apiece after living there for 22 years. And then on July 14, 1973, soldiers, police, workmen and bulldozers showed up to destroy the church building itself, even digging down 12 feet belong the foundation looking for the “underground church” they had been told existed. Instead of opposing them, however, the congregation offered them tea and cookies.
Ironically, the mayor had been told that if the government touched that House of God that God would overthrow that government. And three days later, that prophecy came true, when the king’s cousin declared the end of the 227-year monarchy in a stunning coup d’état. Five years later, that government was toppled by a Communist coup, followed by the Russian invasion in 1979. And in the eyes of some Afghans, who are quick to see omens in events, the connection was clear: “Ever since our government destroyed that Christian Church, God has been judging our country.”
As for Christy and Betty, they ended up in Massachusetts at the same time that I did, in the fall of 1974, where–armed with a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Princeton, a doctoral degree from Edinburgh, and extra study at Columbia–he began teaching world evangelization at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. And there too, his quiet but fervent faith, as well as quick wit and sense of humor, made a difference. He made it his practice, for instance, each week to pray through the “facebook” that had photos of all the students, interceding for each person individually. (When students met him on campus for the first time, they would be surprised to hear a professor they had never met call them by name.) Indeed, Christy would pray with you anytime and anyplace and you never got out of his office without praying at least three times. He also established a prayer room on the campus and every day at noon, he and a band of students would unite in prayer for the peoples and nations of the world.
It became my privilege to be a part of those prayer sessions, as well as to be appointed a teaching fellow for Dr. Wilson, and the times we spent together are a treasured part of my memories. After graduation, I invited him once to a church I was serving in East Texas and after worship and lunch, my elementary aged son asked him if he would like to go out and fly a kite. I explained that Dr. Wilson was probably tired, and besides, it was January and not really the weather for that activity. But Christy, still wearing his suit, quickly got up, took Andy by the hand, and said, “let’s try.” And sure enough, the winds shifted, and that kite went as high as my son’s excitement and my admiration for the man with him.
Christy was invited to return to Kabul in 1991 for 23 days to work and pray with Christians there. And eight years later, he entered God’s eternal Kingdom after 78 years of providing to others a remarkable picture of what it means to serve God with both joy and power. If he were still on earth today, however, I am pretty clear what he would say about the current chaos in the country which he loved all of his life. “Let’s pray about it right now and see what God will do.”
As I watch those tragic images on television, thus, all I can do right now is pray as well, knowing that no one—not even the Taliban—is completely beyond God’s reach and power to change. But I also cannot think of that forbidden harvest and Kabul without remembering Christy.
And I have a feeling that God can’t either.