That’s all I gave my long-suffering Life Group for dinner last week. Just plain, boiled rice.
We’d decided that instead of our regular Bible study we would have an evening of prayer, and the first section was for the persecuted church. Hence the rice.
A couple of years ago I proofread a little booklet produced by Open Doors, called ‘Live Like a North Korean’. It was designed to be used throughout Lent and had information and stories about what life is like for Christians in North Korea, and some prayer points and suggestions for how to live in some small way like a North Korean for the six weeks of Lent (eg, hide your Bible in the garden shed so you have to go outside to read it; or eat only a bowl of soup and a piece of bread all day).
Until I proofread it, I had no idea that there were any Christians at all in North Korea. Apparently there are estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000! It’s impossible to know how many exactly, as it is so dangerous people are very scared to identify themselves as believers – they could be taken off to labour camps, along with their children and parents. Open Doors estimate that between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in these camps, on even worse rations than the rest of the famine-ravaged country.
So why did we have rice? Well, I would have given the group soup and bread, but that’s what we often have anyway, so it wouldn’t have really made the point! There are missionaries working into North Korea from China, and sometimes they are able to provide rice and other foods to their North Korean brothers and sisters:
“I know three North Koreans who have identified themselves as Christians,” says Pastor Cho, who works with North Koreans in China. “They follow secret roads and come out about once a year. I give them rice, bean powder, corn, potatoes, cooking oil, dried noodles, salt and other food products…” – Live Like a North Korean
So we imagined it was a special day when one of us had journeyed to get rice from a worker in China and had returned with this very special treat.
After we ate (some people went back for seconds – I couldn’t even finish half a bowl!) I read out some of the basic facts about life in North Korea, then passed round cards I’d made from pages of the booklet with Bible passages to read and pointers for prayer, and we got into pairs and prayed quietly for our brothers and sisters in this dangerous land.
The toilet church
As we read and learned, I think we were all amazed that the gospel is still alive and well in such an environment. How does it grow? How do Korean Christians ever find each other to encourage one another and share resources and precious pages of scripture? The only answer can be that the Holy Spirit guides them. Look at the story of one woman who planted a church in a prison camp toilet block:
Even in these labour camps that are like hell on earth, God is at work. Hea Woo says, “God helped me to survive. Even more: He gave me a desire to evangelise among the other prisoners! He showed me whom I should approach. God used me to lead five people to faith. We met together out of the view of the guards. Often that was in the toilet. There we held a short service. I taught them Bible verses and some songs, which we sang almost inaudibly.” – Open Doors website
The faith and courage of these people is amazing.
Something we didn’t talk about, which I find even more stunning, is a practice they call ‘holy rice’:
This means they set apart some of the little rice they have for use in God’s kingdom. “These Christians don’t consume all the food they receive from us,” says one of our co-workers. “They save some to give to people who are even worse off than them. This gives them an opportunity to build trust and later share the gospel with these people.”
Faith, courage and generosity, in probably the darkest place on earth. Amazing.
We all found it really moving and powerful to pray for North Korea. The plain rice dinner helped to focus our thoughts (and will help to keep the Koreans in our memories!), and the resources produced by Open Doors were really helpful. There are more stories and videos on their website here, and you can order the Live Like a North Korean booklet for free, and download more resources, like ideas for group studies and prayer times here.
One of the North Korean Christians said that they thought they had been forgotten, knowing that people around the world are praying for them gives them strength to carry on. Let’s do it!