Friends in the West: How it was birthed.
Friends in the West: How it was birthed.
1965, and a young Ray Barnett has organized a major international Christian conference, to take place in Stockholm, Sweden. Having held the post of international director of Youth For Christ while still in his early twenties,
Ray had the credibility to speak on equal terms and gain the cooperation of the world’s best-known Christian leaders, teachers and evangelists. Hence, the Stockholm conference not only attracted prominent businesspeople from across the USA and Canada, but the scale of the operation and the ‘names’ involved ensured that there was interest from the secular as well as Christian media.
Ray granted permission for a journalist who had interviewed him, to travel from British Columbia and join the conference to report and write stories for the secular press. A small complication arose, however, when the journalist, a self confessed atheist, decided she would also like to accompany a smaller party that were taking the opportunity to spend a few days in the Communist controlled country of Estonia, prior to the beginning of the Stockholm conference.
This was not what Ray had planned. The other group members were overtly Christian, and it was likely that there would be many prayer meetings during that trip, especially since it was well known that believers in Estonia and other Soviet Union countries were being imprisoned and persecuted for their faith.
The group knew that being from the ‘West’, their visit would be tightly controlled, with a chaperone watching their every move and feeding them the appropriate propaganda. Nevertheless, in spite of the inevitable restrictions, the group prayed that somehow God would open up a door for them to connect with and help the Christian church in Estonia in some way.
Now, with a journalist in their midst whose sympathies lay more in the Communist than Christian camp, any hope of being able to make secret contact with Estonian believers seemed to be dashed. Ray wondered if he had made a huge mistake. He did all he knew to do – he prayed.
Unknown to the group from the West, word had got out to Estonia’s underground church about their visit. This was an opportunity they had prayed for for a long long time.
They asked God for guidance as they devised their plan. One of their members was appointed to make contact with the group of visitors.
His remit was try to discern who the most spiritual looking person in the group was, and then persuade that individual to break away and make a trip in a waiting car to a secret rendezvous with a group of believers. So was it Ray who was chosen, or perhaps another dynamic Christian leader?
The person of choice turned out to be none other than the accompanying journalist – the only non-Christian in the whole group.
In a secret forest setting, she met with a group of young people. She was given a bunch of documents and asked if she could smuggle these out of the country and deliver them to the United Nations in New York.
The journalist replied that, “she knew someone who would”. That someone, was Ray Barnett. The documents turned out to be letters, written by believers who had friends and family in prison for their beliefs, and who were suffering persecution and deprivation because of their Christian beliefs.
That experience in Estonia revealed to Ray, vital lessons that helped him in his future work as he developed relationships with people in countries where the person you’re dealing with that appears to be your friend, may well turn out to be your enemy.
Conversely, the person you may be suspicious of, and who may even be part of the ‘system’, may be the very one who grants you favour and turns out to be God’s answer to your prayers.
Ray learnt that sometimes, what seems on the surface to be a mistake, can turn out to be part of God’s plan, or if necessary, God will change the heart of an individual.
Ray could never have predicted that the journalist who handed over the letters to him, would also speak, almost prophetically, into his life and ministry.
The Estonia trip turned out to be an eye-opener for her and she left that country with a genuine desire to see the Christians there delivered from persecution.
After faithfully passing on the letters to Ray, she boldly declared: “Ray, these well off and world famous Christians that you’ve brought half way around the world to have nice meetings together, they don’t need you. But these people need you – the ones that are being imprisoned and persecuted – they’re the ones you should be helping”.
Ray was stunned. The very comfortable position he had carved out for himself on his career path, had just become very uncomfortable. The offers of well-paid, executive positions in the big ministries that he was considering, suddenly didn’t feel ‘right’. He expected the Stockholm conference to be a life changer as he networked and finalized some future plans with famous names in the Christian arena. But he hadn’t expected this.
The message couldn’t have been clearer if God had spoken audibly out of the heavens.
As he flicked through the documents on his knee, something stood out. Each letter began with the words, “Dear Friend in the West”.
As Ray read through the letters, he knew that the direction of his future was already being changed. He knew it was up to him to ‘agree’ to this new work that God was calling him to.
He found himself in silent prayer responding: “Yes, from this day forward I will be a ‘Friend in the West’ to these persecuted Christians or any other group or individual that God directs me to. Yes, I will dedicate the rest of my life to helping find other ‘Friends in the West’ who will pray for and give hope and support to vulnerable people groups or individuals who need help”.