‘I Knew God Wouldn’t Forget Me’

Andrew and Norine Brunson tell how God sustained them during Andrew's two years in prison

North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife, Norine, planted an evangelical church in the port city of Izmir, Turkey. This was the location of the Church of Smyrna mentioned in the Book of Revelation. On Oct. 7, 2016, after serving the church for more than 20 years, they were arrested and falsely accused of being involved in an attempted coup against the Turkish government. Norine was soon released, but Andrew endured two years in prison until he was set free Oct. 12. Decision sat down with the Brunson’s days after his release to discuss their ordeal and God’s provision.

 

After two years in prison, you found yourself in the White House just a day after you were released, praying for the president of the United States. How did that come about?  

Andrew: On the way back to the United States, I asked Tony Perkins (from Family Research Council), who was on the plane with me and who knows President Trump well, if the president would mind if I prayed. He told me the president would be happy to accept prayer. I didn’t think anything about it being unusual. I thought people did this all the time. If I had known, I would have probably been very nervous and probably not able to do it. We asked the Lord for the opportunity. It’s been a testimony that went out to many countries, and we’re glad for that.

Norine: Knowing that President Trump was involved in our case, I was praying for him, praying for wisdom, praying Isaiah 11, that the Spirit of the Lord would be upon him in wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. I wrote it down in a diary on Aug. 26. So when we heard that we would be going to the White House, I knew I wanted to pray that for him in person.

We talked about this, and Andrew also was thinking of things he wanted to pray. He wrote some things down on the plane and wondered how the president would react.

Would he accept it? We said we’ll take the opportunity if we get it. Just before the meeting, Andrew pulled me aside and was praying very determinedly, “Lord, give us this opportunity.” I could see his heart was really into it. He was ready. After one of the media interviews we did with the Voice of America in Turkish and English, a reporter asked if we would like to meet President Erdoğan of Turkey. I replied, “Yes, we would be happy to meet with him and would like to pray for him, too.”

How did you wind up pastoring the church in Izmir?

Norine: We did not feel called specifically to Turkey; we were headed toward the Muslim world and not necessarily toward Turkey. So our time there, when we began in 1993, didn’t necessarily start with a burden. We first went to Istanbul and then to Izmir, where we planted the church.

It was while you were working with the church in Izmir that Turkish authorities arrested you and Norine.

Andrew: At first we were held in a detention center in cells with members of ISIS around us. After a few days, my wife was about to be released. She at first refused to go because she wanted to stay with me. I was charged by the Turkish government with aiding extremists. I was in four places during the two years. A person can be held for up to seven years in Turkey before they go to trial. Everything we did, we did in the open. We did nothing illegal. We put literature outside the church where people could take it.

Everyone observed what we did. When people asked what we did, we said we worked in a church. Seekers knew where to find us. There are only 6,000 to 7,000 believers in a country of almost 80 million.

It wasn’t too long before your case began receiving international attention. The White House and several congressmen brought up your incarceration before Turkish officials and lobbied heavily for your release.

Andrew: Yes, I heard about this through Norine. Yet my imprisonment kept going on and on. It seemed like a Pharaoh situation, where the more pressure that was applied internationally, the more stubborn they remained and kept me in prison.

Did you know that Christians from across the world were praying for your release?

Andrew: I came to understand that. It was then I realized there had to be a lot more going on other than my imprisonment. I worked in obscurity in Turkey. I wondered why I would be the one all of a sudden cast into the limelight. As I heard through Norine of all the people that were praying for me all around the world—from China to Africa—I began to see that God was using this in a bigger and broader way for a larger harvest.

Norine: The prayers of God’s people were so powerful. It was an amazing outpouring of love from the Body of Christ. They were such a great encouragement to us. I was able to continue to be involved in our local church in Izmir and see Andrew on a regular basis.

How would you describe your time in prison?

Andrew: I was never abused or hurt in any way. I didn’t complain about food or other aspects of prison life; I just complained about being in prison. There were many times when I would have rather gone to be with the Lord. Sometimes it’s easier to die for Jesus than to live for Jesus. I had no expectation of ever being in prison. All I knew was reading biographies of other people about how they had been in jail, and I thought this would be a great time of grace.

That’s not exactly how it turned out. My big complaint was, “God, where are You? Where is Your grace?” When I wasn’t in isolation, I was surrounded by nearly 20 people praying to Allah all day long. I heard the Quran being read virtually every hour. I was with 20 Muslims in a cell—all desperate to be released. They thought if they said more prayers they would be released.

I had to come to the place of submission to God’s purposes in prison. It’s not that I wanted to be there, but this is where God had put me. And I made a decision that I would serve His purposes. There were dark battles, and I just prayed for the strength to press on. God’s grace was there, but it was a hidden grace.

How did you hold up emotionally under such pressure?

Andrew: I was surprised how easily I was broken. I was so grateful that Norine could visit. She helped carry my weight when I emotionally fell apart. That first year I was broken again and again. In the second year, the Lord began to rebuild me. I read a book by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned and tortured by Communist authorities after he preached that communism was not compatible with Christianity. He talked about how, like David, he danced before the Lord. He did this in his prison cell. That affected me.

I decided as a sheer act of obedience that I would dance before the Lord in my cell. I did it as a sacrifice of praise five minutes each day. I would sing to myself Matthew 5, where it talked about rejoicing when you are persecuted for His Name’s sake. My refrain was, “I will dance as Wurmbrand danced.” I had to put my doubts and fears into a mental box; I gave permission for God to open it but decided that I would not. If I didn’t receive an answer that would be OK.

Norine: We knew we were where God wanted us to be. This is what we were supposed to be doing. We were not thinking of going to prison.

And her visits were a lifeline to you, Andrew.

Andrew: Our visits were usually quite short, and it was the one time of the week I could receive encouragement and have truth spoken to me. The rest of the time I was with Muslims. I would ask her if people were praying for me, and she would say, “Yes, they are.” One of the things, which could be an irrational fear by people who are imprisoned for the Lord, is that they have the fear that they will be forgotten. I knew God wouldn’t forget me, but I very much felt the need for prayer and to know that brothers and sisters were not forgetting me. So she would tell me, “No, it hasn’t stopped, prayer has not stopped.” That encouragement would take me to the next week when we would meet again.

I understand that you were moved to a maximum-security prison in the second year.

Andrew: Yes, for the last 13 months I was moved to a different prison, a higher security prison, for my protection. There was no believer there to correct or encourage me. Norine would talk to me on a phone through the glass about once a week. In 2017, the government added several more charges, including espionage, which could have resulted in a life sentence. Everything seemed to be intensifying, but that was when I went back to my cell and wrote a song called, “Worthy of My All.” I wanted to be worthy to stand before the Lord; I didn’t want not to press on. I didn’t want to fail.

As you look back over those long two years, what does God seem to be speaking to you now?

Andrew: I think God is doing something significant for the country of Turkey. He’s raising up so many people around the world, in so many countries, who are praying for this land now. I have come to see my time in prison as serving God’s plans to bring a harvest in Turkey. A lot of that is going to come from the prayer that has now poured into that land over these last two years. This is, I think, a supernatural thing that God is raising up this prayer. Why should so many people pray for me? I’m not a known person. Many things I don’t understand.

I thought often that I had been looking at a puzzle from the bottom. I could see the pieces and the shapes, but someday I’ll look from the top and I’ll see what the whole picture was about. But what I do see happening is that there is a puzzle, and God was putting it together, and that this move of prayer is something that will be used to bring about a great harvest for Turkey.

How may we pray for you in the days to come?

Andrew: For 25 years, I’ve known what I’m supposed to do. We’ve been in Turkey. We’ve been involved in church planting and various things. For the first time in 25 years, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. We’re going to spend a couple of months in prayer. We haven’t had a chance to process the last two years, and we need that. I feel as though I’ve been walking in darkness for two years, battling every day. We need to be refreshed in the Lord. I just want to be in His presence and receive from Him.

Norine: I pray the Lord will keep Turkey and our church there in everyone’s mind, as well as the believers there who are facing difficulty. Turkey is going through difficult times. We believe there will be a harvest but that there will also be some difficult times. So please keep praying.

Andrew: The harvest will come during these difficult times and darkness. The glory of God is going to win out.

 

Interviewed by Jim Dailey, executive editor.