Is there anything more tragic than being persecuted for the Jesus you don’t know? In Pakistan, there is a community of “unchurched Christians.” They are people born into “Christian” families who have been cut-off from the church. Millions of Pakistanis are discriminated against, falsely accused, beaten, raped, abused, forced into bonded labor in terrible conditions, and sometimes even killed – all for belonging to the Jesus they don’t know. Last year, Open Doors met Shahzad, a brick kiln worker. Since then, we have invested in a lot in Shahzad through our partner organization ALIVE. Prayers and support of many have changed the story of his life.
Shahzad, what does the Word “salvation” mean?
There’s an awkward silence. Shahzad’s name means “Son of the King.” He can’t read and doesn’t know what the Bible says. His pastor lives twenty miles away and occasionally visits Shahzad to pray with him. The visits are always brief and there’s never any teaching.
“I don’t know,” he says. Then he adds, “I have changed my name to “Nazir.”
“Because some of the business men who hire day laborers won’t hire me if they know I am a Christian.”
What happens when they hire you and they find out?
“Most of the time, I don’t get paid. Or the foreman says he will pay me tomorrow. Only tomorrow never comes.”
This was our conversation with Shahzad last year. He knew he was being persecuted. He knew it was because he was born into a Christian family. And he “knew” that his fate was to work and be persecuted until he died. He didn’t know who Jesus was. Nor did he know what the Bible teaches about God’s work of redemption.
He wasn’t the only one. In his village, there are 300 people like him. Thanks to the prayers and support of brothers and sisters worldwide, we could send in teams to reach this impoverished, persecuted community.
We recently met Shahzad again near his house. He points at miles and miles of earth and bricks. Smoke rises from the kiln. “This is all I have ever seen,” says Shahzad. “This is the world I was born into. There,” he points to a tree. “That’s the place I was born.”
He chuckles when he points to another building, where ALIVE gives vocational training. “Now that’s the place where I go for my education.”
He is allowed to receive vocational training, but to meet with a pastor for teaching about the Bible is much harder. “I meet him every time I can make an excuse to go to the market.”
The resistance doesn’t only come from the brick kiln owner and his employees, but also from his family. “My family is suspicious. My brother does not want me to change my life. The ALIVE pastor brings me hope. Before, I suffered because I thought the Christian life was meant to be at the bottom rung of the ladder. Now, I know the only right suffering is for loving Jesus. Anything else is unfair and unjust.”
An ALIVE worker explains, “It may seem strange that Shahzad’s family doesn’t want him to improve his life. But these people have grown up with the idea that this life is their destiny and they shouldn’t try to change it. That’s the prison we need to set them free from first. Also, it seemed very mature of him to say that the only right thing is to suffer for a loving Jesus. As a believer, he’s still so young. But it’s a wonderful testimony of how God can change lives, even in a short amount of time.”
Later, we talked to Matthew, the pastor who disciples Shahzad. “In Shahzad’s Christian community, nobody goes to church. The men, especially, don’t have time to go, and the wives and daughters can only go if the men go with them. That’s their culture.”
Matthew has tears in his eyes as he talks about the state of Christians working at the brick kiln. He is thankful that there are a few people like Shahzad who have awoken from their ignorance and neglect, and are reaching out to ALIVE teams in excitement for the secret discipleship groups that they attend, the literacy training they receive, and the hope of the vocational training they are about to embark on.
“I want a life where I am doing more than making bricks and getting insulted and abused every day for never being good enough,” Shahzad told Matthew once. “I thought I was only useless, lacking, and of no value. Now I know this: Jesus died for us so there are no more worries. We are safe and free from every illness. What we lack is faith in Him.”
“This is a huge breakthrough,” says Matthew. “They were bold in their ignorance. They didn’t convert to Islam, but also didn’t follow Christ. Today, they are bold in their growing awareness of who Christ is and the hope He gives them to walk forward and onward beyond the slavery of the brick kiln.”
Shahzad says, “If the kiln owner finds out that you are teaching me and training me so I can leave here, they will kill me or maim me by breaking my leg or my arm. He says, ‘If you won’t work for me, you won’t work for anyone’.”
Shahzad’s life continues to be surrounded by fear and threats, but he has lifted his eyes to the heavens. Finally, it’s almost tomorrow. “Before, I had no dreams and no hopes. I just thought that as a Christian, I have to suffer and be treated like filth. Now I realize I work in this brick factory not because I am at the bottom rung, but because I have to help lead others out of this place and find new opportunities. We may still suffer, but we will be able to share freedom and hope. We now have the tools to equip other Christians. We are thankful to you for providing literacy and the promise of even more education, which will help us develop our skills. My hands are tired from making bricks. They are ready to hold a pencil and write. They are ready to hold a Bible and read.”
This coming September 2019, Shahzad will transition from literacy classes and biblical teaching to a more rigorous vocational skills program in an off-site location. Leaving the brick kiln will bring threats and challenges. His children will suffer from more discrimination and bullying. But he wants to go and learn so he can come back and teach his wife to read and write, too.
This is a revolutionary change in the way people like Shahzad are thinking. Through your support, we can change this country one person at a time, one Christian community at a time. “This is a dangerous ministry,” the ALIVE coordinator of the mobile teams says. “There’s a real brick kiln mafia. They have threatened and attacked us. But we will not give up. Now is the time to change, and we know that brothers and sisters around the world are behind us in prayer.”