Stories of persecution and grace

Published 10:02 pm Thursday, May 4, 2017

The 33rd Suffolk Leadership Prayer Breakfast featured the powerful testimonies of Christians and Christian missionaries from around the world who have been persecuted for their faith.

Parinaz Safari McWaters, a native of Iran, reads Scripture in Farsi during Thursday’s 33rd Suffolk Leadership Prayer Breakfast at the Suffolk National Guard Armory. Miss Virginia 2016-2017, Michaela Sigmon, stands ready to read the English translation.

About 400 people attended the breakfast at the Suffolk National Guard Armory for prayer and inspiration.

The stories from persecuted Christians were punctuated by soaring hymns by Marlana VanHoose, who performed “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace.” Blind since birth after a virus destroyed her optic nerve, the 21-year-old never wavered as she played the piano and sang, earning a standing ovation from the audience each time.


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Dr. Nik Ripken, who with his wife Ruth has served as a missionary around the globe, told stories of ministering in predominantly Muslim countries where there is open hostility and even violence toward Christians.

Some of the worst violence happened in Somalia, where four of his best friends were killed on the same day just because they professed Jesus Christ.

“That day, it was such a crisis to my soul,” he said. “They talk about atrocities like this the way we would talk about the weather. I knew how to be a shepherd of the sheep, but the wolves ate my lunch.”

Even so, Ripken said, “I have this burden to take Christ to places where He has never been heard.”

Ripken referred to Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to His crucifixion: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

“I think the hardest thing Jesus ever did was pray,” Ripken said.

He said many people, when faced with something difficult, remember only the first half of the prayer.

“We pray, ‘Lord, save us from this, and Lord, punish those who are persecuting us,’” he said. “We can’t stay stuck in just half the prayer of Christ.”

Other special speakers at the event included four people who read Scripture in their first language, with local people providing the English translation.

Xianzhi Sarah Liu read Scripture in Chinese. She was the editor of an underground Christian newspaper in China and was imprisoned on three separate occasions for her faith.

She first came to know Christ in a house meeting where they had to limit attendance to 30 people, close the doors, close the windows and keep a lookout for government officials.

Having many government and law enforcement officials in attendance at Thursday’s event touched her deeply.

“I really hope that one day, we have this kind of meeting in China,” she said. “I’m so excited today we have hundreds of people; we have tables and chairs; we have flowers on the table; we can open the door. Today, I just feel I am in Heaven.”

Parinaz Safari McWaters read Scripture in Farsi. She described her life being born in Iran and then moving to Turkey, moving a total of 30 times by the time she was 18. Many of the moves were forced after Muslim neighbors found out her family was Christian.

At age 12, she got sick, and doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. Eventually, the entire right side of her body was paralyzed. But then someone told her that Jesus could heal her.

Her mother said she wouldn’t become a Christian unless she saw a miracle. McWaters prayed, and doctors were shocked the next day to find that was no longer had any symptoms of her disease.

“My mom right there became Christian,” McWaters said. “The doctor became Christian, too. It’s all because of the glory and grace of God.”

Joun Samara read Scripture in Arabic. He urged those present to pray for the persecuted church in Syria. But even in the midst of that broken country, many are seeking Jesus, he said.

“In the midst of darkness, we are seeing thousands come to Jesus Christ,” he said.

Andrei Yemelianov read Scripture in Russian.

Also during the program, Mary Strong, the mother of U.S. Marine Sgt. Charles Strong, a Suffolk native who was killed in Afghanistan in 2014, was presented an Honor and Remember Flag by the Air Force JROTC at Nansemond River High School, Strong’s alma mater.