Murder, malaria and madness: this couple has seen it all
What we can learn from the frontlines of persecution
Nik and Ruth Ripken were in their early twenties and recently married when they decide to leave everything behind. This young Christian couple chose to go and proclaim the good news about Jesus in foreign lands.
But within a few years, most of the people they had seen become followers of Jesus had been murdered. Then, their eldest child suddenly died.
Is Jesus worth it?
After losing so much and gaining so little they began to ask the question, ‘Is Jesus worth it?’ The Ripkens hail from Kentucky in the United States. They started their journey as missionaries close to 33 years ago. They went first to Malawi, but were forced to leave after contracting malaria. They then went to South Africa, and enjoyed a few years there but felt they were preaching to the converted.
“In Malawi we were seeing people baptised every week. And in South Africa they had missionaries for 300 years,” Ruth told Eternity during a recent visit to Australia, to promote their personal documentary The Insanity of God.
“But we didn’t want to go to start a church where there were churches; we wanted to go where no one had heard the gospel,” added Nik.
“It’s not right for us to stay where people have had access to Christ; we need to go where people have no access.” – Ruth Ripken
Their desire to go to the darkest places grew when they watched the TV news and saw the suffering in Somalia, due to civil war. “On the news, we saw Somalia and the devastation there. It’s not right for us to stay where people have had access to Christ; we need to go where people have no access,” said Ruth.
They packed up their three sons and headed off into the unknown.
“We were there for six months before we met a women who had not been repeatedly raped.” – Nik Ripken
“It was like getting in a plane in the New Testament and getting off the plane in the Old Testament,” Nik said, as he remembered the trauma of his first weeks in Somalia.
“And in six months we had a team working in three places. We were feeding 50,000 people a day, we were burying 20 kids a day from starvation. We were there for six months before we met a women who had not been repeatedly raped.”
Despite such terrible circumstances, the Ripkens saw people decide to become Christians. But when the authorities found out, they took drastic steps to stamp out the fledgling movement by these believers in Jesus.
…more tragedy struck as the couple lost their 16-year-old son to an asthma attack.
“There were only 150 [Christians] out of 10 million and they hunted them down,” said Nik. Only four Christians remained in Somalia and four of Nik’s own friends were murdered and their bodies taken away. But then, more tragedy struck as the couple lost their 16-year-old son to an asthma attack.
With their world turned upside down, the Ripkens began to question their missionary work.
There’s no such thing as the persecuted church and the free church; there’s just the church.
“Jesus said, ‘I’m sending you to go with me as sheep among wolves’ and we’d only been trained to be sheep among sheep. So we got to Somalia where we were sheep among wolves and the wolves were in charge; we had not a single tool to serve as Jesus did under the Roman Empire,” says Nik.
So after spending some time back in the United States to re-assess, the couple decided they needed to learn from the experts. “We went for the next 10 years to believers in persecution to learn how to make Christ known, how to plant reproducing house churches in the midst of persecution so that when persecution comes, it’s for who Jesus is and not because of the outsiders.”
The couple visited 72 countries, interviewed over 600 believers and got to know Christians in all sorts of difficult situations. Through their research, which they gathered together in Nik’s The Insanity of God book, they learnt how to thrive amidst suffering, not merely survive.
The Ripkens say that every believer needs to know these three things about persecution:
- There’s no such thing as the persecuted church and the free church; there’s just the church. Each part of the body of Christ is important but no part knows how to do it all.
- The Number 1 reason for persecution is people coming to Christ. And where you have a great harvest, you have a great persecution; where you have a little harvest, you have a little persecution.
- Believers in persecution ask Westerners to please pray. They know the debt they can never repay the Western church is the debt of prayer. They also ask us that the best way we can partner with them is by us sharing Christ with our neighbours, with our family, with those on our street with those in our community.