By Erin Rodewald // August 30, 2016
(This article originally appeared at The Philos Project)
As midlife crises go, Nik Ripken’s was a whopper. After years of blood, sweat and toil, his life’s work lay in ruins. His enterprise had failed, he was forced to flee his home, and he buried his beloved son, all in the span of a few months. Not surprisingly, Ripken was left with hard questions – just not the questions one might expect.
Ripken is a missionary. He and his wife Ruth followed their hearts to Africa in the mid-1980s, serving first in Malawi and then in South Africa. In 1991, with a young family in tow, they traveled to Somaliland, a region in northwestern Somalia devastated by drought and civil war. In the face of total societal collapse, the Ripkens aimed to bring humanitarian relief to a desperate people, and in so doing, demonstrate the love of God to an un-churched people.
With coauthor Gregg Lewis, Ripken tells the story of this harrowing journey into the dark corners of Somalia in the first half of his gripping memoir, “The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected.” In it, he describes overwhelming need and depravity – an emaciated and desperate mother who begs him to take her baby that it might live, mobs of ravenous children scavenging for food scraps among the animal carcasses discarded by ruthless, full-bellied warlords, and the relentless fury of deadly gunfire and exploding mortars.
In this hell on earth, there were not-so-small victories, as well. Operation Restore Hope began on December 1992 when then-President George H. W. Bush ordered 25,000 American troops into Somaliland to support United Nations relief efforts. By this time, Ripken’s team had already been on the ground for several months and had established the logistical infrastructure that made it possible to provide mobile medical clinics and food distribution centers as part of the relief effort. They distributed food for 10,000 people per day at each center, and for many years, kept upward of 50,000 people a day from starving.
The Ripkens’ relief venture began as a modest mom-and-pop effort that burgeoned into a professional, multinational organization. They employed as many as 150 Somali and 35 fulltime western staff members in four different countries. Yet, even as they recognized material success – feeding and caring for the suffering and persecuted – the Ripkens came up short in addressing the spiritual needs in Somaliland.
“Sharing Jesus with people was our deepest desire,” Ripken wrote. “Yet, often, it seemed impossible to overcome the barriers that stood in our way. How is it possible to give bold verbal witness to Jesus in a country where sharing Jesus is against the law? How do we make a spiritual impact in a place so hostile to the faith?”
Indeed, after six years of heartfelt service, the Ripkens left Somalia with the belief that they had made very little impact at all. When they began their work in 1992, there were 150 Christian believers scattered among a Muslim population of 10 million. Rather than increasing in strength and number, by 1997, the number of believers had been reduced to only four – the others having been butchered or fled the country.
It was in this moment of spiritual crisis, as the Ripkens made the decision to suspend operations and return to the United States, that their 16-year-old son Tim suffered an acute asthma attack and died. Just weeks before the family was scheduled to leave Africa, they buried Tim on the grounds of his high school in Nairobi.
And here is where Nik Ripken’s questions – and the second half of his story – begin.
Can God truly overcome evil?
Is love really more powerful than hate?
How is it possible for faith to survive in an insane environment like Somaliland?
Is the good news of the Gospel powerful enough to overcome the forces of evil in our world’s darkest places?
Is Jesus worth it?
Instead of crumbling beneath the weight of their spiritual crisis and the heaviness of their questions, Nik and Ruth charged headlong into a discovery of the answers. “Surely, wherever believers have suffered, and still suffer, for their faith, we could find wise and faithful people who would be willing to share their spiritual survival strategies,” Nik Ripken wrote. “Maybe their wisdom could help other believers like us minister more effectively in impossible places.”
And thus began a new journey – a global pilgrimage – that would take them to the farthest and darkest corners of the world, where persecution and oppression are measured by filthy prison cells, isolation, physical abuse and psychological torment. It started with clandestine meetings at the feet of persecuted Christians in places like Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Southeast Asia. Ripken interviewed believers who had suffered, endured and even thrived under the cruelest of conditions. He and his wife chronicled these stories in the hopes of finding answers to their questions. During the last decade and a half, they have interviewed more than 700 believers from 72 countries where followers of Jesus have been or are being persecuted for their faith.
What Nik and Ruth have discovered, and what unfolds in the stories of “The Insanity of God,” is not what they expected to find. They went in search of a strategy, a method or a plan to better serve a persecuted church. What they found instead was a person – Jesus. “We found that Jesus is very much alive and well in the 21st century,” Nik Ripken wrote. “Jesus is revealed in the lives and words and resurrection faith of believers in persecution.”
Indeed, what the Ripkens have uncovered turns conventional wisdom on its ear. Nik Ripken explained, “God may actually want to use them [the persecuted] to save us from the often debilitating, and sometimes spiritually-fatal, effects of our watered-down, powerless western faith.”
“The Insanity of God” includes a powerful message for not only individuals called to the mission field. Its stories will resonate with a general public increasingly bombarded with headlines of global persecution. A recent study by Pew Research Center found that social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year high in 2012, with persecution increasing in every major region of the world except the Americas. The lessons learned and shared by Nik and Ruth Ripken can help to frame a better understanding of how best to respond to the rise in persecution.