Even though it was two years of the silence of God, I came out with a different intimacy, more confidence in my relationship with Him, which comes from having been tested and proving myself. It’s the difference between a soldier who has been trained and has skills, and one who has the same training and skills but has also been in battle. So in a sense, I would say my love for God was real and sincere before I went to prison, but it was severely tested and I proved it.
For 735 days, we prayed for him. With each court hearing and each delayed verdict, we poured out our hearts and voices for Andrew Brunson, the pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina. As the leader of a small Christian church in Turkey for 25 years, Andrew never expected to be standing before a Turkish court facing multiple charges, including espionage and terrorism, and a collective sentence of 35 years—essentially life in prison for the then-50-year-old husband and father of three. He never expected to be a political pawn in a legal case that would rise to Washington, D.C.’s highest halls of power.
And he never expected to be physically, emotionally and spiritually tested for two years in a crowded prison cell in Izmir, Turkey.
On October 12, 2018—two years after a series of four hearings and postponed verdicts—Andrew was found guilty and sentenced. The same day, in a whirlwind of events and emotions, Andrew was surprisingly released and 25 hours later was in Washington, D.C., meeting with the president.
Recently, we sat down with Andrew and his wife Norine for a conversation about those two years in prison, how God has worked in their lives over the last three years and why they say their ordeal was so much bigger than their own stories.
A Breaking Year
Andrew and Norine, millions of people were praying for you, including the Open Doors community. Did you sense people’s prayers in prison?
Andrew: My two years in prison were marked by what I would call the silence of God, and not having any sense of His presence. Because my past experience with Him was really rich, to have that intimacy removed led to a fence around my heart toward God. Woundedness.
I was the only Christian in prison, and the only Christian I had any contact with throughout my two years was Norine. So I was very alone, isolated in my faith. I prayed for peace so much. I did not feel much peace. Grace was taking me through, but finding strength, determination, peace and joy was actually much more difficult than I expected. So I didn’t feel people praying for me. I had grace, but it was an unfelt grace. My first year in prison, I broke repeatedly
Were there specific times that were harder than others?
A: I had a number of bad ones. Being thrown into prison for the first time. I had been held in detention centers before that. Being in solitary confinement was very difficult. When I went on trial, that was initially very difficult. The first year, especially, is when I broke physically. I lost 50 pounds. I broke emotionally. I went into that spiritual crisis.
Still, I had this desperate need to know that people were praying.
Norine: Each time we met, he said, “Are they still praying?” Because it would be natural for people to move on to the next crisis. So that was something he kept coming back to.
A: And the encouragement I got often came from knowing that. The prayer just kept growing. I’ve been told by a church historian that what happened with me was an unprecedented prayer movement focused on one person.
So, clearly this was supernatural. It was God-initiated, God-driven, God-sustained, and I came to see that God was doing something much bigger with that movement of prayer than just sustaining me and then delivering me from prison. There was something much bigger going on.
Did you see that in prison, or was that in hindsight?
A: Well, in hindsight it’s clearer, but I began to see it in prison. I didn’t know the numbers of people praying when I was in prison. Norine started to hear that people were praying in a number of countries. We saw that something unusual was happening.
Did you have a sense of what God was wanting to do?
A: I came to see during my imprisonment that actually, God was using this to draw in prayer for Turkey, in an unusual way. In 2009, God had said to me: “Prepare for harvest.” I came to see that being in prison was part of that assignment. That just by being there, I was the lightning rod that was drawing in prayer God intended to use for the region.
People have told me, “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and pray for you.” Even children were praying for me. Wow!
N: So many children. I think God was doing many, many things. But one of the things was bringing praying for the persecuted into children’s hearts and minds. I heard about the prayer more than he did, and I understood earlier on that this was something happening for Turkey.
A: I came to see that over time, but I did begin to worry that I was more valuable or useful to God in prison than out. So: He might keep me there.
N: Or for a while, at least. It was really hard, but I do remember once or twice just saying to somebody, “You know, I should be feeling a lot worse right now. My spirit is lifted. There’s probably somebody praying for me, somewhere, in some time zone, right now.”
One day in church, a woman felt something behind me. And she said, “God, what is this? Is it an angel, or what?” And God said to her, “It’s My giant hand holding her up.” That was because of the prayers of people. So, I just want people to know that whether we felt it or not, their prayers were propping me up and strengthening me to be able to pass some of that on to him.
For those who prayed for us, we really want you to know how grateful we are and that your prayers accomplished much more—they’re sowing into the spiritual harvest in Turkey. Your prayers were behind all of everything that happened.
Andrew, you said that God used you like a lightning rod to bring prayer into Turkey. What are you seeing today that’s showing you how God has used you and your suffering?
A: There are two main factors. One is that Turkey’s becoming more oppressive, and it’s being done in the name of Islam.