Soon after, the widow got a message: Some sympathetic Westerners wanted to meet her. Now, standing in her doorway, the bronzed Americans explained that they were members of a U.S. charity called the Voice of the Martyrs, whose members infiltrate some of the world's most perilous locales in support of persecuted Christians. What did she need? If it was money, they could help. If it was prayers, that too. But there was one thing VOM could not—would not—offer Christians like her. They would not try to make the persecution stop.
The Voice of the Martyrs is an Oklahoma-based evangelical group that started as an obscure Cold War charity and now commands a $28-million budget and operations in more than 40 countries. It offers conventional aid, such as money to the Pakistan widow, and everything from blankets and cooking implements to Christians in other countries. Less practical but even more important, VOM executive director Tom White says, is the organization's offer of spiritual solidarity. Whether it's praying with the persecuted in their underground churches, or setting up printing presses to produce illegal Bibles, or documenting and publicizing abuse, the oppressed need to know they are not alone.
Those objectives align VOM with any number of Christian organizations doing similar work around the globe. Yet in one surprising way, the Voice of the Martyrs is unique. The persecution of Christians is something the organization would rather embrace than prevent. It is their suffering, VOM believes, that inspires other Christians and helps the church to grow.
"We don't see [persecution] as a problem that we can protest or help and make it go away," explains spokesman Todd Nettleton. "It is always going to occur, because Christ promised it would. Our mission is to fellowship with those enduring persecution, support them when and where we can, and be a blessing to them. In turn, we are blessed with their testimonies of God's faithfulness."
"i'm surprised we haven't been bombed yet," says ray thorne, one of the two men who journeyed to Pakistan and now a VOM program director, leaning confidentially across his desk at the group's headquarters in Bartlesville, Okla. VOM stands near the town center, in a spruce brick building once occupied by Montgomery Ward. Spotless and flatteringly lit, the office glows with healthy-looking men and women. The more one learns about their goals, though, the more it seems Thorne might be right. The Voice of the Martyrs is no ordinary nonprofit.
Because it's apolitical, Nettleton says, VOM interacts very little with governments, including the White House. Instead, the Voice of the Martyrs operates by sneaking about 20 activists each year into anti-Christian regimes, say Sudan or Malaysia, often in the guise of businessmen or aid workers. A network of local Christians then connects them with secret church communities, or underground churches, which in some countries number in the thousands.
Visiting VOM activists may pray with their fellow Christians to show solidarity, as Thorne did in Pakistan. In nearby Iraq, they are distributing bags filled by donors with clothes and household supplies. In Bangladesh, where caste restrictions ban Christians from using public water supplies, they dig wells. They may secretly build Bible printing presses in underground chambers, as they did in China, or—the closest thing to direct proselytizing—they may launch their signature balloons. Each year, VOM activists travel in the dead of night to the border between North and South Korea. There they prepare 50,000 tangerine-colored balloons covered with scripture verses. The activists then prick a hole in each one, unleashing the balloons across the DMZ and, presumably, into North Korean yards.
The group also has eight full-time overseas workers who establish themselves in or near the targeted country, holding down day jobs as they secretly gather victim testimony. That evidence of Christian abuse is often featured in VOM's elegantly produced magazine. "Credibility is very important to us—we really work hard at that," Thorne says. He smiles slightly.
"He can use undercover tactics. He could be a journalist, or photojournalist," Thorne says of VOM's typical fieldworker abroad. "In an Asian country, for example, a fieldworker works with a humanitarian aid agency." To communicate with operatives, Thorne creates code words. There's no doubt he relishes this cloak-and-dagger style. Sometimes, he confesses, colleagues call him "Raybo," because of his penchant for wrapping his head in a bandanna during missions. Asked for details on other projects, Thorne compresses his lips tactfully. "See, some of this stuff is so top secret, it would be exposing too much," he says.
Of everyone at VOM, White best personifies the group's mix of theater—and religious passion. In the 1970s, while he attempted to hurl religious pamphlets from a plane over Cuba, the pilot of his plane was forced to make an emergency landing. White spent 17 brutal months in a Cuban prison before Mother Teresa arranged his release.
Flamboyant though it may be, White says, VOM's swashbuckling style serves one simple goal: to help Christians in other countries reproduce their faith. Does that mean trying to create a world where everyone is Christian? White pauses half a second. Yes, he answers simply. To accomplish that religious goal, he adds, "You always try to keep an edge, technologically. Today, with miniaturization—well, I'd rather not talk about it."
But he can't resist divulging a little more.
"You just try to make things small," White says. "Like when I was in prison [in Cuba], I would write letters on tissue paper. In Asia, I used to carry film inside my colon.
"I'd seen 'Papillon,' " he says.
It was a particularly dangerous trip to Sudan that introduced Ray Thorne to the Voice of the Martyrs; what happened to Thorne on that trip also put VOM on the map.
A friend had told Thorne, a burly part-time street pastor from Michigan, about a missionary trip that promised to be unlike anything Thorne had done. Intrigued, Thorne signed on, and in the spring of 1997 joined half a dozen other missionaries on a flight to Sudan, where a Muslim government was waging civil war on Christian and animist tribesmen. Arriving in Kenya, the missionaries stocked a World War II-era plane with Bibles and survival goods, then headed for the remote Nuba Mountains. When they landed, Thorne recalls, he wondered briefly why the pilot kept the engines revved. But his attention quickly turned to a stomach-wrenching stench, and a wave of nearly naked, skeletal figures pouring from the nearby trees.
"You could smell them coming," says Thorne, who now works full time for VOM. "They smelled so horrible. Their clothes were just rotting on their bodies. And they began stealing the stuff from the plane and going back into the forest."
Twenty minutes later the reason became clear. Two helicopters, manned by Sudanese soldiers, zoomed over the mountains and fired rockets at the Christian crowd. Two women were hit and flew through the air in spouts of blood. The plane dashed into the sky. Thorne and his friend, Kevin Turner, who had been planning to stay behind to work with Sudanese Christians, threw themselves behind a wall of rocks and prepared to die. Grimly, they assessed their resources: one video camera, one satellite phone. They decided first to film farewells to loved ones. Then they fired up the phone. The number they dialed belonged to a producer at "The 700 Club"—pastor Pat Robertson's TV show, heard by millions of U.S. evangelicals.