Project Canterbury

The Open Road in Persia

By the Rev. J. R. Richards
C.M.S. Missionary at Shiraz

London: Church Missionary Society, 1933.

Chapter IV. Living Epistles

HAD you been present at one of the meetings of the Inter-Church Conference in Tehran, in 1931, you would have heard the chairman introduce a speaker whose name was not on the conference programme. Representatives of all the Christian Churches in Persia were present, and each speaker was introduced by name and Church. But on this occasion the chairman was at a loss as to how he could best introduce the speaker. After a pause he said: "Mansur Sang, representing the whole of Persia"! Here was a man who is known from one end of Persia to another. Hardly a police station but has some record of his activities! Illiterate, like so many of his fellow-countrymen, he cannot sign his name, but must affix his seal to every letter or document. That seal must surely be known all over Persia! It tells all you need know about him. In the centre is the Cross in which he glories, and around it is written: "The Slave of Christ, Mansur Sang, the Lord's Evangelist." It would have done you good to hear him speak that day. There was fire, there was joy, there was life in that address; it was the expression of a man's soul. We who know him love him and rejoice in him. First attracted to Christ by the life and work of a colporteur of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he was baptized by a missionary of the American Presbyterian Church. Leaving all, he has devoted his life to serving his Lord. From the Afghan frontier to the Iraqi frontier, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, his missionary journeys alone are a record of physical endurance and courage that is not easily beaten. At an age when most men desire rest he is still travelling. In prison often, in danger constantly, turned out of villages, stoned, mobbed, beaten, yet he always turns up smiling.

One story will illustrate the spirit of the man. A short time ago he went to a mountain village in the neighbourhood of Shiraz. He had visited the place before and knew the character of the inhabitants. They, too, knew him, and the most bigoted among them feared him. He had been there a few days when a hostile mob went to the house in which he was staying and, dragging him out, proceeded to expel him from the village. Men beat him with fists and sticks, women spat at him, others subjected him to indignities which cannot be mentioned here; but not one word of reproach did he utter. In the crowd was a blind man beating the air wildly with his stick as he made futile attempts to strike Mansur. Suddenly Mansur Sang turned on his oppressors and reproached them, saying: "How selfish you all are, you have given vent to your feelings by striking me, would you prevent a poor blind man from easing his feelings in the same way?" Then forcing his way through the crowd he approached the blind man, and bending his head before him he said: "Strike, brother, strike," then after several blows: "Strike harder, my brother, if that will quench the fire in thy heart." A few days later I visited that village and was told the story by one who was present. It will be a long time before those villagers forget Mansur Sang's patience and courage.

Many men have been won to Christ by his life. The last two years have left their mark upon him; his faith is strong and radiant as ever, his zeal burning as of old; but his hair is whiter, his body frailer, and he cannot walk as he did of old. But there is work to be done. "Baluchistan is calling me. I have been as far as the frontier, but I have not yet preached the Gospel in Baluchistan itself. The tribesmen of Baluchistan are a fine people, and would make excellent Christians. I must go to Baluchistan before my strength fails me." This, he says, will be his last journey, and what a journey! Isfahan, Yezd, Rafsanjan, Kerman, Khabis, Baluchistan: then Dozdab, Sistan, and back to Meshed, the town of his birth. Look at a map, see what that journey means, then think of and pray for Mansur Sang on his last journey.

In the Tehran prison is a man serving a sentence of two years' imprisonment for a crime committed over six years ago. He was not a Christian when that crime was committed. If the charge be true he was a fugitive from justice, and he became a Christian and a fearless missionary, and so he was discovered. Whatever that man may have been six years ago he is a very different man now. While in custody previous to his imprisonment he wrote to me, saying: "I am looking forward to my imprisonment, for in prison I shall be more free to preach, and the people there need the Gospel." Shortly afterwards an ex-army officer was released from that prison after serving a sentence of one year. His first action was to write telling me that during his last few weeks in prison he had heard the Gospel preached by this Christian man, and he had been won for Christ. When that Christian was first arrested he was two weeks in custody in Shiraz before he was removed to Tehran. During that time he was lodged in a small room along with several others. Friends were allowed to visit him, and he was free to communicate with whom he liked. There in custody he had an excellent opportunity to preach and his fellow-prisoners were prepared to listen. Not content merely with preaching, he distributed Christian literature among them, and one day a request came that I send a parcel of free literature to the prison as this man had finished his supply! Every day he was visited by two Christian men, and the three held a daily prayer meeting in that prison. When finally he was sent to Tehran a prison official said to me: "I am sorry for that man; he is a good man. Will you send me a Bible?"

In the courtyard of a certain school in Shiraz the boys are all lined up from the smallest to the biggest. It is the prayer hour, and the Moslem prayers are to be said. A small boy of seven steps out from the ranks and calmly sits down in a corner. It is his first day in school and the master orders him back to his place. But that boy knows what he is doing and quietly replies: "I am a Christian and I will not join in Moslem prayers." A boy of seven! Who was he, do you ask? He was the son of the man in the Tehran prison. Fortunately for that boy there was among the masters a man interested in Christianity, and his intervention saved the lad from punishment. That night the master came and told me of that small boy's plucky stand for his religion. Six years ago the father of that boy was a criminal; now he is a man whose life and teaching can inspire a small boy of seven to make a solitary stand for his religion.

Come back to that mountain village from which Mansur Sang was expelled. In that village you will find a small group of Christians, only seven in all. A little over a year ago the registration officials visited the village, and surnames became compulsory. A grey-haired man held in high respect in the village steps forward and declares that he has chosen the name Masihi (Christian). Soon afterwards a young man of about twenty-one announces that he has chosen the name Salibi (of the Cross). A third, not to be outdone, chooses the name Prot--a very un-Persian name, but you see he is a Christian and a Protestant! The week following the expulsion of Mansur Sang I went to that village, and found that the Christians were being persecuted. I listened while a frail, weak-looking man told me how he had been attacked and beaten by a fanatical crowd the previous evening. His face was a mass of scars, and he ended his story by saying: "But there, Jesus said: 'If any man would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me.'" Is this mission work worth while? I once stood on the mountainside above that village in company with several other members of the small British colony in Shiraz. One man stood gazing down at that village in silence, then turning he said: "It seems unbelievable--a Christian church in a place like this!"

In a town some ninety miles from Kerman a small group of Christians meet regularly for worship. Readers of Persia Old and New will, perhaps, remember the story of the origin of that little group. They will remember the story of a young man's solitary stand for Christ in a Moslem town; they will remember how by his life and witness six other men came forward for baptism. That was in 1928. A few weeks ago I had a letter from that young man, and he tells me that there are now seventeen baptized Christians in that town, eight of whom have also been confirmed. That little group is a missionary group, and its activities are not confined to that one particular town. Work has been started in some neighbouring villages, and in one of these a number of inquirers are receiving regular instruction. The growth of this little church has been remarkable. That young man continues to act in a voluntary capacity as evangelist and lay reader. A room has been rented for church purposes, and here regular services are held and instruction classes conducted for inquirers. Another Christian man acts as servant of the church, and as go-between for the Christians, keeping them informed of all matters of importance to the church, and keeping in touch with all inquirers. That young man ends his letter with the words: "Since the church in this town is making good progress the Moslems (and the Baha'is even more so) will spare no effort in opposing us. But by the blessing of God we will defend ourselves with the Gospel which is keener than a two-edged sword, and will give our enemies love in return for hatred." "The church in this town is making good progress"--do you wonder? The secret of that progress is not hard to find. In that little town Christianity is being lived. You cannot preach men into the Kingdom of God, you must love them into it. These men by living Christ, and not merely preaching Him, are winning others to Him.

You have all heard of the Persian Gulf, one of the hottest places in the world. You have probably heard of Bushire, the most important port on the Gulf. In spite of the fact that ships of many nations visit the port regularly, thus maintaining constant communication with the West, Bushire is a fanatically Moslem town. A man was sent there whose activities as a Christian missionary in Shiraz had made him too well known. First attracted to Christ by the life of Mansur Sang he became a keen inquirer, and in 1928 was baptized in Shiraz. At that time he was a police spy, but very soon found himself out of work on account of his missionary activities. For a long time he was unemployed, but afterwards obtained a post in another government department. Here again he continued to preach Christ, and before long had the joy of seeing one of his fellow-workers received into the Church. That office became a centre of missionary work, for the new convert was also a zealous missionary. Eventually both got into trouble, and both were sent away from Shiraz. Thus it was that our friend was sent to Bushire. Here he was alone in a fanatically Moslem town, but he did not intend to remain alone if he could help it. When he left Shiraz he found that the amount of luggage he could take was limited, so he left some behind in order to make room for a box of gospels and Christian tracts which were essential to his work as a missionary. Latterly he has been stationed in a village some miles outside Bushire, and here he has continued his missionary activities. Out of his meagre stipend he has rented a room for evangelistic purposes, and when an ordained Persian Christian recently visited him he found a number of men eagerly awaiting his visit. Every man on the staff of the government office had heard something of the Gospel, and of their own accord they asked the clergyman to hold an evangelistic service for them on the Sunday. When that Persian clergyman returned to Shiraz he brought the names of twenty men who are interested in Christianity. Mansur Sang by living Christ wins another to Him, and that other by his zeal for his Lord has made twenty others interested!

At the foot of the mountain is a pretty little village, with a beautiful blue-tiled dome rising up above the trees. That is the dome of the village shrine. A party of strangers come to that village one night, and they bring with them a lantern and a set of gospel slides. The shrine wall seems to offer a suitable place for hanging their screen, and very soon a crowd has gathered and a Persian is addressing them, while another, a mere boy and frail in physique, works the lantern. The crowd proves hostile; one man beats a drum and gathers together the roughest element in the village; another steps forward and blows out the lantern, bringing the address to an untimely end. There is nothing to do but pack up and go. In that party are three Persians, two of whom you have already met; you must now meet the third. He is a Moslem friend and has accompanied the party out of sheer curiosity. Surrounded by a hostile crowd the young Christian boy sets about his task of packing up the lantern and slides as coolly as if he were among friends. Every slide is put away carefully while the lantern cools, then that in its turn is packed away. Nothing could be more deliberate, nothing could be more methodical. Meanwhile the Moslem friend, a grown man, sits cowering in a corner trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. Safely out of that village he declares that fear had almost paralysed his limbs. "Why do you do this kind of thing?" he asked. "It is our duty and we love doing it," was the answer. That Moslem will not forget that night. He will not forget how, when he himself cowered with fear, a frail boy went about his work quietly and calmly. He afterwards declared that he realized that night that those Christians possessed something which he himself lacked.

Had you visited a certain village one day not so very long ago you would have seen a very unusual sight. On the roof of a house sat a young girl in her teens reading a book to two men. These men were despised Jews, that girl was a Christian, that book was the Bible, that village is notorious as a place of intolerance and strife. Take these facts one at a time and try to realize the full significance of each, and you will see what Christ has done for a simple village girl.

It is a long room with whitewashed walls and benches running round all four sides. In that room a group of men and women are kneeling in prayer. The voice of a woman breaks the silence, and she prays that her husband may be won to Christ. That woman had been a Moslem. She was attracted to Christ through hearing the Gospel preached in the Shiraz Hospital. She desired baptism, but how could she come forward and receive baptism at the hands of a man? It was not easy in any case to change her religion, and her husband would not approve; but what would he, a Moslem, say to her receiving baptism at the hands of a man? She made her decision and was baptized. Could she keep her joy to herself? It was impossible. She began to read the Bible with her servants, but that could not be tolerated. Her Bible was confiscated, and she was forbidden to read to, or pray with, the servants. She continued to attend the church services and brought her children with her whenever possible. There came a day when she voluntarily asked to be allowed to give the address at the prayer meeting, she who had hesitated to receive baptism at the hands of a man now stood with face unveiled, addressing a meeting of men and women, both Persian and foreign. Can you imagine what that must have meant to a woman brought up from childhood as a Moslem and all her life accustomed to wearing the veil? Pray that the woman's dearest wish be granted, and she have the joy of seeing her husband come to Christ.

"Living Epistles" I have called this chapter, for what else are these people but living epistles? Their lives are records of their faith--epistles that all may read. Is missionary work worth while? You do not need to study statistics to answer that question. Read these "epistles" instead. Changed lives mean more than increased numbers. To get men to come forward for baptism is not a very difficult task even in this Moslem land; were the success of the Church dependent on numbers it would soon be assured. Were religion to become perfectly free in Persia it is true beyond all possibility of doubt that large numbers would be ready to ask for baptism, but would the Church gain by that? Was the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent cessation of persecution of real advantage to the Church? Would not the Church of England to-day be all the better for a little persecution? What we want is not more Christians but better Christians. The Church is a ship that was never intended to carry passengers; passengers can be found in plenty. We who work in Persia take an optimistic view of the future not on account of the numbers who come forward, but on account of the number who by changed lives are witnessing to the power of Christ to save. Every missionary could tell stories of changed lives, could prove that the Gospel truly is the power of God unto salvation. I have given but a few instances, but they will suffice, for they alone are sufficient answer to the question: "Is missionary work worth while?"

Many centuries ago there was a Christian Church in Persia, and that Church was a missionary Church; it has been described as "a Church on fire." The fire that burned so brightly then is beginning to burn again, and all over the country flames are appearing. They burn slowly perhaps, but they burn all the more surely for that. That fire must spread--it is the nature of fire to spread, but it needs feeding and tending.

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