“The Holy Spirit leads us like a mother, as a sighted person leads a blind person,” said St. John Vianney. Thinking of my three years living in Thailand, I resonate with that description. When my wife, toddler daughter and I moved to Bangkok in 2014, I did not intend to become an advocate for persecuted Pakistani Christians seeking asylum there. Yet the Holy Spirit had other plans.
Since first meeting these faithful followers of Christ at the local Catholic parish in the heart of Bangkok, I’ve spent many hours in a Thai detention facility visiting poor Christians arrested by local authorities for overstaying their visas. I’ve been blessed to write articles for more than half-dozen publications, read by thousands of people the world over, on their plight. And, by God’s grace — and an unexpected benefit of being locked down during the early months of the pandemic — my book manuscript cataloguing their amazing stories is now published, which will hopefully bring further attention to this ongoing humanitarian crisis.
God used those pious Pakistanis — with whom my family still maintains frequent contact since we returned to the United States in 2017 — to teach me many important lessons about the Catholic faith. Indeed, my relationship with them over these last seven years has been a catechesis of its own, one that has helped reify truths of our faith that can sometimes seem abstract, or perhaps reminiscent of an overly-sentimental Hallmark card. Here are three.
St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort” (2 Cor. 1:7b). Is that not a representation of real friendship? Our truest friends are not those with whom we share some superficial interest like sports, but those who both rejoice and mourn with us as circumstances demand. In a word, they are constant, even if they lack the means to alleviate many of the problems we encounter.
Not long after meeting Pakistani Christians like Wilson William — a male nurse from Karachi who acted as the leader of a family of seventeen Catholics who fled Muslim persecution — I knew that I wanted to help them. Wilson and his family were always at church finding ways to serve— indeed, all of them shared two small rooms a stone’s throw from the parish to be near the church. The authenticity and strength of their Catholic faith was obvious.
Yet there was not a lot I could practically do to alleviate the distress of fleeing their homes, of living in poverty, of waiting years for the U.N. to make a determination regarding their application for refugee status. Certainly we could give them money, which my family often did. But I couldn’t make Pakistan safe for them again, nor persuade U.N. officials to expedite their case. Rather, what I learned was that helping them often meant simply being available to them and learning their stories. In other words, it meant being their friend.
That lesson applies not just for those suffering the kinds of calamitous indignities endured by persecuted Christian minorities or even the impoverished members of our own communities. It’s relevant for all of our relationships. Our friends have all kinds of difficulties, many of which we are incapable of solving. Yet that doesn’t mean we can’t enter into their experience through empathy and a listening ear. Simply “showing up” can make all the difference to those in need.
St. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonika: “For what thanksgiving can we render to God for you, for all the joy which we feel for your sake before our God…” (1 Thessalonians 3:9). Though the Thessalonians owed the Apostle their very lives for his witness of the Gospel to them, St. Paul too expressed an overflowing gratefulness for their faithful reception of his preaching. That is the nature of all godly relationships — a blessed, if not also surprising reciprocity.
Many might be inclined to think that helping poor, persecuted Christians says more about the person doing the helping than about those who receive it. I myself came to appreciate how wrongheaded that was. Certainly families like Wilson’s benefited from the care and attention my wife and I devoted to them. But I would argue they helped us far more.
Certainly, Pakistani Christians taught me about true piety that remains steadfast even amid great trials. But their friendship itself was a great blessing to us, as we chatted and our kids played together after every Sunday Mass. Wilson proved indispensable at helping us make the parish our home, including ensuring that my wife, who has celiac disease, was always able to receive the Precious Blood from the chalice during Mass. When we departed Thailand, we lost not only the opportunity to serve families like Wilson’s — we lost some of our closest friends.
Jesus exhorts us: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name” (John 16:23). Because of exhortations like this across the New Testament, I have rarely waved in praying to God for my needs. Yet if I’m honest, I confess I often have little confidence that our Lord will actually answer my prayers. After years (now decades) of praying for the conversion of family and friends, a certain unhealthy indifference can set in.
The exhortations of my Pakistani friends, however, serves as a convicting reminder of the foolishness of low expectations. Wilson, as well as another Pakistani friend named Michael D’Souza, put my prayer life to shame. They fasted constantly, in ways that many American Christians might construe as unhealthy, if not naive. One Lent, Wilson’s family performed the same fast as Muslims during Ramadan, trusting our Lord’s promises regarding prayer.
They were not disappointed. In 2019, Wilson’s wife and three children arrived in the Netherlands after having obtained visas to enter as legal asylum seekers. They are now building a new life, while Wilson — who also has a visa — remains in Bangkok laboring on behalf of the rest of his family to secure the same future for them. It took many years, but our Lord answered Wilson’s prayers. When my own prayers seem to devolve into the kind of apathy so common in our cynical, anti-supernatural West, I remember what God did, and continues to do, on behalf of persecuted Catholics around the world. Sometimes we just need eyes to see and ears to listen.
Editor’s note: Casey Chalk’s latest book, The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands, is now available as an ebook or paperback from your favorite bookseller. You can preview and purchase the book online through Sophia Institute Press.
image: Pakistani Christians demonstrating after the terrorist attacks on two Christian churches in 2015, photo via Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com