There was subversive activity at the YMCA one Sunday night in February involving almost 75 Lexington teenagers. It took place after dark, after the Y had closed for the evening. The youths were sneaking around the darkened Y searching for a secret meeting place. Guards were on duty. Some of the youths were stopped and questioned. Some were escorted to prison. The ones who did make it to the secret meeting place waited in silence, not knowing who would find them. Finally, the teenagers who had been arrested were brought in to join their fellow trespassers. It was a night that they will never forget.
The events at the Y that Sunday were staged. Six downtown youth groups joined forces to participate in “Underground Church.” The youths are told that they are living in a country where Christianity is illegal, but there is an underground church movement called the Ichthys Society. Ichthys is the Greek word for fish. The fish symbol was used by Roman Christians to identify believers in the persecution of the church.
We had volunteers patrolling the Y as guards. They would stop and question the teenagers and check their passes that contained the figure of a fish. Some of the passes were authentic and some were counterfeit. A counterfeit pass would result in imprisonment. If one stated publically they were a Christian, they would go to jail. A number of the youths were incarcerated. It goes without saying that these young people have a new appreciation for freedom of religion.
While “Underground Church” was a game last week at the Y, this is real life for many Christians in today’s world. There are many places where Christians are persecuted, dispossessed, tortured, and killed because of their faith. North Korean Christians must hide their faith at all times. Just owning a Bible in North Korea is grounds for execution or deportment to a harsh labor camp. Despite this oppression, Christianity is growing and believers gather to sing silent hymns in cramped basements and crumbling buildings.
Radical Islamists in Somalia have stated that they want to purge the nation of all Christians. People suspected of following Jesus are likely to be killed on the spot. Over 700,000 Christians have fled Syria since the start of their civil war. The ones remaining are tortured and some have been executed. In Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, and dozens of other nations “Underground Church” is not a game, but a dangerous way of life.
We are blessed to live in a land of religious freedom. Our founding fathers had the wisdom to guarantee every expression of religious faith. While Christianity has always been the predominate faith in the United States, we must be careful not to make Christianity the “favored religion.” Protecting the rights of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and those who claim no religion is vital to protecting our own. Once one faith is favored, the door is open for the favored ones to degrade and intimidate the others. All faiths must be protected equally and no one faith should be elevated over the others.
Following Jesus was never supposed to be easy. Persecution was a way of life for the early believers. Gathering for worship is as easy today as gathering for a civic meeting or a ball game. Perhaps that is why we take our faith so casually — because we risk nothing to practice it. We wanted to remind our teenagers that gathering for worship is a sacred privilege that many in the world don’t know. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”