When Lee Joo-Chan was young, he knew his parents were different. Everybody called them “Communist parents” because they took care of the sick, the poor and the needy. He also remembers seeing his parents read from a secret book at night. He knows now it was part of their worship.
“They would whisper the words, and I knew it was their source of wisdom. I also knew that if I ever talked about this to someone else, our family would be taken away.”
Thirty years later in China, Lee would finally discover his family’s secret faith. Now a pastor in South Korea, Lee is incredibly thankful for his courageous parents who risked their lives to worship and follow Jesus–and tell their son about their faith.
His parents are not alone in their boldness.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Christians in North Korea’s underground church estimated at 300,000, also find secret ways to worship Jesus and follow Him. In fact, because of the hardships and oppression they face, these believers often seek God intensely and risk their lives to worship Jesus—not unlike the early church that drew an ichthys in the ground with their feet as a symbol of their faith and secretly met together in catacombs.
In North Korea, there are also several kinds of underground church communities.
The casual meeting
An Open Doors field rep explains: “You see someone outside, you know that other person is a brother, you look at each other. That’s all. That’s your entire service.”
Typically, this kind of church is hosted by a family who have one or more children. The family’s house is rarely, if ever, ideal for public gatherings. It usually has just one bedroom and a small living room. And, even if a group of people can cram into the small space, they must be vigilant about keeping the noise down. Neighbors easily pick up when something is going on as houses in North Korea are built close together and the walls of the structures are often thin.”
It’s best when these families live near the woods so they can hide their copy of the Bible if they have one. Our field rep describes what worship is like for a local believer, not unlike Lee Joo-Chan remembers: “It’s after midnight. The two youngest children are sleeping. You sneak out, dig up your Bible and bring it back inside. The curtains are pulled and very, very softly do you read to your wife and 16-year-old son. You’ve only recently shared the gospel with him. Now he’s old enough and wise enough not to accidentally betray you. Of course, he didn’t understand the gospel at first, but you’re teaching him. You’ve been praying for years that he’d be ready.”
“You read the Bible in the dark, you pray, the words are hardly audible. Do you sing in whispers? When you’re in a bold mood.”
Believe it or not, North Korean Christians find ways to worship in the country’s notorious prison camps. There, a believer may be locked up with 40 others prisoners in a confined, uncomfortable space. There are usually wooden floors with many cracks that fill the room with ice-cold air in the winter and sweltering hot air in the summer. Lice and bugs get in too. But, our field rep says, there’s often “one brave Christian who shares the gospel with others and prays, knowing that she will be punished for that.”
In one of the darkest places on earth, North Korean prison camp survivor Hea-Woo chose to do something so radical, and so dangerous, but so Christlike. In the prison, God gave her a heart to tell her fellow prisoners about Jesus. And so, right there in the middle of a North Korean labor camp, a secret fellowship church began. Hea Woo recalls how God used her:
“The Bible verses that I’d recall from memory gave the others hope. They also saw the Spirit at work in me. I stood out among the other prisoners because I helped them. Sometimes I shared my rice with the sick. Occasionally, I washed their clothes, too.
“God used me to lead five people to faith. I tried to teach them the little I knew about Jesus. I didn’t have access to a Bible in the camp. But on Sundays and at Christmas, we met together out of the view of the guards. Usually, that was in the toilet. There we held a short service. I taught them the Bible verses and songs that I knew. We sang almost inaudibly so that no one would hear us.”
In all three of these types of worship gatherings, our field rep assures us there are people “risking their lives to distribute aid and support to and inside North Korea.”
“God has called us to do this work. The North Korean Christians are far more dedicated than us. In a sense, they are spiritually much stronger than we are. There are so many unknown heroes in North Korea, and they are able to withstand torture.”
Praying With North Korea’s Secret Worshipers
Father, we come to You now, interceding for our brothers and sisters in North Korea. We thank you for these secret worshipers and their boldness to follow You in the face of persecution few of us can fathom. We ask that You would protect them as they find ways to worship You and catch glimpses that they’re not alone. Give them the prudent courage to read and speak Scripture and the discernment for when to be silent.
We pray for those who can only look at someone and know that they follow Christ like they do. We pray for these secret house gatherings and ask that You would give them beautiful moments together, that they would find both joy and solace in Your Scripture. Give believers supernatural ability to memorize Your Word and impart it.
And God, we pray now with the Christian prisoners, that they would find each other and be able to discreetly gather to hear Your Word, and that they would find ways to minister to those prisoners who don’t know You–drawing their cellmates to You. We ask right now, Father, that You would raise up the next generation of Hea Woos both inside and outside prison walls.
And finally, Lord, we plead for the freedom of our persecuted family in North Korea–that they would one day be able to read Your Word and gather freely to worship without fear.
In Your Son’s name, we ask these things… Amen.