By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA (ANS) — Norm and Cher Nelson of Compassion Ventures and Compassion Radio are a well-traveled couple in their mission to be ‘spies for hope.’ Among 150 countries, they have been to Iran several times and recently returned from North Korea.
In an interview with international journalist Dan Wooding on his Front Page Radio show, broadcast Sundays on KWVE 107.9 FM and weekends in the UK and South Africa, as well as being shown on Wooding’s new Safe World’s IPTV show called Front Page with Dan Wooding, the Nelsons explained how their ministry reaches out to some of the most dangerous places on earth.
Wooding introduced his guests by saying: “Now where we live in Orange County is not particularly dangerous, but you are constantly going into war zones, places that we shouldn’t go into. You particularly seem to specialize in going to some of the worst places on earth. Norm, you and I have been to Gaza and Hebron together. But you’ve been to Iran several times. I’ve never been to Iran. Tell us a little bit about what on earth is going on there?”
“Well, Iran I refer to as a ‘break through’ country. Iran is identified with Iraq and with North Korea as part of (President Bush’s) so called ‘Axis of Evil’,” said Norm.
“We like to go to places like this because a lot of people don’t like to go to those places. But what we know, that a lot of other people don’t know, is that God is there in those places and God is at work. And one of the things we do in our ministry is travel as (and we use this phrase advisedly), ‘spies for hope.’ That is, we go looking with what we hope are sanctified imaginations, praying that the Lord will reveal to us areas where He’s working in these really difficult countries. We are able to perceive where God is at work, things that in some instances you wouldn’t believe could be happening, but they are.”
Wooding pointed out that the Norm got involved in a theological debate with some Muslim leaders in Iran, to which Norm replied: “Well, actually it wasn’t a debate, it was a very friendly exchange between Christian and Muslim scholars. This event was sponsored by the Iranian organization, The Institute for Interfaith Dialog, and it was held at one of the Iranian think tanks. It was broadcast on television there in Tehran and we had the opportunity to share our faith as these Muslim scholars shared their particular brand of Islam. We had a wonderful exchange of views, an opportunity to clarify some issues and agreed to disagree on some others. So it was a really positive and wonderful experience. I enjoyed it.”
Wooding said: “There are people who are listening saying ‘I could never go to Iran it’s too dangerous.’ Did you feel under any danger when you were there?”
Norm responded: “I never felt under any threat, any danger at all. We had been to Iran on two other occasions doing humanitarian work. We responded to the terrible earthquake that happened several years ago in the city of Bam, in the southeastern part of Iran, where forty-thousand people were killed within forty-five seconds. The earthquake hit that city in the middle of the night: People were sleeping in their clay/brick homes. These clay buildings are without much in the way of support, and these houses literally collapsed on people while they were sleeping. We had an opportunity to go there and provide assistance to people who had been terribly devastated by that earthquake. So we’ve had some positive experiences in Iran.”
The Nelsons have just been to one of the strangest places on earth: North Korea, “the hermit kingdom.” Wooding asked Norm’s wife, Cher, if she could you paint a picture of the capital, Pyongyang? “What were your views of it?”
Cher Nelson told Wooding that, unfortunately, people in America tend to think of the capital city as nothing but streets filled with goosestepping soldiers. But, that happens only on occasions where some national event is happening and Kim Jong Il has ordered a parade.
“It’s a very striking capital, with huge buildings beautifully built; wide, wide boulevards — much wider than anything we have here. But, on those wide boulevards you see nothing but the few buses that transport the working class people and a very few government vehicles,” she said.
“Now, there were more cars this time than we’ve seen before. But, still, I think you could stand in the middle of the boulevards and within an hour count maybe twenty vehicles going by you. The streets are empty of people, empty of cars. It’s an eerie thing to drive around because there’s no life. But at the same time they show you spectacular things. The hundreds of children that are studying at the music centers are exquisite musicians! You see huge sports competitions. You see demonstrations of arts that are just overwhelming. I mean, we don’t produce anything like that here. But, a child’s destiny is decided from the time he is six months old, and handed over to be taken care of by the state. The state determines what the child will study, to what school he will go, and what he will be.”
Wooding asked Cher Nelson if she got any feeling for the type of lives women are leading?
“Well this time we got a particularly vivid look at that. We’d seen before women in back-breaking work in the fields. When a truck went by loaded with grain sacks, in one of which was a small hole allowing this little trail of grain to fall down the middle of the road, the women rushed out of the fields just trying to scoop up these little grains in order to have some food. We’ve seen unbelievable hardship.
“This time we were able to see what people were pressed into during the floods. I travel with Norm mostly in conjunction with Compassion Radio, which is our broadcast. Norm also does the inter-religious dialogs and the peace and reconciliation events, but I don’t normally go along because I hold the fort down at home. But when we’re there for Compassion Radio I go.
“So, while we were there, North Korea had the worst flooding that they’ve had in forty years. We’ve seen the results of some of the previous floods, which were extremely serious. But this time we saw women, children, army personnel, prisoners, and old men all working along the roads trying to hold back the embankments that were being washed away. They were trying to rebuild the road-banks with metal cups! They were scooping the mud with small hand tools, and taking off their head scarves trying to plaster those against the mud that was flowing to hold it back. No utensils, no trucks, no machinery, and, of course, we were told the people had ‘volunteered’ to do this. If so, everyone that we passed had this great loyalty, because there was no other soul around except those that were working on trying to hold back the destruction.
“We had told our ‘minders’ that we had brought in cargo containers of medical supplies and food and things in the past. They were quite suspicious at first, because they did had never met anybody else that had ever done that before. But, after hearing that we did care and that we had contributed to their welfare before, we were able to do it on the spot this time (and) to take up a collection among our small group. We cleaned out every nickel and dime that we had and were able to give a reasonably good size contribution, which we handed over to the ‘minders’ to go to the Red Cross.”
Wooding commented: “They must be really shocked because they’re taught that America’s out there to blow them up, and that’s really extraordinary.”
He then asked Norm about going to church in North Korea.”We’re never quite sure whether it is a legitimate church, or whether they were actors and actresses brought in for the service; and, yet, Pyongyang, the capital, had once been the Jerusalem of the East.
“Ruth Graham’s family were missionaries there. There were more Christian organizations based in Pyongyang than any other place in Asia, and now it’s just few churches. I understand that Kim Jong Il just built a Russian Orthodox church there which is very bizarre. Did you get any sense of where Christianity is in North Korea today?”
Norm Nelson said the North Korean government people will openly acknowledge the presence of ten thousand Christians in North Korea.
“But we know that there are a hundred-thousand Christians being held in labor camps, so there’s a real difference there in the numbers. Plus the fact that we’re aware of an underground church that has existed for a lot of years. The underground church tends to meet in private homes, sometimes literally underground, but they have to meet in a way that makes their meeting secretive so the government doesn’t know that they’re meeting,” said Nelson.
“From time to time they’re caught — and if you’re caught with Bibles, or, if you’re caught having a religious meeting, it’s very threatening to the government. Here are large numbers of people meeting together out of the control of this very controlling government and the government sees that as a threat to their security. So, consequently, they will arrest people and put them into labor camps and life is not good if you’re put in a North Korean labor camp. So, there are a lot of estimates as to the number of Christians — only God honestly knows for sure. But we believe that it’s probably up in the area of eighty to a hundred thousand Christians that are meeting together on a regular basis in secret inside of North Korea.”
Nelson agreed with Wooding that they’re literally risking their lives to do that.
“Absolutely,” he said, adding: “They pay a price to make a Christian commitment in that nation. It gives you no benefits, you don’t get a good job if you’re a believer. You know, you can’t function like we do in America. We go to church and one of the side benefits is that we maybe network with people and we get to know people who are in business and so on and so forth. It all kind of feeds a successful life style. Not true in North Korea: you’re in all kinds of trouble if you’re caught and you’re a Christian, and you’re not part of those three registered churches that exist in Pyongyang, the capital city.”
Cher Nelson commented on Wooding’s question about whether they’re really Christians that go to church there or whether they’re paid actors.
“We’ve had that question, too, because we know that the church only meets when there are Westerners there so that they can show that they have a church. We know there are certain people that are assigned to be there so that the congregation is full. We’ve been told that we’re the only ones who’ve had an opportunity to sing with the choir there and to sing a quartet with two of their choir members. But, then, at the end of the service we all joined hands — the congregation, the choir, the clergy staff and us — all the way around the auditorium, and sang ‘God Be With You Till We Meet Again’.
“Obviously they sang in Korean and we sang in English, but I want to tell you, Dan, there were older people around that room with tears streaming down their faces as they sang that song — looking us straight in the eye singing those words ‘God be with you till we meet again.’ So, we are in full belief, and have had this confirmed by others, too, that there are many real Christians who live for the opportunity to worship together when westerners come.”
Wooding mentioned that on his trip to North Korea, “It was just after the death of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, and we heard this extraordinary story that near the end of his life, (he’d been raised as a Christian and then he’d gone to Moscow and had become this wild Saul instead of Paul and started persecuting Christians), but near the end of his life he was having dreams of sitting on his mother’s lap and hearing about Jesus. When Billy Graham went for the first time, he was really shocked because Kim Il Sung said ‘Mr. Graham, tell me all about Jesus.’ And then he opened up television in North Korea for Billy to preach. Billy went back another time and the same thing happened. Billy Graham told me that he was invited to go back a third time and this particular time Billy was going to go fishing with Kim Il Sung and challenge him to give his life to Christ, But Kim died just before the fishing trip. So Billy never knew whether Kim Jong Il ever did make a commitment to Christ.”
Cher Nelson told Wooding that one of the churches there was built by Kim Il Sung to honor his mother’s faith.
Norm said that in North Korea they literally worship Kim Il Sung. “He has the status of a god.”
“They have this religion that’s actually a secular philosophy as they see it. But as we look at it we can see all of the elements of religion. They call it the Juche Philosophy. It’s a philosophy of self reliance that declares people determine everything. There is no God, people make all their own choices, all the decisions. Whatever happens in the world happens on the basis of human initiative. This feeds into this ‘hermit kingdom’ notion because, as you know, North Korea is isolated from virtually every other country in the world and consequently it is a lonely country as are the people within the country. There’s an innate kind of loneliness about them.”
Wooding wanted to know what it would be like for the North Koreans being separated from their families in South Korea and having no idea what’s going on over there?
“Dan, one of the things that is really important for people to understand is that when the country –when the peninsula was split apart was back at the time of the Korean War, there became a North Korea(Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and a South Korea (The Republic of Korea). It was divided at the thirty-eighth parallel. People from the North left North Korea and many of the Christians escaped into the south. The leadership of the church in South Korea came from the North. When you see Kim Il Sung square with all the North Korean goosestepping soldiers, right on that square was the great Presbyterian church, which was in a sense the cathedral of the Jerusalem of Asia in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is, I think, an awesome and sobering thought to realize how quickly a nation which is identified with Christianity and known to be so strong in faith can deteriorate and fall apart. Within a matter of months, a nation which is to a large degree Christian can become Communist and atheistic. I think that’s a lesson that we need to learn here in the United States — not to take our faith for granted.”
Wooding asked Cher Nelson if there was a highlight, someone there she was able to talk to that, was a real highlight for you her?
“God always opens a door to talk to someone, and again this time there was. We had met a gentleman along the way — he’s connected to the government. I don’t want to give any indication of who he was. But, I had a moment where I was away from the group waiting on the bus. The bus driver got out and was walking over to visit a friend of his, and suddenly this man appeared and came in the bus and sat down in front of me. And he began to ask me first about what is an NGO? Compassion Radio functions as an NGO — a non-governmental organization — when we bring humanitarian aid into places, and he was inquiring about that. The conversation led to ‘Well, why do you do this?’
“I wasn’t sure where he was going with the conversation so I said ‘Do you really want me to tell you?’ and he said, ‘Yes!’. I told him, well you have a book written by Kim Il Sung and you believe in the words that are written in this book very strongly. You believe that you have a responsibility to follow them. Well, we have a book as well, and you know it as our Bible. And our ‘Kim Il Sung’, who is Jesus Christ, has told us how we must live our lives if we are going to be his disciples and followers of him. Some of the things that he tells us are that we must clothe the naked, that we must feed the hungry, that we must rescue the poor, that we must visit those in prison. We have instructions that we must follow.
“As I said that we have things in our book that we must do, he laughed and said ‘Oh yes, love everybody.’ I responded that loving is part of it, but most of it is obedience — our obedience to the words of Jesus just as he follow the words of Kim Il Sung.
“Well then we started to talk about his life. He had an opportunity to be out of the country in his early life because his father had business out of the country. He began to talk about the differences here and there and made it clear that he did not want to continue with the work that he was assigned to do — that he would like to do something else. I asked him if he wanted to do it outside the country and he said ‘Oh, definitely,’ but there’s a circumstance that’s keeping him in the country and he doesn’t believe that he’ll ever be able to break that chain and get out.
“So I started to talk to him about hope. It was a word that didn’t seem to register with him. So I began to explain to him from scripture how Jesus offers us hope, not just hope for an eternal life, but a hope for our purpose within this life. He said how do you find that, and I told him I could tell him in several brief steps, and I just laid out the Gospel for him. I said, I don’t know if this makes sense to you or not, but I want you to remember it and continue to compare it to the words of Kim Il Sung and see whether he offers you the same hope, not just for being with him in the sky someday but for having a purpose for this life and a fulfillment in this life that you are living and that you are making a difference in this life.”
Cher explained that she asked the man if she could pray with him. “And I said, ‘May I pray with you?’, the interesting thing is, Dan, that he was leaning over the bus seat in front of me but he immediately gave his hand to me to pray, as though he knew that’s the way we pray. And I held his hand and I just prayed that God would begin to take the few words that I had said and impress them onto his heart and begin to convict him that they were true and begin to give him a hunger to find out what else was said in our book compared to his book and that God would show himself in reality to him.
“I said ‘You don’t need anybody else to be with you, you don’t need anyone else to lead you. God will reveal Himself to you. If you want to find Him, He will reveal Himself to you’. I opened my eyes and looked and he had tears in his eyes. And he got up and he left the bus.
“We were able to follow up in some vague ways afterwards as we ran into him again and we know that he was thinking. We asked him some questions and he repeated back to us some of the things than I had said. So it’s one life out of all of those perishing there; but it’s one life that we could affect. Who knows where it will go?”
Norm Nelson said something similar happened before in North Korea. “Every time we’ve been to North Korea we’ve had an experience like this. The last thing that we said to this man not too long before we were leaving the country, was ‘What’s the important word to remember?’ and he looked at me and he said ‘Hope.’ That may not sound like a big deal in the United States, but in North Korea, wow, Dan. It is an incredible breakthrough. That’s what happens in North Korea, in Iran, in all kinds of difficult places: Why? Because we’re there? No, because Jesus Christ is there. And that’s why we’re ‘spies for hope.’
The Nelsons were asked what would be their biggest prayer request for North Korea?
Norm replied: “My biggest prayer right now would be that God would empower the Christians who are in that nation to continue what they’re doing. To continue worshiping, studying the Word, praying and believe that He will use them to provide a breakthrough in that nation. It’s not so much a political hope that they have, as a hope for a spiritual breakthrough; and we want God to strengthen His people and to protect them there.”
Norm Nelson directed listeners who want to know how they can help more with North Korea or these other projects to the ministry website at: compassionradio.com.