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NORTH BEND, WA (ANS) -- At 1:42 am on May 8, Doug Sutphen, who was better-known and loved around the world as “Brother David,” passed away in a hospital near his home in North Bend, Washington. He was 70-years-old.
Sutphen was born in Pennsylvania in 1936. His father's job in the military resulted in the family moving to California. After a childhood made difficult by his dyslexia, Doug wandered away from the Lord and found his identity in playing football. Blessed with a powerful physique, he was offered a football playing scholarship at the University of Denver and moved to Colorado in 1955. After his college football career came to an end, Sutphen returned to California where he gained employment as a trainee lithographer in a print shop in downtown Los Angeles. This training would prove essential in later years when God called Sutphen to a ministry of printing and publishing the Scriptures in Asia. Before this happened, Sutphen completed a six-year stint in the US Marines.
Doug Sutphen's life experienced a dramatic change when he accepted Jesus Christ during a Billy Graham crusade on 4 September 1963. The change in his life was immediately evident, and he never wavered in his commitment to know and make known the Lord Jesus to as many people as possible. In May 1965 he commenced his missionary career in the Philippines. Sutphen had joined the FEBC (Far East Broadcasting Company), becoming the head of the printing department which produced and distributed millions of Bibles and Gospel tracts throughout Asia. This was the start of 42 years of serving the Body of Christ in Asia, a service which continued up to his death.
In the late 1960s Sutphen received a call from God to provide Bibles to the Church in China. China at the time was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, and its borders were sealed to all outside influence. Most of the missionaries Sutphen shared his call with thought he was crazy, or naive, but this Gospel warrior soldiered on. Piece by piece the Lord unfolded His plan to Sutphen, and he was finally able to get a visa and enter China in 1976. In 1979 a few Christian ministries began to carry Bibles into China from Hong Kong. By now Sutphen had joined Open Doors, and he adopted the name “Brother David” in order to protect his identity. Despite leading teams of Bible-carrying Christians into China, which resulted in the successful delivery of more than 30,000 Bibles, Sutphen saw that the needs of the Chinese Church were vast, and that carrying Bibles by hand would never be able to meet the demand. After much prayer with several key colleagues, the plan for “Project Pearl” was birthed.
Operating under a cloak of secrecy because of the highly-sensitive nature of the work, Sutphen and his team worked closely with house church leaders inside China and settled on the bold and risky plan to take one million Bibles into China by boat, all at once. Starting with no money or resources, God supernaturally provided everything needed and the delivery was successfully completed in the evening of 18 June, 1981. More than 10,000 Chinese believers gathered along a beach near the city of Shantou in southern China, and took the one million Bibles away in trucks, cars, donkey carts, on bicycles, and strung across bamboo poles. The army arrived at the beach several hours after the delivery, but the vast majority of Bibles (at least 90%) had been successfully moved by the Chinese Christians. Later, the Three-Self church and others tried to denounce Project Pearl by claiming all the Bibles had been confiscated or swept out to sea, but this was not true. Within weeks, Project Pearl Bibles had made their way to hungry believers in 18 different provinces, and letters of overwhelming gratitude poured in from Christians who had received their first copy of God's Word.
The whole of Project Pearl, and indeed Doug Sutphen's life from the time of his conversion, was focused on seeking first the kingdom of God. For decades he received no salary, and mentioned his personal needs only to God, and never to people. God responded to his faith in a marvelous way, and the Sutphen’s never lacked what they needed. In 1981 the inspirational story of “Brother David” up to that point was told in the best-selling book, “God's Smuggler to China.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Sutphen continued to serve God in many parts of the world. His passion and love for China never diminished, and he constantly sought new ways to get Bibles to the believers there. When religious restrictions started to ease in the early 1990s, Sutphen traveled to China and asked the government-sanctioned Amity Press to print Bibles for the unregistered house churches. Many were shocked to see this man, who had in some people's eyes been the champion of “Bible smuggling”, now engaging the official Church. He was strongly criticized in some quarters, but Doug forgave his critics and forged ahead. What mattered most to him was that God's Word would get into the hands of Chinese believers. How they got there was of secondary importance to him. In the first 3 years Sutphen was able to oversee the distribution of an additional 1.1 million Bibles to Chinese Christians, most of them members of house church fellowships.
Sutphen also had a great burden for North Korea. He visited the country on many occasions, and by God's grace was able to share the Gospel with North Korean government officials and diplomats. In 1995 Doug was struck with four heart-attacks in the space of 72 days. Three different doctors told him he was going to die, but Sutphen felt his work for the Church in Asia was not yet finished and continued on. At a time when many of his colleagues were expecting news of his death, Doug and his wife founded a new ministry, Love China Ministries International, and they continued to serve the Church in Asia.
Doug Sutphen's loving wife Meiling has cared for him like an angel. Together they have made a beautiful team, and walked through many struggles and successes together. Meiling broke the news of Doug's passing, and is heart-broken by the loss of her best friend and life partner. Please pray the peace of the Holy Spirit will comfort her during these difficult days. Meiling plans to continue the work of Love China Ministries from their home in North Bend.
God kept Doug Sutphen alive and allowed him to serve Jesus Christ for 12 more years after the doctors announced he would die. These years have been filled with challenges, as partial blindness and the scourge of diabetes have ravaged Sutphen's body. Still he retained a joyful and positive spirit, and was always full of encouragement to everyone he met. In 2005 I was privileged to spend a week at his bedside in Washington, and felt closely bonded to this dear brother in Christ as we prayed and talked about God's work in China.
Remarkably, in late 2005 Doug made yet another trip to his beloved China to meet with church leaders and plan new strategies for the kingdom of God. Months of planning had to go into finding an airline that could accept his wheelchair and walker, hotels in China with ramps and facilities, and a thousand other things. When the Chinese Christians saw him they hugged him dearly and tears rolled down their cheeks. Here was a warrior of the gospel - someone who had been literally willing to die to bring them the Word of God during their darkest hour of suffering; someone who brought them food when they were hungry, water when they were thirsty, and clothes when they were naked. There are thousands of missionaries working in China today, doing a myriad of different activities, but those who can claim to have been serving the Lord in China as far back as the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s can be counted on one hand. Doug Sutphen is one of them, and the Chinese have long memories.
One of Sutphen's closest friends has been David Aikman, journalist and author of “Jesus in Beijing.” Aikman recently said, “I consider it a rare privilege to have been considered a true friend by this saintly brother. To me, he has always been 'closer than a brother.' Overall, there is no other Christian I can recall in the four decades of my own Christian life who has so consistently exhibited such an absolutely Christ-like attitude towards life and towards other Christians; even his adversaries. Quite simply, he is the most remarkable Christian missionary I have ever met.”
Jackie Pullinger, author of “Chasing the Dragon,” was another of Doug's friends. She says, “Doug Sutphen is a warrior who wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. Yet this man I have known for decades was also gentle, kind and used the weapons of faith and prayer and wisdom to bring about a miracle for the sake of his beloved China and his wonderful Saviour.”
The last time I saw Doug Sutphen he wanted to share a message for Christians everywhere. He said, “When I die, I want a revival and not a funeral. How about you? Do you want a revival too? Then begin crying out to God. Stop shrinking from His will and begin working under His direction. Take the time to be alone with Him and His Word, and He will begin blessing and giving guidance to you as He has done for me. There is so much more I want to do for Jesus, and sometimes my condition frustrates me. If you have your sight and two legs, please don’t waste them! Our time on this earth is short, and getting shorter every day. There are so many people whom Jesus wants to reach out to, and He wants to do it through people just like you. God Bless You. I look forward to getting to know you in heaven.”
There are many who have been deeply impacted by the life and ministry of this warrior of God, who has now gone to his eternal reward. He is now happy, whole, and safe in the embrace of Jesus Christ.
Note: Doug Sutphen’s story is told in the book, “God’s Smuggler to China,” which he co-authored with Dan Wooding and Sara Bruce.