By Sarah Cunningham, Communications Director for Open Doors, USA
SANTA ANA, CA (ANS – October 29, 2017) — Back in 1992, a Christian prisoner in a Russian labor camp received thousands of letters of encouragement thanks to the effort of one man.
Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know much about Dan Wooding, the journalist who launched this letter-writing campaign. But recently, when Dan stopped by the Open Doors offices [in Santa Ana, California], I learned that he is the founder and chief editor of the ASSIST New Service. In addition, Dan hosts a radio show called Front Page Radio as well as two TV shows.
As Dan began sharing tales from his lifetime of experience as a journalist, he commanded the attention of the Open Doors staff in the room. In one story, he was in the US, in the next he was dashing off to Russia or North Korea. Each scene was a mix of both meaningful and funny happenings. And more than once, I could barely hear his voice over the laughter of his audience.
But there was one story he told that rose to the top for me because it hit close to home here at Open Doors.
By the time Dan had finished his presentation and opened the floor for questions, I only had one: Will you tell this one story to our readers?
Dan readily agreed. Below, you’ll find that story.
Sarah: While you were in Moscow in 1992 [working as a writer for Billy Graham during his history Moscow crusade], you got to meet a pretty special person named Alexander. Can you tell us about how you met this persecuted believer – Alexander — in the first place?
Dan: I first learned about Alexander Ogorodnikov from a piece published by Keston College [in the UK]. It was the translation of a letter Alexander had written to Gorbachev. In it, Alexander explained that he had found Christ after watching a film about the life of Jesus. Now, he explained, he had been sentenced to the Gulag — a Russian labor camp — for five years for running a Christian group at Moscow State University.
Sometimes, in his time in the Gulag, the guards would confiscate his Bible. When they did, Alexander would go on a hunger strike. “I would rather die than be without the Word of God,” he would tell them.
But the words he wrote next were heartbreaking. “I believe it would be a sin to take my own life, but I want to go home to be with Jesus.” Alexander proceeded to ask Gorbachev if the leader could arrange to have Alexander executed by firing squad.
Sarah: When you heard his statement about not receiving a single visitor or letter, what was your response?
Dan: I wept. I couldn’t get over the feeling that we in the West had let him down by allowing him to feel so alone and isolated.
I was able to track down the mailing address of the labor camp [in Perm] near the Siberian border. Then I went on an American Christian TV show and called on viewers to send letters of support to Alexander.
They did. In just a few weeks, thousands of letters arrived. He was shown the letters, but was not allowed to read them. Instead, he was put into an ice block, a cell like a refrigerator. While in there, Alexander said he felt the prayers of those in the West and believed God’s arms wrapped around him despite the cold.
Sarah: Margaret Thatcher also got involved. Could you please tell us about that?
Dan: Margaret Thatcher, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time, had apparently also learned of the letter through Keston College. In a meeting with Gorbachev, she in her strength, demanded he release Alexander in a way that only the “Iron Lady” could have. And he did.
Alexander was set free.
When I went to Russia, I sent a message to Alexander. Then one day, I got a call [from the lobby of the hotel where I was staying with the Billy Graham team] that Alexander was waiting for me. He was standing there in a pinstriped suit with a ponytail in his hair. He said to me, “Thank you for caring.”
Sarah: That is a beautiful, powerful story. It’s clear those letters came to Alexander in a critical point in his life when he was tempted to give up.
Right now, Open Doors has created an opportunity for believers around the world to write a letter to a secret believer in North Korea. We will be delivering it via underground channels that we cannot disclose due to high risks for those involved. Why is this important?
Dan: A letter is the same as hope for many of these believers. It’s so important to let them know that they are not alone. I have been to North Korea [as a journalist] and it would be a true encouragement to people living there to receive similar letters from Open Doors supporters.
I would call on Open Doors supporters [and others] to take the time to write a letter today.
In just a few minutes time, you can write a quick letter that will be delivered to a North Korean Christian through a safe, undisclosed underground method. If you know Christians among your Facebook or Twitter friends or in your Bible Study or church who would be willing to write additional letters, please share this opportunity online or in person. We would love to follow in Dan Wooding’s footsteps and send thousands of letters to Christians in North Korea who, like Alexander, likely need encouragement at this volatile time in their country’s history.
Photo captions: 1) Dan Wooding with Alexander Ogorodnikov in Moscow in 1992. 2) Alexander sharing his story following his release. 3) Send a letter of love to a North Korean citizen.
About the writer: Sarah Cunningham is Communications Director for Open Doors USA (www.OpenDoorsUSA.org), and this story was first published on their website.
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