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“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Isaiah 42:3
The wind howled, pummeling gusts of snow through the cracks in our cabin walls. If the stinging cold and the hunger pains weren’t enough to keep me awake, my parents’ hushed argument was. I hugged my blanket as I listened to their voices, forceful and angry as the winter gale.
“We can’t risk drawing attention to ourselves,” Mother warned. “These inspectors report to Pyongyang.”
I slipped one eye open, just a crack. I knew my parents were anxious about the arrival of the inspections unit from Pyongyang, our nation’s capital. Kim Jong-Il, the Dear Leader himself, sent these inspectors to Hasambong to weed out any subversive citizens. No one in Hasambong felt safe, even us children.
My parents stood in the middle of our cabin facing each other. Father didn’t move at all. His face reminded me of the statue of our nation’s founder in front of our school. Kim Il-Sung’s bronze image never yielded in rain or snow or hail or storm but gazed resolutely at his starving citizens with cold and stony eyes.
“I will not renounce the truths of Scripture just to make my life here on this earth a little more comfortable,” Father spat. He was still whispering, but the forcefulness of his words filled our cabin like the roar of the angry Tumen River in flood season. “‘If you falter in times of trouble,’” Father quoted, “‘how small is your strength’!”
Mother swore. “Don’t talk to me about strength! Don’t you think I wish things were different? But they’re not. You think I’m a coward. But I’m the one who watches out for our daughter’s safety while you bring open suspicion upon our household right in front of the inspectors. No, Husband.” Mother pointed a finger in his face.
“It is you who are the coward.”
Instinctively, I longed to rush to Father’s aid. In the candlelight, I saw Father’s frame droop. His shoulders sagged. He looked older and frailer than I ever saw him before. I waited for Father to respond, willing him to defend himself, but he was silent.
“You dare speak to me about courage,” Mother continued, probably unaware that she was close to shouting now. “You don’t realize how much courage it takes to get up every morning and go to work, knowing that my daughter could be interrogated any day by her teachers at that school. Knowing that I’m powerless to worship God like the Good Book says if I want my only child to see her thirteenth birthday. Knowing that my husband thinks I’m an apostate because I would rather see Chung-Cha survive to adulthood. And meanwhile you – for the sake of a mere philosophy – are willing to condemn our entire family to prison camp. Of course you realize what those guards would do to Chung-Cha there, don’t you?” I prayed for sleep to shield me from my mother’s words, and I clenched my thin blanket tight against me.
“And do you know what will happen to Chung-Cha if she dies without ever learning the good news?” Father asked quietly.
“She knows the good news,” Mother insisted. “Why isn’t that enough? Why do you continue to endanger our only child? Especially now with the inspectors here, looking to make an example of traitors?”
“The Lord will care for us,” Father promised. I pretended not to hear the strain in his voice.
“You are certain of God’s provision,” Mother countered.
“Yet if Chung-Cha doesn’t die of cold and hunger this winter, she’ll just as likely die in a prison camp this spring. All because of your recklessness. You have the word of God in your heart.
Why can’t you keep it there instead of speaking so openly and condemning us all?”
Father was speechless. I willed away the sob that was rising in my throat at the sight of my dear father so humiliated. Could Mother be right? I never met anyone like my father, who memorized whole books of the Bible although Scripture was outlawed in North Korea, who whispered the gospel to his co-workers but never was caught. Father’s faith was so strong that I was certain the Hasambong mountains themselves would one day cave in at the sound of his prayers breathed in the darkness. Could this man – whose love for his Creator was so vast that the entire North Hamyong Province hardly seemed large enough to contain it – really be wrong to love God so deeply? Was Father foolish to obey God so fearlessly?
Father always promised that God would care for us just like he cared for the sparrows. Years ago, I was quick and eager to believe Father’s words of faith. But as each month of the famine grew worse, as each night I shivered from the cold and clenched my empty stomach while listening in on my parents’ disagreements, I wondered if my mother could be right. Seeds of doubt found fertile soil in my empty belly.
In our Hasambong village, even the sparrows were falling to the ground from starvation, not to rise again.
Now with the inspectors here, the danger was even more real. The prison camps were more than rumors. Two families in our small village of Hasambong had been relocated since the start of the famine. One couple was caught with a stolen potato.
The other family, whose infant I played with before she starved to death, was accused of cannibalism.
Was Mother right? With the People’s Safety Agency here to inspect us, wouldn’t God understand if Father was less vocal about his faith, given the circumstances and grave dangers to our family?
My father sighed, and I held my breath to hear what he would say in his defense.
“I am not a fool. I know what risks come from following Jesus Christ.” Father’s voice wasn’t angry anymore, but gentle, like the snow that occasionally covered the Hasambong mountainside in a blanket of unblemished white.
“Chung-Cha is a gift from God … as are you.” Father reached out his calloused, work-worn hand to wipe a tear off Mother’s gaunt cheek. She turned away with a disdainful snort.
Father continued, “Nevertheless, if I began to love these gifts more than the One who entrusted them to me, then I would not be able to look my Savior in the face when I stand before him and give an account of my life.
“It is God who gives me breath.” The confidence of Father’s quiet confession filled our cabin with uncharacteristic warmth. “And as long as my old worn-out heart keeps beating, as long as these tired lungs continue to draw air, I will not remain silent. I cannot. I will proclaim the Good News until my Savior returns to rule the earth or until he calls me home.”
My heart swelled at Father’s words of triumph and faith. I watched Mother’s face to see if she felt the same wave of power, the same surge of hope, that transcended the suffering and fear – even the constant hunger – of our provincial lives in rural North Korea.
Mother brushed past Father and unpinned her hair. She walked to the bed, yanked down the tattered blanket, and hissed, “Your stubborn faith will be the death of us all.”