The first thing I noticed; the emergency door was wide open and the handle looked mangled. The other Americans on the flight were grinning and chuckling at each other over the sight. The smell of the plane reminded me of a musty apartment and the colors were gross browns and faded orange.
“So this is Tajik Air.” I thought
I took a seat behind the emergency exit row and smiled at one of the twelve men traveling with me. We were on a volunteer trip to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. I had a number of assignments. One was to document the team’s experience. A stewardess was keeping people from sitting next to the open door presumably keeping the space clear for maintenance. She shooed one member towering over her requesting more leg room. He eventually gave in and moved. Seconds later two bulky Tajik men in suits entered the plane and sat in the seats. Her job done, the stewardess left her post and resumed normal stewardess duties. A dumpy man followed the two men and sat down right next to the emergency door and closed it. The door still needed to be latched, but he remedied this by packing his luggage against the door and hanging his linens on the mangled handle. There was a sense of unease brewing in my heart and I became hyper sensitive to everything around me. A couple moved up from the back and sat in the seats in front of me. The man was directly in front of me on the isle seat and the woman was opposite him. This couple began to fiddle with a cell phone and the woman took out the battery and replaced a small chip in the back of the phone. A pilot finally came by and latched the emergency door. To the naked eye, it still looked mangled and sketchy. The woman finished with the phone and put it in her purse. The team member next to me looked into my eyes with sincere concern,
“Could that be C4?” He nodded to her purse.
This simple question was all the fuel my imagination needed. False prophecies of fire, chaos, and death flooded my mind. If I didn’t do something now, my last confession would be a sin of omission. I jumped out of my seat and traded places with my translator, asking her to investigate the woman’s phone.
As I sat in my new seat in the front of the plane I began to think and pray. Many of my friends and family had expressed some anxiety about me traveling halfway around the world to a predominant Muslim land. Beyond that, my main assignment was to document the story of Sergej Besserab, a Tajik Christian who was murdered for starting a church in the city Isfara. I assured everyone, I would be fine… even if I died. I was ready to meet Jesus. On this plane, however, my prayers were different.
“God I know your ways aren’t my ways, and if you choose to take us now you are doing what is right, but God I can’t see how dying in a plane crash before we even get started will bring you glory.”
My mind shifted from my prayers to my translator; she didn’t understand what I wanted her to do, or why. The plane began to move. I’m no hero, but I marched back to my translator and asked her to convey my message, much to the duress of our stewardess. The man traveling with the woman in question spoke to me in English, so I addressed my question to him.
“We were changing out the GMS chip now please take your seat.” His answer was swift and in the queen’s English. Only partially satisfied, I took my seat and wrote the prayer that was one my heart, thanking the lord for protection and grace.
Somewhere along the uncomfortable, mildly terrifying flight, I decided to apologize. Again, I made my way back to his seat. The team leader had switched with our translator. The gentleman accepted my apology, thought he was still somewhat perturbed.
“I work for the British Embassy here and I understand you Americans have problems with planes, but tell your friend back there to calm down and tell the other Americans to take their seats. You are making the passengers nervous.”
Embarrassed, I spoke with the team leader. He was not happy either. I expressed our friend’s lack of terrorist intentions. My PI prowess did not impress him. While he was annoyed with all involved in this conspiracy theory, others clung to their suspicions.
I finally settled in my seat, and caught sight of the man beside me changing the chip in his phone. At my request he explained the function of that small chip in his phone. The chip needed to be changed based on the country. This was an international flight from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan after all. His answer, thankfully, made complete sense. I grinned.
"It’s alright.” I thought, “I can be a stupid American from time to time.” Still, I just played the fool caught in the enemies trap of fear and intimidation. He won his game. I felt the Lord’s comfort, and let go of the embarrassment. With His guidance, I was able to calm down and even managed to try and share with the man beside me.
The plane ride was rugged and bumpy throughout the whole ordeal, and our landing was violent and abrupt. I left the plane knowing there were more battles ahead of me. The question on my mind, “Am I ready for them?”
A portion of our team was dedicated to construction in the City of Dushanbe. I spent a day following them around, but later boarded another flight with Tajik Air. I traveled north with another American and our translator. Our mission; to document the people and places impacted by Sergej Besserab. This flight posed a different challenge. Our fellow passengers were professional Tajik footballers that wanted to know why Americans were on their plane. I wanted to share my heart with them and give them the message of the gospel, but my inhibitions began to take hold of me once again.
“What if your testimony angers them, and they respond violently? What if they reveal your intentions to someone and jeopardize the assignment? Are you really ready to die for Christ?” Ignoring those questions, I spoke with my translator. With her help, I shared the gospel. Halfway into the flight, I showed them an EvangeCube. One of the young men took the cube with gleaming eyes and said in Russian, “ I know this story.” He, himself, was not a believer in Christ, but he was very interested in the cube and its message. They listened to the story and even asked for the cubes. “In your face, Satan.”
Afew Tajik brothers picked us up at the airport. Once in the van we were bombarded with their agenda. The planwas to cram as many interviews into our 2-3 days trip as possible. I was worried we would not have time for any other footage. Fortunately, I was told I had control and could change whatever I saw fit. After a little tweaking, we set off to produce the documentary. Our first interview; Sergej Besserab’s mother.
Her testimony gave me a new vision of God’s grace and love. She recounted her son’s early years, riddled with drug addiction and violence. It grieved her soul. He turned away from his sin and embraced the love of Christ. He set out on a drastically different path. His faith led her to accept Christ as well. It was in this moment that I realized the Church desperately needed to hear the story of this once-broken man changed into a champion for the Lord.
The next day I tackled the daunting task of capturing the city and culture where Sergej had chosen to minister. I visited official city buildings, the market place, and even a couple Mosques. One in particular allowed us inside. Most thought we were a crew form CNN, but some officials questioned us and our translator became nervous.
We travelled into the hills to find a spot to capture entire cityscape. We were set in our plan until rain began to fall and a cloudy haze covered the area. We debated on how to move forward. We picked a spot to pull over and prayed for God to allow us to get this shot. The other American and I jumped from our vehicle into the rain, wrapped my camera in a t-shirt, and trudged up a small cliff. The wind was so fierce, it blew the shirt from my camera and the body of the camera began to collect water. I noticed some drops on the lens. I asked God for aid, and heard him respond. Not in a voice, no, but I knew he was telling me to be faithful. We rushed against the wind to the peak. The rain began to subside and the city came back into view. The wind dried my lens and I was able to get the shot. When we arrived back at the van, our translator looked at me with a smile, saying, “Strong prayer, Brian.” I laughed, “Stronger God.”
In the evening, we returned to the church to interview Sergej’s wife and daughter. They shared painful, but real testimonies of God bringing them through the tragedy of losing a husband and father. Later, I interviewed a Tajik brother who reenacted Sergej’s death. We were in the sanctuary. The same place Sergej’s life was taken. My teammate swore he’d seen the city officials from earlier that day while I’d been filming. Our translator began to scold herself yet again for taking us to a mosque.
I was on high alert. It was dark and stormy, and cars would stop for an uncomfortable amount of time. People would stop in front of the mayor’s house across the street from us, adding to my fear. The harsh winds seemed like an angry tempest that berated the windows, pounding on the walls and howling and cursing us. I knew the spirit of fear was back, ready to tear my courage apart like a ravenous lion. As I felt the overwhelming fear, God began to speak to me.
“Perfect love casts out fear! I have not given you a spirit of fear but a spirit of love!”
As I continued my work, I knew that Satan could not take hold of me and exploit my fears. This was to no merit of my own, but only to the credit of the Holy spirit. Though I still battled fear, He brought me through the night.
God continued to show me his grace and power through the trip, and the attacks of the enemy became weaker and weaker. As we flew home on another rickety, bumpy plane, I knew God wanted this project to be completed. Even if the plane were to go down, I would make it off alive or the tapes would find their way to a skilled editor who could tell Sergej’s story. I still strive to do the Lord’s work. I pray that I always remember, we have not been given a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind.
Addendum: This personal story accompanied the first documentary produced by Tekmerion Productions. I pray the lessons inspire us to continue to shine His light in the face of our fears.
Written by Brian A.C. Ellison