THE ROAR OF THE CROWDS,
THE SILENCE OF THE JAIL CELL
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need,
and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and
every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do
everything through him who gives me strength.
KGB in Russia
It’s Denise and me in a huge mess and battle again. It was an all-day struggle against the forces of evil and communism. Now its night and Jesus, we made it through the day. You gave us the strength to stand strong and pray as voices were yelling at us
and fingers were waved in our faces. We gripped each other’s hands, but you, God, held us in your hand. And now tonight as we lie in our Land Rover, it is quiet in these mountains. We endured reproach; we shared about you and your love. You sent us a man to be our deliverer. It was like he was born to be there, just to help us at that time. This is not just a daily battle but almost an hourly battle. We cling to you and feel so close to you. Yet we are so far away from the world we have known. Somehow we will make it. I could not have made it without Denise. Thank you, Jesus, for her. We love you and we have the joy of another day before us – come what may.
The “Washington for Jesus” rally in April 1980 was a real high point for me. A huge crowd – perhaps half-a-million people gathered in the nation’s capital to pray, sing and listen to speakers such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Bill Bright. I had carried the cross from Virginia Beach to Washington, where I planned to participate in the rally just like thousands of others. But Robertson, host of The 700 Club television program, had a different idea.
Pat rushed over to me and grabbed my arm. “The cross leads the way in our Jesus march, “he said.
“But, I’m not on the program,” I replied. “I wasn’t planning to be in the front.”
“We go!” he said, brushing aside my hesitancy. “I marched when I was a Marine. Now I want to march beside you.”
With live TV beaming the march to millions of people around the nation and the world, Pat and I followed by tens of thousands of people, made a large loop around the area. It was awesome to see well-known Christian leaders joining average Americans as we walked through the capital with the cross.
As our procession circled back toward the rally’s stage area, singers Dottie and Reba Rambo sang, “I Will Glory in the Cross.” It was thrilling to see people focusing not on politicians or issues, but on the cross. After all, the apostle Paul once said, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14 NKJV)
The rally was about to begin. I was putting the cross behind the stage area when Paul Crouch, founder and president of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, came up to me and looked me in the eyes. “Take the cross up on the stage, Arthur,” he said.
I stared at him. I had not planned to be on the stage – and I wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion. I was wearing blue jeans and a Levi shirt, while the other men on the program were in suits and ties. I was dressed casually because I had been walking with the cross.
“I’ll take responsibility for this,” Paul said, with a reassuring look on his face. “Don’t be afraid to be up front after all these years you have been carrying the cross around the world.”
Paul and I climbed the steps to the stage, where I raised the cross upright to its full twelve-foot height. As I did so, the entire crowd exploded with shouts of praise.
I didn’t have a microphone to address the crowd, so I said to the Lord: “Jesus, I pray you are pleased as we glory in you and your cross.”
Then Paul told me that his comments would be shorter than planned and he asked me to address the crowd when he finished. I was not expecting this, but I was ready. I had carried the cross alone around the world; now I welcomed the chance to speak about the cross to this huge crowd.
The next thing I knew, Paul was introducing me. “There is someone here who is not on the program, but I feel he should say something to you. His name is Arthur Blessitt and he has carried this cross around the world.”
People stood on their feet and cheered as I came forward. In return, I shouted:
“Give me a J!”
The crowd roared back: “J!”
“Give me an E!”
“Give me an S!”
“Give me a U!”
“Give me an S!”
“What does that spell?”
Then I looked at the crowd, and these words spill out of me. “There is a lost world around us. As you leave here today, tell someone about Jesus on your way home.”
Then I referred to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. “God is asking us the same question he asked Isaiah: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And Isaiah answered, “Here am I, Lord. Send me!” Say it with me now, everyone: “Here am I, Lord. Send me!”
The crowd roared back: “Here am I, Lord. Send me!”
It was a wonderful and glorious surprise to speak to this crowd – something I will never forget. But there are other times when crowds are listening to me speak or cheering as I walk with the cross.
Being Triumphant in Tough Times
I’ve had many unforgettable experiences, such as speaking to half-a- million people at that rally in Washington and to half- -a million music fans at the 1970 Atlanta International Pop Festival. But most of the time I’m alone, walking mile after mile with no one to cheer me or even see me. And there have been twenty-four times when I was arrested or thrown in jail.
My first run-in with the police happened in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960’s. A college kid at the time, I held a black man’s hand as I prayed with him on the street to receive Jesus. I didn’t know that was against the law.
Of all my jail experiences, the worst took place in Concord, New Hampshire in 1976. I was carrying the cross with my two oldest children, Gina (who was twelve) and Joel, 10. Two police officers drove up in a patrol car and arrested me for soliciting money, which I have never done in my life. They threw down the cross, handcuffed me and took me to jail – leaving Gina and Joel on the street alone. Because it was Friday afternoon, I had to wait until Monday to appear in court. The judge threw out the case and lectured the police officers who arrested me about their stupid actions.
I have carried the cross in 315 countries and island groups. In most of these nations I have had great experiences, although 52 of these countries were at war during my crosswalks. I have seen beautiful places and wonderful people, but I have also seen horrors and tragedies. I faced a firing squad in Nicaragua; I was almost stoned and beaten in Morocco; I was attacked by police in Spain; a Los Angeles police officer tried to choke me in Hollywood; I survived an angry man’s pistol attack in Orlando, Florida; a man in Birdseye, Indiana, tried to burn the cross and a man in Nigeria broke the cross.
I have enjoyed some wonderful meals, including freshwater shrimp in El Salvador and fresh salmon in Finland. I have also eaten some stomach-churning concoctions, including squid in ink (Spain), monkey leg (Africa) and rat soup (Belize).
I have been warmly received in some places (for example, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Spain, India, Lithuania, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and central Africa) and I have been coldly rejected in others (for example, New York City, Montreal and Sydney). And speaking of ‘warmly’ and ‘coldly,’ I have carried the cross through the Jordan Valley in Israel when the temperature was 135 degrees and I carried the cross in Nova Scotia when it was 20 degrees below zero.
Why do I tell you all this? Because of a simple lesson I learned long ago that has stuck with me all these years: We need to follow God’s call, regardless of whether people love us or hate us.
God’s call is not conditional. It doesn’t depend on favorable conditions, warm weather or good moods. When God calls us to do something, may we be like the apostle Paul – who said yes to such divine assignments, knowing God would help him learn to be content, no matter what circumstances he faced.
The Cross Meets a Coup in Burundi
When Denise and I traveled to the central African nation of Burundi in 1996, we had no idea we would walk into a military coup.
We arrived in the capital city of Bujumbura amid hostile tension between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. I was glad we could carry the cross through the center of town during such a difficult time, but most of the people we saw seemed frightened. Then a convoy of army trucks came our way. The people really backed away from us as the soldiers jumped out of their trucks and came toward us, pointing to the trucks to indicate we should get in.
I didn’t want to be separated from the cross. As long as we had the cross, it was clear what we were doing; without the cross we were just tourists. I lifted the cross and shoved it onto the back of one of the trucks. The soldiers didn’t like this and screamed, “No!” Then I leaped onto the back of truck and helped Denise climb up. We sat with our arms around the cross.
Denise and I prayed as the convoy started moving. We were taken to a military compound on the outskirts of the city. Troops were everywhere and seemed ready to move out for an imminent battle. The soldiers motioned for us to get off the truck. Taking the cross with us, we were ushered into a small office where we were interrogated in French. Neither Denise nor I understood French, which made the officers quite angry.
One of the things I have learned from the many times I have been arrested and interrogated around the world is to hang on. If you hold out long enough, you will eventually be passed to a more senior officer. “These men are not the decision makers,” I told Denise. “They won’t do anything without permission from their commander.”
After a while we were taken to a nice office area. A man in a uniform decorated with many medals warmly greeted us in English and shook out hands. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous here?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “but the cross in needed in the places of suffering and death and hurt.”
I began telling him about our walk with the cross and showing him photos of me with various world leaders. He seemed to enjoy this but he remained concerned about our presence in Burundi.
“I also believe in Jesus,” he said. “But we have a war to fight. Why are you here now?”
“Well, we are carrying the cross in every nation,” I explained, “and this is one of the nations where we have never carried the cross. Since we’re on a trip to Africa now, we feel this is the time to be here. War or peace, our mission is the same.”
The commander seemed deeply moved. He said we were free to go but warned us again of the dangers we faced.
“My men will drive you to your hotel,” he said.
“That’s very kind of you, but we would rather carry the cross back.”
After praying for him and for peace in Burundi, that’s exactly what we did – we walked out of the compound the through the streets of the city.
Back at the hotel later that day, we noticed the streets were empty except for police and army vehicles. We soon learned why. The president of Burundi had just been overthrown in a military coup.
We were confined to our hotel for several days, but as soon as the curfew was lifted, we again took the cross into the streets. Earlier, people seemed aloof or afraid, but now they greeted us and welcomed the cross.
I told one of the journalists in the hotel about the sudden change in reception. He explained the reason to me. The deposed president had announced on radio and television that the only thing that would persuade him to leave office would be the coming of Jesus. The people believed our carrying the cross was a sign that this had happened! The unpopular president fled to the U.S. embassy and the army took over. We were treated like heroes and VIPs during the rest of our visit .
One officer approached us and asked what was in the cross. “It’s only wood,” I told him.
He looked at me and said, “No, there is power in that cross!”
When our adventure in Burundi was over, I complimented Denise on her bravery and calm demeanor. She replied that while she may have looked calm, internally she was terrified.
“When we were put on the truck, we didn’t know what the soldiers were going to do to us. My heart was pounding so loudly I felt certain everyone would hear it. But when I get in frightening situations like that, I pray and cry out in prayer: “Oh, Jesus, help me!” Despite the terrifying feelings and the sound of my heart pounding in my chest, I’ve always known that God is in control. No matter how fearful I feel, I know God is there with us.”
Our Time with the KGB
How many movies have you seen or books have you read about the KGB, Russia’s notorious committee for State Security? Denise and I had our own encounter with the KGB while we carried the cross through the area once known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We traveled through this region in 1992, soon after all the former Soviet republics formed independent countries. Perhaps that made the KGB officials more edgy.
When Denise and I arrived at a roadblock in the Asian country of Uzbekistan, the police wanted to check our papers. We had passports and other papers, but no visa. They demanded a visa. Soon other officers arrived and in moments police cars surrounded our vehicle. The police escorted us to police headquarters where we were taken into a large room with a long table for a lengthy interrogation.
Denise and I sat on one side of the table while several people sat across from us, some in uniform and others in plain clothes. A local schoolteacher who taught English interpreted the questions and our answers.
“Why are you here?”
“How did you get into this country?”
“Are you spies?”
“Whom do you know in this country?”
“Where did you get your money?”
We tried to explain, showing them the map we used traveling through several thousand miles of the former USSR. They were not impressed.
“How did you get through all the borders?” they asked.
“Jesus did it,” we said. That really seemed to send them into a rage.
The session continued for several more hours. Then a military officer who seemed to be of a higher rank than many of the others came in to listen to the interrogation. Soon he came over and sat beside me, saying nothing. As the others pressed us for more answers, I noticed the officer reach into his shirt pocket to pull out something I couldn’t see. A moment later I saw an icon of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, in the palm of the officer’s hand. The other people in the room couldn’t see this, but I certainly did. Although he didn’t look at me, I felt he was trying to let me know he was a believer in Jesus.
The interrogation continued and then this officer stood up and said something to the others. They all left the room. The interpreter told us the officer was inviting us to have lunch with him. There was no way to tell what was really happening, so I told the interpreter we would accept. I looked at Dense and said, “Let’s go.”
We were taken to a black limousine and put in the back seat. The driver and officer were sitting in the front. No one said a word to us as we drove down the road, escorted by a number of police cars in front and behind us.
We stopped in front of a restaurant. The officer said something to the driver, who got out and joined the people who had come in the other cars. Then the officer turned to face Denise and me. As he did so, he held the icon in his hand.
“I want to give this to you,” he said in perfect English. “This is the only thing I have from my mother, who loved Jesus and taught me to love him also. Before she died, she gave this to me and every day I carry it in my shirt over my heart. Like you, I believe in Jesus. Thank you for what you are doing. Keep it up. We need it.”
“Thank you,” I said. “We will.”
“When we have lunch together, I will not speak English,” the officer said. “Afterward the KGB will come and take you away. They will question you and threaten you, but do not fear. You will be released before nightfall. Once you are released, drive to the border. When the other officers in the chain of command contact me, I will pardon you and set you free. You will not see me again after our lunch, but I will be checking to make sure everything works out.”
Before he turned to get out of the car, he looked at us and said, “God bless you.” Tears filled his eyes.
After lunch we never saw him again. Sure enough, KGB officials took us to a different location and interrogated us for a few more hours. They threatened us, shouted at us and did almost everything but hit us. As the interrogation continued, we began wondering about the promise made to us by the officer. What would happen to us? Where would we be tonight?
Suddenly a high-ranking KGB official told us that the officer with whom we shared lunch had forgiven our many great offenses. “You are free to go!” he said.
The officials took us back to our Land Rover, which still had the cross tied to its side. We got in and drove into the night, crossing the border out of Uzbekistan and away from these KGB men.
Five years later we received a letter from the officer who had arranged our release. It was now safe for him to contact us. He sent his blessings along with a photo that showed the three of us outside the restaurant where we had lunch together that day.
Faithful No Matter What
My goal in sharing these stories with you is not to make Denise or I look special or superhuman. Rather, my intent is to encourage you to stay focused on Jesus and remain faithful to the calling he has given you, no matter what other people say or do.
Some of the earliest followers of Jesus spent time in jail. But even though people may arrest us and throw us in jail, they will never be able to arrest our faith, our zeal or our love for God and for others.
Some individuals are overly sensitive to the critical things others say. God has shown me that when I learn to receive criticism and praise with the same detached attitude I am then set free from the power of public opinion. I am no longer held captive to what other people think, do or say.
My desire is to act on what Jesus tells me to do, not react to other people. Like Paul says in Philippians 4:12, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
A classic Christian song perfectly captures this concept:
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.
My prayer for you is that as you follow Jesus you will remain faithful, no matter what.