For more than fifteen years, one La Crosse church has quietly worked to ease the pain of a human rights issue that until recently has languished in the backstreets of world attention—Christian persecution. And now more local churches are signing on to assist.
Father Patrick Augustine, who returned from a trip to Pakistan last month, is perhaps the most vocal of the voices for the voiceless. In fact, he received that exact moniker in a 2012 Cross of St. Augustine award from the Archbishop of Canterbury in England: “The Voice for the Voiceless.”
Augustine is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in La Crosse and works from a comfortable office surrounded with shelves of books and Victorian furniture, but he’s no armchair theologian. With the backing of his church, Augustine has waded into some of the most toxic, anti-Christian environments in the world to encourage the hurting and create harmony between Christians and the Muslim world.
Augustine works with the passion of a symphonic conductor, only his score is the scripture and his melody is the message of healing. Leaning forward in his chair, his dark eyes widen with sincerity: “My call is to stand with the persecuted,” he said gesturing with his arms as if orchestrating a crescendo. “The message of the cross is for reconciliation for all of humanity. It’s inclusive, not exclusive.”
He knows harmony can happen. Augustine remembers his wedding in Pakistan prior to the advent of sharia law in the late 1980s when half of the 600 guests were Muslim.
In fall, Augustine will head to All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, where over 250 worshippers were injured and 127 killed in the September 2012 bombing to preach his gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. He also hopes to stop in Indonesia where Jakarta’s Christian governor has been incarcerated by the Muslim government.
Early next year, Augustine plans a return to Sudan to continue the work he started among Christian refugees this past winter. Over two million Christians have already been killed in the Sudanese Civil War that some now refer to as genocide.
His work goes further than his visits.
During one winter trip, Augustine traveled seven hours through wilderness terrain to reach a school attended by 1,500 Sudanese refugee children. At a faculty meeting, he learned that student dehydration due to lack of water resources and the absence of bathroom facilities ranked highest among the school’s problems.
Using $6,000 in funding donated from the La Crosse community, Augustine paid for a well and latrine facilities. He hopes to return this winter with more funding to initiate construction for a library and a women’s center.
Leaving Sudan, Augustine headed to Kenya, home to four million Somali refugees seeking to avoid persecution. But even there, religious tension often boils over. “It’s where Al-Shabab (an ISIS affiliate) makes life hell for the people,” he said. “And there is great danger for me to go there, but Christ says, ‘Love your enemies.’”
Yet, each visit seems more painful than the last, he said.
“I’m shocked every time I go. I see very little sign of common humanity. I smell ethnic racism, I smell hatred, I smell religious fanaticism,” he said.
Augustine admitted to being scared as he travels, “My wife is fearful and so is my bishop,” he added.
But the gravitational pull of injustice compels him to go.
“Where there is hatred we sow seeds of love,” he said, and “where there is darkness we bring light.”
Over time, Augustine’s work has resonated with other local churches and loose partnerships began to form. Dave Konkol, Missions Pastor at First Free Church of Onalaska acknowledged that it’s not always easy for the western church to focus overseas.
“It’s hard to maintain any significant interest or passion for people you don’t really know or have relationship with,” he observed.
That’s why First Free Church and Konkol partner with Augustine and Peshawar.
“This is Father Patrick’s boyhood home. He knows the people. Our role is to support him and to help support the church there the best we can,” said Konkol.
Living Word Christian Church in La Crosse also responded. According to Pastor Mark Clements, Living Word assisted in fundraising to build a church in Pakistan where none previously existed. But like so many areas, tensions simmer just below the surface of everyday life.
“They do their baptisms after dark for fear of arrest,” said Clements.
Cornerstone Community Church in La Crosse also got involved, hosting a summit last year in conjunction with First Free and Christ Episcopal to highlight the struggles of Christians in oppressive nations. This year Cornerstone is sponsoring a Bible Study called “I am N,”—the Arabic letter ISIS sprayed on the homes and businesses of Christians – to encourage people to reflect on life in light of persecution.
In his book, “Hear My People’s Cry,” Father Augustine lists numerous ways individuals can help persecuted Christians. The list evolved from his testimony before the U.S. Congressional hearings on human rights in Washington, D.C. Among his suggestions are: writing letters to congressional representatives, learning about countries where Christians are persecuted and writing letters of concern to their embassies and providing funding.