One day a theft occurred. Five loaves of bread were taken from the kitchen. The guards stole food all the time and would take it home or sell it to some of the prisoners. But on this day, the prison commandant heard about it and was outraged. The prison was searched from top to bottom. Each prisoner was inspected. The commandant was determined to punish someone and threatened to systematically torture every single prisoner in Tirgu-Ocna. He arbitrarily selected ten men and ordered they be whipped with chains in full view of everyone. They would be beaten until they either confessed or died. If they died and did not confess, then the commandant assured everyone he would choose ten more. He was prepared to beat the entire population of the prison to death in order to get his confession. Before the first ten received a single stroke of the chain, a voice cried out, “Wait.”
The voice belonged to a tall man with graying temples. He was haggard and hungry looking, with cheeks that looked liked empty pockets on his face. He looked like a man of fifty, though he was only thirty-two. His crime was pastoring an underground church, and despite the harsh treatment he received, he continued preaching to whomever would listen. I saw him, almost daily, being dragged back to his cell after the guards worked him over. He would be bruised and bloody, but always, always he would tell then, “Jesus still loves you and so do I.”
Now this hungry, broken man stood tall and bold in the courtyard, telling his jailers to wait. He had not been one of the ten chosen to face the chains, so his plea came as a surprise. All eyes were on him.
“I will take responsibility for the theft,” he said. There was not one person in the camp who believed he was guilty. I was astonished. Why would this man say such a thing? He knew the commandant would kill him. Within seconds the ten grateful prisoners were removed from the wall, and before the entire camp, the pastor was strapped to a post. He was positioned so that everyone could see his face. His final words rang out as the commandant gave the order. “Jesus loves you and so do I.”
Tears welled up in Yuri’s eyes as he remembered that pastor’s face. “This man died in front of us. The commandant made a grave error in allowing us to see that dying face as it looked out on the very inmates that had treated him with such contempt, had stolen his food, had beaten him unconscious so they could destroy the treasured scriptures he had scribbled on little papers. These inmates had spit on him, had laughed at him whenever he tried to speak of his Jesus. And yet he died for them, because he loved them. What kind of love was this? This impossible love? What kind of people were these Christians? No human being could endure what they had to endure and still be so full of kindness, generosity, and love. Who were these lovers of the unlovely who looked into empty men’s souls and did not turn away in disgust, who could pass through the fires of hell itself and still come out saying to their tormentors, “Yes, I love even you.” And how could such a love be ignored?
Tears brimmed over onto Yuri’s checks and he wiped them with the back of his hand. How foolish! I thought. It made me angry. It frightened and confused me. It made me weep for the sheer greatness of it. The pastor’s love had been like a sweet flower blooming in this prison wasteland of hate. And even after it had been plucked, the fragrance of that love haunted me. Why? How could anyone love so? In this land where men were only apes posing as men, love did not exist. Eight months at Tirgu-Ocna had taught me that. But now, this crushed flower poured out its sweet fragrance and cried not, “Love me for I am beautiful,” but said to the dust and waste, “I love you!” What manner of man was this? I asked. And who is this Jesus?
Loretta’s eyes had also filled. “They beat him to death?”
“Didn’t anyone have pity on him?”
“Just as I saw God in the faces of these Christians, I saw Satan in the faces of the torturers. No, they did not pity. They loved their work. Sometimes their eyes would glow with joy as they beat and broke men. Once I heard one of them say, ‘I am Satan.’”
“Surely you don’t believe in the devil?”
“Madame, Romania is a country where evil lurks in caves by night and hides behind men by day. It is the home of Dracula. Do you know what people call President Ceausescu?”
Loretta shook her head.
Loretta was suddenly cold; she folded her arms across her chest and shivered.
“Yes, Satan is real and I have seen him in the dungeons of Tirgu-Ocna.”
This chapter is excerpted from the novel Refiner’s Fire, by Sylvia Bambola, Multnomah Press.