Wheaton’s Students for Religious Liberties club is in the process of launching an ambitious letter-writing campaign, set to begin in March, to fight for the release of Wheaton alumnus Pastor Andrew Brunson ‘88 from a Turkish prison.
Sophomore Michael Kitchen and junior Eddie McDougal began the club after they took a class together that dealt with issues of religious persecution. They began to ask themselves, “What is Wheaton doing to support fellow Christians facing persecution across the globe?”
Kitchen believes that while Wheaton does a good job of facilitating learning about religious persecution within classes or though chapel speakers, “there is very rarely an outlet to actually do something about the issue. … A couple of days after an event … most of the student body has moved on.”
To help the student body get more involved, Kitchen and McDougal decided to form the club, of which Kitchen is now president.
In Oct. 2016, religious persecution abruptly became personal for the Wheaton community when Brunson was imprisoned for his faith after 23 years of serving as a missionary pastor in Turkey.
Brunson now faces charges of terrorism connected to a 2016 coup against the Turkish government. According to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), authorities have no evidence to support their charges or to keep Brunson in prison and are now using him as a political tool to barter for other suspects currently residing in the U.S.
As Brunson’s imprisonment continues, the pastor’s appeals to the Turkish government have been denied, and he has lost over 50 pounds due to his living conditions, according to social media updates posted by his family. He has expressed emotional discouragement through notes to his wife, Norine Brunson, who is also a Wheaton alumnus.
Esther Wong, a local activist for persecuted Christians, and McDougal both believe that Wheaton has not done enough to support its persecuted alumnus. “I didn’t really know about Brunson,” McDougal explained to the Record. “I remembered Dr. Ryken prayed about it once during chapel, but that’s all I knew … I think the Wheaton community is somewhat in the dark about it.”
According to President Ryken, “ main campus support has come in the form of prayer. Marilyn Brenner in the Chaplain’s Office has been very faithful in providing prayer updates in our weekly campus prayer newsletter. We have also prayed for Andrew from the pulpit of Edman Chapel.” Ryken also stays in contact with Norine Brunson and has been involved in letter-writing to government officials.
The inception of the student letter-writing campaign began many months ago when Wong and Foreign Affairs Officer for the State Department Al Gombis ‘90 connected through their mutual passion for and work in religious freedom in Feb. 2017 and discussed ways to get Wheaton community more involved in these issues.
On Nov. 18, 2017, Wong and Gombis both attended the annual night of prayer for persecuted Christians in D.C., where Gombis met former congressman Frank Wolf, whom he called the “conscience of Congress.” Gombis recalled Wolf bringing up Brunson’s imprisonment and the fact that he hadn’t seen Wheaton doing much about it. Afterward, Wong and Gombis came up with the idea for a letter-writing campaign.
“ get the people of God, the church … to care and respond to those who are being persecuted … We should be concerned about it, we should be doing something about it,” Wong told the Record. “Let it start at Wheaton College.”
In a series of unlikely events that connected these four individuals, which McDougal labeled “a God thing,” Gombis and Wong brought the letter-writing idea to McDougal and Kitchen, who promptly took on the cause.
The club plans to set up tables in Lower Beamer for several days where students can write letters, which will be sent to Brunson, then copied and sent to government officials in both Turkey and the U.S. Their goal is to send 2,000 letters or more.
The intention of the campaign is to put pressure on the leadership of Turkey. “We want to show the Turkish government that important to us … that there are 2,000 people who care about him,” said McDougal.
“The difference between our efforts and other initiatives is that we are taking a much more personal approach,” Kitchen said. “Other efforts have compiled hundreds of thousands of signatures in support, but they’re just sitting on online databases. We will compile all the letters and send them to Andrew in prison. He will read each one personally.”
The two students are also working with the Chaplain’s Office to coordinate the singing of a hymn that Brunson wrote in prison as part of worship in chapel. The hymn is called “You are Worthy of My All.”
“For someone suffering in prison to be able to write that … it’s a blessing,” said McDougal. He hopes the student body will be ministered to through Brunson’s words and that Brunson will experience joy when he hears that the Wheaton community was singing his hymn and remembering his plight.
Ryken told the Record that “one of Andrew’s biggest fears is that people will forget about him, or stop praying for him. It is a real encouragement to both Norine and Andrew to know that we are praying for them.”
This campaign will tell Brunson, “We love you, we have not forgotten about you and we are going to keep working to secure your release,” said Kitchen.