How Norine Brunson ’89, students, friends, and alumni remembered Andrew Brunson as if they were bound with him in prison.
In the 30 years since he shared a floor in Traber Hall with Dr. Philip Ryken ’88, a lot has changed, says Andrew Brunson ’88. “Now I’m a convicted terrorist, and he is president of Wheaton.”
The two will share the stage at Commencement this spring, where Andrew and his wife Norine ’89 are the featured speakers. The couple’s names are among the scores of alumni missionaries listed on the wall in Blanchard Hall. And now they are certainly among the most well known after Turkey imprisoned Andrew for two years on false terrorism charges.
In solitary confinement, Andrew feared being forgotten amid all the world’s crises. Meanwhile, Norine helped lead family, friends, and Wheaton alumni to create a worldwide prayer movement on behalf of her husband—and for the Turkish Christians they had served in Izmir (biblical Smyrna) for 25 years.
“We have no regrets. We would do it all over again,” says Andrew, though the grueling challenge caused them to miss their daughter’s wedding and forced them to leave their adopted country, likely for good. “The Lord was accomplishing more in my imprisonment than in my being free.”
Andrew, who grew up in Mexico as a missionary kid, studied history and philosophy at Wheaton and graduated in just three years because he was “in a hurry to get out to the mission field.” He’d felt a strong call to missions since age 4. It was then that his mother took him to Hudson Taylor’s protégé Stanley Soltau and asked that the missionary to Korea lay hands on Andrew and “set him aside for missions.” Taylor, the famous missionary to China, had done the same for Soltau’s mother.
However, Andrew stayed on campus long enough to find Norine, a fellow missionary kid who grew up in Europe. They met at a table in Buswell Library, and he invited her as his date to a “cookie push” at a professor’s house weeks later. After graduating, they went to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for two years and then spent a year in the United Kingdom while Andrew was a personal assistant to George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilization.
Andrew expected to return to Mexico—even taking Norine there on their honeymoon to prepare her. Instead the couple developed a conviction about going to a Muslim-majority country. They wanted Egypt; their denomination wanted them to go toTurkey. “I said, ‘it’s number 20 on my list,’” says Andrew, “which means ‘not really.’ It was one of the places I least wanted to go.”
Nevertheless, they went—and the rest is now geopolitical history. “I know that both President Trump and Vice President Pence were deeply involved in this matter and played a key role in the discussions that led to Pastor Brunson’s release,” says Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats ’65. “In my line of work, I don’t always see a lot of positive news, so it makes me happy that this story has a positive outcome for a fellow Wheaton alumnus.”
The best piece of ministry advice Andrew received came from his life-long mentor, Wheaton evangelism professor Lyle Dorsett: “You concentrate on the depth, and let God take care of the breadth.” By focusing on a deep relationship with God at their small church in a quiet corner of western Turkey, Andrew and Norine had quite a testimony to share when it came time for their words to ricochet around the globe. Every media outlet wanted to hear their story after Andrew's October 2018 release, and the Brunsons' faith in God was essential to the story.
They told everyone from the Associated Press to World magazine and The 700 Club how Andrew was held hostage by the Turkish government in a failed attempt to extract concessions from the U.S. government. To a watching world, they also modeled trust in God and love for their enemies.
“God was involved. It makes no sense that they held me as long as they did, considering the price they paid for it,” says Andrew. “But then I look at the worldwide prayer movement that started, and the number of people involved and their geographical distribution is astounding.” He received photos of churches in Brazil praying and heard stories of churches in Iran doing likewise. A house church network in China printed one million brochures featuring his imprisonment and how to pray. “It was very moving to hear that Chinese and Iranian believers who have suffered so much were praying for me,” says Andrew. “I felt very unworthy.”
“We were incredibly grateful to have all this prayer,” says Norine. “I kept telling Andrew, ‘God is in this.’” During their weekly visits, she would bring him examples of encouragement from the public Facebook page and private prayer partner emails she organized. “I tried to keep all the prayer going toward him,” she says. “It became overwhelming to answer everyone who wrote. But I was glad that I had that problem.”
“God’s Word says we should remember those in prison as if we were in prison ourselves,” says David Byle ’91, a street evangelist in Istanbul who speaks from personal experience. He has been arrested six times for deportation, but has been saved by the courts each time. Authorities finally succeeded last year in expelling him from Turkey—the week after Andrew’s release, no less. David had decided to abstain from drinking coffee until Andrew was freed. Each time he was offered coffee—and this was Turkey, after all—was turned into a chance to explain Andrew’s plight and to pray for his release. “I thought he would be out in two to four weeks,” says David. “To have to go two years without coffee sure made me pray for him!”
Another example of how the Brunsons were covered with extraordinary prayer: Mary Dorsett M.A. ’91, wife of Lyle Dorsett HON, has a CaringBridge page to update family and friends on her incurable cancer. It mentions the Brunsons more than 100 times. “For months, my page was more about Andrew than about me,” says Mary. “I have an army of people praying for me, and I wanted that for him too.”
On Wheaton’s campus, advocacy was led by Students for Religious Liberties, which started with a letter-writing campaign. The students made a list of 50 people to contact, from Andrew’s jailer to Turkish President Recep Erdogan. But it turned out to be “quite difficult,” says leader Eddie McDougal ’19. “We were at a standstill.”
Then President Ryken advised them: “It’s not easy to predict how the Lord might work in this situation. And it might not be through letter writing; it might be through prayer.”
So the students switched to prayer vigils. The night before Andrew’s October hearing, they held a joint event in Pierce Chapel with World Christian Fellowship (WCF) and sang “You Are Worthy of My All,” the hymn Andrew wrote in prison [see page 64] because it was “full of surrender and compliance” instead of anger. “It’s a model for how Christians can respond to suffering,” says Eddie. “Not jaded or callous, but focused on how the Lord can work through it as a witness.”
After three hours of prayer for Andrew's release, they went to bed. They awoke to the news that God had answered their prayers. “On our list of ten possible routes for advocacy, prayer had been all the way at the bottom at number eight. If there is one thing I learned, it is that prayer should always be the first route of action in everything,” says Eddie. “It is a powerful gift that we are all given. ‘The prayer of a righteous person availeth much.’”
The week before, Wheaton’s class of 1988 reunited at Homecoming for their 30th reunion and spent time in prayer for Andrew and Norine. “In the providence of God, the main thing Wheaton could do was to pray and leave it in God’s hands,” says Dr. Ryken. “When the people of God are praying in a dedicated, serious way, God accomplishes a lot of good things through it.”
“Andrew and Norine are ordinary people, and their support team were ordinary people. But we have a great God who moved and answered our prayers,” says Mary. “It’s not that you have a great faith; it’s that you have faith in a great God.”
“God was using my imprisonment to raise up the people of God to pray for Turkey like never before,” says Andrew. “I believe God was raising this prayer up to prepare for a harvest.”
Andrew says God spoke to him in 2009 with a clear message: “Prepare for harvest.” He was surprised, given that the history of missions is “long decades of sowing before there is reaping,” and Turkey had received such little sowing over the century that Operation World names it one of the least evangelized nations (5,000 believers out of 80 million people). So Andrew had thought only his grandchildren would “see the fruit of our labor.” Now he believes their story will inspire more future missionaries.
The Cost of Discipleship
“I hope that people are not turned away from missions,” says Andrew. “I think the opposite will happen. I think if we tell people there is hardship that calls for a deeper level of commitment, people will rise to the occasion.”
Dr. Ryken agrees about this call to commitment. “Because Andrew and Norine are very normal people and not spotlight-seekers at all, rather than sensationalizing the cost of discipleship I think it has normalized it,” he says.
“As Christians, we should know that we will have to go through suffering,” says David ’91. “This is not just for a privileged few; this is a normal expectation for the Christian life, and we should be expecting that. Satan is trying to intimidate us and make us discouraged, regretting what has happened. But Scripture commands clearly that we are supposed to rejoice when people suffer for the sake of the gospel.”
Andrew learned this the hard way. “I had a romanticized vision of prison from reading missionary biographies: ‘It will be hard; but I will be filled with joy, and I’ll have a real sense of God’s presence, and his grace will pour over me and I’ll have tremendous strength,’” recalls Andrew. “I was seriously disappointed in all those areas. I was not filled with joy. Mine was a very hard battle. The first year I was broken; the second year, the Lord rebuilt me.”
“I don’t think we should be reckless, but we do need to be obedient,” says Andrew. “And God often puts his people at risk. Throughout history, some have been persecuted and some lose their lives. Jesus said that would happen. And he is worthy of it.”
In fact, when his mother visited him in solitary confinement, she told Andrew, “A long line of people have been persecuted for the sake of Jesus, from today to 2,000 years ago. And now it is your turn to stand in line.”
“I didn’t want to hear that,” says Andrew. “I just wanted to get out of there. But it is true.”
The Continued Call
Andrew and Norine still feel the call to missions. “We are waiting for our next assignment from the Lord.” In the meantime, Andrew asks that fellow Wheaton alumni keep praying for Turkish believers and their perseverance amid mounting difficulty.
“Andrew has been released from captivity, but there is ongoing hardship and harassment that Turkish believers have to deal with every day,” says Dr. Ryken. “There can be a sense that this is now over. But there are many people in Turkey for whom there will never be an ‘over.’”
When one of the Turkish believers in Andrew's Izmir church learned the size of his prayer movement, she said, “Can you imagine what we can do with all this prayer that has been poured out upon us now?” Some of his intercessors have shared a vision of 4 million new believers. “I don’t have any idea about numbers,” says Andrew. “That would be a lot more than the 5,000 there now. But I hope there are even more than that. Let every stream of prayer become a Niagara of God’s grace pouring into Turkey. I have certainty we will see it in my lifetime.”