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14 years in prisons could not break his faith

Back when I had a baby in my arms and a toddler hugging my knees, personal reading time was scarce. I skimmed the paper over breakfast and thumbed through magazines during nap time, but whole books often required whole summers to read. That meant most of the dust jackets on our shelves were, well, . . . dusty. The bindings beneath them remained tight, too.

Sometimes, though, a book would pass into my hands that wouldn’t wait. I’d stay up late, feed the family sandwiches, neglect the ironing — whatever it took get through those pages to a climatic ending. Tortured for Christ was one of those books.   

That’s why news of its coming to the big screen got my attention. It’s also why next week will find me planted in a seat at Tinseltown in Pearl, surrounded by 15 others I corralled for the premiere.    

Produced in honor of the 50th anniversary of the book’s 1967 release, Tortured for Christ tells the story of Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor whose faithfulness was put to the test by Communist persecution. The movie was filmed entirely in Romania, including the now-abandoned prison where Wurmbrand endured physical and mental torture. To lend authenticity, the dialogue is presented in English, Romanian, and Russian (with English subtitles).

The family angle alone has enough drama to keep viewers interested: An intellectually-gifted protagonist, fluent in nine languages, imprisoned for 14 years. His wife forced to serve as a laborer on the Danube Canal project. Their 9-year-old son left “orphaned” and homeless.

For the history buffs, the movie features the backdrop of World War II and ensuring changes in Romania: The 1945 power play of Communism and a million Russian troops pouring into the country. A Parliamentary event at which priests, pastors, and ministers from all denominations swore loyalty to the new atheistic regime. Wurmbrand’s defining moment, powerfully portrayed by lead cast members, Emil Mandanac and Raluca Botez.

Sabina told me, “Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ! They are spitting in His face.”

I said to her, “If I do so, you will lose your husband.”

She replied, “I don’t wish to have a coward as a husband.”

He rose and declared in a national broadcast that their duty was to God alone.

It was a costly conviction. In 1948, the secret police kidnapped Wurmbrand, and he spent three years of his subsequent imprisonment 12 feet underground in solitary confinement. His cell had no light, and there were no sounds because the guards wore felt on the bottom of their shoes. Wurmbrand later said he maintained his sanity by composing and delivering a sermon each night. He also communicated with other inmates by tapping Morse code on the wall.

Wurmbrand’s sufferings included being beaten, mutilated, burned, and locked in a large frozen icebox. His body bore the scars of physical torture for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, his wife experienced a different agony: Secret police, posing as fellow prisoners, told her Richard was dead.

After eight years, Wurbrand was released, but he did not stop preaching. Within two years he was behind bars again, where he stayed until 1964. Concerned friends negotiated with Communist authorities, eventually obtaining his release from Romania for $10,000. Underground church leaders wanted Wurmbrand to become a voice for the persecuted church. He devoted the rest of his life to this effort, despite warnings and death threats. The Wurmbrands eventually began a ministry to persecuted Christians known now as the Voice of the Martyrs. Although the couple died nearly two decades ago, their work continues today in more than 60 countries where Christians are persecuted.

In 1966, Wurmbrand testified about his experiences before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. There, in front of TV cameras, he made a bold decision to remove his shirt and expose the scars of his torture. This undeniable proof of suffering thrust him into the international spotlight and lent credibility to the book he would publish the next year.

That book impacted believers across the globe, from a housewife like me in rural Mississippi, to Vietnamese church leaders who in the 1970s used it to prepare their congregations for Communist takeover. After viewing the movie’s intense trailers, I expect this cinematic version will, too.

Director John Grooters says his film’s portrayal of persecution, unflinchingly gritty and real, is ultimately about hope and love: “I’ve never encountered a more qualified person who managed to hate the sin and yet love the sinner than Richard Wurmbrand. We filmed the cruelty of the Communists, but we tried to never lose sight of Richard’s enduring and powerful faith.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.