I Found God in Soviet Russia
Chapter 20:The Trial of Unanswered Prayer
By John Noble, 1959
For background information go to the Introduction
and read about the arctic Soviet slave-labor camp, Vorkuta
For nearly two years before my release, a group of Americans were praying for me every Wednesday night in a little church in Lincoln Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. While I labored in Vorkuta 5,000 miles away, my name was being borne on high by the earnest supplications of their prayer. These people whom I had never seen, of whom I had never heard, and who themselves knew me only as Charles Noble’s missing son, prayed for me at every midweek service.
On the first Easter morning after my father’s repatriation (he had been released on July 4, 1952, after seven years spent in East German prisons), he went looking for a sunrise service that he could attend. The first one he came to was at this little white church affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a small, evangelical denomination. My father’s heart was heavy for he knew I was last seen with a group of prisoners at Weimar who had received long sentences at hard labor and were to be transported to the Soviet Union. To all his subsequent requests for information about me, the Russians had simply
turned a bland face to the American authorities and said they knew nothing of my whereabouts.
On this Easter morning of 1953, my father had slipped into the church service and, as the congregation sang the joyous hymns of Easter, his heart was lifted up. Suddenly, he told me later, he was confident that all was well with me. His confidence was amply justified for this was the very time I was given my unexpected transfer from the dangerous work in the mine to the job in the locker room.
Professor Charles Shaw of the Detroit Bible Institute was conducting the sunrise service. At its conclusion, noting tears glistening in my father’s eyes, he came up to him, greeted him, and asked him if there were any burden on his heart that he and his group could take to the Lord in prayer. When my father told him about his missing son, John, who was lost in a communist slave-labor camp, Dr. Shaw invited him to return for the midweek prayer service. My father did so and, as is their custom, he was asked if he could offer testimony to the Lord.
“As we heard Charles Noble tell briefly of his experience in communist prisons,” Dr. Shaw was later to write me, “all of us were conscious we were in the presence of a man who had suffered much yet had a firm faith that God answers prayers. When he told us of his son Johnny, still held somewhere in Russia, not heard from in three years,” Dr. Shaw continued, “the fact that John Noble was a prisoner of the Reds became a challenge to our faith and prayers.
He was the subject of prayer every Wednesday night and of the daily prayers of those who took this burden upon their hearts. Eagerly, we watched for any news that might shed light on the whereabouts of Johnny. Days, weeks, and months passed and still we prayed. Never did Mr. Noble falter in the firm belief that John would come back to us.”
As Professor Shaw wrote, days, weeks and months passed. How foolish, skeptics would say, that this little band of Christians in a church in distant America could expect to move the mighty Kremlin by their prayers. After all, the reason the Communists continued to hold me was that I knew too much. There was little use in hoping that such a prisoner would ever be released alive. Yet this small group prayed on and their ranks were swelled by students at Professor Shaw’s classes at the Bible Institute. It was, as he said, a challenge to the power of prayer.
Meanwhile, in Vorkuta we too had new hope. Things seemed to be astir and moving. With Stalin’s death in March, 1953, our spirits rose. One old prisoner who had lived under Stalinist tyranny for twenty-nine bitter years got down on his knees when Stalin’s death was announced and said, “Thank God! Someone still looks out for the wretched!” He expressed the feelings of us all.
During April and May, while the new Premier, Georgi Malenkov, made promises of peace and prosperity, we waited for an improvement in our condition. The Russians did institute one reform. Borrowing an idea from the capitalist incentive system, they began to pay us a few rubles bonus if we met our production goals. And, on June i8, 1953, came electrifying news. The workers in East Germany had revolted! They had thrown down their tools and were on strike. Even Pravda did not try to conceal the seriousness of the general strike.
The revolt spread into Vorkuta! ... [I will skip several pages dealing with the battles that followed]
Then 7,000 more men were arrested. From our compound alone four hundred were seized, more than one in every ten. At least 2,000 were publicly executed while others were arrested and sent to eastern Siberia where, we were told, they were liquidated. Only a few received heavy additional sentences and were taken to various other labor camps....
The strike was now completely broken and our working conditions became worse, not better. During the strike, hundreds of men who had never prayed before joined us in prayer. They had prayed simply for the success of the strike. Now their hopes were dashed and they said bitterly that God had not answered their appeal.
The Russian guards were keeping a much closer eye on us and it was difficult to hold worship services. For a few weeks, even our Baptist meetings were discontinued. It was a time for the testing of our faith. How hard it is to be patient when things do not work out the way we want, how difficult to understand that things must happen in God’s good time!
In distant America the prayers which were being offered for me also seemed to be going unanswered. A full year had passed since my father first went to that Easter service and still he had had no word of any kind from me. He had been rebuffed in every effort he made to get the State Department to make further inquiries on my behalf. The officials in Washington said that, without actual proof that I was in Soviet hands, there was nothing more they could do since the Russians denied holding me.
Professor Shaw interested a Michigan Congressman in my case, Representative Alvin F. Bentley (R., Mich.) who, prior to his election in 1952, was a State Department foreign service officer. Mr. Bentley was stationed at Budapest when the Communists took over Hungary and was an official American observer at the infamous trial of Josef, Cardinal Mindszenty....
Mr. Bentley knew of communist tactics at first hand and, although my father was not a resident of his district, he agreed to take up my case with the White House. But no sooner did this happen than on March 1, 1954, three Puerto Rican terrorists drew guns in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives and began indiscriminately shooting at members on the floor.
Five Congressmen were shot down, the most seriously wounded being Rep. Bentley who was not expected to live through the night! At the Lincoln Park Church and through the nation prayers were offered for his recovery. Next morning, he was near death. The Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Dr. Bernard Braskamp, called on him.
“Shall we pray?” the Chaplain is reported to have asked.
“Yes,” whispered the Congressman, “but first let us pray for those who did the shooting. They did not know what they were doing.”
With such an indomitable Christian spirit, Congressman Bentley passed through the crisis and, in a few days, was on the road to an almost miraculous recovery.
Meanwhile, in this same week of March... there was further bad news for us prisoners. A directive came from camp headquarters at Vorkuta that all men who were able-bodied should be performing hard labor and those not on such assignments were to be reassigned immediately. The camp authorities were also determined to break up “fraternizing” between the free Russians and the prisoners. Abruptly, I was transferred from the locker room to a work detail at Mine 29 where my job was to unload timber from railroad cars.
One hundred miles south of Vorkuta lay the forests of the Ural Mountains. There teams of slave laborers were constantly at work felling trees. The logs were dragged to railroad spurs and loaded onto cars for transportation up the long line to Vorkuta where they were cut into props to shore up the ceilings of the mine tunnels. Logs went up the railroad and coal came down. Sometimes when I saw the amount of lumber going into the mines and the poor quality of the coal coming out, I wondered if the Russian economy was gaining anything by the exchange, but the Soviet government did not worry about such considerations as depletion of its vast forests.
This new labor assignment was the hardest of all those I endured in my entire decade of imprisonment. Three or four of us lifted each log and pushed it off the pile, back-breaking work in the fullest sense of the term. Only the youngest and hardiest prisoners could do it competently and, having passed my thirtieth birthday and lived for nine years on a substandard diet, I was far from being in good condition. Many months in the warm, humid air of the locker room made the bitter cold outside almost impossible to bear. I was on the night-shift and even in April the temperature would drop to 40 degrees below zero. The snow whipped our faces and blinded our eyes. Our wrists became red and raw due to exposure when our coat sleeves would pull away from the top of our gloves as we lifted the heavy logs.
As Easter Day came, in 1954, my situation seemed more desperate than at any time since the day of my arrest. Once again, I could feel my body being destroyed by overwork and malnutrition. Every bone ached with agony. I had served less than four years in Vorkuta and eleven years of my sentence still stretched endlessly before me!
My constant prayers had the same tenor as a stanza of that great hymn of George Croly’s, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”:
Teach me that Thou art always nigh,
Teach me the struggle of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
It is hard to learn the patience of unanswered prayer, but, when the hour is darkest, if the roots of our faith go deep we will trust in God.
Just as the Arctic blizzards blow their worst before the midnight sun returns and the weather changes, so at this to very moment I was about to be given an opportunity to get my first message out to the free world.
"For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls." Hebrew 12:3
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