FIRST-PERSON: Riding Iraq's wild black snake

KURDISTAN, Iraq (BP)--We are riding on the back of this wild black snake, and it is the only way to go.

We left Iraq's seemingly endless brown plains of sand, where Old Testament chariots once raced at breakneck speeds, and we are now trying to make our way through the rugged mountains that seem to fence in the plains.

There are only a few treacherous passes through these mountains, and now thousands are running great risks trying to get a ride on the back of the wild black snake of highway asphalt. Why risk life and limb in this way? It is rumored, hoped and believed that just on the other side is a promised land. But first you must ride the snake.

Our drivers most resemble cross-country racecar drivers whose fine art of daredevil antics have long since robbed them of any interest in helmets, goggles or gloves. In our vehicles, seatbelts are provided and no one has to be reminded to buckle up. The twists, turns, dips and bumps mixed with Turkish tobacco smoke would have made burp bags a big seller.

 
The drivers are proficient in signaling each other so everyone maintains speed. Speed on this narrow slithering way is not a race for time but for security so as to actually arrive at that sought after promised land.

Not everyone who sets out for this great beyond makes it. After all, this is Iraq and there is a war going on here. Baghdad is far, far behind us and we are pushing hard toward the north.

Already going before us, and still others to follow, are thousands of desperate Iraqis on this trek to Kurdistan in the northern region of Iraq. This is their last best hope on earth for a place away from the fighting and killing which continues to ravage their homes, families and futures.

 
For so many now on this move toward Kurdistan, there is some hope of peace, freedom, security, work, worship, witness and life, but you have to make it there. The largest migration yet is forecast to be coming behind us. That is why Sam Griffith and I are here, being led by two of the most experienced and visionary men of God and men of action. They are on a quest that would touch the heart of any Christian and certainly every Southern Baptist. I am here to help strategize on behalf of Southern Baptists. This is an extraordinarily big deal.

Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, was to be on this trip Dec. 3-9, but last minute changes in Iraq kept him back. It is such a powerful statement for the SBC in global relations to have Page's position as well as his personal presence on the ground in these crucial areas and times. After a number of meetings, one other key person was eliminated from our team because of an in-country security concern, and it proved to be the right call.

Even as we are pressing our efforts to help, news comes that just a few mountain ranges away, hell's fury has again been turned loose on a large group of innocent Christian worshipers trapped in their church building by at least five suicide bombers. The church people are systematically killed -- women, children and all others in their range. The report is more than 50 were killed and at least 60 were wounded.

Most are convinced that this demonic assault will cause an unprecedented move of more people to pay whatever price and jump on the back of the wild black snake and run north for hope and help.

The big deal is that here in Kurdistan preparations are being made and opportunities are available for Baptists and others to receive untold thousands of displaced Christians and non-Christians.

All will have pressing humanitarian needs, while thousands will be open to hear the Gospel for the first time. Those who are Christians will be looking for likeminded believers. This is indeed a rare time to run the risk of being there for them and the Gospel.

Pastor David Dykes and his congregation at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, already have had a strong part in these early efforts. Sam comes from that church and has been to Kurdistan previously. He has been a great partner and point man in much of this connecting.

As soon as we arrive, I am told of phone calls from some political leaders concerning new crowds of people, 600 families, on the road coming to Kurdistan. This was very timely in that it emphasized the pressing need of the officials to help, plus it emphasized the importance of having our two men of God and their Baptist friends in the area to help and be a part of the solution.

These Iraqi brothers and friends who invited us have already, for some time, diligently attempted to secure some crucial assets in this region in order to meet the people's needs spiritually and physically.

While the necessary process toward such assets offers some encouragement, it has become slowed and distracted almost to a discouraging halt. The two men of action along with Sam and I made trip after trip after trip after trip. Finally God broke through. As usual, the Lord does exceedingly more than we dream.

It was appreciated and noted by both the government and Iraqi Christians that the Southern Baptist Convention was visible and used via Global Evangelical Relations to bring to the deliberations a strong personal presence and prayers on behalf of multiplied millions of Christian friends in the United States.

As we shook hands in parting, the Iraqi regional governor said, "Dr. Welch, when our hands came together and touched, something went up my arm and all the way to my heart. I hope you felt the same from my hand. An e-mail can communicate, but it takes someone's hand to touch someone's heart."

Our prayer must be that our combined hands and hearts will continue to touch the lost for Jesus as we touch other likeminded evangelicals and Baptists around the world, especially those in Iraq who now are riding the wild black snake, running for hope and help.


Bobby Welch is the Southern Baptist Convention's strategist for Global Evangelical Relations.

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