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The Great Escape


This is a difficult story to tell, and that probably explains why it has taken some fifteen years for us to get around to telling it. The difficult part is not telling the story, but the difficult part is the fact that we have always shied away from giving testimonies about miracles, because of what the Bible says about evil people wanting miracles and not being content just less sensational truth. We also know that it can be somewhat discouraging to hear miraculous accounts from other Christians when our own lives seem so unexciting by comparison. We should start by saying that this story is probably one of the top three stories of God's provision over a period of 35 years of Christian service. (Maybe one day we will get around to telling the other two!)

Nevertheless, the Bible does record miracles. The miracle of the Passover was relived annually by Jews, as a reminder of God's protection. And even though Christians are urged to think of the death of Jesus as our guiding light, the miracle of the resurrection is still recorded in scripture, as were many of the other miracles that took place during the ministry of Jesus. So we have decided to officially record at least one of the miraculous events in our history, one which we have, over the years, simply referred to amongst ourselves as "The Great Escape".

We had been working quietly in a small village (Dookanahally) in the suburbs of Bangalore, India, for nearly two years (from 1984 to 1986). One of the most respected elders of the village had shown special interest in us. He had encouraged his teenage son and daughter to assist us in the social work that we were doing. His interest was that they might learn better English, and possibly be able to travel to Australia at some future date. The family was from a high Hindu caste.

In the course of our dealings with the young people, we learned that their uncle was regularly abusing the daughter sexually, and it appeared to be happening with consent from her father. The daughter, whom we will call Ruth, was drawn to what we were teaching, and she accepted a Bible from us, which she would read secretly, using a flashlight under her sheet at night. Nevertheless, her father eventually recognised her strong interest in Christianity, and he became concerned.

Her 18th birthday was approaching, and when she turned 18, she would be entitled to change her religion, according to Indian law. So the father locked her in her room, and then began negotiations to force a marriage with a Hindu man before her birthday. Ruth escaped about two weeks before she was to turn 18, and she came to us with her story.

We were in a dilemma. It is against the law to even seek to convert anyone who is younger than 18 in India. However, there was also the matter of the forced marriage and the incest. We finally offered to pay for a hotel room in the city, where Ruth could hide for two weeks. We instructed her not to leave the room, and we would drop off food parcels for her to live on until after she had turned 18. However, after a week in solitary confinement, Ruth was growing restless, and we were afraid that the hotel staff would make a connection between us and her, and we could be in legal trouble because she still wasn't 18 years old.

Dave's brother, Ron, from the U.S., was visiting us in India at the time, and he said that he had wanted to visit a missionary contact of his in Cochin (several hundred miles south of Bangalore). He suggested that Ruth could come with him to Cochin, where she would not have to hide from view for the last week before she turned 18. A few of us (Ross, Liz and Sue) agreed to go with Ron and Ruth on the bus to Cochin, and they sneaked away from Bangalore early in the week. They planned to return on Ruth's birthday, the following Sunday.

Meanwhile, Ruth's father was getting desperate. He had assumed from the start that we were linked to his daughter's disappearance, and he had made several attempts to get information from us. We pretended to be ignorant of her whereabouts as well as giving no indication that we knew he was trying to force her into a marriage. We calmly reassured him with talk about young people often running away and then returning a few days later. We had asked Ruth to write a letter the same day that she came to us, saying that she was safe and well, and one of us had travelled to Madras on a train and posted the letter from there, to give him the impression that she had fled to Madras.

Nevertheless, the father assumed that she was hiding somewhere locally. On Friday afternoon, two days before her 18th birthday, he sent a delegation to our two-room hut, asking that Dave and Cherry come to his house for a visit. It is a sign of good breeding in India to be very subtle when arguing or making threats; so he pretended to receive Dave and Cherry graciously.

They were offered seats at the back of a table that sat in one corner of the room, and the man's friends took seats on either side to make escape impossible. He then feigned concern for our welfare, by telling us (in the strictest confidence, of course!) that the villagers were planning to stone us to death if his daughter was not returned within two hours. He apologised for the villagers, but said that he would be powerless to stop them. He stressed over and over the seriousness of the situation, and asked for confirmation that we also understood the seriousness. Dave assured him that he had understood the message, while never admitting that we knew anything of Ruth's whereabouts. Dave said that he would relay the message to the rest of the community and that they would do all that they could to locate Ruth.

Of course, it would have been completely impossible to return Ruth that same day, and it would even be impossible to return her before Sunday, because we had forgotten to get any name or address from Ron before he left. We honestly did not know where he had taken Ruth. Even if we were able to escape from the village ourselves (and we knew that we were being watched by just about everyone), we would not be able to stop Ron, Ross, Liz, Sue, and Ruth from walking back into a very dangerous situation when they returned in two days' time. We did not have any way to contact them, and we did not know how they planned to travel on their return trip. (Long distance buses all leave and arrive from independent locations, depending on where the particular bus owner lives.)

It was time for a very serious prayer meeting. We had a listening time and several people shared what they had received. Paul said that he had seen a vision of "Aladd's lamp". We corrected him, and said that the correct name is "Alladin". We wondered whether the lamp (and the genie that lived in it) might represent the Holy Spirit. If so, it could mean that God was saying that he would send along his "genie" to protect us.

Someone else had a vision of some gambling dice. We knew that our chances of escaping, and especially our chances of locating the others in a city of more than a million people were almost nil. However, we felt that the dice was saying that we should "take a chance" and go for it.

Dave had a vision of a soft lounge, and the strong impression that God was saying for us to relax, and trust that it was all in his hands. Relaxing was the hardest part of all, knowing that we could be less than two hours away from death. However, we devised a plan which would give the impression that we were, in fact, unafraid. The more relaxed we appeared to be, the more confident Ruth's father would be that we were going to produce his daughter in two hours' time.

Cherry went through the motions of doing the washing, and hanging it on the clothesline in front of our hut. We had a house full of furniture, plus several tea chests full of clothing and other things that we had planned to distribute to people in the village. We decided to take Liz and Rachel's father, Daniel, into our confidence; so Daniel was sent for, and told about the situation. We gave him the keys to the hut, and said that he could do what he liked with all of our possessions after we left.

Christine had been giving guitar lessons to a neighbour, so she took the guitar by and said that she wanted to leave it there for the neighbour to practise on (knowing that we would never return, and at least the neighbour would have a guitar of her own). Dave took a suitcase full of clothing to one particularly poor neighbour and presented it to them. Kevin gathered all of our papers together, including a stack of invitations to Robin and Christine's wedding, which had been booked in a local hall the following week, and placed them in a travel bag along with a huge grinding stone. We did not want any information to be left there which could be given to the police or which could be used in tracking us down.

Kevin had shared a dream with us a year or two earlier about throwing a bag into a well, and about the bag floating even though it had a huge stone in it. On arriving at the village, he had spotted the well that he had seen in his dream, and he pointed it out. Now he was living out what he had earlier dreamed. He placed the heavy bag on the seat of a bike and pushed it casually toward the well. He stopped to peer down the well, and then waited until he was sure no one was looking, and pushed the bag in. Sure enough, even with the stone in it, it floated for some time, as water took a while to seep in through the zipper.

When it seemed that we had waited long enough, we decided to see what would happen if we were to run for it. Three of the guys were able to walk casually away from the village, probably because the villagers assumed that they were going to fetch Ruth. In fact, they went to a nearby auto rickshaw stand. Auto rickshaws are three-wheeled motorcycles that can carry up to three passengers each. They did the best they could to explain to the drivers that they would need to drive into the village, load up quickly, and then drive for their lives if chased. We could see the autos driving toward us across an open field. None of the villagers had apparently noticed them coming.

And then something dramatic happened. The skies opened up and torrential rain suddenly poured down on the village. Everyone ran inside their huts to escape the downpour, which was just the break that we needed to race to meet the rickshaws, jump in, and speed away. We kept looking back, but could see no sign of anyone following us.

Once we were in downtown Bangalore, we searched for a bus to Cochin, found one, and then eight of us sat across the empty back seat for the overnight journey to Cochin. We soon discovered why the back seat had been left vacant for us. The bus had no springs and the road was extremely rough. So all night long we bounced literally a foot in the air every time we hit a bump. It was impossible for any of us to sleep. Nevertheless, our relief at having escaped the threat of death in the village had us all laughing and rejoicing through much of the night.

We had successfully accomplished the first half of our plan. But the most difficult part still lay in front of us, and that was locating the others before they left Cochin on Sunday, to unwittingly return to the angry village.

Shortly after dawn, the bus drove into the outskirts of Cochin. We knew that Ross and Sue had hoped to visit some Passionist brothers while in Cochin, and Dave mistook a symbol on a Catholic Church for a Passionist symbol, and he asked the bus driver to let us off.

We stood there on the side of the road, thoroughly drained and exhausted after staying up all night. And then someone pointed to a huge billboard on the opposite side of the road. It showed an assortment of gold trinkets and jewellery, along with the words "A. Ladd's Jewellery Bazaar"! Paul's mispronunciation of Alladin suddenly came back to us. We did not know what else to make of the sign except confirmation that God's Genie was with us.

Before Dave raced back to check out the church, Cherry asked whether the others could have a proper breakfast at the roadside cafe where the bus had pulled up. Dave remembered the vision of a lounge, but said that he did not have enough faith to take so much time off from their mission. "Just get some coffee and biscuits (cookies) for now," he said. "After we have checked a few hotels, then maybe we can take a meal break."

When Dave returned from the church, with instructions on how to find the Passionists, the others shared some more exciting news with him. Each of the tables in the cafe had big black and white dice sitting on them, which were actually ash trays. Once again, more confirmation that God was with us. But still not enough to get Dave to take the third revelation more seriously.

They split up, with some people checking on hotels and others checking out the Passionists. They learned that the group had visited the Passionists, but they had left no clues as to where they were staying, and no promise of returning. They also located the hotel that the others had stayed at the night before. But Ron, Ross, Sue, Ruth, and Liz had checked out early that morning, about the same time that the rest of us had arrived at the roadside cafe. There was no indication that Ron and company were going to return to the hotel.

All that day, the group searched Cochin. Rachel and Liz had relatives living in a village near Cochin, although they did not know where that was either. Dave, Cherry and Rachel followed information they had received about a foreign music teacher who was headed for a village. His description fitted Ross, who is a music teacher. But when they finally tracked down the lead it was someone else.

Very late that night (Saturday), the exhausted group of nine met up at a pre-determined hotel to compare notes. They were still a long way from locating the others, and it was almost certain that they would be too late if something did not happen early the next morning, when the others were due to head back to Bangalore.

Again, Dave thought about the vision of the lounge, but he still could not bring himself to relax. He, Cherry, and Rachel determined to get up early and check into the hotel where Ron and the others had stayed the previous night, just in case they should return there. The others would race around town trying to locate as many buses as they could which would be heading for Bangalore, and then check each bus to see if our friends were on it.

The next morning, as Dave and Cherry were checking into the other hotel, they thought of the airport. We knew that our members did not have enough money to fly back to Bangalore; but we did not know whether Ron might invest in a ticket (especially if he had experienced as rough a trip down as what we had!) Dave rang the airport and asked them to page Ron McKay.

Imagine his shock when Ron appeared on the line a moment later, talking excitedly. "Get out of the village!" Ron said, or words to that effect. "You must leave immediately. You are in great danger." He assumed that he was talking to Dave in Bangalore, not knowing that they were both in the same city and that they were both trying to warn the other.

It turned out that the others had been in a prayer meeting of their own, and had felt that God was telling them that there was serious danger in the village, whether Ruth returned or not. Ron (who was the one least known in the village) had bravely volunteered to fly back and try to save the rest of us.

We were all relieved to learn that the others were safe. Ron said he would catch a cab back to the hotel and take us to the missionary orphanage where the others were staying. He arrived and we took the bus together to the orphanage.

When we got off the bus, we looked up, and there was the same billboard, advertising "A. Ladd's Jewellery Bazaar". We were standing in front of the same roadside cafe where we had stopped for a cup of coffee the previous morning. And the orphanage was only a few blocks away, down some winding side streets.

If the group had simply relaxed and had a leisurely breakfast at the cafe the morning before, the others would have literally dropped into their laps. Because after they had checked out of the hotel, Ron, Ross, Sue, Liz, and Ruth had all taken the same bus to the same stop, so that they could move into guest accommodation at the orphanage!

And that is the story of the Great Escape.

UPDATE: Though we have never dared to return to the village, we have learned through Rachel and Liz's family that Ruth's mother ended up killing her son's wife, and then taking her own life. Indeed, this was a family that did not make idle threats. Ruth's father later had mail contact with Ruth in Australia, in which he told her that she owed it to her family to commit suicide in order to spare the family further shame at her converting to Christianity. Ruth has since left our community.

(See also Hearing from God.)

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