The school room looked third-worldly. The bare concrete walls housed six rickety desks and worn down wooden benches. Scattered about the room sat 30 or so Chinese children. Some sat behind the desks and others on benches lining the sides of the room. Regardless of where they sat, each kid had a smile pointed straight at the visitors entering the room.
The visitors shot smiles right back. Both groups, the visitors and the children, had high expectations for this encounter.
The kids desperately wanted to talk to the five Americans in the group. The small mountain village burrowed amongst lush vegetation and bordering Vietnam meant that foreigners rarely entered its boundaries. This school day quickly became monumental for the elementary-aged kids.
The visitors were excited, too. But for an entirely different reason. They came with one thing in mind: to talk about Jesus.
The group of visitors immediately began to high-five and say as many “hello”s as they could. After a few minutes, one of the visitors, a tall white guy with short brown hair and hazel-colored eyes, pulled out an expensive digital camera to shoot some video. Smile time intensified as giggle decibels increased quickly. The dark haired, slightly tan-skinned kids clamored to jump in front of the eager camera lens.
Just a few minutes after they entered, one of the visitors addressed the children and engaged them in a story about a man who died to save them. They quickly honed in on his words. The camera guy knew this was his chance to get some candid shots, so he began panning from one focused face to the next.
Both groups, the visitors and the students, were getting what they wanted.
But a third party looked on. The teacher had invited the visitors into the classroom so that the students could meet them.
classroom so that the students could meet them. But he flipped his suspicion switch shortly after the story-telling began. Despite their savvy delivery with vague references to Jesus, the teacher picked up on something not being right. In this region, any promotion of beliefs outside of the ruling Communist agenda was strictly prohibited and penalized. He didn’t want to be associated with such activity.
So, while the kids chuckled at jokes and gasped at the story's plot, the teacher’s face twisted into a look of malcontent. Then, as the sharing ended and the speaker began praying for the students, the teacher stepped outside to call the police.
Come quickly, they are teaching things that are against the law. And the tall white guy has a video camera, recording everything.
After the prayer ended, joyful goodbyes ensued and the group packed up to head back to the town at the bottom of the mountain. The caravan of two motorcycles and one family-style van puttered away from the school, trekking down the long winding mountain road. Excitement erupted in the van as everyone discussed how successful the trip was.
Then, out of nowhere, a Chinese woman in the group that went by “Sylvia,” turned to the camera guy and asked, “Hey, do you want to ride on one of the motorcycles?”
He promptly yelped, “Yes!”
The van signaled for the two motorcycles to pull over so that they could perform a roadside switch. The camera guy left his camera bag and all of his equipment on the back seat of the van and hopped onto the back of the motorcycle. Sylvia, then, kickstarted the decades-old dirt bike, and the troop continued on their journey.
The camera guy soaked in this first time experience. He settled into the rear seat and took in the vast amount of banana plantations around him. They cruised through each bend in the road only to see miles and miles of green jungle-like terrain on the horizon. As the road whipped around the mountain embankments, he could clearly see the large town nestled in the valley below.
A perfect moment in rural China.
But then, something changed. The pace of the motorcycles suddenly hastened. There was no explanation from Sylvia. Her shoulders hunched over as her upper body dropped down into a race position. Her right hand turned the accelerator upward, increasing the bike’s speed.
The camera guy thought little of it and only enjoyed the wind in his face more. A faster pace meant a better ride. But that thought was fleeting.
A disaster was parked just up the road. When the camera guy saw it, panic coursed through his body.
Two police marked vehicles waited at the roadside.
He tried to quickly process how they were going to get through the blockade. Sylvia didn’t think; she just drove faster. A minute later, the two motorcycles flew by the cop cars. But the cops didn’t seem to notice. Their focus was on the van about 100 meters behind the motorcycles.
Looking back, the camera guy could only watch as the police pulled the van over.
A few long minutes after they passed the police, the two bikes came to a jerky stop on the side of the road and hopped into a patch of bushes. They got off and plopped down.
“Start praying,” Sylvia told the camera guy.
He, once again, felt panic rush to his chest. But he did as he was told. For the next several minutes, they prayed in the bushes for the van to be protected. For everyone to be let go. And for the police to show mercy.
For those several minutes, the camera guy looked skyward, hands clasped, and heart pounding. He said many words, but he really only prayed one thing: “Lord, please don’t let these people get arrested because of me.”
...Welcome to the last 16 months of Eli Popa’s life.
This particular run-in happened within his first week in China in the spring of 2012. And it certainly shocked the Texas-based documentarian. Sure, challenges were expected, but the threat of jail time this early on was not in the cards.
After pulling the van over, the police searched every crevice of the vehicle for the camera. They wanted to destroy the memory card, but Eli packed the camera in his backpack before jumping onto the motorbike. The bag sat on one of the van’s back seats, and as the police scurried in and around the van, they, thankfully, never saw the backpack. Since they couldn’t find anything, the group was free to go on their way.
Needless to say, this episode shook Eli up.
“I guess God was just into full-on exposure right away because I was crazy nervous,” Eli says. “And after that, I had a few run-ins with the cops a few times, but nothing as serious as that.”
In the brisk rush of an afternoon, the 26-year-old escaped potential deportation. And he witnessed his first group of Chinese friends almost being swept off to jail.
God wanted to reveal something and reveal it quickly. Challenges would pummel Eli in the gut, but if he had faith, all of it would work out for the good of the project.
Just over a year before arriving in China, Eli began raising funds for his latest endeavor. The fundraising emails explained Eli’s heart to share stories about Christians facing daily persecution, and how those same people overcome it. He would share these stories in a feature-length documentary, due out in late spring of 2014.
His main focus was China because diving into a Communist country hit home for Eli.
“There was persecution on multiple levels for my mom’s family,” Eli says. “My mom’s mom—my grandmother—was a minister in Romania and people would travel from all over Europe to come to her house. So she was receiving a lot of persecution, not only as a woman in the church, but also by the government.”
Between 1965 and 1989, Romania was known as the most Stalinist police state in Eastern Europe. Eli can recount story after story of relatives living under the authoritarian government who had to disappear on a moment’s notice because the secret police would show up to the family's home. Much of his mother’s family was forced to relocate or leave the country altogether.
Growing up, Eli regularly heard about how his relatives hid and devised plans to escape their homeland, only to enter a foreign land that presented its own set of difficulties. As story after story pulsated through his ears, an intense desire birthed in him to expose similar stories happening today. So, he set out to find people who still have to experience real persecution for their faith in Jesus.
Sure, Eli was upset about what his family went through. And yes, he hated how it still affected parts of his family today. But instead of being bitter, he asked God if there was something he should do about it.
And in doing so, Eli felt God leading him to China. He had an opportunity to effectively turn an ugly family history into a chance to spread awareness.
Eli landed in China on a solo mission. Just him, his camera gear, and the hankering to persevere despite any challenges. It turned out, however, that some obstacles weren’t just challenges. They were impossible tasks.
For example, his very first interview was with the wife of a pastor, who had a warrant issued for her arrest in her local town because of her faith. Eli set up his camera in front of the middle-aged Chinese woman, who sat eager to share her story. Eli felt eager to talk, too. But he had to set up the camera, check the audio, adjust the lighting, and script out the questions he was going to deliver in his broken Chinese. So, the talking part didn’t exactly flow. But they pushed through, even though he had no idea what her responses were to his questions.
“To be honest, my first interview was extremely uneventful,” Eli says. “She spoke the whole thing in Chinese. And so she just went off. And she just started speaking Chinese and I just sat there pointed the camera at her for a good half-hour. And I was just like, 'Well, Lord, I trust and I hope I got what I needed because I have no idea what she said'...that beginning process was very hard.”
After about six months of trudging through this solo operation, a friend introduced Eli to a local Chinese girl whose English name was “Heather.” She had recently moved back to China after studying media-related arts at a Bible college in the Philippines. The topic of Eli’s project came up in their conversation, and she immediately knew this could be an opportunity of a lifetime. That same day, she volunteered to be the translator for Eli. She quit her full-time job and kept telling Eli to not worry because her treasures were in heaven.
Now equipped with an actual Chinese speaker, Eli took a more efficient approach toward this project, meeting as many people as possible, and nabbing as many first-hand accounts as he could.
From that point on, he and his team of two ventured from village to village. And at every turn, another person would point them in the next direction.
“I have a friend in Cambodia that you should interview,” a person would say. That next week the team would land in Cambodia.
“I have a sister in Malaysia that wants to share her story. You guys should go,” another would mention. So, they would jaunt over to Malaysia.
One after the other, the interviews started lining up rapidly, and Eli could only look on in awe of how the project was shaping up.
“In the beginning I kind of just went for it, and I was by myself. I didn’t have a team, I didn’t have anybody, I just had my camera,” Eli says. “But I was like, you know, I’m out here to find stories. And day-by-day I saw the grace of God growing and how He led and how I know this is His project. I feel like now, in terms of my life and project and everything I do, God is really the director and I am just a cameraman.
“Before, I always said that I had to really lead the project and now the project is kind of on its own and I’m just chasing after it. I’m just running after this film at this point.”
Eli ran all over Southeast Asia, collecting one eye-opening story after the other.
Take Lilly, for example. An older Chinese woman that committed her life to the teachings of Jesus. Her village did not like her new approach to life. They opposed it so much so that the local officials came and threatened to throw her in jail if she continued to be a Christian. Then, the locals threatened to kill her. The risk of impending violence caused her to flee to a neighboring region. Just after fleeing, her home was ransacked and essentially destroyed. But what stuck out in this harrowing tale was how Lilly ended each anecdote with the same line. “I would do it all again if I had to.”
Then, there was the “living Buddha.” A man in rural mountainous China that had been revered as a devout Buddhist for so long, that people began worshipping him as a living god. That worship lasted for 15 years. Throughout his time, he often travelled to India to expand his spiritual capacity as a living Buddha. However, on one of these trips, he fell terribly ill. He became bedridden and isolated in the local hospital, receiving limited treatment or personal care. Just as the isolation began to weigh heavily on him, a local missionary showed up to the hospital. The living Buddha was in such dire need of hope, he told the missionary that he wanted to hear about God, but that it would be hard to change his beliefs. The missionary passed over a Bible and encouraged him to read it. Soon after that moment, the living Buddha had a dream in which God spoke directly to him. From that point on, he went through a 10-year process of reading, digesting, and discovering the teachings on Jesus. Despite his high standing in the Buddhist community, he chose to follow God. Today, he preaches about Jesus openly.
In Vietnam, Mary sat in front of the camera, all smiles and ready to share her story. But her joy confounded Eli. Even as she described her family being imprisoned for 14 years, her warm heart kept coming to the surface. Her husband had three separate stints in jail before they met, all because of his faith in Jesus. Then, Mary explained that at one point she was in prison for so long that she became intensely depressed. After being released, however, her church continually prayed for her, and God restored her to a sound mind.
church continually prayed for her, and God restored her to a sound mind. And when a U.S. government official offered her family asylum, her family
turned it down, stating that it was more important to be in Vietnam with her people to share about her faith.
Eli kept meeting more and more people with stories along a similar narrative. They became believers, risked it all to share their beliefs, and simply trusted that God would take care of the rest.
God was revealing to Eli that all of these people weren’t just allowing Jesus into their lives. They were entering into Jesus’ life. So, after accepting Jesus as their Savior, they gave up everything because nothing around them was sacred anymore. It was all for Jesus, and He could use it in any way He wanted.
But Eli’s 15-month journey through China, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, to name a few, was hardly just about capturing others' stories. It was also about creating his own.
About halfway through his adventure overseas, Eli broke down. He needed to find a new apartment in the city he chose as his base camp for the film. However, nothing was lining up and he was quickly wearing out his welcome at several friends’ places while he looked for permanent housing. Heather did what she could to help him, but they kept hitting dead ends.
After a few weeks of this, Eli simply had had enough. He sat on the curb, slumped over, and cupped his hands to his face. He began to weep. All of the challenges he had faced in his life came flooding into his head. And he started asking the Lord why all of this had to happen to him.
He remembered his time in Chicago as a design student at the Chicago Institute of Art, where he spent three days completely homeless, penniless, and hopeless.
and hopeless. Then, he remembered how he was working for a church in Arizona as a 23-year-old, only to become so severely ill, he was forced to move back in with his mom in San Antonio, Texas. And as he thought about living with his mom, he remembered the tumultuous household he and his six other siblings grew up in with an abusive father that would disappear for weeks at a time. All of this, and more, kept swimming through his dejected mind.
After a few minutes, Eli’s hands still covered his face. His shoulders were still slumped over, and a tiny puddle had formed at his feet. So Heather leaned over and said the only thing she knew to say.
“Don’t worry Eli,” she gently suggested. “God has everything in control. He knows what we need and He will guide us. All we need to do is trust in Him.”
Eli didn’t find an apartment that day. Or the next day, or the day after that. But that simple truth kept pressing on him. God stood in control and was continually guiding Eli through this project. And as he held onto that truth, God revealed another:
All of the trials he had experienced in his own life allowed Eli to connect with the very people that sat in front of him during the interviews for his project.
God used all of it for good.
“The most wonderful thing has been happening, and has happened, and is continuing to happen, and will happen in the future,” Eli says. “I am seeing all of these characteristics—the grace of God, the mercy of God, and how He is just—and in my mind they used to be separate attributes of God. But now I am realizing that He is all of those things at one time.”
Today, Eli can be found sitting at a desk in his mom’s house in Texas. He currently works to get the film edited, narrated, and digitally mastered within the next year. Toward the end of filming, the team grew to six people, all volunteers. And all of the people involved in the post-production will most likely apply their skill sets pro bono. A personal standard Eli imposed for this project is that he'd sacrifice whatever was needed to complete the project. He has funded about 70% of the film with his own life savings and used financial support from missional partners to supplement the rest. Eli even picked up a job at a frozen yogurt shop when he returned home. He has no problem working a not-so-glamorous side job to cover daily expenses while he pushes to edit the film. All of the proceeds from the film will go to the people and ministries he interviewed for the project.
All of this is done to reflect the heart of those that will be in the film. A heart that trusts in God. A heart that gives Him the opportunity to work all things for His good. A heart that has given everything up to follow Jesus.
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