They prayed without ceasing. For years their supplications were brought before the altar of God in far-flung cities like Karachi and Bangkok. In the darkness of the night their pious petitions were wedded to bitter weeping. And then, after many trials and tears, when their story seemed all-but-forgotten, God answered. As “deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls,” He restored their hopes and refreshed their souls, reminding them that no matter what this world may tell them, they are His children, and they will always be remembered.
I met them—an extended family of seventeen Pakistani Catholic asylum seekers—while I was living in Thailand. The de facto leader and representative, William Wilson, dutifully handed out bulletins and managed the collection at my Bangkok parish, among other sundry responsibilities. Well familiar with Muslim extremism from service in Afghanistan, I had a feeling I knew what he and his family were doing thousands of miles from home. We quickly became friends, and I learned their harrowing story.
The troubles began when Muslim extremists falsely accused Wilson’s brother, a Catholic physician, of intentionally ripping a page from the Quran—a blasphemous, punishable offense. Local priests helped shepherd his brother out of Pakistan to Thailand. He applied for and gained refugee status, and was offered asylum in the Netherlands, where he lives now.
Unfortunately for Wilson and his family back in Pakistan, the extremists were just getting started. Wilson’s wife, a nurse at a Karachi hospital, was accused of attempting to force a Muslim patient to break his Ramadan fast, and trying to convert him to Christianity. Hospital authorities, terrified of provoking the fury of unpredictable hardliners, pushed her out a back door.
However, the patient’s son spotted Wilson and his wife getting into a cab, and he began shooting at them. The two survived and went into hiding, eventually catching a Christmas flight to Bangkok with their children. Back in Pakistan, a fatwa and police warrant were issued against the family. Other relatives were targeted, including Wilson’s two teenage nieces, whom extremists seized and set on fire. The two, with burns on their torsos which I have personally seen, survived and fled to Thailand, as did Wilson’s elderly parents and several other family members.
Though Thailand brought a respite from violence, the family encountered new predicaments. When they applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the UNHCR-provided Urdu interpreter—a Muslim unsympathetic to their cause—lied to the U.N. about their case. Their application was denied. The family tried to appeal the decision, but many months later their appeal was likewise rejected.
My wife and I became intimately involved in the family’s trials during this period. We helped Wilson and his family with editing their petition. We rallied friends and family to provide them with the money to survive in two tiny adjacent rooms with concrete floors a stone’s throw from the parish. I wrote articles about their story for multiple publications. We prayed for them, ate with them, and tried our best to communicate, quite inadequately, that we were there for them. I think, as is often the case with such things, that their incredible faith and strength were far more of a blessing to us than we were to them.
In 2017, my family returned to the United States. We took their incredible story of piety and resilience with us. Of course, it continued to bother us that we were so incapable of solving their problems. Wilson and his family were just as stuck as the day we met them in 2014. Then, in early November, 2019, we got an unexpected message from Wilson and his wife Mariam.
They had applied to the Italian Embassy in Bangkok for humanitarian sponsorship, and had received a Schengen visa. An individual in Holland had then sponsored them for resettlement. But they needed money, and lots of it, in order to pay for plane tickets. My wife, the ever shrewd administrator, began contacting people to raise the necessary capital. Within a week, she had wired thousands of dollars to Bangkok, and plane tickets were purchased. I received the following message from Wilson in mid-November:
Good morning. I am very glad to be informing you that by the grace of God my wife and kids left for Amsterdam. And it’s all happened because of your prayers and support. Thank you so much for all your help and support. May God bless you more and more.
I beg to differ. It wasn’t our prayers, but theirs. Not my support, but that of my friends and family. Unfortunately, work remains to be done. Many of Wilson’s family members remain in Thailand. We must pray for them, as well as for Wilson’s family in Holland, that they can find work and a community in which to worship.
“He who prays most receives most,” said St. Alphonsus Liguori. I confess that often in my sin and doubt I don’t act like I believe those words. Yet the story of Wilson and his family proves me wrong. God does answer. This is not just a story about a devout Catholic family who kept the faith. It is also about an over-extended, busy wife and mother of three in Virginia who participated in God’s great plans. It is about one of my friends—a middle-aged, single, devout Catholic with a good job and doubts about his purpose in life—whom God used to donate thousands of his hard-earned dollars to fly five Pakistani Catholics to Europe. When we make ourselves available for the Lord’s use, He never disappoints.
Thanksgiving can be trying, especially for those whose lives are marked with suffering and trials. Despair and doubt can seep into our lives and crowd out the great miracles God is performing around us. Yet He is there and He is not silent, as Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer famously declared. The story of my Pakistani Catholic friends proves Schaeffer right. The next time you’re inclined to question what God is doing, remember them. And remember God’s own words, spoken through the Prophet Isaiah:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”
Photo: William Wilson’s family, courtesy of the author.