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Freedom: Life after Death Row

Life after Death Row

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At the age of eighteen I acquired a voracious appetite for everything I thought was 'radical and revolutionary'. The ideas of Karl Marx and world communism challenged me; I turned away from God and the faith my parents had passed on to me as a child. I wanted to become a radical intellectual!
In those years, my country Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany. I was active in the Resistance Movement. A good year after my 'conversion' to atheism, at dawn one day in the summer of 1943, five Gestapo officers surrounded our house. They broke their way into our home and with bright flashlights and Sten guns forced me out of bed.
I got dressed and they forced me out into their car. I heard my mother's voice, shaking as she called, 'Leif, don't forget Jesus.' I felt embarrassed. 'Jesus,' I mumbled to myself, 'that's only for old women and invalids.'
I was taken to Gestapo Headquarters for interrogation. Then I was locked in solitary confinement where I was strictly guarded for several months.
I suddenly found myself in a world of evil that I had never believed possible. I experienced humans who behaved as beasts. I had been robbed of everything: freedom, home and family, friends and everything I possessed. In other words, I was utterly alone, destitute, betrayed and forsaken, just surrounded by four brick walls. There were no books in the cell, no pencil, not a bit of paper.
After about three months had passed, one of the Gestapo chiefs came into the cell and told me I would be executed. 'But your case has to go through the Police Court first,' he added. I was faced with the reality that I was going to lose the last thing I possessed: my life. At that moment of painful realisation, everything in me cried out to live. In those days of rock-bottom reality, I learned that no darkness of man- made hell can prevent the hand of God - the God I had denied - from breaking through. I experienced a divine force transcending my physical existence and intellectual understanding.
One day, as I was pacing around the cell, I was reminded of the times I went to church with my parents. I seldom listened to the sermons, but one thing always touched me and that was the communion service. So, as I walked in the cell, I started to sing, as our pastor always sang, 'In the same night as He was betrayed and I had been betrayed, He took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it...'
As I sang, suddenly I realised what Jesus had gone through. I experienced Him in a new reality. He had been betrayed, and I had been betrayed. He had been tortured and I had been tortured. He had been crucified, and I was going to be executed. It was as if Christ were physically walking beside me saying: 'Don't be afraid, Leif, I have been through all this for you. I am with you. I am the conqueror. Follow me.' The fear that had gripped me disappeared, the sadness of my heart turned to joy and I knew that neither Gestapo nor the fear of execution any longer had power over me. I was free inside. And with that inner certainty I knelt down and prayed: 'Whatever be Your will God, let that come to pass. But if I may live and even be free once again, I give You the whole of my life to use as you see best.'
For some reason the death sentence was never carried out. So God gave me the privilege of living. I had to ask myself: was I saved for a purpose? I was transferred to a concentration camp and allocated to a room with twelve other intellectuals and convinced communists.
One day I got to know a Christian student in the camp and we became very close friends. His name was Olaf. We strolled around the camp talking of our studies and what we would do when we got home. We shared our hopes and longings, our joys and expectations, our troubles and uncertainties. One morning it all came to an end. Olaf and four of his friends had been taken to the Police Court in Oslo and been condemned to death. In the afternoon they were back in the concentration camp and put in the death cell. The news spread fast.
Before the evening roll-call I walked under the window of the cell where Olaf and his friends were. I wanted so much to show solidarity with them. Many of the other prisoners were standing around waiting for roll-call and among them were some of my radical friends, with whom I especially wanted to be in good standing. I nodded to them.
Then I saw Olaf at the window. His hands were grasping the iron bars and he had pulled himself up so that he could see out. His eyes shone and his glance took us all in. Then he saw me and called in a strong clear voice: 'Thanks for your comradeship, Leif. Never give up the fight for Christ.'
I glanced at the others standing around me, and kept quiet. I didn't answer Olaf. When roll-call was over and I went back to the hut, I thought about the way Peter in the Bible denied that he knew Jesus. I went to the bathroom - the only place where I could be alone - and wept. Then I felt as if Christ was touching me and saying: 'Don't be distressed. Stand up and follow Me.'
That same night the condemned men were taken away. In the morning we heard that before they were executed, Olaf had read aloud from the New Testament: 'Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, pain or persecution? Can lack of clothes and food, danger to life and limb, the threat of force of arms? No, I have become absolutely convinced that neither death nor life... nor anything else in God's whole world has any power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.'
I decided at that time never again to deny the truth of Christ and to follow Him regardless of my many shortcomings. And I have learned that to follow Him is not a question of success or failure, but a question of grace and commitment. Mother Teresa once said that 'God has not called me to be successful, God has called me to be faithful.'
We live in a time of history with great uncertainties, with upheavals and suffering, with want and injustice. The world is in the melting pot. But one supreme task stands out for which we will be made responsible: to follow Him, and through Him and by Him to save a crumbling civilisation. Or, if it should crumble, to sow the seeds which God can bring to fruition, in His way and at His time.
Thus the roll-call that sounded about 2000 years ago is as relevant today: 'Then Jesus called his disciples and the people around him, and he said to them, 'If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, he must give up all right to himself, take up his cross and follow Me.'

Leif Hovelsen, Norway


Last update: 2000-02-06 15:32:48 (EEST).
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