Samantha Sutherland is the actual representation of Acts 1:8. If you’ve ever stepped foot inside a church, you probably know the verse – the one about preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth. After graduating with a degree in advertising and public relations in December 2012, Sutherland grabbed her skateboard and bought a one-way ticket halfway across the world.
For the past three years, Sutherland has worked with the organization Calling All Skaters, a group that equips skateboarders to become missionaries before sending them around the world to outreach locations, including hubs in Europe, Asia, South America and across the U.S. – Sutherland chose China. Her goal in China was to work with a local skateboarding company run by Christians to target skateboarders with the message of Christ through their graphics, their media and their personal relationships.
“I’m sure that in all the missions training, they make it pretty clear that moving to a foreign country is hard, but maybe I wasn’t paying attention,” Sutherland said. “It definitely is hard to live in any culture that is that different from your own culture, and honestly, I think the hardest part that I struggled with was this feeling of not being known and not being able to connect with people because of communication barriers and cultural differences.”
Eventually, she was able to connect with locals. She was one of the first Christian women to go into the Chinese skate community, where she found a need for discipleship. She wrote a book in Chinese to help the other women skateboarders start their journey of faith and to provide support when she wasn’t there, which also helped them develop closer relationships. Sutherland also aided the skateboarding company with their media – which meant figuring out the censored Chinese social media. After becoming familiar with new outlets, she was able to help the skate shop determine how Chinese consumers use media and how to position the foreign skateboarding brand in a different market.
Skateboarding provided not only an easy way to connect with locals, but also a cover in case they were caught by the Chinese government. It’s illegal to evangelize in China. Sutherland did get caught and arrested, not just once, but twice – in two separate countries. The first happened in China, when she was caught in an unmarked military zone.
“I didn’t know what I was doing and obviously it was an innocent act, but the way things work in China is they just kind of build up and build up until it’s this huge crisis and no one really knows how it began,” Sutherland explained. “I was handed off to different interrogation teams, and I was detained for 10 hours.”
Once she hit the second level of interrogation, she realized this wasn’t going to be a quick release. Her mind raced to brainstorm the worst case scenario – being blacklisted from the country.
“I accepted that even if the worst happened, it was going to be OK,” she said. “I could have jeopardized every missionary in that city that I knew that was connected through my phone…my whole team could have been sent home. I could have gotten local people arrested, so much damage could have come from that and I could have been on a plane that night not even having a chance to go back and say goodbye and never been allowed into China again.”
Her backpack was also full of incriminating things that could dig her into an even deeper hole.
“It was really unusual, because they took my phone, and they’re interrogating me, and I’m sitting here with my backpack on, and they’re not doing anything about it,” she said. “It wasn’t until they flew in the national security team, which is like the equivalent of the FBI in China, they warned me that the team was coming so I asked to go to the bathroom…I had been praying for the last two hours straight, if I have a chance alone with my backpack, what do I get rid of and what do I keep? God was very clear, like throw this away, get rid of this, delete this. They let me go into the public bathroom with my backpack on and I have like 15 seconds to decide what to do…so I’m ripping pages out of my journal and flushing them down the toilet, I threw away books and deleted all the pictures off my camera that they hadn’t found yet. I come back out of the bathroom and the national security team is there.”
The national security team strip searched her. Just seconds earlier, she had considered hiding books under her shirt so they wouldn’t find them – including a book about North Korean propaganda and an illegal book about faith – which, in her words, are “not good things to have on you when you’re arrested” in China.
“God was just so faithful and I have no doubt that there were at least three dozen angels there that day helping,” she said. “Literally at the end of it, the director of the whole interrogation comes in and flashes his badge and then lists off all of the crimes that I committed against their country – which included being a threat to national security, trespassing on military property, like all these things – then he hands me my phone, makes me sign this thing, and he’s like, ‘You’re free to go.’ I got out of there as fast as I could.”
The second time, she was arrested for a more blatant act of faith in North Korea. As part of a two-week tour of the country, her group visited a greenhouse with a guestbook to sign.
“I was the first one to sign the guestbook and I was like, well, I can’t just write my name because all these other people who have signed it have written poetry and drawn pictures,” Sutherland said. “I wrote ‘God bless’ and then my name.”
North Korea maintains control of their people through a system of reporting, Sutherland explained. Civilians are trained to report suspicious activity – it’s how they keep everyone fearful. A woman working at the greenhouse reported Sutherland for writing those two simple words – ‘God bless’ – in the guestbook.
“[One of the tour guides] told me like, ‘You need to say that your God is a superhero,’ and I was like, well that’s not good because I can’t say what he told me to say. I’m not going to be able to say anything that makes them happy,” she said. “When I got to the [immigration] office, I was just praying, ‘God, is this the day to evangelize to these officers? Because I’m definitely going to get sent out of the country then, but I’ve already told you I’ll go to prison for you.'”
The tour guide managed to talk to the officers so Sutherland wouldn’t have to – and they bought his story, so she was free to go. Once they made it back onto the bus, the rest of the group heaved a sigh of relief.
“All of my team members were so worried and were basically reprimanding me for writing ‘God bless’ in a book, as if I should be scared to mention my faith,” Sutherland said. “In their mind, they’re like, ‘Samantha messed up and we should all stop talking about God because that’s going to get us in trouble.’ But it’s the opposite, [North Korea is] so good at manipulation and creating fear in people that it was working on the tourists, too. But we don’t live under those rules, we live under the kingdom of heaven.”
These days, she’s not skateboarding around foreign streets anymore – she’s back in Abilene in what she describes as a season of waiting, as she tries to figure out what great thing God wants her to do next.
“I’ve dabbled in a lot of different things at this point and I know that there’s going to be some more trial and error before I figure out what I want to do and I think that’s fine…I’ve quit a lot of things, and I think that’s alright,” she laughed. “It’s so easy to just accept a job out of desperation because we feel this anxiety that we have to do something great with our lives, but I think that it’s the wisest thing to wait and hear from God because God is usually never in a rush.”
Throughout all her experiences over the past few years, Sutherland said the biggest takeaway she’s learned is the idea of being a missionary. She believes every Christian is called to be a missionary – just like it says in Acts.
“Being a missionary is this idea that we have this relationship with Christ and he is the greatest thing in our lives, He is the driving force behind everything that we do. And we want to share that truth with the world, so Christ called us – go to every culture, every subculture, every industry. Infiltrate the marginalized, infiltrate the mainstream, there’s no place that is excluded from that. Whether it’s a village in Nepal or the place where we grew up, there’s a purpose there and there are people who need to be reached.”
Maybe we could all learn something from Samantha Sutherland. Like, don’t carry propaganda books when you get arrested in China, and also to make it a point to preach the gospel in every aspect of your life – even to the ends of the earth.