The Light of the Sun in a Dark Basement

by Jamie Dean, WORLD Magazine.

"Congressman Frank Wolf has spent more than three decades showing up in far corners of the globe to help the most vulnerable—and the ‘patron saint of unpopular causes’ says he’s not finished."

So begins the article written about Frank Wolf, this year’s recipient of World Magazine’s Daniel of the Year.  If you aren’t a subscriber to WORLD, please click on the link below the article.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a remote feeding tent in famine-stricken Ethiopia in 1984, Congressman Frank Wolf held a dying baby in his arms and had a great awakening in his soul. 

The Republican from Virginia had been in office less than four years—and had never traveled to an underdeveloped country—when he showed up in Ethiopia and asked the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa to take him to “the hunger area.”

Embassy personnel balked. They hadn’t traveled to the famine-hit regions themselves. So Wolf hitched a ride on a flight with the Christian aid agency World Vision to visit a massive relief camp in an area called Alamata.

What he witnessed stunned him: cracked earth, failed crops, squalid conditions, and thousands of Ethiopians starving in the searing sun. By the end of 1985, the famine would kill an estimated 1 million people.

In one photo from Wolf’s visit, the congressman looks shaken as he cradles a starving child bearing signs of impending death: swollen head, sunken eyes, skeletal legs. The experience transformed him. “What I saw and experienced in Ethiopia … fully awakened me to the suffering of other people,” Wolf later wrote. “And as both a U.S. congressman and a Christian, I knew I had to do something about it.”

Wolf would spend the next 30 years—and 17 terms in Congress—doing something about miserable conditions in some of the most dangerous places in the world. As part of his work in the House of Representatives, he traveled to hot spots like Cold War–era Romania, oppressed Tibet, communist China, beleaguered Sudan, and war-ravaged Iraq, often focused on the plight of religious minorities persecuted by government officials or extremists. 

A decade after Wolf’s first trip to Ethiopia, veteran Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden described him as the “ubiquitous, not-famous face that pops up in places where bullets fly, babies starve, and thousands of people suffer in obscurity.” 

Ask Wolf why he so often left the comforts of a Capitol Hill office to brave danger, skip showers, and use latrines in far-flung lands, and he quotes Jesus: “To whom much is given, much is required.”

Wolf believes that principle applies to nations blessed with great power and Christians blessed with God’s grace. “I believe I’m going to be held accountable at the end of my life,” he says. “What have I done?”

The story of what Wolf has done hasn’t slowed, though he will retire from Congress this month. In 2014 he’s pressed for investigations into the Benghazi scandal and pleaded with government leaders to notice the Islamic State’s assault on Christian communities in Iraq: “I believe what is happening to the Christian community in Iraq is genocide,” he said in a floor speech in July. “Where is the Obama administration? Where is the Congress? Where is the West?” 

‘What I saw and experienced in Ethiopia … fully awakened me to the suffering of other people. And as both a U.S. congressman and a Christian, I knew I had to do something about it.’

At a Washington conference for Coptic Christians in June, Wolf, 75, ditched his prepared remarks and urged the Middle Eastern participants to find ways to act, not just meet: “We don’t need any more think tanks. We need do-tanks.” 

Wolf’s blunt style isn’t always popular, but it’s often effective: Starving people have eaten, political prisoners have gone free, and Christians have found relief because of his tenacity. Even when he doesn’t prevail, he persists. 

Indeed, one of the great lessons of Wolf’s tenure is the value of showing up and shedding light on abuses. Oleg Mikhailov, a political prisoner in a Soviet labor camp in 1989, told the Post his captors treated him more humanely after Wolf visited the gulag: “Wolf’s visit to our prison camp was the light of the sun in a dark basement.” 

And though Wolf has been an equal-opportunity burr for both Democrats and Republicans wary of uncomfortable confrontation with foreign powers, he’s also managed to make friends on both sides of the aisle and work with those who often disagree with him. 

Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship once called Wolf “the patron saint of unpopular causes.” He added: “There is no one in American public life I admire more.” 

For his decades of courageous public service, and his commitment to Christ-centered compassion at home and abroad, Rep. Frank Wolf is WORLD’s 2014 Daniel of the Year. 

PERUSE WOLF’S D.C. OFFICE and you’ll find the usual Capitol Hill décor: photos of family, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, and a print of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Look closer and you’ll notice less-common items: framed Bible verses, a quote from Christian leader James Dobson, and a portrait of British abolitionist William Wilberforce, the British politician Wolf counts a hero. 

Lean over a table and you’ll find a verse from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah etched in calligraphy: “I heard the Lord saying whom shall I send? Who will go for me? And I answered: Here am I. Send me!”

For Wolf, being sent didn’t always seem likely.

The son of a blue-collar electrician, Wolf grew up in south Philadelphia in the 1940s, earning low grades and fighting classmates. His father enlisted in the Navy during World War II, and his mother supported the family by working in a helicopter factory. 

Wolf focused on at least two things: reading presidential biographies in the library and overcoming a debilitating stutter. He eventually took multiple speech therapy classes to battle the impediment, but the most useful treatment helped forge his political career: He forced himself to speak when it was easier to stay quiet.

Wolf calls his stutter “an uncommon gift,” saying it taught him drive and determination. “Clearly had I not stuttered, I wouldn’t be in Congress,” he told a speech therapy journal. “And if it’s a good thing that I am in Congress, then it’s a gift.”

Another childhood gift: His mother took him to church. He remembers weekly Sunday school classes at Southwest Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, and though he’d be a young adult before he fully engaged his Christian faith, he’s thankful for an early start.

Wolf met his wife, Carolyn, at Penn State University and took his first job in Washington after graduation, working construction on the Rayburn House Office Building, a block from where he’d one day have his own congressional office. After graduating from Georgetown Law School, he worked five years at the Department of the Interior, ran for Congress in 1976, and lost. 

It would take two more tries before Wolf won his 10th District seat, riding the coattails of President Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. And while northern Virginia from that time has been more liberal than the rest of the state, he’s held onto the seat ever since.

For his first three years in office, Wolf focused on transportation, but an unexpected encounter at the Department of Motor Vehicles in 1983 would alter his course. He bumped into a relief worker from World Vision, and she asked him whether he knew about the famine in Ethiopia. Wolf decided to see it for himself.

WHEN U.S. LEGISLATORS VISIT FOREIGN COUNTRIES, they often travel in groups, stay at Western hotels, meet with government officials, and avoid danger. Wolf on his first trip overseas left behind that checklist. He arrived in Ethiopia alone, traveled to the feeding camp with World Vision, and spent the night in an Ethiopian aid worker’s hut as torrential rains poured on a corrugated tin roof. The next morning he visited children near starvation, and watched aid workers dig graves for victims who died the night before. 

The trip galvanized him. When he returned, Wolf asked to brief President Ronald Reagan as a member of the appropriations committee handling foreign aid. Within a few days, Reagan authorized food shipments to Ethiopia.

The congressman continued to push for emergency aid to millions in famine-hit regions in Africa, but also says he learned the best long-term solution for such countries is promoting economic development, not short-term aid. 

Shortly after his first trip to Ethiopia, Wolf traveled to Cold War–era Romania in 1985 with Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. The congressmen visited Christians crushed under the persecution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and learned of bulldozed churches and imprisoned believers.

Government officials tried to shut down one congregation before the congressmen visited. Instead, the church was packed and the members were singing a hymn when they arrived. Christians pressed notes into Wolf’s hand with messages like: “My son is in prison,” and “My husband disappeared.”

Hall, a Democrat who became one of Wolf’s closest friends, remembers meeting with a handful of government officials about specific cases of persecution during their trip: “Frank was not only outspoken, he just wouldn’t let it go.” One imprisoned pastor later said he wouldn’t have been released without Wolf’s persistence.

Wolf also wouldn’t let go of something else he discovered in Romania: rolls of toilet paper made from pages of Bibles. Romanian leaders apparently authorized factories to use the paper from thousands of donated Bibles. The paper still bore the imprint of words like Esau, Israel, and God. Wolf was incensed. He displayed the toilet paper during congressional testimony, detailed human rights abuses, and called for the United States to revoke Romania’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) status.

Reagan balked. So did leaders of both political parties, arguing the MFN status would promote greater civil liberties for citizens. Wolf thought it rubber-stamped a regime increasing its abuses. 

The congressman didn’t relent. He gave Reagan a copy of a Romanian defector’s exposé of the Ceausescu regime and met with the president in person. In November 1987, Reagan wrote in his diary that after meeting with Wolf and others he changed his mind: “I’ve proposed … to drop Romania’s most favored nation status until they clean up their human rights act.” 

Two years later, Ceausescu’s regime fell.

‘We don’t need any more think tanks. We need do-tanks.’

Wolf pursued a less successful attempt to revoke the MFN status of China in the 1990s. After a visit to Beijing in 1991, he brought back another object lesson for Congress: golf socks. The lawmaker picked them up during a visit to Beijing Prison Number One, where he learned the inmates, including some Tiananmen Square activists, produced the clothing for export to America. 

Wolf highlighted China’s record of forced abortions and persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, and called for repeal of its MFN status. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both disagreed. So did some evangelicals, including most prominently evangelist Billy Graham. Wolf’s plan failed.

He continued to press China on its human rights abuses and traveled to Beijing with Rep. Chris Smith in 2008. They pressed government officials to release 734 political prisoners from a list compiled by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Wolf insisted on the importance of raising cases of political prisoners by name: Persecution has thousands of faces.

But Wolf’s concern for religious freedom doesn’t extend only to Christians facing persecution. In 1997 he slipped into Tibet and managed to tour the region without Chinese handlers—something no other member of Congress had done since China took over Tibet in 1959. (Wolf didn’t inform the U.S. government of his plans.)

A contact helped Wolf and an aide meet secretly with Buddhist monks, who described imprisonment, torture, and abuse at the hands of their Chinese occupiers. A taxi driver drove him past Tibetan structures demolished by Chinese officials. Back in Washington, Wolf announced the abuses at the National Press Club, infuriating Chinese officials who didn’t know of his visit.

In 1998, Wolf was primary author of the International Religious Freedom Act, a measure creating the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and mandating reporting on religious freedom abuses around the world to the State Department. At the same time, he became absorbed in other international conflicts, including the war in Sudan. He made several trips to the region, bumping along roads littered with land mines, eating granola bars, and warily crossing a footbridge over a river to meet south Sudan guerrilla leader John Garang. 

After one trip, Roger Winter, a longtime expert on south Sudan (not then a country), told The Washington Post he and Wolf visited a town bombed by the Islamist north and witnessed shrapnel-ridden bodies. “For months afterward, he agonized about the meaning of bombing civilians,” said Winter. “With Frank, these things stick.” 

In June 2004, Wolf and then-Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., became part of the first congressional delegation to visit Sudan’s western region of Darfur. Victims of a vicious scorched earth campaign described nightmarish scenes of massacre, rape, and torture. A month later, the House passed a resolution calling the atrocities genocide. 

Wolf was moved by other wars as well, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The congressman voted to authorize force in 2003, but thought someone in Congress should travel to the region to observe how the campaign was unfolding. The Pentagon warned against it. Wolf went anyway, traveling into the country with an NGO two months after the war began. They visited military outposts and surprised soldiers by announcing he was a U.S. congressman. 

On subsequent trips, Wolf saw the security situation deteriorate and wondered what would happen if the mission failed. He worried about the kind of civil war now enveloping Iraq with the incursion of Islamic State militants. In 2005, Wolf recommended Congress create an Iraq Study Group to examine the campaign’s progress and failures. The bipartisan group offered a list of recommendations, including embracing the idea of the surge of U.S. troops.

SITTING IN HIS CAPITOL HILL OFFICE, Wolf shrugs off the danger of his high-risk adventures: “I don’t know … I’ll avoid the question by telling you every time we’ve been away, I always pray nobody gets hurt or killed. … Everything has always been good.”

That’s been especially important for Wolf’s family. The congressman and his wife have five children and 16 grandchildren. A special phone line in his office reserved for them is the one line he always picks up. He commutes home every night, and says if he didn’t live so close to the district, he wouldn’t have remained in Congress for so long. 

Other relationships have been essential too. Wolf considered Chuck Colson a mentor and points to his friendship with Tony Hall, the Democrat from Ohio. Hall served as a U.S. congressman for 24 years, then from 2002-2005 he served as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture. (He was also nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize.) Hall says the pair overcame political differences by focusing on common ground, traveling together, and deepening their bond in Christ. Hall quotes the Apostle Paul writing about how he and Timothy came to the Thessalonians with “power, the Holy Spirit, and true conviction,” and says, “I find the same thing when I go with Frank.” Wolf’s conviction deepened once again over the summer as Islamic State militants ravaged Iraq and drove Christians from their homes. The congressman delivered seven House floor speeches over nine days lamenting the loss of Christianity from its birthplace. The Old Testament prophet Daniel, he noted, faced his lion’s den in Iraq: “We’re seeing the end of Christianity in the Middle East in our lifetime.”

Despite the bleak outlook, Wolf’s energy remains. At the end of our conversation, a handful of Chinese women entered his office escorted by Bob Fu, director of the Christian advocacy group ChinaAid. The women are the daughters and wives of imprisoned Chinese dissidents. Grace Geng is the daughter of Christian attorney Gao Zhisheng (another WORLD Daniel of the Year).

Wolf’s office has “adopted” Gao, with a special emphasis on advocating for his full release. Wolf asked Geng about her father. She said his health is failing and he speaks very slowly. Another woman talked about her father, Zhang Shaojie, a Christian pastor serving a 12-year sentence.

The congressman grew agitated as he heard their stories. “Ronald Reagan once described the Constitution as a covenant we have made not only with ourselves but with all of mankind,” he said. He pointed to the women sitting quietly across the room, and added with a rising pitch: “That means their fathers and their husbands.”

If Wolf believes U.S. officials should defend the oppressed, he feels even more strongly Christians should do the same. During a speech at Gordon-Conwell Seminary last year, he told students the country’s problems are not “purely political, or even mostly political, and as such the solutions will not ultimately come from the government.”

At the end of a 34-year congressional career, Wolf plans to continue defending the needy. He won’t mention specific plans, but says part of his future work will be persuading churches to do more for persecuted Christians around the world, and urging young Christians not to dilute biblical Christianity. (Wolf has been staunchly pro-life and pro–traditional marriage.)

“Jesus of Nazareth had much to say about the persecuted, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. But is the church in the West today burdened by the great injustice of religious persecution?” he asked students at Gordon-Conwell. “Not because we are driven by guilt, but because we are motivated by our faith. Not because of some tired sense of obligation, but because of a vibrant biblical mandate.”

When he prays about the future, Wolf asks for revival in the Christian church and grounds his hope in spiritual change, not political progress. “There’s nothing magical about being here,” he says of Capitol Hill. “In some respects, I think I might be able to do more on the outside. … I don’t see myself as finished.”

More than three decades after Wolf began his congressional career, he will finish better known but still a “not-famous face.” That suits a man more interested in promoting other people. It also seems to reflect the James Dobson quote hanging near the desk Wolf will leave:

“I will consider my earthly existence to have been wasted unless I can recall a loving family, a consistent investment in the lives of people, and an earnest attempt to serve the God who made me. Nothing else makes much sense.”

The Light of the Sun in a Dark Basement