February 1, 2021
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt, but a plane has just hit one of the World Trade Center towers.”
“And?” I replied. After all, I was in the middle of a lecture for a group of select student leaders. Of what importance was it to me that some poor pilot of a tiny plane had crashed himself into a huge building. Tragic, to be sure, but not worth interrupting our program. We were hidden away at a conference hotel in the Cayman Islands and I was quite serious about the work – serious about shaping the lives of a new generation of leaders for an assuredly unknown future. It is, understandably so, off-putting to be interrupted by an announcement informing me that the world was changing while I was in the middle of preparing people for said changing world. Oh, irony.
The self-appointed announcer left the room and I resumed my lecture. But then he was back.
“A second plane has hit the second tower. These are big planes with lots of people on them. They’re talking about terrorism.”
Terrorism? Big passenger planes? Apparently, this was no misguided pilot of a single-engine plane making a navigational error. The group and I rushed into one of the hotel rooms and turned on the television. We listened to the confusing reports that were coming in. We watched replays of the Boeing 767 passenger planes hitting the World Trade Centers, heard the reports of an attack on the Pentagon and a fourth plane, headed towards the White House, taken down by the passengers themselves over a field in Pennsylvania. And we watched as people in those burning buildings desperately sought help and prayed for a salvation that would not come as those iconic towers in New York City came crashing down on live TV.
The world had changed – and I hadn’t even finished my lecture. Funny how arrogantly sure we often are about preparing ourselves and others for change. Change had thrust itself upon us according to its own timetable. And it wasn’t going to change back. Innocent people were dead, families were forever altered. There would be outrage and war; more people would end up dead, the guilty along with the innocent. Here as I write this twenty years later, the U.S. still has troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the many secret wars that are waged in the shadows.
In the days following the events of 9/11, the world would grapple with understanding just what had happened and why it had happened. And for me, the next few days would be spent trying to find a way to fly a group of young leaders back to America with international air traffic impossibly backed up.
9/11 was a turning point for many. The world suddenly seemed incredibly fragile. The truth was the world had always been fragile. Safety and security didn’t exist on September 10th any more than they existed on September 11th. The difference was that the false sense of security that had existed had now been interrupted. What had seemed invulnerable was now exposed as tenuous. And that shook people not just in the U.S., but around the world. A proper understanding of safety would need to be recognized – that security and safety exists only in the hands of an Almighty God. One of my heroes, Nazi concentration camp survivor Corrie ten Boom, put it well when she said, “There are no ‘if’s’ in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety – let us pray that we may always know it!”
I never set out to be a traveler. I had no goals to backpack through Europe or visit every country in the world. In the end, I went where there were truths to be connected, insights to be wrestled with and stories to be discovered. I have spent the last two decades traveling many parts of the world because of a small organization I created called Global Next. When people ask, I usually tell them that Global Next exists to help people live better stories. Stories give a unique context to life and purpose. And through Global Next I have been able to organize and teach accelerated study-abroad programs in some of the world’s most iconic cities. I’ve been able to provide leadership programs for nationals in some of the world’s most difficult countries. And in the pursuit of perspective, I have been able to conduct in-person research and interviews in some of the world’s most unexpected places. I will always be grateful for the people who have helped me, supported me and believed in what I do. I will always be fascinated by the many places where I have been able to thread my life. It’s been a beautiful, tangled mess.
The purpose of this book is to put into writing some of these episodes, before time robs me of these recollections. It would be impossible to record in one book all of the stories from all of the forty-plus countries in which I’ve worked. But these are a few of the highlights. Some of the narratives unfold over several years and track along significant global events like 9/11, the Arab Spring, the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the rise of ISIS. Other accounts are brief snapshots of locations and impressions about life, people and the world from Uzbekistan to Turkey and Japan to Denmark and everywhere in between.
The book’s title, “Before it Gets Dark,” derives from a comment that a Chaldean priest made to me in Iraq during the height of ISIS’s rampage through the world. The priest was discussing a future without Christians in his part of the world and told me that the result would be a darkness so profound that not one person would be able to recognize another. When you remove light, all you get is darkness. But I’m getting ahead of myself, that story will come later.
For years, I’ve seen increasingly dark clouds collecting over this world and throughout humanity. While evil and darkness have existed since sin entered the world, it has never been as in-your-face as it is now. There’s never been such disagreement about objective truth. Neither has there been such a struggle to identify and recognize evil.
There are times when I feel like I’m living in a world that has changed all the rules, meddled with vocabulary, turned good into evil and evil into good. I have experienced first-hand the depravity of man, betrayal from surprising people, the aftermath of terrorism, the brokenness of people, the delicacy of peace and a future that is bending decisively towards a globalized world that desperately covets power and violently rejects the God of the Bible.
But through these decades, even with growing shadows, there has always been hope. There has alway been the story of light and the beauty of redemption. John 1:5 reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This book is not a theological study, it is simply my observations of a broken world desperately in need of God’s grace. I believe that there will be an end to human history, that God’s plans for this world will play out and that in the end, He will show Himself victorious. But the end is not yet. For now, the darkness gathers. Those who understand and who see what’s happening need to deepen their faith, live with urgency and shine the light of truth wherever they can, choosing to be a light to those in darkness.
The time frame of this book is intentional, beginning here with the tragic events of 9/11/2001 and concluding twenty years later as the world continues to deal with the COVID pandemic, global lockdowns, divisive political issues, an aggressive China, an unsettled Middle East and a host of global challenges – all occurring at a time when trust in media, government, institutions and each other is at an all time low.
The following are the stories of what I witnessed in the places where I have traveled; the stories of who I met, what I heard, what I believed, what I thought and the conclusions at which I arrived. These are my recollections, my stories, my participation in the profound and the ridiculously absurd – all processed through a less-than-perfect memory. But I have set out to do my best to present the events of a specific period of time where I lived a little bigger than I ever expected.
Phil Johnson – 2021