Four long years. No possibility to visit brothers and sisters in Christ, friends, acquaintances or congregations there. Then a visa was issued, and like faith that admits us through the very gates of heaven, I was suddenly being admitted through the passport control of the beautifully new Ekaterinburg airport. Christian friends met me at the gate and I was back in Russia!! Seven years I had served there from 1999 to 2006. Since then I had often been filled with doubt, trepidation and even fear about returning since my visa had been cancelled. The nightmare of being pulled off that train by the militia just inside the border on my way back to Russia in July 2006 was still very real. But now that was all dispersed, like stepping out of a dark cloud.
(Note: This is quite a long article with many pictures, so please get yourself a cup of coffee or your favorite glass of juice and just relax with me. I am quite confident that you will enjoy it!)
Within a few days after I arrived in Ekaterinburg Greg Greve and Bruce Ruotsala joined me. Greg is a dear friend and most seasoned Russian missionary and Bruce is the 19 year old son of our Foreign Mission administrator John Ruotsala. They were indispensible to making the month we spent in Russia a blessed and successful one. The key to a Russian missionary effort, we have found, is individual contacts. In places like India, for instance, one tends to think in terms of groups - large groups of pastors and thousands of people attending outdoor meetings. In Russia it is contacts with individual people that really make the difference. For instance our congregations that existed before in Ekaterinburg and Izhevsk simply exist no more. But the people still do and therefore one must be armed with the Russian language and a cell phone filled with personal numbers. Greg and I come prepared. Thankfully the German Lutheran Church in Ekaterinburg under the leadership of Pastor Waldemar Yesse (who issued me the official invitation so I could get a visa) has proved to be a spiritual home for many of our former congregation members. It was there I preached on Sunday and we had a reunion of some of these dear brothers and sisters.
A second touching reunion was held in the village of Gagarka. Many of you will remember Marat from Gagarka and how he led a village revival from the age of 13 when he converted from Islam and was baptized with his younger brother Dima. Even their mother came to faith at that time. Imagine singing songs of praise to God ten years later in that same humble room where they were baptized - praying and preaching as we acknowledged the power and grace of Jesus Christ to keep people in the way, the truth and the life. With joy we can testify that Marat and his family are still confessing faith.
Too numerous to mention are the amount of people with whom we had contact in Ekaterinburg but we should definitely acknowlege here the amount of work that Misha Ustuzhanin did to arrange things for our stay. Misha was the teenager who was invited to the Christmas celebration at our church back in 2001 for the first time. That evening he experienced how Jesus was born in his heart and ever since then he has remained with us. Also Denis Zhevlakov, the 17 year old who was the first of many young internees to repent and come to faith at the boys prison in that city back in 2000 is still with us. He is a taxi driver, has his own cars, and drove us many places - like to Gagarka twice. And Lena Ilyenkova, a faithful sister who served as Sunday School teacher and music leader for our congregation there is still an active sister. Our first Sunday School students from ten years ago, Julia and Roma, are still serious Christians. Julia is married and just had her second baby while we were there. After some years of testing his own wings Roma has returned to the faith in a deep and positive way.
In general the spiritual climate was good in the Ekaterinburg area and we are pleased with the work of the German Lutheran Church to provide a home for many of our dispersed congregation. Of course some go to other churches but in most cases the faith has been preserved.
By the new Cathedral of the Blood in Ekaterinburg with my dear friend and travelling brother Greg Greve - the man responsible for most of the pictures with this article. This cathedral was built on the place where the last Czar of Russia and his family were shot in 1918. (Ekaterinburg is more than 1000 miles east of Moscow, behind the Ural Mountains in Asian Russia).
Together again - at the German Lutheran Church with (from left) Nona, Lena, "little Lena" and Roma, the first boy in our Sunday School ten years ago.
Heartfelt reunion. Seeing Marat again after almost five years.
Together with Marat, his mother Nadya and brother Dima
Typical village home like Marat's in Gagarka.
Greg with Misha Ustuzhanin, the main coordinator of our stay in the Ekaterinburg area
Bruce Ruotsala by the ruins of an old Orthodox church in the village of Galkinskoye, 65 miles from Ekaterinburg.
Greg with Vasily Melnichenko and his son Sasha, our friends and brothers in Galkinskoye who promote living and sustainable villages in Russia, starting in their home area. - 2 hours drive east of Ekaterinburg.
Happy send-off by precious friends from Ekaterinburg as we headed for Izhevsk by train.
Greg and Bruce talked me into taking the "plats carte" car on the overnight train to Izhevsk - about 14 hours to the west. This is an open sleeping car with bunks accommodating six people in each area. Usually I have taken a sleeping compartment with 4 bunk-beds each and a closing door. But no, they wanted "more contact with the Russian people". I was OK until about 3:00 a.m. when the conductor woke me up and told me that a lady who was leaving the train had stored her bag in the box under my bed so I had to get up. It was a bit difficult to go back to sleep after this "contact" but I did manage.
The time in Izhevsk was again very people oriented. Our faithful sister Diana opened her home for the three of us while we were there. She is the professor of English at the university whose home we visited the first time many years ago because she was interested in speaking English with us. God then touched her heart deeply with the Gospel and she has become one of the most true servants of the living God since then. Some of you remember our dear old "matching babushkas", sisters Raiya and Klava, who are both still doing quite well. We got to see them on more than one occasion, especially when we visited Sasha (Klava's son) and Katya Tumanov. We also had a short but meaningful visit with Sasha Smirnov, the former pastor who since has been removed because of irregularities in his service. Unfortunately this means that there is no shepherd for this flock in Izhevsk, but we did mange to have a fairly well attended Sunday service at a local Christian bookstore.
On Saturday we hired a van and took a group of people on quite a long journey to the village of Verkh Uni where we used to have an active congregation and regular services. Anatoly, the man responsible in that area was only able to gather very few people for the service. It was the first communion service there in five years. The other village we visited later, Gureis Pudga had a well attended service because there is a full-time pastor trainee there who serves the local church most conscientiously. Very encouraging! This man, also named Marat, is sponsored so far by the Ingrian Lutheran Church but would definitely need our support since he is also trying to revive the congregation in Izhevsk, 1½ hours away.
Teatime in our open "plats carte" sleeping accommodations on the train to Izhevsk.
Diana, professor of English, our faithful hostess and Christian sister in Izhevsk.
And speaking of people, Shekino, our next stop south of Moscow, is a lovely people place. Here is where Bruce Selin got a congregation started some years ago together with Misha and Natasha Krupinov. Bruce has been the driving force behind most of our congregations in Russia. Now one of the first members, Vitaly Praslov, who initially vociferously maintained that the only church necessary in Russia was the Orthodox Church, is now the ordained pastor there. Pyoter and Irina Bagrayntseva are still probably the main anchors in Shekino. Pyoter and Vitaly took us to the boys' detention center where every one of the 15 boys who attended our service humbled themselves before the mighty hand of God and asked to hear the blessed gospel of the forgiveness of sins. We blessed each one personally in the mighty name of Jesus and the power of His blood.. What joy and peace there was then in the room - a room that they had all entered rowdy and laughing, and now where they were completely gripped by the Spirit!
Archive photo from the boys' detention center in Shekino with Pyoter and Greg. This time only 15 of the oldest boys were able to attend our service.
With friends in Shekino.
Placing flowers on the monument commemorating the thousands of victims of Stalin's repression - for many a reign of terror - in the Shekino area.
Lastly we come to Rzhev, about 150 miles northwest of Moscow. Here Pastor Valery Antipov and his wife Natasha have served for many years. Here also is a beautiful church which was completed about four years ago and basically sponsored by the Russia Project Ministry, again spearheaded by Bruce Selin. The congregation has not grown noticeably but it is still very much alive. The thing that really interests Greg and me in all of these areas, but maybe especially Rzhev, are the lost and faltering sheep. We often work the fringes of these congregations.
Let me tell you about one particular little sheep. Maybe some of you remember an article I wrote from Rzhev about six years ago called "Little Prince of the Streets" about a small Gypsy beggar boy Roma. Since leaving Rhzev almost five years ago I have had no contact with this boy but I have prayed for him regularly through the years. Gypsies - also often "despised and rejected of men" - are not people who live in one place. I knew that Roma and his family would have moved all over the place since then, begging for their livelihood. When I returned to Rzhev I just prayed that in some miraculous way I would find him and let him know that God still loves him and his family. One day Greg and Bruce and I decided to just go out and comb the streets and bazaars of the city in the remote chance of finding him. We prayed as we returned to our hotel from the church by car to begin this mission. As we pulled up to the hotel and I looked up - there was Roma coming around the corner!! I just gasped and cried out, "Look who we have here!!" It was totally incredible! But there he was, now grown to a boy of 14 but easily recognizable. In the days that followed we spent many times together, at the church, at his home or just sharing time together. He really hit it off with Bruce and now he wants to be baptized. Then his family packed their bags and were off to a new destination. We had met like satellites in the realm of space and just as suddenly he was gone again. God's miraculous hand is, however, not shortened.
While in Rzhev we attended the church on many occasions. Once they asked me to show my mission pictures with a testimony of faith. On two occasions we attended a concert of spiritual music there and on Sunday I preached at the Holy Communion service. On Sunday evening I spoke and showed my slides at the Baptist Church where our dear friend and brother Mikael Soloviov is pastor. All in all we had a very active time in Rzhev - especially among the weak and straying sheep.
Roma the little gypsy boy as he looked when I first found him six years ago.
.......and now "our miracle" as he looks today.
Roma with his little brother Artur and sister Maria.
Congregation gathered after the Sunday service in the Rzhev Lutheran Church.
The church in Rzhev as it stands today. It is the direct result of support that was channelled from brothers and sisters in America through the Russia Project Ministry, which has since become a part of the Foreign Mission of the ALCA.
The month in Russia was a truly meaningful and uplifting experience - except for the constant need to register and re-register our visas as we travelled from city to city which caused us more than its share of headaches. But all in all it was just great to be in that huge country again and to travel with Greg and Bruce Ruotsala. Greg is such an incredible missionary communicator. His Russian has improved very much and his blessed people skills just get better. Bruce, the novice, quickly found his way around, picked up Russian like it was seeping through his pores and was an avid student of my communication lessons on our long train rides. I believe God blessed us all and now I look forward once more to another mission trip to Russia sometime in the future.
I so well remember how Bruce Selin first said to me years ago, "Dennis, I want you to go with me to Siberia." How that invitation changed my life. On this trip I often thought of Bruce and how he trail-blazed the way to Russia for so much of our mission there.
In God's love and peace,