By John A. Smith
The recent fall of Communism and the collapse of the iron curtain has resulted in an open door for the gospel. The victory and praise belong to the Lord. The Almighty has dramatically answered years of earnest prayers. The ancient foe of atheism has suffered a devastating defeat. A near century of atheism has left the Russian people with empty, hungry souls. Atheism has failed them. Communism did not deliver on its promises. Neither of these was able to provide adequate answers to the great questions of life. The Russian people are searching for the answers that can come only from the Lord. Out of the fall of Communism has arisen the Lord’s victory.
From September 10 to October 8, 1992, five American preachers joined with Dan Tholen and Mike Garth for an intensive effort to reach lost souls in Moscow. The team consisted of Tommy Poarch (Montgomery, AL), Greg Gwin (Knoxville, TN), Phil Morgan (Paris, KY), Steve Brewer (Layafette, IN), and me. Dan Tholen had traveled to Moscow in July for a three week language study program and decided to stay. His friend Mike Garth joined him in August. These two young men have found their niche. They are doing an incredible job, facing their challenge with enthusiasm, faith, zeal, and wisdom beyond their years.
We traveled to Moscow in search of hungry, lost souls. We planned and prayed for nearly a year. Our constant prayer was that God would lead us to honest, hungry, searching souls. Through the power of God’s Word, four-teen souls put on Christ. The first was Olya, an 18-year-old college student who quickly developed into one of our translators and co-workers. Her service and friendship was invaluable. Other converts in Moscow included Meesha, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer, Marat, Artyom, and Alexander, college students. Anna, Tatyana and Nicolai (a daughter, mother, and father) were the first fruits of Podolsk. Joining this family in Podolsk was Katya, Tonya, Valya,. Zina, Sasha, and Ludmila friends and neighbors of Anna. The five of us were insignificant, flawed vessels used by the Master to accomplish a great victory. The victory was the Lord’s. The praise belongs to him.
The five of us did not know what we would find when we arrived in Moscow. None of us knew the language well and needed a translator when speaking to those who did not know English. We did not know their culture and in some cases not even each other. Phil had made a guess of what we would attempt to accomplish on a calendar, but with the exception of arriving and leaving on schedule, we did not follow it at all. The Lord had other things, greater things, awaiting us. We knew there were two young men working in Moscow, but would their youth be an advantage or a hindrance? We knew we would find two Russian Christians, both women with little in common except their allegiance to Jesus. What kind of relationship would they have? How would that affect our work? Would the people be receptive to the gospel? Would they be friendly or antagonistic to Americans? We were filled with questions, and very much sensed our complete dependence on the Lord.
We owe a great debt to John Ferrel (Fresno CA), and Carrol and Betty Puckett (Montgomery, AL). They spent three hot summer weeks in Moscow and did much that resulted in our work being easier and more fruitful. The news that they brought back encouraged and emboldened us.
Elena Zakheim, converted in July 1991, worked tirelessly to make the necessary preparations for our work. Without her work of arranging housing, advertising, and securing a place to meet, our work could not have begun so quickly or gone so smoothly. She served us well during the trip as a very capable translator. She gave of herself day and night, using her language skills and knowledge of the Russian people to make our work possible. We owe sister Elena a great debt of gratitude.
The Lord provided a variety of incredible teaching opportunities. A small advertisement placed in a Moscow newspaper and flyers on dorm doors brought an average of 20 Russian non-Christians to evening Bible studies. We met in a geological lab four nights a week for four weeks on the campus of Moscow State University. The building, nestled among trees and dorms, was difficult to locate, and yet people from all over the city found their way to the classes. The students ranged from Ludmilla, a middle-aged woman with a staunch allegiance to the Russian Orthodox church, to Marat, a college student who was at best a skeptic when he arrived. Five classes were offered each evening. These included “Evidences,” “The Sermon on the Mount,” “The Life of Christ,” “James,” and a study of English using the Bible as the test. All the classes were well received.
From the evening classes came many occasions for private studies. It was not unusual to arrive for a private study to discover that it had turned into a group study. In the spirit of Cornelius, they would invite their friends to hear the things of God. The Russian people with whom we studied were very gracious and hospitable. There was no hesitation on their part to having Americans come into their home or dorm room for a Bible study.
Two small advertisements placed in a Moscow newspaper prior to our arrival invited people to study the Bible by mail. From these two advertisements came over 200 responses. What I found amazing was that the first ad gave Dan Tholen’s home address in Florida and over 50 responses arrived there. The second ad carried a Moscow address. The total response was so overwhelming that it was decided not to advertise any more for a while because the work load of keeping up with these was simply too much to handle. Nearly all of the responses were in Russian, which meant that we had to have one of the Russian Christians translate the letters for us so that we would know of any special interest or needs (many did not have a Bible). The lessons had to be graded and the return envelopes addressed with the help of a translator. It proved to be a slow process. Phil Morgan worked tirelessly on this project and was the sparkplug that kept it on schedule and going. In our absence, the correspondence course now involves some of the new converts in a worthwhile teaching program.
One of the most exciting and rewarding teaching opportunities that I faced was at School no. 67, a Moscow high school. I was invited to join the faculty as an English teacher and was allowed to use the Bible as my text book. I had prepared and printed a series of lessons in advance that were well received by the faculty and students. Dan Tholen and Mike Garth were already teaching two days a week at School no. 67, and their good example made it much easier for me to be accepted.
The students and faculty were excited to have an American among them, but they were even more excited to learn about the Bible. Beneath where pictures of Marx and Lenin once hung, I spoke of the inspired Word of God, Paul’s unashamed defense of the gospel, God’s message to young people, the answers to life’s great questions found in the Bible, and the love of a Savior who paid their debt. For many it was the first time they had heard a believer speak of Jesus. Many had the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves for the first time. Over 30 students stayed after school on Fridays for another Bible study. I cannot adequately express in words what a thrill it was to hear Russian students walk down the hallway of their school singing “The wise man built his house. . .” and “How Great Thou Art.” More than once, I had to turn away and choke back tears of joy.
Ordinary daily occurrences also lead to teaching opportunities. One afternoon Steve Brewer was walking down a hallway at MSU when he bumped into a lady. He politely said, “Excuse me,” in English. This lead to an invitation to speak to several of the professor’s classes about his belief in the Bible. While studying with a college student one after-noon, Steve found himself in the room where the English club was to meet. Once again, Steve found himself invited to speak to a group of college students about the Bible.
One of the most exciting developments involved opportunities to teach in the city of Podolsk, southwest of Moscow. Last summer on Phil and Greg’s last day in Moscow they decided to pass out the last of their Bibles and correspondence courses in Gorky Park. They distributed many without knowing who received them or if any good would come from them. A young high school student, Anna from Podolsk, received a Bible and correspondence course. During the next several months, Anna completed the course and corresponded with Phil. Arrangements were made for Anna to come to Moscow for worship on our first Sunday in Moscow. Anna, her mother, her five-year-old brother, and two friends left home at 5:00 a.m. to make sure that they could make all the public transportation connections to arrive on time.
Greg, Phil, and Elena were invited to study in their home the following Saturday. The next day Anna and her mother Tatyana were baptized. The following Saturday a group once again traveled to Podolsk for a study and found the small apartment crowded with people interested in studying the Bible. That afternoon, Nickolai, Anna’s father was baptized. He is a wonderful man with a heart of gold. On the next two Saturdays the same routine was followed. On our last Sunday in Moscow, five precious souls from Podolsk were baptized. There is now a congregation of God’s people meeting in Podolsk. Dan and Mike are traveling to Podolsk each Sunday afternoon after services in Moscow to preach and teach.
During our four weeks in Moscow, I was blessed with the opportunity to teach 38 Bible studies. Eighteen of these were at School no. 67 with an average attendance of 25 students per class. Fourteen of the studies were evening classes at the geological lab with an average attendance of 7 students in my class. The remaining 6 classes were private studies con-ducted in dorm rooms, parks, and people’s flats. I do not mention this to “toot my horn,” but to illustrate the incredible interest and opportunities available in Moscow. All these studies were easy to arrange. None of us went out aggressively to arrange studies. We had as many Bible studies as we could manage, given the time constraints under which we labored, by simply accepting the invitations for Bible studies that were extended by the students themselves. The fields are truly “white unto harvest.”
Not all our memories involve “success stories.” My last “home study” was in a university dorm room with two students who had attended each of the night classes I had taught. Julie, a post graduate mathematics student from Siberia, was a bright-eyed, happy young lady who struggled with the guilt of her sins. Having been an atheist for most of her life, she carried tons of guilt for having rejected and ridiculed the notion of God. She could not understand how it was possible for God to forgive her. At the end of our study she acknowledged that she believed in God and Jesus as his Son, and understood what God required of her, but she needed more time to make sure of the commitment she was making. Julie, like many Russians, was slow to embrace what she was taught. The Russian people have been lied to for so long that they are naturally skeptical and investigate what they are told very carefully. It is not realistic to expect all of them to give up quickly what they have believed for decades. I earnestly hope and pray that her heart will re-main tender, and judgment will be delayed until she makes that commitment.
Igor, a Ukrainian post graduate student, attended the study with Julie. I grew quite fond of Igor and had great respect for the interest and intensity with which he studied the Bible. Unlike Julie, Igor had been a “believer” most of his life. His parents, staunch members of the Russian Orthodox Church even when religion was illegal, had him baptized in the Russian Orthodox church when he was an infant. At the conclusion of our last study, Igor hung his head and with tears in his eyes said, “I know what God requires. But I must decide whether to obey God and anger my parents or please my parents and displease God.” I don’t know that I have ever seen someone agonize over a response to the Lord as did Igor. It is difficult for me to think of Igor without tears forming in my eyes. As with Julie, I pray that the seed sown in his heart will someday germinate and produce abundant fruit.
There were some people who came to the studies motivated only by curiosity. Some came just to associate with Americans. Some were only interested in learning more English and seeing what they could get from us. Others came to teach us. This caused us to rejoice all the more over the honest hearts that were touched by the gospel.
It was with much concern that we left these babes in Christ behind. Thoughts of “what will become of them? How will they survive the political unrest in Russia, the coming winter, and the escalating prices” filled our minds. But, our greatest concern was for their spiritual well being. These babes needed grounding and establishing in their faith. What was accomplished in Moscow was of the Lord. It was his victory. These were his children. They were fruit to his glory. We had prayed together, studied together, and worked together, and now it was time for us to trust God together. God promised to take care of those who seek first his kingdom, and we must trust him to do so. Knowing that capable men like Dan and Mike were staying behind eased the concern of our leaving. I thank God for them.
For over a year I heard brother Jim Porter pray that the Lord would bless the sowing of the seed in Russia. He prayed often that like little acorns produce giant oak trees the gospel would bear rich and abundant fruit in Moscow. brother Jim’s prayer was answered.
The door for the gospel is clearly open in the former Soviet Union. The Russian people are keenly interested in learning more about God and the Bible. It is not unusual to see people weep when they receive a Bible or hear of the love of Jesus for the first time. It is not difficult to find people who are willing and interested in studying the Bible in their homes. The Russian people are very kind, generous, and hospitable. Their depth of love and concern for others makes it possible to develop close bonds of friendship easily.
There is an urgent need for long term workers in Moscow and other Russian cities. While good can be accomplished through short trips, the brethren in Moscow need the consistency of teaching that can only come from long term workers. Dan Tholen and Mike Garth have decided to stay in Moscow until next summer, but who will follow? Metropolitan Moscow exceeds 12 million people. Russia is a huge country, and Moscow is only one small part. There is more work than Dan and Mike can accomplish. The work will be served best by an effective blend of short term and long term workers.
Any Americans interested in working with the church in Moscow should contact the brethren and secure an invitation. The church in Moscow is an independent, autonomous congregation, and we must respect that. No one would dare to arrive uninvited on the doorsteps of an American church and tell them that they had arrived to work with them for a period of time. We should not treat our Russian brethren with any less respect.
It is perhaps a different situation if one is interested in doing evangelistic work independent of the church in Moscow. One certainly does not need the permission of the church in Moscow to evangelize in that city or anywhere else in Russia. One could work independently of them while worshipping with them. The point is that we need to show respect for the autonomy of the church in Moscow and not act as if they are dependent on Americans or overseen by American preachers or churches.
Likewise, no American has the authority to act as a “missionary clearinghouse” for the work in Moscow. The Christians in Moscow need to take the responsibility for their work and schedule times for teams of Americans to work with them. Those sincerely interested in working with the brethren in Moscow should correspond with them to deter-mine the most appropriate times to come and how they can be most effectively used.
Not every American is suited for the work in Moscow. To be effective in Moscow one must be willing to be inconvenienced without complaint. He must be willing to adapt to the cultural differences and live like a Russian. Flexibility is an important personal characteristic. One cannot expect to live like an American and be successful in Russia. If one is not an effective worker at home with the ability to easily communicate with strangers, Moscow is not the place to be. Those interested in working in Moscow should carefully and prayerfully search their hearts and motives to determine their sincerity and purity.
This is not meant to discourage Americans from making short term or long term commitments to the work in Moscow. It is simply meant to sound a word of caution.
The opportunities to teach the gospel in the Moscow region are limitless. Public schools are open to Americans (with or without teaching degrees) who are interested and willing to teach English and the Bible. They are quite pleased when the emphasis is on the Bible. Home studies are easy to arrange. Public transportation is easily accessible and efficient, making travel to schools and homes all over the city possible. Bible studies taught in English at Moscow State University are possible and easy to arrange. There are over 200 contacts from the Bible Correspondence Course to con-tact. Additional ads for the BCC would no doubt generate even more contacts. Ads placed in small town newspapers would be an effective way to get contacts in some of the smaller cities in the Moscow region. Training classes for the new converts are essential. The men need to be trained for leadership and public worship. Teacher training and personal work classes need to be conducted. Podolsk is but one example of the interest that can be found in the smaller cities surrounding Moscow. There is no shortage of work or possibilities, only a shortage of workers.
Life in Moscow is different and takes a period of adjustment, but it is not impossible or as difficult as one might think. Comfortable, well furnished flats are available and can be rented for any length of time. However, rent is no longer the bargain it once was. A family of four should budget $300 to $600 per month for rent. We have several contacts who are willing to help locate flats for Americans. It is possible to rent flats from people who will move out and turn the entire home over to you. Others simply rent out rooms and provide cooking facilities. The price of rent is escalating rapidly and one should allow a minimum of three months to secure a suitable flat for an acceptable price.
The Moscow public transportation system is the pride of the city. While it is sometimes quite crowded, it is efficient, safe, and reliable. There is no need for an automobile, and taxis need to be used only sparingly. Using a combination of buses, Metros (subway trains), and walking, it is possible to travel anywhere in the city. By American standards some walks are a bit long, so good walking shoes are a necessity.
Communication with other countries is quite slow, but possible. Mail service moves at a snail’s pace. We found it difficult and sometimes frustrating to get an overseas phone line. It was often necessary to call on weekends or between 12:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Moscow time. It is fairly easy to communicate through a fax machine. Faxed messages can be received at the central telegraph office in central Moscow. This can consume a good bit of time, but the telegraph office is near McDonalds so the trip is worth the time and effort.
Food is easy to find and fairly cheap for Americans, but not so for the average Russian. There are no American type grocery stores in Moscow. Food can be purchased from venders and at “markets” throughout the city. The variety is not as great as Americans are accustomed to, but it is food on which one can live. In the absence of large refrigerators and pantries, it is necessary to shop quite often. Some items such as bread are often purchased every day. There are “hard currency” stores throughout the city which supply a limited amount of American type food at American prices. (I was able to find Sugar Smacks at one!)
Life in Moscow moves at a slower pace than in the United States. It takes longer to do everything in Moscow than it does here. Patience is a necessary virtue. The people are not as time conscious as we are. No one is considered late unless he arrives for an appointment 15 minutes past the designated time. Life for Americans in Moscow is different, a little more difficult, but not oppressive.
The door for the gospel is open. The Russian people are genuinely interested in things spiritual in nature and eternal in consequence. But, how long will the door remain open? The Russian Orthodox Church is hard at work trying to establish itself as the official state religion. If this happens, religious persecution and intolerance may once again return to Russia. The political situation is volatile. Historically the Russian people have turned to strong individual leaders at times of crisis. If this happens the character of such a leader will determine the degree of religious freedom tolerated. The door is now open. We must take advantage of it while we can.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 1, p. 20
January 7, 1993