We have ministered in Russia on two different occasions. In 1991, just as the communist USSR was beginning to unravel, Delron and Peggy were privileged to minister behind what was still considered the Iron Curtain as they visited Leningrad, later to become known as Saint Petersburg, Russia. Their ministry was carefully “under the radar” in underground home groups. Twenty years later, when we were able to openly minister in churches and Bible schools. The following two articles by Delron give two different views of the country from these two different time periods.
Russia! I never dreamed that I would ever walk streets of the Soviet Union. To me Russia was Nikita Khrushchev taking off his shoe and banging the table in the United Nations. It was Sputnik that I had watched twinkle in the skies as a child with fear that since Russia had a satellite before America, they would someday make good Khrushchev’s threat, “We’ll bury you!” The USSR was a forbidden land — frightful, foreign, and foreboding. But, today, I have been there. I have walked its streets. I have tasted its foods. I have met its people. I have prayed with its believers. Just weeks before it became St. Petersburg, my wife and I spent two days freely roaming the city of Leningrad, going where we pleased to go, saying what we wished to say, doing what we cared to do, and photographing anything we wanted to photograph. Having arrived in the harbor by boat, we walked quickly through customs and security without delays or interrogations; no questions were asked. With a quick glance at the passport to confirm that the photos matched our faces, the officer waved us ashore and wished us a pleasant visit. Once officially on Soviet soil, we were met by Helen, our hostess. Helen is a Christian whose husband is a Russian Jew. They are friends of an acquaintance of mine and had freely volunteered to show us Leningrad because of the mutual friend. Having formerly worked as a tour guide with Intourist (the official Russian tour agency) she was totally knowledgeable and capable of showing us around. Helen is an English teacher and her command of the language is flawless. Although her husband spoke no English, he was very talkative and most informative through Helen’s translation. At our first stop we were greeted by the sound of a brass band playing the American national anthem and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to a busload of American tourists.
We changed some US currency for Russian rubles and found our money to be about twenty-five times the value of the Russian tender. One hundred rubles bought a lovely dinner for five in a nice Russian restaurant — yet, the current exchange rate meant that we had spent only about four US dollars. A recent currency change in the USSR had really affected many families who had managed to save some money for the future. The government allowed them to exchange only one thousand rubles for the new currency. Thus many families lost their “nest eggs” and hopes of bettering their lives either within the USSR or by leaving the country. The shortage of goods was apparent everywhere. Lines for gasoline were usually two or three blocks long. When they did manage to get to the pump, they were rationed only forty liters (roughly ten gallons). Outside every shop, we saw lines of at least thirty to forty people waiting their chance to buy goods. It was sad to see the little package each person was holding in his hand when exiting the shop after having waited so long to get in. In addition, each shop carried only one or two items, so the people had to wait in line after line to buy first meat, then milk, then bread, then eggs — all of which were rationed in unbelievably small quantities. The stores contained hardly any merchandise at all. A porcelain shop we visited had around half a dozen items on the shelf. A food store carried about four pieces of meat, a couple flats of eggs, and a couple pitchers of milk. Life — or should I say, “existence” — for these people seemed so foreign to us. The conveniences that seem so natural to us were simply not existent. After selling a kilo of apples, the vendor did not offer a bag to carry them in. Instead, the customer had to find enough pockets to hold them. To him, there was no problem of recycling the paper or plastic bag — there was no bag to begin with. A pair of blue jeans was available for four hundred rubles (about sixteen US dollars, but about two full weeks’ salary for a white collar worker in Russia). Helen summed up the situation by saying simply, “We eat when we can get food. “Even in what could be considered a nice restaurant, we found that many items on the menu were not available and that the napkins had been cut in tiny squares so that one napkin could be stretched to service a full table of guests.
Leningrad of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a showplace on the Baltic. The palaces of the czars and emperors were gilded with incalculable wealth in gold. The magnificence of the architecture and art of the city was second to none in the sumptuous society of European nobility and royalty. Those palaces, cathedrals, and museums still stand today as memorials to the Russia that once was. Alongside golden overlaid cathedrals, stand decaying apartment buildings, rusty busses and streetcars, and a crumbling society. All this is a testimony to an era without God. We toured magnificent cathedrals that had been taken from the congregations during the Communist revolution. Some had been made into warehouses; others were factories; others were used as schools; some were museums; one had been used as a skating rink; and one had become the Museum of Atheism. Yet, today, many have been reopened for congregations to use as worship centers — even the Museum of Atheism now serves as a church again! Our God reigns! During the fall of the Communism, the Soviet television network aired Christmas and Easter services nationwide. Bibles are being brought in by the ton. Evangelists have been given full freedom to preach throughout the country. Just before our arrival in Leningrad, a Bible marathon featuring the distribution of one million Bibles had climaxed with a public reading of the entire Bible on the steps of a downtown cathedral. Carl Severin of Living Word Church in Uppsala, Sweden, was in Russia at the same time we were there. He was directing a team of forty believers with a trainload of supplies to be distributed throughout Siberia. The train had formerly belonged to the Communist Youth Movement and was used as a propaganda train throughout the USSR. Now, it had been released into the hands of Christians who were using the fourteen-coach assemblage to bring food, clothing, medicine, and gospel literature to the nation. At each stop, the government had arranged for the team to have meetings in the town halls and open-air plazas. Many of the stops were scheduled for towns that had never been evangelized. Russia is open today for the gospel! Some of the believers we met there feared that the door would soon close. Some anticipate a revolution because of the devastated economy. They suspect that a military regime could result and that Christianity would again come under persecution. Others feel that this is a door that the Lord of the harvest has set open before us and that no man will be able to close it. Regardless of the future, the door is now open. Atheism’s museum is becoming the house of God! “The kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15b)
It was almost twenty years ago that I was in Russia last. At that time, the Communist Block was just beginning to break up and the people were just beginning to awake from the seventy-two-year-long nightmare of totalitarian rule to the dream of freedom. Leningrad had not yet returned to its original name of St. Petersburg, and the few believers in the city were still meeting in secret underground churches. The economy was devastated to the point that the people had to stand in long bread lines just to get enough food to supply their daily needs. The Russia I found on this trip was a completely new world with bustling streets filled with prosperous citizens moving freely and enjoying life. But most of all, I found a vibrant and growing Christian community freely living and sharing their faith.
The purpose of the mission was to introduce a team of students from Charis Bible College to life on the mission field in the former USSR. The twelve-day tour took them into a number of different venues where they were able to experience a variety of expressions of life and ministry in Russia. Our home base was the Charis Bible College in St. Petersburg where the students had opportunity to share testimonies and teachings with the local student body. The school is made up of more international students than Russians—lots of Africans and Indians who are here in medical or engineering school. Most of them learned about the school from the international church where the directors of the school, Mike and Carrie Pickett, go. They go to university during the day and come to Bible school a couple evenings each week.
We went to a local drug and alcohol rehab center to minister to the recovering addicts. There were about thirty guys and fifteen girls in the program. Three of the students gave testimonies—two who had been delivered from alcoholism and one who had alcoholism in her family. It was a very good meeting. Almost all the people in the program came forward for prayer at the end of the meeting.
We also went into a and traveled with some of the Russian students to a village a five-hour bus trip outside the city to minister in a three-day mission to the believers in that community. The church is in a restricted area because there is military base there. That means that we had to register in order to travel into and stay in the town. We didn’t have any trouble getting through the military checkpoint because he had applied for the permits in advance. In fact, they didn’t even ask to see our passports. They simply counted heads to see if our number matched the number on the permit. However, I heard later that an officer from FSB (formerly the KGB) followed up with the pastor and interrogated him for quite a little while about why all these foreigners were at his church. Apparently the suicide bombing that took thirty-five lives in the Moscow airport had triggered a little more apprehension than normal because it occurred at the same time we arrived in the country
In addition to directing the students as they ministered, I was also given a number of occasions to minister, both in the Bible college and during the mission to the village. At the church, I ministered from Your Home Can Survive in the 21st Century because the pastor had asked that we focus on marriage and family issues. At a special leadership school for students who have already completed the Bible college, I taught from People Who Make a Difference and from So, You Wanna Be a Preacher. For the regular CBC classes, I gave lesson from So, You Wanna Be a Preacher. We ended the night with a good time of prayer and fellowship with the students. One of the young men came up and shared something with me that seemed really humorous in the way he described it. He was talking about the night we all went to the drug-and-alcohol rehab center, which was the first time he had seen me. He said that all the students were speaking and he noticed this weird, little, old, old man who was shy behind all the students. He said that he hardly could notice this guy because he wasn’t doing anything. Then he said that when they asked for the people form America to pray for the patients at the center this old man prayed for one of the boys and a couple people had to grab the boy because he almost fell down when the old man prayed for him. Now he wanted that weird, old, old man to pray for him.