NOVOKUZNETSK, Russia (BP)–The contrast was startling.
At the bus stops, people in Novokuznetsk, Russia, stood in groups. Silent. Avoiding eye contact. As one member of our team said, they have their “Russian face” on. No smiles. No acknowledgement of other people.
But the believers were a different story. They smiled. They laughed. Joy. That’s what I saw — joy.
I was part of a team of 10 people from LifeWay Christian Resources who went to the southwestern Siberia city July 16-26 on a LifeWay-sponsored employee mission trip.
We went to Russia with team leader Brian Krebs, a LifeWay employee who also serves as a volunteer virtual strategy coordinator with the International Mission Board. In that capacity, Krebs works with evangelicals in Novokuznetsk, helping them develop strategies to reach out to the city of more than 500,000, less than 1 percent of whom are believers.
One church we visited was comprised primarily of older people. These were believers who lived through the Soviet era. They understand persecution. They saw their building taken away; they saw members taken away. Now, they worship with a strength and dignity that is palpable. They believe the time is coming when it will be hard for believers again, so they appreciate the relative freedom they have now.
Another church we visited was made up of mostly young believers. Many of them came from a rehabilitation center for heroin addicts. They had been set free from the addiction. They worship with a freedom and abandon, thankful because they have been freed from the captivity of not having a relationship with Jesus.
I forget how interested people worldwide are in learning English. We spent two evenings at the public library where we sat at tables and invited local people to come and practice their English with us. While we weren’t allowed to overtly share the Gospel, we were allowed to answer questions about why we had come to Novokuznetsk. By the time we left, I think most people understood.
This was a great time to meet some of the city’s young adults. They were happy to practice and hear us speak. One young lady, when asked why she wanted to learn English, said she had to learn the language to be successful in business. I laughed to myself thinking about Russians learning English words with a Southern drawl.
While we had a certain freedom to share our faith in Russia, common sense was called for.
One evening we attended an outdoor concert sponsored by one of the churches and the rehabilitation center. The praise band and a Christian rapper led the event, interspersed with testimonies of former heroin addicts who had been set free through Christ. This was allowed because the church had secured a permit from the city to host the concert. Since it was a nice evening, people from the surrounding apartments sat outside and listened. After the concert, some of our team and some of the church members had the opportunity to talk with the concertgoers.
An EvangeCube, a wonderfully easy-to-use block-shaped tool for sharing the Gospel, was a curiosity that allowed Kathy Collins, one of our team members, to share the Gospel with several people at a time. Speaking through an interpreter, Collins was privileged to lead several women and youth to receive Christ. Afterward, a member from the sponsoring church was able to follow up with them, offering information about the church and a personal invitation to come.
I talked with Lidiy, an 82-year-old lady, about Christ. As I presented the plan of salvation, Lidiy patted my hand and smiled. Sadly, I don’t think she really understood very much about what I was telling her since she was a little inebriated. She may not have understood the message, but she did understand someone holding her hand, talking with her and spending time with her. I gave her a tract in Russian outlining what we had talked about. She said she would read it when she felt a little better. She left me with a squeeze of my hands and kisses on both cheeks. I hope that at some point she will look back and, if she isn’t sure about her faith, make a decision to receive Christ.
We left Russia after eight days of sharing, learning, encouraging and praying. On our last day, a dozen church members hosted us for a barbecue, Russian-style. They roasted pork on skewers, offered us fresh tomatoes, brown bread and several varieties of fruit juices. Even better than the delicious food was the warm fellowship. We didn’t know many of the same songs, but we all knew “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.” The blending of American and Russian voices, offering music in both languages, was beautiful. I imagine God smiled when He heard the joyful noise.
Polly House is a corporate communications specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources.