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Poland sits ready for spiritual harvest; NOBTS prof helps train the laborer

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–In 1989, after decades of spiritual tyranny under communist rule, the country of Poland finally saw the fall of the Iron Curtain that had separated Eastern and Western Europe for so long. With its fall has come a growing spiritual awakening and a harvest in need of laborers.
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Don Stewart, a 20-year veteran in the New Testament department, recently visited the country to help train some of the laborers who will be used to see that awakening come to fruition.
“I think they’re poised for a significant turning of people to the gospel,” said Stewart, who traveled to the Polish Baptist Seminary in September as a visiting professor.
The work, however, will have its share of difficulty. Poland is now roughly 95 percent Catholic, with some 85 percent who go to church at least once a week. Most of these trust in church membership for salvation and know little or nothing about a personal relationship with Christ.
Though the Polish seminary was established in 1925, it has only in the last eight or nine years progressed from a Bible institute, awarding certificate programs, to a seminary, offering degree programs. Presently only 10,000 evangelical Christians — 4,000 of whom are Baptist — live in the country. The majority are Pentecostal. Their challenge is a country of some 40 million people who have been exposed to Jesus in only a rudimentary fashion.
“[The Christians] are not against the Catholics,” Stewart said. “They just want everybody who’s lost and doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus to have that opportunity. The people are familiar with the gospel, but they’re not familiar with the idea that you can have a personal relationship with the Lord.”
In order to accomplish evangelistic efforts as quickly as possible, Polish Seminary President Gustaw (pronounced “Gustov”) Cieslar, a very forward-looking man according to Stewart, has started a new evangelism study track at the school, seeking to equip students quickly and get them back out in the community to start new churches.
In order to meet the immediate needs of the surrounding community, the seminary has started a church on the campus and uses students and staff to show the “Jesus” film and minister to the lost in the area. They also presently are building a chapel where the new church will hold its services.
“They are an industrious people,” Stewart said. “They are a people on the move. They’re getting on with their lives as quickly as they can.”
Getting on with their lives is something the Polish have been forced to do, in light of their war-torn history.
Stewart told the story of a set of towers in the Old City of Krakow, each of a totally different architecture, donated by two brothers centuries ago. Each tower was designed and built according to the brothers’ desires, and perhaps based on the amount of money each brother was able to invest. The less elaborate tower has a trumpet played each hour to commemorate the sounding of a trumpet which was meant originally to warn the people of Krakow of an invasion in the 16th or 17th century. The warning, however, was stopped in mid-note by an enemy arrow that pierced the trumpeter’s throat.
“Consequently,” Stewart said, “a trumpet is played each hour, stopping in the middle of that note each time it is sounded.”
Some memories, however, are far more sobering for the people of Poland.
On a trip to preach at a church in Lublin, Stewart visited the remains of Majdanek, the second-largest concentration camp for exterminating Jews. While the camp was second in size and capacity only to Auschwitz, and was to be expanded to become the largest before the end of World War II, Majdanek was infamous for its record number of executions.
“At one point in time, the two extermination centers were competing with each other to see who could kill the most Jews in one day,” Stewart wrote in his travelogue.
“Majdanek won with the infamous record of exterminating 40,000 Jews in one day. I can’t imagine such a hellish expression of man’s inhumanity to man. … It was dark, rainy, very cold and windy the day of my visit. I couldn’t help but think of the 300,000 who were exterminated there … and the other thousands who were kept prisoner through the bitter winters with little or no clothing at all. It was quite an emotional experience, especially visiting the monument containing the ashes of those exterminated and the crematorium.”
Though their pain flows through the veins of their history, Stewart said the Polish are also a thankful people. As he preached in Lublin and in Tarnow, he noted the way in which the people seemed to slow down in order to worship God.
“We had three hours of church at Lublin,” he said, “with three sermons, mine being the last one, and many choirs and ensembles, along with congregational singing. It was Harvest Sunday. There were recognitions, welcomes, greetings from other churches and a few testimonies of thanksgiving. … No one seemed to be in a hurry. Sunday dinner was prepared by the ladies of the church and enjoyed together in the fellowship hall for two hours after the three hours of church. The people still didn’t seem ready to go home.”
Though they take time in their fellowship, the Polish are not patient on their roads. Stewart said he took note of that fact quickly as he rode with Doug and Marcy Shaw, NOBTS alumni who now serve as missionaries in southern Poland.
“On a two-lane highway, vehicles will pass four abreast (two in each direction) at 100 kilometers per hour (about 60 miles per hour). It’s an unwritten law here. The slow vehicles move to the right and allow the faster vehicles to pass between. The practice is a little heart-stopping for an American,” he said.
Stewart’s transition to Polish culture only began on the roads. Because of problems that couldn’t be helped, Stewart wasn’t able to have his study guides translated before he arrived to teach a class on “The Book of Acts and the First Century Church.” Though he had experienced preaching with a translator in the past with little difficulty, he said the transition to teaching students in another language presented a whole new set of challenges.
“I didn’t think of some of the challenges — like writing on the board. The translator had to translate everything on the board after I’d written it. That automatically cut class time in half,” he said. “I really had to boil things down. We had a lot to cover in three weeks. Also, the resources in the library that were in Polish were limited. All of the students had some knowledge of English, but for most it was very limited.”
In spite of the challenges, Stewart said his teaching experience was a memorable one and marked the realization of a dream he and his wife, Mona, have held since their days as students at NOBTS in 1957: to teach internationals how to evangelize the lost in their own country.
Due to health difficulties, however, the couple wasn’t able to see the dream come to full fruition, but Stewart said his three weeks as a professor in Poland helped serve that purpose.
“I got to do what I always wanted to do,” he said.
June 1 of this year marked Stewart’s 20th year as a member of the seminary faculty. He arrived in New Orleans in 1978 after teaching 15 years at William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Miss., where he also served as chairman of the department of philosophy and religion.
Though he says teaching is his first love, he was glad to arrive at NOBTS — his alma mater — initially serving in only an administrative capacity, working with now-President Emeritus Landrum Leavell as executive vice president of the seminary.
“At William Carey, I sometimes taught eight courses a semester,” he said. “I carried that kind of load for a long time, and I was glad to get out from under it for a while when I got here.”
Stewart served as executive vice president until 1991, when he was named director of the doctor of ministry degree program at the seminary. Though he still retained many administrative duties, he said he was able to get back to his first love: teaching.
This past August, Stewart started a half-year sabbatical to study and write and travel abroad, which the seminary has encouraged and helped him accomplish, a gift for which he says he is most thankful. When he returns in January, he will be a full-time professor of New Testament and Greek.
“Now I can get back to doing what I love the most,” he said. “I want to leave a few footprints behind, and I’m being allowed to do that. I’m very thankful.”

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