I recently completed a four week missions trip to the former Soviet Union. I first visited Kiev, Ukraine and the staff of the Russian language version of The Forerunner which I established in 1991. I met with Alexey Salapatov, Roman Medvid and Sergei Zavgorodny who run the newspaper. Together we planned our strategy for the rest of 1994. I was pleased to see the progress of what we are accomplishing. The tenth issue was recently completely. Since Predvestnik began, 280,000 copies have been distributed in almost every republic of the former USSR.
I then travelled to the Russian cities of Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan to view the current situation in those cities. I wanted to visit three of our distributors and correspondents. This gave me a first hand look at how Predvestnik is being distributed and what effect it is having on the people of these cities. This was the most interesting aspect of the trip.
The main purpose of my trip to Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan was to investigate the situation among the churches who minister to the Tatar people, an ethnic group which is almost 100 percent Muslim. I am excited about the prospects of ministering to the millions of Muslim people throughout the former USSR. Islam has presented the church with its most formidable missions challenge. But now we are seeing many ethnic Muslims in Russia beginning to come to Christ. We want to take advantage of this historic opportunity by printing a newspaper aimed at evangelizing these groups.
When I arrived in Nizhny Novgorod, a city several hundred miles east of Moscow on the Volga River, I was surprised to find that Predvestnik is well-known in the churches. I was immediately invited to preach in three churches on the basis of what I had accomplished with Predvestnik. One pastor, named Vladislav, told me that it was his favorite Christian publication. When I was introduced his church, I saw through a show of hands that many people had read Predvestnik.
Further away from the big cities, such as Moscow, people are more open to the gospel and Christians are more open to receiving and distributing literature. It’s not as though we have become famous, but Predvestnik is having a great impact in cities where we distribute more than a few hundred copies. We receive testimonies from remote areas telling us that the newspaper is received “like a great treasure” and that it is passed from hand to hand. We have made a small explosion in the former USSR with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I also spent two hours meeting with the editor of a new Christian publication in Nizhny Novgorod called Zhivoye Slova (Living Word). They are run in a similar manner as Predvestnik and have encountered many of the same problems. It was good to see that Predvestnik is on track despite its minor difficulties. The new editor of Slova asked me questions about publishing as if I were some kind of an expert. We agreed to cooperate with building a larger distribution network and I gave him permission to reprint any of our articles in his newspaper.
I next travelled with my interpreter and friend, Ina Borkova, to Kazan, a city on the Volga river and the capital of Tatarstan, an empire established by the Tatar-Mongols after the time of Genghis Khan. A friend of ours had written an article about the strong Muslim presence in Kazan. There are millions of Tatar Muslims in the area.
We met two new friends on the train. One named Sergei was from Kazakhstan and spoke to us for several hours about the gospel. He said that he had never met a Christian missionary before who could answer his many questions. He had never read a Bible and knew almost nothing about Christianity. It amazed him that I could answer his questions. At the end of our time, he said that he was not ready to give his heart to Jesus Christ, but that he wanted to know more. We agreed to send him a Bible and Christian literature. He was so overjoyed that he shot a whole role of Polaroid film, because he said that he wanted to remember us. Our conversation with Sergei was reason enough for the trip. We also saw the “real Russia” – as Ina called it – the country side. There were quaint villages made up of pretty, ornamented, yet rustic houses.
Another new friend, an older man named Peter, gave us a tour of Kazan. He was a native of the Kazan region; his nationality was Chuvash, a Volga people who are relatives of the Tatars. He spoke three languages: Chuvash, Tatar and Russian. His people are Orthodox and the Tatars are Muslims, yet the two groups have always gotten along well. We were given a tour of the downtown area of Kazan. We saw all of the Muslim mosques. We also visited the Orthodox cathedrals and the Tatar Kremlin, an ancient fortified area of the city overlooking the Volga river. We were told that Tatarstan had declared itself a nation four years ago. They have their own national colors, flag, police force and president. We visited the presidential palace on the grounds of the burial monument of the last queen of the Tatars. Peter told us a story about the war between Czar Ivan the Terrible and Tatarstan. The Russians won the war by digging a tunnel over one kilometer long under the walls of the Tatar Kremlin.
After the morning tour, Ina Borkova and I said good-bye to Peter and Sergei and we went to visit a Baptist church in the city. We found the church with no problem. We first met two young men named Roman and Victor who lived in a house adjacent to the church building. They told us that their church was made up of mostly grandmothers and teenagers; but no middle-aged people. The church began in the time of Stalin and is the oldest evangelical Protestant church in Tatarstan. They told us that during the time of Stalin people were taken directly from their meetings and shot by the KGB. All of the Christians in Kazan from this era numbered less than 500. The pastor and the original members are now in their 70s and 80s. A few years ago many teenagers throughout Russia began to come to Christ. Now cities like Kazan have many evangelical churches made up of young people and some older people from the time of persecution. Roman and Victor described the Baptist church as being “like a family.” We were invited back for their midweek service at five o’clock.
Later we met their pastor, and I was invited to give a short message in the service. Other men in the church preached and some of the women read poetry, sang songs and prayed. It was an open meeting with singing of hymns throughout – which is common for churches in the former Soviet Union. After the service was a birthday party for one of the young men. All of the teenagers attended. We met visitors from other Baptist churches in the region who agreed to distribute Predvestnik. The pastor received us with open arms and invited us to come back again. He told us that he would send us to any of the Baptist churches in the area to preach.
We also met two young women who are Tatars. Both were visiting from a Baptist church in Nizhnykamsk. They were students at the Foreign Language Institute in Kazan. One spoke English well. She had recently become a Christian and told me of the opposition from her Muslim family.
We spent just one day in Kazan, but I felt that God himself accomplished much in that one day. This is because we trusted the Holy Spirit to open a door for us in Tatarstan.
We have an open door to reach Muslims now and we are pursuing this opportunity. Our goal is to produce a special Muslim edition of Predvestnik in Russian by the end of 1994 and to do some ethic language editions in the future.
We also want to pursue our contacts in Kazakhstan. We currently distribute over 25 percent of the copies of Predvestnik in the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kirghistan. We want to produce an ethnic language version for this region as well.