The Starlight Diner in Moscow
Restoration House homeless shelter in St. Petersburg
Nastia and Andrey Balashov with their daughter Paulina
Jenia and Holley
Tyumen War Memorial
Deaf women at Moscow soup kitchen
Six Places - Seven Stories: God at Work in Russia
by Dr. Holley Faulkner Jr., IM Special Assistant for Russia
"I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me." (Paul - Philippians 1:3-7)
While I would not presume to put myself in the same category as the Apostle Paul, I believe I know how he feels toward a group of believers that God has brought into his life . . . and ministry partnership. My Russian sisters and brothers in Christ have been deeply "in my heart" for many years. Ever since God gave me the great honor of first visiting the country in 2001, I have been blessed in countless ways to the point where I have said many times that I am a better husband, father, pastor and part-time missionary because of my association with Russia.
One of the most exciting parts of the partnership American Baptist Churches have enjoyed with their Russian counterparts has been the relationships that have formed through the years. Part of building these relationships has been the numerous trips that American Baptists have made to Russia. Approximately 150 different people from nearly thirty churches have had the great privilege of sharing in ministry with Russia brothers and sisters. Our trip participants:
• have enjoyed ministry at youth camps
• coordinated Vacation Bible Schools
• taught seminars
• renovated various ministry facilities
• and - most importantly - began and sustained relationships that hopefully will last a life-time in service to Christ.
For most of the month of September I traveled by train, plane, car, van, bus, trolley and boat throughout this wonderful country. Please let me share with you some of the ways God revealed Himself to me during my journey:
Moscow (Part 1) - Soon after I arrived in Moscow I was delighted to finally meet Reverend Robert Bronkema, pastor of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy. (To learn more about this dynamic ministry please visit www.mpcrussia.org). He and I shared breakfast at one of the Starlight Diners in Moscow. As I entered the restaurant I became a little disoriented (no, not jet lag). I could have been walking into one of a hundred "50's" themed diners in the US!
Yea, I realize that the diner was designed to draw American ex-patriots. But I was reminded of the numerous ways that sisters and brothers in Christ have extended hospitality to me during my ten years of ministering in Russia. "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in." (Matthew 25:35-36) Most of my time in Russia has been spent in the company of Christ-followers who have sacrificed much to provide me with comfort, security and compassion. I can only hope to offer the same to others that God brings into my life.
St. Petersburg - I encountered a different kind of hospitality during my three days in St. Petersburg. Micaiah Ministries runs a homeless shelter, Restoration House, outside of the city. This shelter specifically targets teenagers. Currently, they are building a housing unit for females. Here is how the ministry's website describes the need:
"Many of these girls have suffered abuse in their homes, parental rights have been severed and then they are placed in orphanages. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen youth are released from government run institutions to begin life on their own. Most have no life skills training and no career training, so they soon find themselves involved in drugs, pornography, prostitution, prison, on the streets or even worse, DEAD." (www.micaiah.org)
When I think of the possibilities of new life that Restoration House is offering to these girls I am reminded that Russia is quite possibly the center for European human trafficking. Women are trafficked from Russia to Western Europe, and many Eastern European women are trafficked through Russia. Russian and Eastern European women are also trafficked to the U.S., Japan, and the Caribbean, among other places. I am also painfully aware that Russia has only two centers that provide assistance for people who are victims of trafficking.
Perhaps Restoration House can make a difference in some small yet profound way as they help teenage girls avoid a life of degradation and exploitation. Would you please join me in praying for this important ministry that desires to offer the life-changing love of Jesus Christ to these girls?
Ryazan - This is the area of Russia where American Baptists have had the most impact over the last ten years. More than a dozen Russian churches and ministries have started or grown thanks in part to the sacrificial faithfulness of churches of the West Virginia Baptist Convention.
One pastor in particular touched my heart while I was doing a ministry support tour of the region. His name is Andrey Balashov. He and I have known each other for several years and worked together at gypsy camp in 2009. He shared with me that for a number of years he and his wife, Nastia, tried unsuccessfully to have a baby. Her doctor informed her that it was not possible for her to bear children. Naturally, it was a time of great heartache and uncertainty. Andrey told me that in the midst of their pain God brought to their minds the following verse:
“'Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,' says the LORD." (Isaiah 54:1)
Shortly afterwards Nastia conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Paulina.
The story doesn't end there.
They both remembered that the verse said "children" not "child." So, they tried again and the day before I met with Andrey, his second child, Mikhail, was born.
God is so very good.
Khabarovsk - My family has had the indescribable joy of hosting seven foreign exchange students from Russia. This city in the far east of Russia is home to one of my Russian daughters, Nataliya Burkalova. While I was there I got to know her new husband, Jenia. He is soldier in the Russian army - Special Forces. What I found most enjoyable about my conversations with him was his curiosity about faith in Christ. At first I thought that he might just be humoring me to get on his wife's good side but the more we talked the more I felt that he was genuine about exploring what it meant to follow Jesus.
I realized in a fresh way that I need to take seriously I Peter 3:15 - "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect."
Please pray for Jenia that he will come to faith in Christ.
Krasnoyarsk - During my time in this city of nearly one million I visited a tiny Orthodox chapel that probably would be crowded with ten people. It had a counter where you could buy icons and three stands where you could place lit candles as an expression of prayer.
When I returned home my current Russian daughter, Alina, asked me what I thought of her Church (She's from Krasnoyarsk). I asked her if the chapel that I visited was where she worshipped. She then told me that she was not talking about the chapel but the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole. Wow. How often have I taught and preached that the building where a group of believers meets each Sunday morning is not the Church? How ironic that this teenage girl from Russia had to give me a refresher course on I Peter 2:4-5 - "As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him - you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."
It has been somewhat easy for me to view the Orthodox Church in Russia as the enemy. Their leaders have often influenced local government officials to restrict the religious freedoms of our Baptist churches. However, I need to remember that God is not absent from Orthodox life and that I am called to serve and love adherents to that faith with the same passion that I have offered to Russian Baptists.
Tyumen - Did you know that the Soviet Union lost more people during World War II than the next three nations combined? This came as a shock to me when I first started exploring the history of this great nation. So, it didn't surprise me that I was overcome with emotion when I visited the Great Patriotic War Memorial in Tyumen. Inscribed on the towering tablets were the names of the citizens of Tyumen that died during WW II.
During my childhood and adolescence I was conditioned by American propaganda to hate the people of Russia. I often felt that the world would be a better place if Russia didn't exist. Now my heart was breaking over the millions (mostly civilians) who died during WW II. I remembered what God said to Peter on top of Simon of Joppa's house: “Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) No matter what I was taught about a group of people, God changed my mind and my heart. Where there was anger and malice for an entire nation, God has placed within me a deep love of and dedication to Russia.
Names like Jenia, Natasha, Alina, Sasha, Nadia, Katya and Pavel are just as dear to me as names like Betty, Jennifer, Dennis, Danny, Bill, Michelle and Joyce. Russia has become a place that I call with a great measure of pride my second home.
Moscow (Part 2) - Before I relate my last incident, you need to know something about me. I love sign language. During my junior year at Marshall University a group called "A Show of Hands" performed on campus. They interpreted several popular songs using sign language. I was hooked. For the past thirty years - off and on - I have studied and practiced American Sign Language. And last year, I set up a project in St. Petersburg where a deaf member of our Xtreme Team to Russia did a sixty minute video with a deaf Russian doing American Sign Language and Russia Sign Language side-by-side. (If you want a copy of it, just ask.)
Okay, on with my story.
During a visit to one of the soup kitchens sponsored by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy I had the joy of observing how the clients not only enjoyed a delicious meal but visiting with each other. As I moved among the tables one conversation stood out. Two elderly women were having a lively conversation using sign language. I'm fairly comfortable using American Sign Language but Russian Sign Language is a whole different animal. Only one phrase came to mind. I glanced at my watch - it was 11:44 AM. Well, alright! I had sixteen minutes to summon up enough courage to approach them. (Actually, it only took a few seconds.) I made eye-contact with both of them and signed, "Good Morning." By their expressions you would have thought that I signed, "I would like to give you a million rubles!" They smiled and invited this American with limited signing skills over. I communicated that I only knew a little Russian Sign Language. They laughed and let me know they understood.
I am so very thankful to God that He makes it possible for people of different ages, genders, cultures and physical challenges to share moments of connection.
These are just of few of many moments where God has warmed by heart toward and focused my attention on the people of Russia. Each day I am thinking about, praying for and/or communicating with someone in Russia. I tell people that I have been infected with Hepatitis-R (Russia) and I never want cured!
If you have a heart for Russia and want to live out the power of I John 3:18, Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth, then I would invite you to contact me at HFTREK@aol.com.