Sunday, June 21, 2020

Special 2020 City Notes | Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Humility & Hope in Former Soviet Republics

" ... Galina was transported by prison train to the utter east of Siberia, along with scores of other prisoners – the worst of the worst. As the condemned in their cages rumbled on through the Siberian vastness, the din of cursing and fighting was broken by a clear, sweet voice of singing. It was Galina singing of her Savior. A hush fell over the train car. Even the most hardened criminals turned their faces away to hide their tears – and mile after mile, hymn after hymn, Galina sang the Gospel. ... "

I am deeply humbled and marveling again that together we in central Massachusetts and Worcester get to live in the Story of the God who loves kindness, justice, and righteousness and that we get to share and show the Gospel that is calling people home around the world. I so often miss the power of God in my own life, seeking the "hidden" Kingdom through my own power, which is a blinding lens. Yet "Only a Holy God" could and does go far beyond the limits of my imagination. 

The Spirit used the stories below from sisters and brothers around the world to "Take Me Back" this month to worship before our first Love, the Light of the world and the Consuming Fire we need to refine us, purify us, and heal us. Perhaps one or more of the stories will do the same for you as we remember "Christ Our Hope in Life and Death," our great global King and pursuing God today.

"The Former Soviet Republics" excerpts adapted from Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance from Around the World, published in 2014 A.D.

Galina's Story in Siberia

Galina Vilchinskaya was a 23-year-old Sunday School teacher who spent five years in prison for her Gospel work; but prison, hunger, and beatings could not silence her. She led many in her prison to the Lord, so she was transferred to another prison – and after that, yet another. For her, these transfers were just new Gospel opportunities. Finally, Galina was transported by prison train to the utter east of Siberia, along with scores of other prisoners – the worst of the worst. As the condemned in their cages rumbled on through the Siberian vastness, the din of cursing and fighting was broken by a clear, sweet voice of singing. It was Galina singing of her Savior. A hush fell over the train car. Even the most hardened criminals turned their faces away to hide their tears – and mile after mile, hymn after hymn, Galina sang the Gospel. The full force of the Soviet Union was bent on crushing a Sunday School teacher for the crime of "being a Sunday School teacher." But not even the gates of hell were a match for Galina's God. One striking proof is that today Galina is a pastor's wife in Siberia, where once she was a prisoner of an empire that no longer exists.

Alexei's Story in Riga, Latvia

Twelve years ago, Alexei Beloborodov took me in as a stranger on a cold night. He made me a meal of black bread and fried eggs with steaming black tea. It was right after the USSR collapsed, and the ruble was worthless. I learned later that my host was so poor that he only ate one meal a day at that time, but his little one-room apartment was a place of joy and hospitality. ... Alexei went to war at age sixteen – that was in 1943. As a young tank commander, he quickly proved himself in battle, as evidenced by the box of medals he brought out of his closet and by his scars. He fought all the way to the smoldering ruins of Hitler's Berlin. He returned home in victory, only to find he had no home. His village near Moscow had been destroyed in the war and his family all killed or scattered. So Alexei returned to the only life he knew – the Soviet military. He became a naval intelligence officer, got married, raised children, and spent nearly thirty years in the service. As an officer, Alexei had access to shortwave radio, and he heard Christian broadcasts beamed into the Soviet Union. The Gospel changed him forever. He repented of his sins and received Christ into his life. That was 1968. He had no Bible, no local church, no pastor, no Christian friend – no one to fellowship with, except the Lord. Alexei told me that he would often take long walks deep into woods, where he would pray and weep and sing. His was a lonely walk. It was 7 years before he met another Christian – after he left the military. He said when he first learned the man was a Christian, Alexei gave him a big bear hug before he could even get the words out to the surprised man. Yet Alexei's walk would get even lonelier. Shortly afterward, he was baptized, and this public testimony of his faith was a great dividing line in his life. His wife divorced him, and his children would have nothing to do with him. For several years he was homeless, living in a cold, dank basement without electricity or running water. He eventually found a job in a factory and a place to stay, but his penchant for passing out smuggled tracts and sharing his faith kept him in trouble with the KGB during the years of persecution. For 25 years now – during persecution and during freedom – Alexei has never missed a church service of worship a single time. In fact, when he worked at the factory and was scheduled to work on Sunday, he would pay a coworker a full day's wage to take his place. ... My friend has known so much loneliness in his life, and yet the Lord has filled the emptiness with Himself. 

Tahir's Story in Kazan, Russia

As a young man, Tahir was led to Christ through the example and witness of believers in Latvia. His heart is for winning his Muslim people to Christ. In Tahir's words, "You must reach Muslims with the language of love." ... And Muslims are responding to the love of Jesus Christ, as demonstrated through this quiet, courageous evangelist. Tahir has already planted two churches in the Kazan region, which are now pastored by men he won to Christ and discipled. He is now planting a third church; however, like the apostle Paul, "a wide door for effective work has opened" to Tahir, but "there are many adversaries" (1 Cor. 16:9). He has received violent threats ... and now the KGB has given him orders to leave Kazan within the month. ... Tahir is brokenhearted over being torn from his people, yet I don't think this is the end. ... There is one thing that Tahir said to me tonight that still sticks in my mind and heart like a thorn of truth. Comparing the response to the Gospel by Muslims he has reached with the indifference and fear of Christians to speak of the Savior, he said, "The world is more willing to receive the Gospel than Christians are willing to give the Gospel." 

Pavel's Story Near Moscow

Pavel was born in 1922 but didn't embrace the faith of his father, Segei, until 1977. By then he had retired as an officer in the Soviet Army and was a leading Communist Party member in Tatarstan. His wife and children had come to Christ, and despite his opposition, he could not deny the change in their lives. Finally, he went to a house meeting of underground believers to see and hear for himself. He told me that when he heard the Gospel preached, he was so overcome with its power that he said to himself, "I must resist this ... I must leave or I will not be able to resist." He got up to leave, but there were so many crowded into the room that he couldn't get out. He sat down again and tears and prayers came forth. He said, "I do not know how the words came, for I had never prayed before; but I cried out to God, and He saved me." Tears still welled up as the old man recalled with joy the day he came to the Savior. With informants all around, and given his status in the party, the KGB was quick to pick him up for interrogation. This was just the beginning of ten years of harassment and persecution as Pavel Mayorov identified with God's people. He lost his high position and a good income, but he had won Christ – and the old warrior never looked back. 

Amir's Story in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Lena's Story on the Border Near Osh

Amir, the eldest son, was the first in his family to come to Christ. That was in 1995, after several years of spiritual struggle. Because Uzbek families are so tightly knit, with large, extended families living together in a mahalla or community, an Uzbeck Christian's first persecutors are the most painful and personal – his own family. Amir's father, a man named Hasan, was furious. He cursed and beat his son often. Amir's mother was ashamed of him; his brothers and sisters scorned him. And yet, because the family is close-knit, if the light of a transformed life shines there, despite every attempt to snuff it out, then it will crack the darkness and other family members will come to Christ. After a year, Amir's brother Timur came to the Lord, then his sister, then his brother-in-law, then several nieces and nephews. Another sister couldn't wait until spring to be baptized. With snow still on the ground, she and Amir waded into the icy river to give public testimony of her faith in Jesus Christ. Two years ago Amir baptized his mother, who is now no longer ashamed of her son or her Savior. Hasan, the man who cursed and beat his grown son with his fists, sat next to me at the table. Two months ago, he gave his heart to Jesus. As he told the story tonight with great joy, the passage in Galatians came to my mind. Speaking of the apostle Paul, it fits my new brother as well: "They only were hearing it said, 'He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they glorified God because of me" (Gal. 1:23-24).    
Lena and her team's dangerous work is telling young people about Jesus. Ten years ago the government passed a law forbidding such evangelism. Yet Lena continues to reach hundreds of kids in Christian camps each summer. Camp is usually held for twelve days in widely scattered areas to the east. Each camp has about 120 young people ... Lena is the daughter and granddaughter of Christian prisoners. She knows what real fear, loneliness, loss, betrayal, hunger, and cold are. She knows what it's like to live in hiding – and to win souls. Her courage and her ministry have inspired a dedicated team to help her. Some of the boys and girls she led to the Lord years ago have now taken up the work with her. Correspondence courses are one of the most effective tools of outreach ... militants know that as well, and so Lena's post office boxes were confiscated years ago. Yet the Bible correspondence courses continue "underground." I met several from Lena's team who do this work – Tima, Sira, Ruth, Zukra. They are the "sparrows" who quietly slip into neighborhoods, taking the Bread of Life to hungry children. It is a ministry that is conducted house-to-house and hand-to-hand, one that takes quiet courage – and for that they have a good teacher.

Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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