2016 Reflections from Russia: Challenges and Inspirations
January 8, 2020
As we approach Global Mission Sunday on January 12, this week’s blog takes a look back at the 2016 mission trip to visit our partners at Hope Baptist Church in Ryazan. Below are excerpts take from blog posts written during and after that trip, as well as links to their full blog posts if you want to read more.
You can also enjoy a photo from 2016 when construction on their building was just beginning and compare it to a current photo—the progress has been remarkable! Seeing all that they’ve accomplished may inspire you to contact Mary Elizabeth Coley about joining the group going to Russia this summer.
Katelyn Gordon: Our intrepid group . . . arrived safely to Moscow on Saturday afternoon and discovered that our bags hadn’t made the trip quite as smoothly as we did.
After meeting up with Ellen Smith, our PC(USA) missionary partner, at the airport, we took a train from Moscow to Ryazan and got our first glimpses of the Russian countryside.It was beautiful, and seeing Pavel and Olga waiting for us on the train platform in Ryazan was the best welcome!
. . . After we checked into the hotel, Pavel and Olga drove us to Hope Baptist for dinner. When I walked in the dining room of the church and saw the table set for us with dishes of pasta, chicken, rice, fresh vegetables, and bread, I couldn’t help but cry . . . it was humbling, grace-filled, and delicious.
The hospitality of our Russian sisters and brothers has been incredible. They’ve welcomed us in their worship, fed us homemade meals, prayed for us, and literally give us their clothes to wear while we are waiting (hoping! praying!) to hear something about our luggage . . . God’s steadfast care comes to us in all kinds of forms—a late-night dinner with new friends . . . a bag of clean clothes offered from those same new friends, a patient teacher helping us learn to sing “Happy Birthday in Russian so we could celebrate our dinner hostess, and the embodied reminder that we are all one in Christ. Slava Bogu! Praise God!
Rich Neidinger: We have been traveling around the state seeing town churches that cooperate together with Hope Baptist. So far, we have visited 4, all with different interesting and moving stories. We also saw a newly purchased camp and retreat site on beautiful land with a pond, wildflowers and a forest edge . . . The churches do struggle with discrimination, so that they need their own land and building to do much ministry. One home church, dating from the days of true persecution, just constructed a good-size two-story building from ground to roof all done by Christian brothers from around the state in one season!
. . . One older woman sums up the attitudes, saying, “We trust the Lord; in the face of evil, we respond with good.”
Mary Elizabeth Coley: Since our partnership with Hope Baptist began in 2003, we have seen improvements and additions to the worship space. The kitchen and office have been in multiple locations in the building, each one better than the last, and the sanctuary has been expanded. With the support of First Presbyterian, Hope Baptist purchased their worship space and gained greater stability.
. . . Baptists are viewed as a dangerous cult in Russia, and having a space that looks like a church lends the congregation greater legitimacy and the ability to design their space to accommodate their growing programs. They have also struggled with current neighbors who are suspicious and harass the congregation.
We have been privileged to witness the next exciting stage of their church life. Hope Baptist had purchased land and drawn up plans for a three-story building. The basement will house the kitchen and a fellowship space for conferences, wedding receptions, and other celebrations. The ground floor is reserved for the sanctuary, and the Sunday school spaces and offices will be on the second floor.
First Presbyterian has supported this project financially and will continue to send funds through the Global Mission committee… This morning, we got to tour the foundation. It is so easy to look at the foundation and imagine the completed building, full of life and joy and grace. There are 160 members and children. It is undoubtedly a group that will fill the sanctuary with singing, prayer, and community.
Our trip to Russia has been filled with many, many blessings, but seeing the future home of Hope Baptist is one of the highlights. Scripture tells us that space to worship God and celebrate baptisms, marriages, and deaths is important. It is a joy to be part of Hope Baptist’s journey to build their new home.
Barb Neidinger: Our last two days have been full and our hosts extremely gracious. On Wednesday, they showed us a bit of the Ryazan area, with a tour of a 19th century poet’s village and a picnic on the bluffs of the Oka River. Later, Tamara, one of the leaders in the church, invited us to dine in her garden, under the cherry trees. Two meals outside in idyllic settings!
On Thursday, we traveled to Ryaszhk to visit our fifth small rural Baptist church. The missionary, Sasha, with his wife and four children greeted us and we all shared our motivations and goals in mission. We drank Russian tea and ate sweets (a common practice each day, whether standalone or after dinner). Tonight we participated in the women’s fellowship at Hope Baptist, hearing a message about how parents and grandparents can teach their children about God and Jesus. The Russian Christians we have met have been so welcoming to us, but we can see that they lead difficult lives. Neighbors avoid them (Sasha said none of his neighbors spoke to him for three years, until one of them finally did); they are viewed with suspicion; and in some towns the authorities can put obstacles in their way, or shut down their plans. We must pray for them, as they do for us.
Final reflections from Katelyn: . . . For me, the trip to Russia was a practice of not being in control. Complications and hiccups in our travel became the norm: Our luggage was lost, the daily schedules and meals were set and made by other people, and the Russian-English language barrier required a translator for most conversations. (The entirety of my Russian vocabulary now includes ten words, one of which is the very helpful and useful Russian word for “napkin.”)
As foreign as all of that felt, it reminded me that I’m not meant to be in control. God is the Creator, and I’m the creature; Jesus is the teacher, and I’m the disciple; the Spirit moves as she will, and I am to pay attention.
Our Russian sisters and brothers at Hope Baptist understand this ordering of the world differently—maybe even better—than we do. They live in a community that doesn’t welcome or understand them and doesn’t really want to either . . . They share stories of their lives—stories of sick children and uncertain finances, stories of alcoholic relatives and lost jobs, stories of new homes and new church members . . . What our Russian friends seem to trust more readily than I often do is the truth that life is uncertain but God is not.
We spent the last few days of our time in Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg . . . It was eye-opening (and frustrating) to see the incredible wealth of palaces where the royals had lived, knowing how poor the majority of the country had been. It was the giant gold crucifix in the cathedral at the Hermitage that really got me. That crucifix seemed to be such an obvious indicator that Russian royalty, while calling themselves Christian and even attending worship services, didn’t get the heart of the Gospel, which is so much about the poor and the oppressed.
I think Jesus would’ve been disappointed by that gold crucifix, knowing that there were and are people who go hungry every day in that country.
Life in Russia is complex. Faith in Russia is complex. The same is true in the United States where it’s very easy to call yourself a Christian. What a gift it is, then, that we’ve been called into this relationship with Russian sisters and brothers in Christ who challenge and encourage us as people who call Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.