The Russia mission group has been back in Charlotte for almost two weeks, and I’ve been grateful for all of the people who’ve stopped me and asked, “How was Russia?”
It’s a straightforward question, but I find myself having difficulty knowing how to answer. To say that the trip was good is true, but it’s also not an adequate description nor is it entirely accurate. Our time in Russia was good, and it was also challenging, hard, and inspiring.
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. The Russian government threatens to restrict how and where they worship, and if they want to have their own church building, the members are the ones who have to build it. 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. Their stories are punctuated by the refrain of “Slava Bogu” – “Praise God!”
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, which have a very different feel to them than the cities, towns, and villages we visited in Ryazan. 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.
Our last two days (Wednesday and Thursday, July 6-7) 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.
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.
Even with all of the remodeling and ownership of the space, the dream has always been to have a church building. 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. Hope Baptist is very grateful for our partnership. Church members have also all pledged money for the church. During worship on Sunday, they took up two collections, one for the regular offering and one for the building. Additionally, church members are giving their time and energy to help build the structure. Our support is greatly appreciated, but this project’s heart is found in the investment of resources, energy, and sweat from the members.
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.
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.
I could write paragraphs about each church but I’ll try to hit a few highlights.
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!
Another church just starting to grow had their donated space destroyed by fire one month ago. They have purchased land in the town center but need prayers to help them overcome problems with commercial pipelines on the property.
One older woman sums up the attitudes, saying, “We trust the Lord; in the face of evil, we respond with good.”