Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two New Mari Believers

“I thought you said it never happens like this,” said one of the volunteers from First Baptist Church of Middleburg, Florida.

We had just come from a small, unnamed village in the Mari-El Republic – the home of one of Russia’s unreached/unengaged people groups -- a group whose native religion is still quite pagan. Earlier that day we had visited several locations in the Republic where the locals still make sacrifices and prayers to the gods of nature and water. Our day ended with an invitation to visit the home of one of less than 40 Mari believers in the Republic; an area the size of Vermont.

As we sat down to a meal of Russian black tea, pancakes, honey, and some unidentified local cuisine we began talking with the visitors from the village who had come to meet the visiting Americans. Of the seven or eight that wandered in and out of the small one-room cabin, three women sat down at the table to talk. None of them had ever met an American before. Two were much older, but all three were drawn to a conversation about how the world had changed over the past few years. The circumstances in this village were not different than they are in any number of Russian villages. People who live outside of Russia’s big cities have never enjoyed the economic benefits of those who live i

n the cities, and the years following the fall of Communism have made life for villagers harder. The women shared that the nearby factories had been shut down, that they had trouble getting their fields plowed and the crops in the ground, and most of their community’s young people were moving to the cities rather than choosing to stay on the family farms.

“Our children are out of control. Their lives are a mess and I just don’t know what to do about it,” said Nina, the youngest of the three. “They are a mess because I never taught them. I didn’t know what to teach them because nobody ever taught me.” And there it was…a simple invitation. Like a running back who has just had a path cleared all the way to the end zone, the Holy Spirit had just opened the door for me to share the Gospel with them. “Would you like for me to teach you,” I asked. “Right now, I can teach you what you need to know and what the most important thing is to teach your children.”

The next 40 minutes or so were mostly a blur. The volunteer team watched and prayed silently as I taught and explained the Gospel to the women using analogies from the countryside and from their pagan rituals I had seen earlier that day. As I was teaching, one of the three women got up, hugged me and left. But the other two wanted to hear more of what I had to say. As

I finished, I asked if they understood all I had been saying to them. I probed a little deeper and asked if they wanted to repent of their sins, and to have Jesus living in their hearts. So, right there at the kitchen table we bowed our heads and prayed as I lead Nina and Magda in a prayer of confession and invitation for Jesus to cleanse them of their sins.

Of course, only God knows the condition of a person’s heart. But, as I was leaving the house Nina caught me, gave me a hug and said, “I hope that you will visit our village again soon. But, if you never do, I know that I will see you again in heaven because I am your sister now.”

“I thought you said it never happens like this,” he said. And, he was right. That is what I had said. Maybe I should have used the word “rarely” instead of never.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Engage Russia is on the road!

Yes, these posts are in a bit of backwards order but we didn't want you to miss the excitement in getting here! First, our group! Marc Hooks is our fearless (but might should be fearful!) leader. Then there is Paul Schmittling, Alan Grimsley, David Albritton, Valerie Craven and your tour guide for today, Janet Wells.
We met at the airport at about 10am Monday morning with excitement and more excitement. Not only were we leaving the country for 10 days, but we were going on misson for Jesus! Some might say our "suffering for Jesus" trip was going to be a walk in the park (after all, we're not staying the the jungle, fighting fierce bugs, or crossing mountains or desserts on foot) but we found out otherwise!

Our first encounter was at "special services" in the airport. We had researched and planned for everyone to be able to take two bags up to 70 lbs each. Yes, a bit much for today's general standards but our fearless leader has traveled so much he has special perks and we were going to take advantage of them so we could bring LOTS of goodies to our new friends we were to meet in Russia! The "special services" counter was quite special and Marc had to pull up on the website the "special" arrangements so we could get our bags free. After much convincing, we were allowed the bags and all was good. Time to get through security and find our airplane. Security wasn't too much of a deal-only two pat downs and the airplane was to be on time!

We loaded on the airplane and headed for Atlanta. No problems there-we got lunch quickly and then off for our airplane to Moscow! Again the plane was to be on time! We loaded up and found we were traveling with fellow Southern Baptists from Johnny Hunt's church who were headed to Moscow to work in an orphanage. We also had a native Russian (who now lives in Minneapolis) in front of Marc on the plane who was so happy to have someone to speak to in Russian. Now, Marc has been away for awhile but after 1 1/2 hours of conversation in the middle of the night, I think he thought maybe he was ready again for Russia! The lady was quite nice and very interested in why Marc studies the Russian people and wanted to know more!

Did you know when you travel to Russia this time of year that the sun never really sets? We were heading east and about the time we lost the sun from the west, it was rising in the east where we were heading! A very neat experience. Of course, other passengers trying to sleep were less than impressed when the positioning of the sun was checked during the flight!

There was also the issue of the flashlight! I am sure the man ahead of us thought a flashlight was a good idea on a night flight. I might have thought so, too before the flight. But, when one is trying to sleep (we really needed to sleep between our hours of 7-midnight so when we arrived we could be awake in our new time zone EIGHT HOURS ahead of Middleburg) and the one with the flashlight looses something and begins to look all over for it with the brighest flashlight I have ever seen, the flashlight idea is not so good! In fact, I might think that a good idea for the next thing added to the TSA no fly list! But after way to long in a little tiny seat with questionable dinner and items far too odd to actually try to eat for breakfast (thus why our fearless leader mentioned bringing granola bars on the trip!) we arrived in Moscow early in the morning. We were off to get documents processed, pick up luggage and then sneak through customs (don't look at the guards, don't smile, don't talk to each other, just be invisible so you don't get stopped was the direction!).

Time to tour Moscow but we have a problem. The car reserved to take all 6 of us, the missionary friend and all 14 of our suitcases to the train station has room only for people and one suitcase. So, we must wait 1.5 hours for new transportation. Welcome to mission tripping! The motto is "so flexible you are fluid" and this was our first test! We had to wait at a small coffee shop in the airport (had to take all luggage back through xray scans!) and had our first experience with Pepsi "light", no sweet ice tea and new coffee flavors! Oh, my not so fav-no ice! Like I said, fluid so we drank with a smile and thought of home and that great ice that Sonic has!

The new bus arrived, we stuffed and stuffed in suitcases and then got in with those of us who get a bit of motion sickness making sure to face forward. In Russian transportaion you face all kinds of way in cars and buses! And, no air conditioning except windows even on the hottest days! I should mention here that Russian people are somewhat superstitious about having air blowing on them so they would rather roll up the windows than have air making them cool with windows down. If you have ever been stuck in Blanding traffic in Orange Park, you haven't really seen traffic like here in Russia. Don't forget to add the heat with no air conditioning and all cars are standard transmission! Now, there's a stomach ache and head ache just ready to happen! Our short trip to train station was about 1 hour! Once there we dragged all the cases down the stairs (no escalators here!) and checked them with security (kind of a sketchy place in the bottom of the train station with a very odd odor-but they did keep our stuff safe while were were gone) and headed off to see Moscow!

We really couldn't have arrived with nicer weather! Beautiful sunny day about the mid-80's and not much smog. Summer holiday was just about to begin the next day and we had a quick tour of some of the most notable buildings in Moscow! We can't wait to go back for more before we come home!

Now off to catch our train and get settled in our little (I do mean little) compartments for the evening! Believe it or not, these are co-ed (you wear "train clothes" not pajamas to sleep) and if you don't have enough folks in your party for four people, you get what you get (the reason Marc and Allan got two young Russian girls in their compartment!) We got settled in and the sleeping and snoring began! The next morning was here before you know it and it was time to get off the train, meet Marc's favorite Russian pastor and see Chuboksary!

Choksary is a beautiful city and we had a great time touring the city with Pastor Sasha and missionary Chet from Texas (where everything is bigger!) We were so excited to see McDonalds for lunch and since it was Children's Day and the first day of summer break so there was a festival taking place with lots of boths with crafts and native items and children dancing and singing! What fun! After a walking tour around town and the electric plant on the lake that was created, we headed for our transportation with "Fast Eddie" to Mari-El, our mission trip destination spot!

Wondering how Fast Eddie got his name? Let's just say that passing slower cars is his forte and joy and there isn't a pothole in Moscow that he is afraid of or misses! Oh, I should also mention that two lane roads have three lanes created when Fast Eddie drives and he has no idea was shocks or struts are! :) We made it safely (yes, after that trip we know God was already having a hand in this trip) and were so happy to see our hotel (which we did have to stop about five people to ask directions to). It is a nice hotel (no air conditioning but clean) but its best attribute yesterday was the hot showers! You should know that many Russian families don't have hot water in the summer (I figure the hot water heaters probably run 24/7 all winter so they turn them off to give them a rest for two months!) so we were thankful to find not only hot water but a clean towel for everyone. It is amazing how wonderful a shower can feel after two days of traveling without one! At nightfall, eating once again at McDonalds (yes, that is Russian food-we ate it in Russia!) we couldn't believe we had done some much and seen so much in so short a time!

Granted this mission trip isn't for whimps! Our mantra is sleep is for the weak and food must be carried at all times cuz we just don't always have time to stop! We have seen so many ways that God has been at work ahead of us and with us and we can't wait to see what the rest of the week has in store!

So, hope you enjoyed heading out on this journey with us and will stay tuned to see more of what God has in store for us this week!

Your blogger for today,
Janet Wells

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Yoshkar-Ola Believers

This is Valerie blogging. We are all taking turns trying to catch up on blogging so please forgive me for going out of order. It's Thursday evening here in Yoshkar-Ola and we are finally getting back to the hotel after a whirlwind day learning about the Mari culture and visiting with Mari believers. The day started with a Russian breakfast in the hotel. Afterwards we started a walking tour of the city. We had the 6 of us, our two translators Natasha and Zhenya and our guide Pastor Anatoly. We were a sight walking down Victory Park! Marc was able to get some great video for Engage Russia and the pedestrians seemed to enjoy the bloopers. Marc even had a very small co-host for one segment. After lunch we visited a museum dedicated to the Mari people. Natasha did a wonderful job translating for us!

Pastor Anatoly has been helping us connect with believers in the city and guiding us around town. This evening he arranged for us to meet some Mari believers about 30 minutes outside of the city. We were invited to their apartment and had the chance to talk and interview them. Afterwards they served us dinner and Janet has pictures of Marc enjoying his. We started talking about Mari music and before we knew what had happened, we were listening to them perform music, sing, dance and see the traditional Mari clothing. We enjoyed our visit with our Brothers & Sisters in Christ even with the language barrier!

Your Sister in Christ,


Monday, May 30, 2011

What is Engage Russia (Part 1)

What Is Engage Russia All About?

In its simplest form, the Engage Russia project is about connecting Southern Baptist churches with the unreached and unengaged people groups of Russia. It is our prayer that as Southern Baptists are on mission in Russia the Gospel would be more widely spread and that new believers would then begin to share their faith and create new communities of disciples.

What does it mean to be Unreached or Unengaged?

Unreached People Groups

An unreached people group is “an identifiable group of people distinguished by a distinct culture, language, or social class who lack a community of Christians able to evangelize the rest of the people group without outside help. The only opportunity for the people group to hear about salvation is through an ‘external witness.’ Most missiologists consider two-percent of the population as the ‘tipping point’ at which the group is generally considered ‘reached’ with the Gospel.”

According to the latest statistics from The Joshua Project there are nearly 200 unreached people groups in the Russian Federation.

Unengaged People Groups

According to Finishing the Task, there are 10 people groups in Russia that are classified as both “Unreached” and “Unengaged.” These people groups have populations over 50,000 and are “perhaps the neediest of the needy as they are unengaged, which means that no church, no mission agency...no one has yet taken responsibility to tell them about Jesus Christ.”

Where Are Our Career Missionaries?

Around the world, people are moving away from rural life and are concentrating themselves in large city centers. In Russia, half of the country’s population is currently living in cities of a million or more people. Currently there are around a dozen of these large million-plus cities in Russia. Therefore, the majority of our career IMB missionaries are located in these large urban centers. While God continues to call some to serve in the rural areas of Russia, it is strategically important for the IMB to place career missionaries in the large cities with the prayer of impacting as many people with the Gospel as possible.

How Does Engage Russia Work?

In the same way that Lewis & Clark explored the American western frontier so settlers could come behind to plant fields, build farms, and establish towns; Engage Russia provides Southern Baptist Churches with a ‘map’ for engaging the different people groups of Russia with the Gospel. But Engage Russia is about more than just guiding people to find the unreached people groups of Russia. We want to also provide “soil samples” or guides to help the church to really know the people whom they are going to serve. To this end, the Engage Russia team strives to provide mission teams with complete ethnographic profiles about Russia’s people groups.

Of course, this concept of scouting out what is ahead of us and preparing for others to follow with the intent of inhabiting the new land is not a modern one. There is also a Biblical model for the work of the Engage Russia team. In the book of Numbers, Moses gives instructions to 12 men who are to be the first into the land that God promised the Children of Israel. “See what the land is like, and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. Is the land they live in good or bad? Are the cities they live in encampments or fortifications? Is the land fertile or unproductive? Are there trees in it or not? Be courageous. Bring back some fruit from the land." Numbers 13:18-20 (HCSB) In verse 26 we find that it was not enough for the men just to go and scout, it was important that they shared what they learned. “They brought back a report for them and the whole community, and they showed them the fruit of the land.” Numbers 13:20b (HCSB)

But Engage Russia is more than just research. Like Lewis & Clark, the Engage Russia team visits the cities and villages where these unreached people can be found in order to establish and build relationships with the people in those communities. Before a church mission team comes to Russia to work with a people group, the Engage Russia team has already spent time in those areas. In addition, they are constantly documenting those experiences with various forms of media such as photographs & video to supplement the research provided to the churches.

In addition to researching the culture, language, religious beliefs, and customs of a people group, the Engage Russia team also tries to seek out local believers in each of the areas they visit. In doing so, they can help to paint a more accurate picture of the current status of the Evangelical church and can help churches focus on strategies that may be used to meet the needs of the people.

Native Americans -- An Analogy

While there is not an analogy that completely helps an American understand the concept of people groups in Russia, we can easily draw a comparison between the American Indian and a people group of Russia. In many parts of the country Native Americans still maintain a separate identity, language, religious beliefs and culture. And, some of these different American Indian tribes can still be found gathered together in different towns and cities across the heartland.

Are They Christians Or Not?

As you encounter research about Russia, and about Russia’s people groups one of the things you may find is that they are listed as being Christian. Therefore, this confuses many when you begin talking about the “unreached” or “unengaged.” In this context, the designation of “Christian” can mean a variety of things. Usually, this definition in this context, indicates the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

However, as you examine Russia’s history and how the ethnic Russian people conquered the land and the people in what is now known as the Russian Federation, you find that as the people groups submitted to the authority of ethnic Russians, the new rule of law and government also established the Russians’ official religion, Russian Orthodoxy.

So, what does that mean today? Almost everybody in Russia, when you ask them on the street, will identify themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church. And, most every city or village will have some kind of Russian Orthodox church building. However, most are marginal practitioners, if at all, and a majority of those who ever visit an Orthodox chapel or cathedral only do so on Christmas or Easter holidays or for the baptism of a child or burial rites for themselves or a loved one.

Russian Baptists - An Overview

Most people are surprised to learn that Baptists have existed in Russia for over 140 years. Southern Baptist missionaries and the Engage Russia team cooperate and work alongside the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Russia -- part of the large family of Evangelical Christian Baptists, a Protestant evangelical movement which began in the Russian Empire in the midst of the Orthodox establishment. It originally attracted peasants, urban artisans, lower military, and ethnic minorities. While in some areas of the country the number of Russian Baptists seems to be growing, it is clear that across Russia for a person to be identified as a Baptist is to be identified as a member of a sect or cult.

In many of the areas where the unreached/unengaged people groups live it is possible to find small to medium-sized congregations of Russian Baptist believers.

If the Russian Baptists are there, why should we go?

To answer this question, let’s go back to our analogy comparing Russian people groups to the Native Americans. In doing so, let us also draw this fictional anecdote:

Reaching the Creek of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

As the American west was being settled in the early 1800s, thousands of Native Americans were moved from their tribal homelands to reservations. The Creek Indians, native to Alabama, resettled in what is now northwest Oklahoma. The present day town of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma was founded in the process and today many Creek Indians continue to live in this area. For the sake of example, let us say that the Creek Indians in and around Broken Arrow represent one of the unreached people groups of Russia.

A basic Google search will yield dozens of listings for Southern Baptist churches in and around the city of Broken Arrow. And, this count does not begin to include the number of other Evangelical Christian churches in the area. Based solely on this research it would be easy for us to conclude that the Creek Indians of Broken Arrow have adequate access to the Gospel. However, if one were to take a research team to Broken Arrow and begin to do an in-depth study of the people who are attending the churches in this area, they may quickly find that the vast majority of the attendees are not ethnic Creek Indians. And, if this team were to take a survey of the language and style of the worship songs being sung, it would be likely that well over 90-percent of those songs would be in English and of a style that can be found in any number of Baptist churches throughout the country. Finally, if this research team were to count how many of the sermons on any one given Sunday were being preached in the Creek language they would also find that only a small percentage were being preached in Creek. Therefore, although there are dozens of Southern Baptist churches with the potential to reach the Creek of Broken Arrow, very few, if any, are actually doing the things that it would take to connect the Gospel message with a person who has their own distinct language and culture.

While this is a fictional anecdote, it does paint an accurate correlation to describe what we often find when we visit an unreached people group in Russia and find existing Russian Baptist or other Evangelical Christian congregations. Typically, when we encounter this scenario, we find ethnic Russians reaching ethnic Russians with the Gospel. As a result, these congregations usually have a very small minority of ethnic people group members. And, while the pastors may have a heart for reaching the members of the people group in the area, the churches have not made great strides to reach out to them in a culturally or linguistically appropriate way.