Like yours, my heart is breaking over the travesty and tragic turn of events that the wonderful people of Ukraine are now suffering through. It is unspeakable and, as millions of God’s people worldwide, we are praying that God, who holds the hearts of kings in His hands, in ways known and knowable only to Him, will turn the table upon the mass murderer’s own head and deliver these precious people from what appears to be certain death or bondage.
I have in my mind memories that are flooding my soul of a trip, led by Natasha Vins, daughter of Georgi Vins, a Russian pastor who spent many years in a Siberian prison for his faith. Before being exiled to the United States in 1979 when then President Jimmy Carter swapped some Russian spies who were being held here for five “dissidents” that the Russians were holding captive, one of which was Georgi Vins. He was flown from his prison cell in Siberia and given a chance to remain in Russia if he would renounce Christ; Vins could never do that of course. Read the rest of his compelling story for blessings that will stir your soul. The year that Evangelist Ed Nelson and I and a few laymen made our trip to Russia (Ukraine was then considered Russia) was just as the “Iron Curtain” was falling, thanks to the strength of President Ronald Reagan’s leadership and his influence on the then Premier of Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev. The year was 1989. We were among the first of a future host of westerners who made the trip to the soon to be former Soviet Union states. Among the cities we worshipped with Russian believers in were Moscow, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Rostov on Don and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). It was, for this 47-year-old pastor who had grown up in Ottumwa, Iowa, a dream come true as I had prayed for the release of Georgi Vins for some time and was now on a trip to Russia with his daughter as our interpreter/guide.
I am going to just quote from notes that I have saved which I jotted down in a journal day by day when on this trip. It was in early June of 1989 and the weather was beautiful and what I remember of Ukraine especially was that the people were friendly (more than in Moscow) and we enjoyed very much giving them gospel literature on the streets and interacting with them. They were much more receptive to receiving our tracts than the people in most any major U.S. city would have been at that time.
Wednesday, May 31: Arrived in Moscow and took taxi from Airport to the hotel and saw a huge billboard that read “In God We Trust.” Visited one of Moscow’s finest super markets and viewed our surroundings and concluded that a NYU professor that we met there and visited briefly with was spot on when he said, “Things here are 20-30 years behind what we have in America.”
Wednesday, May 31: our 1st church service in an apartment where 40-50 people were packed into a small living room; service began at 7:00 p.m. and concluded at 10:00 p.m.
Thursday afternoon, June 1, had another meeting with 30-40 believers and enjoyed a meal of sausage, cheese, salad and some Russian candy.
Friday, June 2, to Kyiv where we found the folk on the street more friendly to what some have called “Ugly Americans.” We met about 20 minutes out of Kyiv in a pole barn with 2×6 benches; 100 were present, began at 7 p.m. and done at 10:00 p.m. Children, quiet and well mannered, sat in the front; we sang, with the Kyiv Christians, “What a Friend,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” There was lots of music, but notably, most was sung in a “minor” key. We had a Saturday morning meeting with 8-10 preacher boys and Dr. Ed Nelson spoke on “Interpreting Scripture,” and “Sermon Preparation.” We were asked questions on the Charismatic Movement and on what kind of music we have. In a Saturday p.m. service, we met with 150 in attendance and Sunday, June 4, our service began at 11:00 a.m. and concluded at 3:30 p.m. Some of the town authorities were in attendance at this meeting. One woman, a cousin of Pastor Vins, publicly confessed Christ as Savior. We participated in a communion service with these Ukrainian believers; there was one common cup and I am not sure what the fruit of the vine was that went down my throat as I drank “in remembrance of Him,” but I can attest that it “burned” all the way down!
Sunday p.m., June 4: We met at the edge of a forest with believers and had a question-and-answer session with them; they asked about the “New Age” movement and also about how our churches practice “church discipline.” We all sang, “God Be with You till We Meet Again,” the pastor read I Thess. 3:7-10 and asked us to take this back to our churches. It was a meeting where logs served as benches and where people walked to get to the meeting place; one of those moments melded into the memory of one’s mind; unforgettable.
Monday p.m., June 5 we were taken to the train station to depart for Kharkiv; about 100 people had gathered there to see us off, giving to each of us a beautiful bouquet of flowers and singing “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was a tearful farewell and I later would journal “As I lay in a bunk thinking of Kyiv, I know I want to return. We gave out hundreds of tracts on the streets where people were more receptive to receiving Gospel literature than we had experienced anywhere in our own beloved country.”
Tuesday, June 6, Kharkiv: We met with 350 people in a pole barn outside of the city; a choir of about 30 people sang beautifully; three women professed Christ publicly as their Savior; here I experienced for the first time that in their services men do literally greet men with a holy kiss, and that not on the cheeks, but lips to lips. I prayed for special grace!
Wednesday, June 7 we met with 7 or 8 pastors, most of whom had served time in prison for their faith, including one dear man of God who had been imprisoned for 34 years; deep furrows of hardship and suffering had been plowed onto the faces of these 20th century heroes of the faith and never has a pastor felt more unworthy to stand alongside of these stalwarts than this preacher did that beautiful day in Kharkiv. We had an afternoon meeting with 200 people gathered in a back yard under a shade tree; a brass ensemble played 2 or 3 hymns and a choir sang and Pastor Nelson spoke; then that evening we departed by train for Rostov, but not before saying goodbye to about 200-300 people who had gathered there to bid us farewell again with beautiful bouquets of flowers. Never has one felt so humbled; so undeserving as we were treated like celebrities by people who had suffered in prison for their love of Christ.
The remainder of the 10- or 11-day trip was pretty much the same. Most every pastor we met on this tour said that they believed the freedoms that they were then enjoying would be short lived. Of course, they have been proven to be correct in that assessment. Evangelist Neil Cadwell made a similar trip to Ukraine about a year after we were there and he simply fell in love with the people, came home and founded the Slavic Baptist Institute making hundreds of trips to Ukraine, training pastors and Christian workers, both men and women, for ministry. Block courses were taught by pastors from the states who would teach subjects designed to fill a deep vacuum of specialized ministry training that these believers had been denied. Hundreds of pastors and teachers were sent out to start churches all over Ukraine, Belarus and other surrounding nations. Bro. Rick Arrowood is the President of Slavic Baptist Mission now (firstname.lastname@example.org). The bunk bed prayer that I had prayed 15 years earlier wishing to one day return to the beautiful country of Ukraine was answered when it was my privilege to assist Bro. Cadwell in two trips back to contribute in the teaching of his Bible Institute sessions; again, a life changing experience for which I will ever be grateful.