Sunday, December 6, 2009

Impressions of Russia - By Shafer Parker

Pastor, Hawkwood Baptist Church
Calgary, Alberta

The Rostov Baptist Bible School was created in the mid-1990s after the fall of Communism. In meetings with Russian Baptist leaders, North American Baptists asked how they could best support what Russian churches were already doing. Educating pastors and young adults for Christian ministry became a priority. Financially the school is supported by NAB churches in Canada and the U.S. All costs for each student are covered, including a tiny amount of spending money. The program is completed in one year, with each subject handled in two-week intensives (Bible survey courses, theology, hermeneutics, homiletics, etc.), led by volunteer professors and pastors from North America. Teaching is done through a professional translator and visiting professors live in a well-furnished apartment a five-minute walk away.

As I write this I’m on my way home from two weeks of teaching the Pentateuch at the Rostov Baptist Bible School in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. This was my second teaching trip and as I left for Russia this time I mistakenly assumed I would simply pick up where I had left off in 2008. Well, that notion disappeared in a hurry. I’d forgotten how much the translation process slows everything down. I also failed to realize that with a brand new group of students (10 men and 3 women) it would take a few days to assess their level of Biblical knowledge and develop the same rapport I had enjoyed with the students by the end of my first visit.

Nor had it crossed my mind how different the weather could be. I mean different from last year because this year it never varied from one day to the next. It rained, except for short periods of heavy overcast and dripping trees, then it rained some more. The hour of the day made no difference. It just rained. As we discussed Noah’s flood in the classroom, nature was giving us a graphic illustration of 40 days of inclemency just outside the window, with narry a rainbow in sight. Rostov is on the Don River just 20 miles east of the Sea of Asov, so I expected the humidity to be a little higher than in my home town of Calgary, Alberta. But this was ridiculous. Ah well, I made up for the dampness outdoors by the dryness of my teaching style indoors.

To meet a Russian Evangelical Christian is to meet someone who understands total commitment to Christ. Exceptions must surely exist, but I’ve not met any. Russia is no longer Communist and religious freedom is a reality, but by and large the culture is so opposed to Christianity, and evangelical Christianity in particular, that no one decides to confess Christ without counting the cost. Or else, like many of this year’s students, they’ve traveled the way of the world to its bitter end and know how to compare the cost of that journey to the rewards of following Jesus. Several of the men in this year’s class have spent time in prison, or in drug and alcohol rehab. They came to faith with the desperation of a Jacob, begging for a blessing from God after all natural strength has been torn away. None of them harbor any illusions as to the source of the new life they presently enjoy, nor would they return to their old way of life for anything this world can offer.

The classroom and the dormitory for the Bible school are in the basement of Central Baptist Church, the only new Baptist Church building to be built in Russia during the Communist era. The Soviet Union hosted the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and the government was anxious to show the world that its people enjoyed religious freedom, which meant that precisely one church in one city got permission to build — at the end of a narrow, pot-holed lane that appears more alley than street, and where the church building is hidden from view behind some of the most dilapidated buildings in Rostov. No one just drops in at Central. To get there you have to be looking for it, and even then you probably need guidance from someone who knows the way.

Despite the difficulties, a growing number of people are attending Christian worship in Russia. The thousand-seat sanctuary at Central Baptist is nearly full every Sunday, with enough young people present to convince even a convinced skeptic that Christianity cannot be dismissed as nothing more than delusional comfort for a dying generation.

Still, attendance at Central isn’t what it once was — not, surprisingly enough, necessarily a bad thing. Before the fall of communism standing-room-only crowds were the order of the day. But over the past 15 years many members have used their new-found freedom to immigrate away from Russia, and an equal number have gone out to plant new churches around the city — one of them an imposing brick structure on a major thoroughfare with a large cross on top that leaves no room for the passing crowds to misunderstand what goes on inside.

For me, it’s the students I will always remember. Andre, who grew up as one of the good guys but remained haunted by the thought that something was wrong with his life. It was when one of the local pastors suggested he help out at a drug rehab centre that he began to understand his own need for repentance. Michael was a patient at that same centre who shared with me that he had dedicated 20 years of his life to drugs, alcohol and prisons. Within six weeks of entering rehab last year, and being exposed to a Christian witness, he had repented and believed. “Since then God has led me with His own hand,” he reports.

Then there’s Alexander (Sasha to his friends), who was a “danger to other people and a danger to myself.” Twice he tried to commit suicide, and twice the Lord preserved him until he finally went back to his believing parents and asked them to “tell me about God.” Since then “God has released me from my burdens,” he says.

These days Andre, Michael and Sasha are focused on preparing for a lifetime of ministry to others. They’ve got a long way to go to be completely ready, but I have little doubt they’ll make it. To God be the glory! Great things He has done!