Isaiah 55:58, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD."
Every trip to Russia brings new experiences and new revelations. This trip began with an all new, and not so appreciated, experience; one we do not care to repeat. Trip leaders Anna and Peter spent a considerable effort collecting clothing and other goods to be distributed among the 14 drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers under the management of Russian Christian Radio. Delta offered free second bags because Russian Christian Radio is a 501(c)3 charitable organization. This allowed each person to check three bags; one person and two for distribution to men and women in one of the centers. It was in St. Petersburg that we received our very unpleasant surprise.
For the first time ever, Russian customs stopped us and proclaimed that incoming passengers were limited to a total of 50 kilos of baggage, including carry on. That allowed for each person to enter Russia with 110 total pounds. Although we had prepaid for the extra baggage and had waivers for another extra bag, Russian customs insisted that we were to bring only 110 pounds INTO the country. Anna and Peter talked with the customs officials for two hours trying to help them understand that the extra baggage was for men and women who desperately needed clothing, and it was for the benefit of these people alone that we were bringing this extra baggage. What seemed a logical explanation fell on deft ears so we allowed the customs officials to weigh all the bags and it was then determined that we were to be charged $1500 to bring all the baggage into the country. A time of prayer and soul searching, pleading and rationalizing brought us to the simple point that we could not justify spending that much money, irrespective of the need. We finally agreed to pay $500 for an additional 400 kilos and gave customs and the airline the instructions to ship the remainder back to Atlanta. We were all greatly disappointed but accepted the experience as the Lord’s will.
After a day of rest and greeting by our hosts in St. Pete, we boarded the train to Vuishny Volochok (about halfway between St. Pete and Moscow) where we were met with several of the rehab managers and headed to our destination in Nikulino. Our schedule from then generally followed our plans and each team member went about fulfilling their roles as teachers, instructors, mentors, discipleship leaders, and facilitators. We began each day with team prayer and devotion then, after breakfast, had devotions with the Russians in the center.
One remarkable new program has begun in this, the largest RCR, rehab center. Often when women come to rehabilitation center(s) they are forced, by family and government, to give up their children, often to orphanages. After some negotiations with local authorities, this center (Nikulino) was given the permission to allow women to bring their children with them while undergoing rehabilitation. This required modifications to the facility, with more to come, but the initial results are that four children are with their mothers at the centers…instead of the custody of the government. We did have the ability in interact with two of the older children and we are convinced that the children are happy….mom is getting off drugs, the children are well fed, have a safe place to live and they are among Christians who care for them. Surely they are better off than they have been in a long time. Just after arriving back in the states I was encouraged by a lady who donated $10,000 to Russian Christian Radio (the ministry with whom I work) in order help provide more private spaces for the moms with children as well as a private bathroom. PTL.
The presence of the children did cause a slight deviation in our plan.
Although I was personally able to finish leading the “Five Love Languages” program, and we were able to complete other discipleship efforts, the vocational and building portions of the trip were interrupted. Local authorities led the center director to believe that they would be coming to insure that the children were being properly cared for. The center director believed that the presence of a group of Americans might prove problematic. As a consequence our team left a full day prior to the plan and some of the work was left unfinished. As is often the case, the Lord had another plan.
After an 11 hour drive we arrived at Ruchiyok Christian Camp, just outside of Moscow. After a restful night we awoke to a Saturday….the day we had expected to be a travel day. With nothing on the schedule, we shared breakfast and then the team asked the director of the Ruchiyok rehab/adaptation center to share his testimony. Artem (we do not use last names) is a man we have watched closely over the past few years. A somber man with few smiles Artem has had a challenging time over the past year. He was married, diagnosed with lung cancer, had a lung removed, undergone chemo-therapy but never left his ministry. The ministry of helping drug addicts recover through the Christian based program of Russian Christian Radio. Artem story was that of a strong man; special ops in the Russian military; a background that led him into security work with a (mafia controlled) bank after the military. Slowly Artem was introduced to drugs and his habit became so great that he lost everything….everything but the love of his parents…parents he only recently discovered had adopted him as an infant. His parents faithfulness eventually led him to one of RCR’s rehab centers. He did not believe the person that invited him to come because his previous experience with rehab was actually imprisonment where he was literally chained to a bed for over 40 days. But Artem escaped, survived, found a Christian rehab center where he was freed from his addiction and heard the Lord call his name. Artem’s testimony and his commitment to helping others was one of the high points of the entire trip.
That Saturday evening we visited a third rehab center, Rumyantsevo, were a diner in our honor was planned. While fellowshipping with the residents we had one man (the second in our trip) come forward to “repent”. This is what the Russians refer to when someone comes to Christ. I was asked to pray over the man and was amazed that, despite the freezing weather outside, how the heat from his body was like a furnace. People in front of him told me how perspiration was pouring down his face. The man was as happy as a child at Christmas after we prayed for him. Another high point. We also discovered that a well known Russian painter was at this facility undergoing alcohol rehab. As part of his rehab he is allowed to paint and now, as a born-again Christian, his painting are all dedicated to the Lord. Another high point. This man presented Peter Wlasiuk and myself with one of his paintings.
On Sunday part of the group visited Spasinye (Salvation) church. Our host, Dima Gusev, is assistant pastor of this church and it is pastured by Alexey Smirnov, president of the Evangelical Baptist Christian Union (Russian equivalent of the SBC). One of the translators and I ventured to the Nedezda (Hope) church in another part of Moscow. Both of these churches have been very helpful in descipling men and women in rehab centers. In each church we presented the pastors with commemorative sacrement cups and plates made by a man who was unable to join the team.
On Monday the team spend a few hours touring Moscow and then went to the office and studio of Russian Christian Radio (RCR). In this place RCR records sermons for web and satellite broadcasts as well as allowing “New Life Radio”, a contemporary Christian station to use its facility. RCR also uses this site for the publication of the “Gospel Behind Barbed Wire”, a Christian magazine directed to men and women in prison. Currently it is distributed by 500 volunteers to over 740 Russian prisons.
Not all “our” goals were accomplished but, as always, we left Russia with hearts full and energy emptied.
We are truly grateful to be a part of a church that places such regard to missions. At any one time there are 125-150 men and women in RCR drug/alcohol rehab centers, thousands of Russians receiving the gospel on web and satellite radios, thousands more reading encouraging testimonies in the only Christian publication available to prisoners in Russia…..and dozens upon dozens of members of our church who have had the privilege of mentoring and discipling people who have been raised in an atheist culture. Thank you all for your prayers and support!