A week has passed since our trip to Rostov-On-Don, Russia. It was a very encouraging time on a number of levels.
Firstly, let me speak to the difficulty in communicating freely on this blog. For starters, our readers (from our Google analytic reports) are not only from North America, but a growing number of Ukrainians, and now Russians frequent our updates. Such is the double edged sword of social media today, in the context of political tension. We also don’t want to jeopardize writing anything that could be documented and used against our future efforts to share the gospel in this part of the world.
On one hand, we want to speak (or type) freely and openly to our friends and family. On the other, it’s probably we do that in person or by phone:) The amount of propaganda on both sides concerning the crisis in Ukraine is mind numbing. The problem with propaganda, as far as I can tell, is that once believed, it’s pretty darn near impossible to convince someone they are being deceived. We humans like a black and white backdrop, clear distinctions between good (our side) and evil (the other guys).
I believe that often the truth is found between the two extremes. This became evident after listening and watching to over 2 months of Pro-Ukrainian, Pro-Western media. If this is all the media you digest, it will form your opinion in sweeping generalizations. You will start to see Putin as Darth Vader, and the Ukrainians as the Rebel Alliance.
Hopping across the border and spending a week in the closest major Russian city to the border of Ukraine, you immediately begin consuming an entirely different narrative. What was a clear Star Wars, good vs evil situation became to us, through our various taxi driver conversations and local discussions, a much less distinct, or edgy theatrical backdrop.
The ‘Russians’ you see, are comprised of many, many different people groups. In Rostov, a City of around 2 million, is made up of Russians, Georgians, Uzbek, Ukrainians, Turks, and many other nationalities. They each have their perspectives, their history with Mother Russia, their appreciation for, and conversely their disdain for their nations political actions.
When I asked what they thought about the situation in Ukraine, I found all sorts of reactions. Most noticeably was the lacking anger or hatred toward the West. In the West, we seem to enjoy demonizing an entire nation, as if their leader was the embodiment of that nations character. However, with the folks I talked to, they emitted a general kindness, a goodwill towards their Ukrainian neighbors. That graciousness was offered to Deb, Broderic and I was well. From store clerks to taxi drivers, these were very likable, well wishing individuals that we felt very comfortable walking around in public during the day, and night. In many ways, as foreigners we felt even more welcome than in Ukraine – this was a welcome surprise!
We stayed at the YWAM base and taught during the day. Some lovely Christian servants caring for the property and the many teams that come in and out all year. It was clear that the missionary activity in Russia has been much more limited than in Ukraine. We knew this was the case from reading about changing visa laws and such, but it sinks in when you are there. Those responsible for starting the base was denied access to come back in. We heard several stories of how missionaries are having to get strategic in order to continue serving inside its borders.
We personally felt overwhelmed (in a good way) with the benefits of speaking/learning the language inside Russia vs in Ukraine. Our path towards fluency has been greatly hampered by our location in a smaller town that speaks mostly Ukrainian, and a strange mix of both. Hearing the many verbs and nouns conjugated as we’d been taught over a couple years in language school was like receiving the gift of an unlearned tongue. Distinction is a beautiful thing, it was a much needed encouragement for us to keep progressing, that our efforts are not totally wasted.
As you walk around, and as you discuss situations with other believers (from other parts of Russia), you realize how wide open Ukraine, and the west actually is. Despite the similarities with widespread corruption, there’s a spiritual progressiveness that Ukraine is experiencing that the church in Russia isn’t benefiting from. You can feel, in some strange way, the oppressive restrictions towards free speech and liberty of thought. Russian believers pray for the missionaries and the church in Ukraine to come and help them.
Unlike Ukraine, you actually want to blend in and not be noticed in public. If I were to guess, Rostov is probably where Kiev was 15yrs ago. As much as we might belittle the small economic, or cultural steps Ukraine has taken towards European integration, Rostov embodies the ‘stuck in time’ feeling of a nation that refuses to give up on a dream – or at least has given up on becoming something other than what it was. That’s a wide generalization, just my thoughts as I compare two regions separated only by a days drive.
Most of the Russian believers we spoke with knew very little about the situation in Ukraine. They know of problems, but little to no understanding of their own governments role in instigating them. They see Crimea as a good thing for everyone. The political machine has effectively convinced folks that Ukraine has been hijacked by ultra-nationalistic extremists. However the majority of folks we talked to felt their country needs to focus on their own problems, and that their army would only get involved if the Ukrainians need help. I asked on Taxi driver, “Do you think your army will invade Ukraine?” and he quickly responded, “Of course, it’s our land.” He was however the only one of several who felt this way.
We were excited to meet a young couple with passion for discipleship in far eastern Russian – the city of Vladivostok. Its directly east of Japan. They are serving at a YWAM base there, and have invited us to come and teach possibly this fall on the Character of God. We believe these type trips will be our next phase of ministry in Russia. The more difficult it becomes for foreign involvement in Russian, the more these type “Paul missionary journey’ trips become a very real method of Kingdom influence in Russia. We are excited about this, and praying for God to continue opening doors as our hearts are filled with more compassion for the Russian people.
Returning to Ukraine we are focused on this Cafe. Today we are finishing out a pantry area in the garage for a fridge, freezer and the dough mixing machine. We’re hoping to open in a few weeks. We have almost everything else ready except for the remaining gas, which daily changes status. We will be updating everyone soon on a few needs we have to open as we’re operating in faith today, spending money we don’t have.
Beyond the Cafe, we’ll continue to pray and respond to opportunities to share the gospel and be lights for Jesus Christ in Ukraine. Next week I’ve been invited to share at a church in Kiev again. I have something on my heart and mind concerning a possible short term missions trip for some Ukrainians (to Western Ukraine), appreciate prayer for wisdom and timing on this! Coming back from Russia the feeling of opportunity and freedom here was eye opening, and I don’t want to settle in to the previous state of ‘missional apathy’ that we all battle – we need to be continually shaken up and inspired to take steps for God in faith, for His glory. Seeing how constricted the gospel is in Russia, inspires me to expand it’s broadcast, at least through my life!
I’ve been praying and thinking over these verses from Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14-
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.
Long update, if you made this far, you are amazing and we love you. Thank you for your prayer and support! We will be Skyping Crossroads Community Church, our home church in Longview, Texas this Sunday. Looking forward to it!
Bruce & Deb