The Gospel in Siberia: Progress and Problems
THE GOSPEL IN SIBERIA 2002: PROGRESS AND PROBLEMS
by Roger Weil
My journey to Siberia this year lasted two and a half weeks taking in four main centres, Nizhnivartovsk, Tiumen, Tobolsk and Nyagan. My thanks to those of you who prayed for me along the way, thus enabling me to bring help and encouragement to the Lord’s hardworking servants in each of these places.
This was my first visit to a town built only thirty years ago to exploit the large deposits of oil and gas that had been discovered in the region. It lies some 1,500 miles due east of Moscow and as my plane prepared to land one could see far and wide the gas flares from scores of functioning oil wells. Nizhnivartovsk lies on the banks of the great river Ob, but apart from the new Orthodox cathedral of red brick crowned with golden onion-domes the town is built on the familiar pattern of other Soviet-style cities, long wide straight streets fronting endless blocks of flats all built of concrete and all looking very much the same. The relatively high wages that can be earned in the local oil-fields have inflated both wages and prices. The populace is predominately young and many of them squander their wages on drink, cars, drugs and promiscuity. The town has a soaring divorce rate, violence, rapes and murders and the beginnings of an Aids epidemic, an all too familiar story nowadays in cities the world over.
Vladimir and his wife Oksana came here nine years ago from the Ukraine at the invitation of Joseph Bondarenko the leader of the earlier missions to Western Siberia. He began by holding evangelistic meetings in the local library and thereafter the small group of believers who had accepted the gospel met in rented halls and schools. In 1999 the Orthodox Church persuaded the Government that all religious ‘sectarians’ were ‘non-Russian’ and therefore a danger to the State and should be banned from meeting in libraries, schools, civic-centres and the like. Since then they have been obliged to meet in each other’s flats which is now proving a problem due to the numbers attending. The public have been warned by the media of the dangers posed by sectarians who meet in private, because of the evil and satanic practices they are alleged to carry out in secret. Sadly these mischievous stories are often believed so people are afraid to accept invitations to meetings in anything other than public halls.
One of my reasons for visiting Nizhnivartovsk was to see if a small house could be purchased, or a plot of land where a ‘Prayer House’ could be built. Prices were extremely high and a modest plot of land on the outskirts of the town was on sale for no less than $43,000 (£29,000). The city administration have shown some sympathy towards Vladimir’s plans to open a Christian centre to minister to the city’s widespread moral problems. But due to the negative influence of the Orthodox church they have declined to make any concrete proposals. It is therefore now a matter for earnest prayer that God Himself would find a solution to this problem;
"Wrestling prayer can wonders do,
Bring relief in deepest straits.
Prayer can force a passage through
Iron bars and brazen gates".
Until three years ago Vladimir was working as a full-time missionary but then his support ceased, since when he has had to find what work he could to support himself and his family. He injured himself doing heavy physical work on a building site and was advised by doctors to find alternative employment. We had brought with us some personal gifts for him given by some of our supporters. These were very gratefully received coming as they did just when they were most needed.
On the Sunday I spoke to a small gathering in the flat of one of the elders, about twenty were present, about half the usual number, as many were away on holiday. I was able to explain that my visit to Siberia was not motivated by idle curiosity but to see if there was any way that Christians in Britain could be of practical help to them. They already knew something about us through the Bibles, Christian books, food parcels and small financial gifts we had sent during the previous year, but were curious to know more, asking many questions about our ministry in Siberia. My visit confirmed my earlier impressions, that Vladimir and his fellow believers are a serious-minded devout group of the Lord’s people intent on church planting, and needing our prayers and practical support.
Pastor Alexander Boichenko leads a team of young but very active full-time workers. He and his wife Dina came here from the hot climate of southern Ukraine eight years ago. They have had to adapt to the severe Siberian winters enduring much poverty and illness along the way. During that time he has built up a congregation of more than two hundred and fifty members and completed a new church building. He has established new churches with their own buildings in three small towns near Tiumen and other groups hold meetings in their own homes in a further four. This summer they completed a small two-storey building, adjoining the main church, where they will open a soup kitchen this winter to feed the poor and witness to them; there are also rooms for their Sunday School work. Unfortunately he is driving himself too hard at times and his health and that of his wife has begun to suffer. The work begun two years ago in the eastern part of the city still has no place of its own in which to meet, they are currently hiring a hall in a local cinema. Pavel Boichenko, the younger brother of Alexander, is deeply exercised to find a permanent place for their meetings. They live in a district housing 150,000 people but the price of land is high. He showed me a plot in a new development area costing upwards of $20,000 (£13,500). One remembers the word, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Please intercede bearing such big thoughts of God’s power in mind – nothing is too difficult for Him. Hudson Taylor said,
"There are usually three stages in a work of God. First it’s impossible, second it’s difficult, then its’ done!"
Due to the Government continually raising the price of gas and electricity the church has had to convert it’s heating system from gas to wood-burning boilers. They were faced with the real possibility of being unable to heat their buildings this winter. One of the young men we support has taught himself the deaf and dumb language in order to witness to this neglected and marginalised group of people in Russian society. A number of them are always present at the main meeting on Sunday with an interpreter. Since my last visit eight months ago another group of men and women had repented and been baptised. In addition to leaving support for Pastor Boichenko and his six helpers we left help for twenty poor families on the ‘Needy List’, also sufficient money to run a weeks summer camp for more than fifty poor children from the surrounding area, most of them from unbelieving homes. This is a very active church seeking by all means to preach the gospel to all who will hear it, and to plant new meetings in the neighbouring towns and villages. Pastor Boichenko is indeed a zealous Pastor and evangelist always leading from the front.
Pastor Timothy Oleinik is also a model leader, and indefatigable in reaching the lost and encouraging fellow-workers to disciple and teach those who have come to faith and repentance. Not only must they confront the dire problems and tragedies of drugs and alcohol, especially among young people, but also propaganda from a local charismatic church more interested in healings, visions, ‘prophecies’ and dancing than in winning souls to Christ and living holy and transformed lives to the glory of God. Pastor Oleinik is meeting with forty families where the gospel has newly arrived through the conversion of one of its members. There is much hostility to be overcome, because many middle-aged people consider themselves ‘Orthodox’ and resent the influence of ‘Sectarian’ religion entering their family life.
The large church building is now extremely costly to heat due to the huge increases in the price of gas and electricity. With the help of some friends from abroad they have begun to make wooden furniture, using the proceeds from what they sell to pay their heating bills. This excellent ‘self-sufficiency’ project is due to the initiative of Pastor Oleinik and is the first I have come across in Siberian churches.
For some time meetings have been held in a neighbouring Settlement in the home of a lady who is a believer but whose husband is not. Because of his objections it was decided to try and buy a small wooden dwelling and refurbish it as a Meeting House. Pastor Oleinik had already taken the initiative and collected some money for this project and with a contribution from ourselves was able to complete the purchase. The name of the Settlement (a large village) is, ZVEROSOVHOZ. The work is being led by one of the young men from the Tobolsk church.
I again visited needy families who are receiving a regular supply of food parcels from our helpers in Britain and two who receive from America. It was good to renew fellowship with them and to hear how this help has forged important bonds of joy and friendship with those abroad. We gave some financial help to each family and our regular support to Pastor Olienik and the three young men who are helping him in this active and growing church. In April there had been another group of new believers receiving baptism.
Pastor Redka’s church building has been affected by subsidence. A friend in Britain, who is a Civil Engineer, had given me a drawing showing an inexpensive method of underpinning the foundations. I gave this to the Pastor and discussed its details to ensure he understood how to carry out the work. I also gave some money for it to be done before the winter snows begin. Next day we travelled to PRIOBYE by bus along the new road the first ever to be built between the two towns. Formerly the only means of communication had been by a very slow train. There was great rejoicing in the Settlement because oil had recently been discovered nearby. This will bring much needed work to the area and almost double the population to 12,000 giving it ‘town status’. A timber processing factory had also recently been opened. This augers well for the new church that will have its official opening in September. One of the young women, Yana, had just returned from her two year course in church music in the Ukraine. She has brought her fiancé, Valentin, with her and they will be married before September. This will strengthen the team of workers when the full range of activities begins this autumn. Yana and three others testified in the open air at the railway station. Quite a large and attentive crowd gathered who had never before heard the gospel of Christ being preached; we hope this is a further sign that God is at work in this town. Remember too how sympathetic the Mayor has been to Pastor Redka’s work in giving him a large building for meetings, and promising to send twenty children from the orphanage each week for a day’s instruction and recreation. The building is now fully equipped and ready to receive them.
Although we did not visit Pastor Yuri Poltavets and his wife and family this year we did make a gift to enable them to have a holiday in the Ukraine. Doctors in Siberia advise all parents who can to send their children to the south for sunshine and a diet of fruit and vegetables, as this will fortify them for the long, dark, freezing winter months that lie ahead. Yuri could only join them for a short time, as he had to lead a youth camp and arrange the legal details for a new Meeting House in the neighbouring town of OBSKAYA. He has also had opportunities to explain the Christian Faith on local TV and in several schools. New people continue to attend the meetings week by week.
Can anyone who has read the foregoing report doubt that there is indeed a real work of God going on in this region of Siberia? Surely God Himself has placed before us a wonderful door of opportunity during the last four years, to support more than a dozen missionaries, to help with the building of places of worship and to bring material help and relief to many poor families in need of food and clothing. Great needs have been mentioned both material and spiritual, needs which we believe only God can supply. There is therefore a need for intercessory prayer to Him, who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think. Remember too the Biblical promise which so powerfully helped George Muller in his great work in Bristol, when he asked God to do great things for him,
"Open thy mouth wide, and I Will fill it" (Ps. 81:10)
Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
And trusts to that alone.
Laughs at impossibilities
And cries, ‘It shall be done!’
Secretary of the Slav Lands Christian Fellowship
Mr Roger Weil, 28 Hayesford Park Drive, Bromley, Kent. BR2 9DB. (Tel: 020 8402 0695)
Northern Ireland Representative
Mr J. Price, 32 Old Saintfield Road, Carryduff, Belfast, N. Ireland, BT8 8EY (Tel: 0290 812843)
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