Before perestroika, the church in Russia stood firm in the face of severe persecution. While perseverance and purity were emphasized over open proclamation, a witness still went forth. Non-believers heard the gospel, repented, and joined the family of God. In fact, one of our Moscow-based staff, Ella Libkina, came to faith through the courageous story of her doctor—a man who dared to offer Christ as the true solution to her ailments, despite her rather impressive standing (at that time) in the Soviet hierarchy. A witness went forth, to be sure—but church growth was mostly a matter of raising one’s family in the faith rather than reaching out to the unsaved at large.”
Then the doors opened, and Glasnost brought unprecedented opportunities to preach the Good News where silence had prevailed for more than seventy years. When Communist hard-liners attempted a coup in the autumn of 1991, many Christians feared the window of opportunity for sharing the gospel was about to slam shut. Instead, the failure of the coup and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union by December of that year opened the window even wider.
Believers came to preach the gospel from as far west as Canada and the United States, and as far east as Korea and Japan. As people in the former USSR received the gospel, they formed new congregations. A variety of educational institutions sprang up to ground new believers and to train those who felt called by God to serve as pastors and shepherds of this new flock.
Ultimately, the window of opportunity will close, and the government will once again restrict freedom of speech and religion. When that happens, the Church in Russia will certainly be preserved. Yet the question in my mind is: Will the church merely persevere or will she proclaim as well? Will the body continue to have a voice? In one sense, the merit of foreign missionary efforts in the former USSR will be measured by the degree to which we have nurtured spiritual children who have found their own voices and are determined to sing.
I am encouraged by what I see in our staff in the CIS (which is totally indigenous, with the exception of myself). They seem to understand that evangelism is crucial and, by God’s grace, they will remain faithful to their calling regardless of changes that may lay ahead.
Meanwhile, our staff is seeing a shift in the response to our gospel proclamation. Many people are more guarded than before, and opposition to our cause has increased. Yet the receptivity remains. It has matured from an innocent eagerness to consider anything religious to a more discerning search for the truth. This was evident in one of our witnessing campaigns when, during the course of three weeks of outreach, 17 campaigners from various republics of the former USSR distributed over 1,000,000 of our gospel broadside tracts, one at a time. These campaigners gathered, through individual conversations on the streets, the names and addresses of more than 4,000 people who were willing to receive more literature in the mail. Over 1,200 of those seekers were Jewish.
When we began, it seemed like everyone was curious about our gospel message. That casual interest has been polarized; some have decided they are not interested after all, while those who are interested are seriously interested!
Yet sometimes the strangest things occur. We see people tell us no with their lips or by shaking their heads, while their hands reach out to take a tract. Sometimes the stridency of the no is just the final burst of resistance before a more docile heart says yes. Things are not always as they appear.
During the aforementioned campaign, a woman with an obvious look of displeasure across her face approached one of our volunteers. The campaigner braced himself for what he assumed would be a verbal and possibly physical barrage. The woman said, “Jews for Jesus, again?”
“Again,” the campaigner replied with a grin.
“You know, I gave one of you people my name and address not long ago. I was promised more literature. More information than just this.” She pointed to the broadside that the campaigner held in his hand.
“We send the literature out right away, so you should receive it.”
“So I should receive it,” the woman echoed. “When?”
I mentioned Ella Libkina, one of our outreach workers who came to faith as the result of a courageous doctor who witnessed to her at a time when he could have faced severe consequences. Because Ella is older than most of our outreach workers, rather than “hitting the streets” with the campaigners, she devoted her time to calling and visiting those Jewish people who indicated a serious interest in the gospel. One week, Ella visited with sixteen such people. Of those sixteen, thirteen repented of their sins and placed their trust in Yeshua.
God in His grace has raised up a new generation of Jews for Jesus who are laboring in the present harvest and looking forward to future fields that may soon be white unto harvest. Yet hopes for the future must be viewed with a sense of urgency against the backdrop of a changing political climate. The elections in Russia and the return to neo-Communist rule in some of the former Soviet republics has fueled opposition from political and social spheres. Vlad Leibovsky, a staff member from Moscow who presently is reaching out to the Russian Jewish community in New York, describes the opposition he faced in the CIS.
“Most of our opponents there were not Jewish—they were gentiles who have not experienced the Messiah’s love. They don’t like us because we’re Jewish. There is still very little Jewish opposition because so many of our people still want to hear. On the other hand, the opposition from the anti-Semites is meant to frighten us into silence. But how can we be silent as long as our people are willing to hear? We stand on the words of Isaiah 62:
For Zion’s sake I will not hold My peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burns.
None of us doubts that the pendulum in the former Soviet republics is swinging back to a more repressive and intolerant society. Perhaps it is time for concerned Christians to carry a new prayer to the Lord on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the former USSR—a prayer for the light to continue to shine brightly once the darkness re-descends; a prayer for the voices to continue crying out, even though prudence might prompt people to opt for a safer silence. Isaiah declared, “Praise the Lord, call upon His name; declare His deeds among the peoples. Make mention that His name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4).
“God will hold the door open for us so long as we are willing to witness,” says Ella Libkina, who remembers the Stalinist repression and knows what it is like to proclaim her faith in a closed society. “God will give us the time,” she believes, “but anyone who wastes the time is a fool.”
With God’s help and by God’s grace, we won’t waste the time. Thank you, dear friends, for your prayers and your support that enable us to labor in this field. Night may be coming—but so long as it’s “day,” we’ll distribute our broadside tracts, we’ll visit Jewish people who want to know more, and we’ll instruct new believers who understand that we were created to proclaim and we are saved in order to serve.
Twenty-three year old Ira (short for Irina) is from the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, but she is part of our Moscow outreach team. She’s so slight that you’d almost think that the Moscow winds alone would be too much for her to face. However, the real danger that she and the others face doesn’t come from the winds. It comes from those who want to stop the proclamation of the Gospel.
Most of our opposition comes from the police (even though our actions are legal) and from anti-Semitic nationalists. We are amazed at the fortitude shown by young believers like Ira, who wrote:
“I have come to Moscow from Ukraine, and I must have legal registration to remain here. The police are obligated by law to give me this registration, but they have denied it anyway. This makes it dangerous for me to hand out our broadside tracts in the Metros (subways) in Moscow. Our regular struggles with the Metro police sometimes make me weary and frightened—I must admit it.
“Well, one day I got tired of being frightened of the police. I had handed out almost half of my tracts when a policeman told me to get out of the Metro. I continued, knowing it is not against the law, but the policeman dragged me to the police station anyway. On the way there, I told him how God loves him and wants to save him—but he wasn’t glad to hear about it. So, when we arrived to the police station, he put me into a cage and proceeded to check whether I had a registration. I quietly wondered what would happen when he discovered that I had none. Would they put me in prison (because I had no money to pay a bribe, which we refuse to pay, anyway)? Yet somehow I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t worry. I felt perfectly safe and comfortable in the Father’s hands.
“Soon the policeman discovered that I was not registered. He left but soon returned with a drunk hooligan whom he threw into the cage with me (to keep me company, I guess!). But the drunkard didn’t like the idea and started a fight with the officer. In the process, the drunkard fell and cut his head.
“The policeman ordered me out of the cage. I could see that he was worried. He gave me a form and told me to describe how the man had gotten his wound. I did so, and then the policeman told me to get out! Before leaving the police station I came up to the cage with one of my broadsides and gave it to the drunkard. I said, ‘Put it in your pocket for now; you’ll read it later, when you are sober.’
“Well, I hope that just as God used the drunkard to set me free, maybe He also used me to help set the drunkard free!”