Reports of spiritual hunger in Russia in the early 90s deeply moved me. The Iron Curtain came crashing down in the Former Soviet Union and in a day revival broke out amongst the poor, hungry people, who had been cut off from the rest of the world for 70 years. When two churches decided to partner with our congregation, Beth Messiah, to plant a church in Tolyatti, Russia, I knew I must go.
However when I landed at Moscow Domodedovo Airport I wondered if I had made a hasty decision—a great mistake. We had flown from Helsinki in an Aeroflot Airline jet, Russia’s largest airline at the time—and still, I think. The plane was old. The seats would flop over at the slightest push. And the flight—well, let’s just say that I felt like some kid named Sasha or Anatoly stole his dad’s keys to the airplane and was taking it for a joyride.
The airport in Moscow was dark and quiet. Machine gun toting soldiers were everywhere and quite intimidating. You just had the feeling that you were neither liked nor welcomed. In Soviet era Russia, no one drew attention to oneself. Everyone sought to be invisible to the Secret Police—the KGB. This part of their culture remained. And here we were, 70 normally loud Americans, jet-lagged and a little freaked out—like we were in a Robert Ludlum (Jason Bourne) novel. I can honestly say that the Moscow airport is the most oppressive, intimidating place I have ever been!
I immediately thought of Elana, at home with two children and a baby on the way. My heart ached. What was I thinking? How could I have taken off for two weeks to go to such a dangerous place, leaving her alone?
The first day on an overseas missions trip in another time zone is always the hardest. You are tired and dirty. Mentally, you are weak and susceptible to depression. However, the restorative power in a good night’s sleep can be astounding.
We were taken to the infamous Izmaylova Hotel, one of the nicest in the city, built for the 1980 Olympics that the US boycotted. It was a dump! Fortunately I was so tired that I slept like a baby.
Off to Tolyatti
After a day of touring Red Square and shopping at the famous GUM shopping mall, we began a two-day journey on two barely-working buses to Tolyatti. When we arrived, we checked into a seedy motel, filled with prostitutes and Mafia. For a tourist, the Mafia in Russia is pretty much like most creepy things—wasps, snakes—you don’t mess with them, they’ll stay away from you. From 1998-2004, nearly 600 contract killings took place in Tolyatti. Clearly, someone aggravated the beehive.
Jerry Miller, my pastor, and I checked into our room. It was rough. I wondered how I would stay in this dump for a week. The next morning, I had to make coffee with cold water, which I filtered with my own purifier. We were told, “Don’t drink the water—don’t even brush your teeth with it!” Those who did got sick.
The next day I found a café next to our hotel where I could order coffee. It was the most disgusting Turkish coffee I had ever had. However, I was really impressed at their heating system. They would mix the coffee and water together and then put it on a heating plate of hot sand. Within a minute or so, it was boiling. (This video shows the process, but it doesn’t even begin to display the atmosphere of the dingy café where I got my daily fix.)
During the day, our team of 70 spread throughout the city handing out proglashanya, invitations to the meetings. We had a team of about a dozen interpreters; all university students that would help us converse with the people. By the end of the trip many of them had come to faith.
That evening our group brought guitars and tambourines to a local park. As we began to sing, a large crowd gathered. Back then, after 70 years of communism and atheism, the people were desperately hungry. As the crowd grew, I was asked to preach.
I poured out my heart, sharing my testimony and God’s plan of salvation. When I gave the invitation, many came forward. I was stunned. You could just stand up at any street corner and start preaching, and people would gather, listen and receive.
We were not just shooting buckshot. We had a plan. Michael Hennen and his wife, Aimee, had already moved to Tolyatti with a team. After the four nights of outreach, they would hold their first congregational service on Sunday, where we would introduce him and his team to the city. From there, they would plant and grow a New Testament congregation.
The next night, the outreach would begin and soon I would meet a woman whose story would completely wreck me.