On a bleak winter day in January 1994, I stood with my family on Red Square in Moscow, Russia. How did I get here!? I wondered.
As long as I could remember, the Soviet Union had been the enemy. But in 1989 the Berlin Wall had come down – along with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Like falling dominos, next the Romanian Revolution led to the execution of the general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. The Russian political reform movement perestroika had led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Communism had fallen, and the Cold War had ended between the United States and Russia. It was a new day, a new time, a new world!
The Russian openness policy glasnost, meaning openness, was blowing like a spring breeze through a country desperate for change. The new Russian government was inviting teams from the West to help train Russian public-school teachers to teach Christian morals and ethics they could then pass on to their students. Our team realized we had a great challenge ahead of us. How do you teach ethics to a people who grew up under communism and did not trust their own government? People with a long history of isolation from the West? People with a distorted idea of God or even complete disbelief in His existence? We accepted the one-year challenge.
We arrived at the cold, dingy airport in Moscow. I was terrified as we approached the customs officer, a gruff man sporting a bushy beard, long winter coat and fur hat. As he questioned our purpose in his country, I held tightly to the little hands of our three-year-old son, Isaiah, and our one-year-old daughter, Hannah. As we rode from the airport to the hotel, I felt I had stepped onto a movie scene from Doctor Zhivago set in the early 1900s. We passed old, dilapidated concrete apartment buildings, each one the same as the next. Small, boxy cars motored around us. Grey skies met the snow-covered landscape and bare birch trees. Street cleaners scraped the streets with dead tree branches or shoveled snow to clear a walkway for the people who hurried by. Despite the bleak landscape, we came with great hope and anticipation. What lay ahead, only God knew.
It proved to be a year of challenge and growth for our family. God confirmed his calling for our full-time ministry in this part of the world as the Russian people and culture won our hearts. We returned home with a new vision and purpose. To be more effective in ministry, we needed to grow in our understanding of the language, culture and history. After our return to the United States and our home church, we met a couple serving in Moldova, a small country bordering Ukraine and Romania. They asked us to join their team and help lead a church and seminary in Moldova. After much prayer and counsel, we made the difficult decision to change our plans as well as leave our large mission organization in order to serve with a much smaller one in Moldova.
Two weeks before our planned departure, the couple who had recruited us resigned. Now we were headed to a country where we knew no one and had only one contact phone number. We would have to launch a new ministry from scratch without a team or leadership. Having young children, I was also concerned about their health, education, and wellbeing. Despite these stressful circumstances, we believed God was still calling us to Moldova. After we arrived and found a flat on the sixteenth floor of a high-rise cement apartment building, I feared one of my children would fall out the window. This fear was only one of the many obstacles we had to overcome. Customs officers also kept our luggage at the Moldovan/Romanian border, forcing us to keep trusting God’s sovereignty through the ordeal of reclaiming our belongings.
God’s sovereign control kept guiding us in those early weeks. In fact, during that first month, we met several key people who opened doors for our ministry for the next eight years. Meeting the head of the oncology hospital led to helping bring in humanitarian aid regularly, starting a program for children with cancer and their families, and teaching English to the staff. We organized medical mission trips to the hospital and free medical clinics throughout the country.
We also met the U.S. Ambassador’s wife just as she began the International Women’s Club. I served on the board in various capacities, which led to the opportunity to go into women’s prisons and deliver care packages. On the grant committee, I helped select community causes for funds: a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence, an anti-trafficking program for young girls, and community playgrounds.
During the first month we also met the directors of an international school, who asked us if we would lead a Bible study for nationals. That Bible study eventually became our first church plant. As God’s hand continued to lead over the next eight years, we helped plant three other churches in the country, assisted by visiting pastors and professors. In God’s kindness, our Christian Leadership Training Institute trained many Moldovan church leaders.
What about my fears for my children? God cared about those too and answered many prayers. Now, almost three decades later, my grown children remember the amazing castles of Prague, the classical music of Vienna and our other travels throughout Europe, where history came alive for them. After years of adjusting to different cultures and languages, they see the world more broadly and are each pursuing challenging careers.
The road God walked down with us in Moldova eventually led us to Bulgaria where we serve Bulgarian church leaders throughout the country and across denominational lines.
Our friends in Moldova are now leading and serving on the front lines of the refugee crisis caused by the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. We have come full circle. Over many years, we have seen how God has transformed lives in Eastern Europe and Russia by His grace. Now as we watch and pray during this terrible war, many who are making a stand, staying and serving are the Christian believers. God has prepared them for “such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). He will continue to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9).
Note: Photo above is Sylvia’s daughter (foreground) in Red Square, Moscow, 1994.