From Moscow with Love
Nov 13, 2009 by Mark Young | 0 Comments
I’m teaching at Moscow Theological Seminary this week. Returning to Moscow just after the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has caused me to reflect on our experience in this region of the world over the past thirty years.
I first came to Eastern Europe in 1979 on a summer ministry trip with Campus Crusade for Christ. It changed my life. At the time I had completed two years of seminary and was enamored with the idea of becoming an NT professor. Unfortunately my desire to teach was more about my own satisfaction and ego gratification than about service to the Church. That summer in Poland I came face-to-face with the reality that hundreds, if not thousands, of believers in Eastern Europe craved biblical teaching and had essentially no access to it. Compared to the relative indifference of most Christians that I knew in the U.S. even though they had access to Christian teaching at every turn, the eagerness of those behind the Iron Curtain to learn put me to shame. That summer I resolved to return to the region after graduation and see if I could somehow help.
Priscilla and I moved to Vienna, Austria in 1982 and began an itinerant teaching ministry throughout communist Europe. In 1988 we moved to Poland to help begin a new theological seminary. That was a tough year in Poland. The Polish opposition movement, Solidarity, had begun a series of strikes that crippled the already limping Polish economy. Ration coupons for sugar, cooking oil, and meat were common. Fuel shortages created long lines at gas stations, some several kilometers long. The communist Polish government was inept and the USSR had little impetus and few assets to help. By the spring of 1989 the Polish government had agreed to negotiations with Solidarity leaders at the so-called “Round Table” talks. The Poles joked that the distance across that round table was three meters because most people could only spit two meters!
In the summer of 1989 Poland held the first “free” elections since the imposition of communism at the end of the Second World War. “Free” because only some of the seats were allowed to be contested by candidates outside the communist party. The communists lost all of those seats and so few votes were cast for the uncontested seats that the government lost any of its remaining credibility. The balance of power in Poland had shifted. That summer, as various political leaders maneuvered for power, the USSR positioned four armored divisions on Poland’s eastern border. The Soviets already had thousands of their troops and hundreds of MiGs in Poland. The situation was tense. What would Gorbachov do? Would the USSR intervene in Poland like it had in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1967?
Ben was four, Bonnie two, and Priscilla was pregnant. We listened to the BBC daily because Polish media outlets were censored. Several folks urged us to leave Poland “while we still could.” But God gave us no peace to leave. So we prayed and watched and hoped.
In August Poland formed the first non-communist government in a Warsaw Pact country. That bold move proved to be the impetus for opposition and reform parties throughout the region. Hungary and Czechoslovakia began to shed their communist leaders in the fall and then, the unimaginable happened—East Germans poured through the Berlin Wall into the West. I can remember watching those events on Polish television with several friends. None of us could believe what we were seeing. Later Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and the USSR itself moved away from communist rule. With the exception of the Balkans, most of the region experienced armed conflict and violence, a fact that still amazes me.
I often thank the Lord for the privilege of working with believers during the years of oppressive communist rule. Seldom have I met men and women with such depth of faith, such tenacity in ministry, and such enduring hope in God’s ultimate victory. Those years and those people are etched deeply into my personal values and into my image of godly service. In 1989 we experienced first-hand one of the most significant events in the twentieth century. Life went from black and white to color almost overnight. What’s interesting to me is that the political and economic freedoms in the region have led to increased secularism and indifference to the gospel. Ministry in the former Soviet bloc is still hard, hard work; consumerism and greed have proven to be as implacable a foe for the gospel as communism. That ought to give us pause as we consider ministry in our context in the U.S.
May God richly reward the faithful men and women that continue to minister in these lands!