Article and photography by Tim Schirman
Tim Schirman, AG World Missions Video Production manager, recently traveled to Siberia. Following is an account of his trip.
Friday morning sunrise
It is my third hour outside in 10-degree weather, and the lens on my camera is starting to freeze.
I’m trying to remember why a trip to Siberia in winter seemed like such a great idea. Then my camera slowly comes into focus, and I am looking right into the sad eyes of an elderly Buryate woman. Her face is wind-battered and obscured by a mist of freezing breath. She seems to carry her years of struggle on the back of her stooped form.
I’m shooting my first sunrise in this vast winter land, and the phrase “a winter planting” keeps playing over in my mind. These words have haunted me on my 30 hours of travel to get here, and I feel they will gain more meaning for me before this four-day trip is through.
Landing in Ulan-Ude
I arrived Thursday to meet Assemblies of God missionaries Rick and Dianna Lang. I have never met them, and in e-mail communications they seem a bit hesitant about my coming.
I think they wonder if their church planting ministries are “dramatic” enough for a print and video spotlight.
I have come to Ulan-Ude, a city near the Russia/Mongolia border. Rick picks me up at the airport. At their home, Dianna is wrapping up a two-day women’s conference with several church planters. As I expected, the Langs are kind, unassuming people.
Ministry to ministers
The golden Siberian sun floods a small room in the Langs’ apartment. A wood fire is burning. Through the lens of my camera I track a single Communion cup as it passes from woman to woman. The room begins to feel extremely warm, and I lower my camera. As I pause to experience the moment, I realize the warmth in the room goes far beyond the fire and the sun. I have walked right into the presence of God.
Watching Dianna with these women, I see the profound ministry of encouragement she has with them. After the meeting, her impact takes on even more meaning as I talk with some of the women and hear their stories.
The early afternoon sun is setting when I sit down to talk with Vera. She tells of growing up in the home of alcoholic parents.
“I was a wild child,” she says, “and a person of hatred. I fought often and I was thrilled at the sight of blood. Most people in the village, even the men, were afraid of me, and I was proud of that. But when I was alone at night, I would cry and think, Is this all I will have in my life?”
As Vera tells me of her life before Christ, I am struck by how far the Spirit has brought this young church planter.
Vera continues her story of how a former drinking partner came to Christ and led her to faith. Now she leads a new church.
“At first my reputation in the village was a hindrance to people. Now, for many, it’s a testimony,” she says. “I am very young, and many refuse to listen to me because they believe I cannot teach them. But the wonderful thing is that as I talk the Holy Spirit proves to them I am speaking the truth. Usually after I share with people, God proves it with miracles.”
Rick and Dianna drive me to various locations to capture video footage for this year’s missions musical. On the way we talk about their ministry.
“I manage church plants,” Rick says simply. “I find out who has an evangelistic team or literature or transportation. Then I try to network with all of the people and bring everything together in one place so there’s an atmosphere in which a church can be planted.”
I’m standing at the edge of a shaman holy spot perched high on a hill overlooking a vast Siberian plain. Torn rags of cloth, representing prayers, whip in and out of my camera’s focus. The wind is strong but strangely quiet, haunting and desolate. This is a place of worship, but there is no joy, no answer, no hope.
As we head back down the hill, Rick talks about the unique challenge of planting churches here. The area is vast and the sparse population is spread across villages over thousands of miles. Mass evangelism is not an option, because masses of people don’t exist. But the villages, no matter how small, must be reached. That takes pastors with a call and God-given determination.
“Believers here seem to have a sense their destiny is 100 percent God-driven,” Rick says. “It is not a divided interest kind of a thing, so they put their time, energy and finances into the work of God.”
The sound of children laughing at play comes from a nearby forest of white birch trees, and I point my camera in that direction. As I crest a small, snow-driven rise, I hear the universally recognizable sound loved by children during wintertime from Minnesota to Siberia … the thud of a snowball finding its mark dead center on a playmate’s coat!
Like all kids, these children are beautiful, with red cheeks, big blue or brown eyes, and smiles. It turns out they are on a field trip from school. As Rick chats with their teacher, I silently agree that these and all the others living quietly in small communities across Siberia are important. Small church plants that bring the truth of Jesus to communities separated by thousands of miles are exactly the dramatic stories I came to find.
Lunch with the bishop
Ivan Marchuk, bishop of the Russian Church of Pentecostals in Siberia, has invited me to a traditional Buryate meal, so I take a break from shooting to do one of my favorite travel things … eat!
Brother Marchuk’s eyes twinkle as he shows me the special way to eat a posie without squirting broth all over my shirt. He seems delighted when I am at least partially successful. A charming gentleman of the faith, Ivan’s heart for church planting has a lot to do with the success of the Pentecostal movement in Siberia.
As we visit, I learn he came here as a missionary from Belarus after the fall of communism. Like many at that time, he answered the call to plant churches as Russia opened to the gospel. During the communist era, Christians imprisoned for their faith were sent to Siberia as punishment. They boldly continued to proclaim the truth, and the church in Siberia was planted. Today, despite strong opposition, the church continues to grow at a rate of more than 30 new works a year.
As I tell Brother Marchuk about the coverage this story will bring, he says:
“I ask the churches of America to pray for revival and for everyone to hear the good news. There are still places where we haven’t preached the gospel yet. Some areas are hard to reach. We can’t go there with a car or other transportation. But the people living there need salvation. We need to preach God’s Word there and fulfill our commitment to Jesus.”
Modest wood homes line the gravel street of a Buryate village. Storybook-size snowflakes are falling, and the area has a unique quiet that always seems to fold itself around a gray winter day.
No one is out in the cold with me except a few boys on their way to wherever boys go to play. Behind me I hear the squeak of small wheels on gravel. Turning, I see one of those great unexpected images. In coats and tall fur hats, a young couple pushes their infant in a stroller. While I shiver, they seem perfectly comfortable, content to stroll and chat softly to each other as they enjoy their family.
As I capture this scene I am yanked from my view of the world and given a glimpse of theirs. I came to Siberia to experience a foreign and rugged land I imagined when I read novels as a teenager during the Cold War. But for this young family, the small village in the middle of “nowhere” is really the center of their universe. This is home. The church planters I am meeting on this trip understand this. The Langs understand this. They are not waiting for these people to come to a big city to hear the good news. They are bringing the truth to them.
A family legacy
The sun has long set. Snow is falling heavily on the icy windshield as I ride with the Langs to another village. The Kislyakov family has invited us for supper and a time of fellowship.
Some years ago Valentina, the family matriarch, was fleeing a bad divorce and went to live in a small village on the Chinese border. While there, she came to know the Lord. Returning to visit her son and his family, she was dismayed to learn her young granddaughter, Julia, was dying from severe diabetes.
Valentina now admits she tricked her son by telling him she knew of a great doctor back in her new home. The son agreed to take his dying child for treatment. Of course, the “clinic” was her new church, and the doctor was the Great Physician. When Julia was miraculously healed, a chain of conversions began as the entire family came to God.
Many years later, I walk into a humble four-room, unpainted wood home to find Valentina, an elderly woman, beaming with pride as she presides over what God has done. During a time of animated conversation with the Langs, the extended family tells the story.
Julia has grown into a charming 21-year-old. Her older brother, Victor, is 24 and a younger sister, Tonya, is 16. Since that divine appointment many years ago, the family has honored their wonder-working God by telling His story.
Julia’s father, Vladimir, was delivered from acute alcoholism. In the intervening years he planted and now pastors a church in their small village. But church planting is a family commitment. As Rick says, these people commit everything to the task.
After graduating from Siberian Theological Institute in Irkutsk, Victor planted a church in another village. Julia and Tonya moved to yet another village where they too are planting a church.
As unobtrusively as possible, I watch as Rick and Dianna spend their evening with this precious family. What I witness is much more than the humble “I manage church planters” that Rick claims to do. I see relationship, encouragement, mentoring and ministry.
As inspiring as the images I captured on this trip are, and as amazing and strong as this family is, one fact remains: This is hard work in a hard land. Winter in Siberia offers few comforts. The churches are small and growth is slow. It must be very draining to minister every day in such isolated communities. The Langs don’t just “manage” church planters; they hold up their co-ministers’ arms. They partner, encourage, listen … and pray.
After a time of fellowship and prayer, we sit with the Kislyakov family for a meal in their small kitchen. We eat in shifts because the room is too small for a group of any size. It is a delightful time with laughter and sharing. I feel honored to eat at this table.
For seven hours we drive through mile after mile of snow-decked birch trees in Siberia’s dense forests. It’s like spending the day in the middle of a postcard. Rick is driving me to Irkutsk where I will catch my flight out tomorrow morning. As we drive, we talk about how the church grows in this part of the world.
“The beautiful thing is that people will come into a meeting, and their countenance is sad,” Rick says. “They look sad, their eyes are sad and they walk in a sad way. When it comes time for the altar call, they respond. They say, ‘Yes, I want to accept Christ.’ The prayer comes, the tears come and then the smiles come. That is beautiful.”
During this trip I had several opportunities to shoot footage of Rick as he ministers in these church plants. I notice his emphasis on the Holy Spirit in both personal life and church life. He does the same now as he talks about growing churches in Siberia.
“It’s God-driven,” he explains. “We do what we have done in other places, but it’s a supernatural outpouring of the Spirit of God that breaks through the crust. Then people come to the Lord. The only way to do the work of God is to see the divine crashing into our world and causing new birth.”
As Rick talks about the divine crashing into our world, I think about Alexander, the shaman priest Rick took me to meet on Saturday morning.
The shaman priest
Alexander is a Buryate church planter who used to be a shaman priest. Rick has never met Alexander, so we ask him to tell us about his past.
“For 47 years I was searching for something, and along the way I became a shaman,” he explains. “I tried to be a good shaman and help people, but the results of my prayers were not dependable. Sometimes other shaman priests attacked me, and I felt like I would die. I was always looking for a true power that I could count on to do good things.”
As Alexander talks about those days, his demeanor is somber. A sense of heaviness seems to settle on him, and I wonder if this interview is a bad idea. But then I ask him about his salvation experience and his countenance floods with joy and energy. His voice gets stronger, and a smile captures his face. I feel as if I am talking to a new man as he tells me about a miraculous encounter with God.
“Some Christians invited me to church,” Alexander continues. “I thought that my gods were stronger than theirs, but I went just to spy on them. During the prayer time God’s power came on me and showed me a vision of His glory. I was overcome with great shame about my life. In that moment I realized I had found the true power I had been looking for all those years.”
Today Alexander is planting churches in some of the most remote areas of Siberia. As he tells us about his ministry, a surprising testimony unfolds.
Several years ago Rick felt called to travel for many days to a remote area called Komora. He flew from Moscow to the heart of Siberia, followed by a lengthy train ride and a 10-hour bus ride. Despite the hardship, he ministered in that remote town, giving people probably their first true witness of the good news. After seeing a modest harvest of souls, he returned to Moscow. In the intervening years he wondered what had happened to that small group of believers.
Now, as Alexander talks of his church planting efforts, he says he is harvesting a work in a remote area called Komora — a place he assumes we have never heard of. When Rick tells Alexander of his own ministry there many years ago, Alexander suddenly exclaims, “I have heard stories of your ministry! The people didn’t remember your name, but they remembered your message! I have always wanted to meet the man who started the work that is continuing today.”
As I watch this unexpected exchange, I feel I am seeing the divine encounter God planned for this trip. Why did I think of an odd title like “Winter Planting” for this story? Because things that seem counterintuitive to man make perfect sense from the divine perspective.
God calls faithful, heroic people like the Langs and others to go into the world and plant His church in ways and places and times that seem impossible, even ridiculous. He has the plan. We are only required to follow. When we do, He makes the impossible happen … bringing harvest from planting in winter.
TIM SCHIRMAN is manager of AG World Missions Video Production.
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