Archive: Methodists in Russia??

An exclusive report by the first American to preach in Russia’s only Methodist church.

By John E. Vanscoy, Pastor, First Methodist Church, Lanark Illinois

“I am thankful to God that I may greet you from Estonia, where you were lately. To our congregation and to our young people – surely to the whole fellowship of believers in Estonia – the meeting with you has left a deep impression. I have the feeling that we have met with the delegates from heaven. I am so grateful to God that He has not forgotten us …”

These words reflect the attitude and appreciation of the Christians in Russia for the undiluted presentation of Jesus Christ as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. They were written by an18 year old girl whose commitment to Jesus Christ continues despite the severe persecution she receives from the atheistic and anti-God forces in the Soviet Union.

I quote them because they reveal something of the hunger for God that is so prevalent among the Methodist people I met in the Soviet Union. [ refer to them also because they demonstrate the true meaning of Christian love which transcends family and national loyalties … a love which centers in and on Jesus Christ.

How did I happen to become the first American to preach in the only Methodist church in Russia? Several years ago I became acquainted with the Full Gospel Business Men, an organization of dedicated laymen and clergy from many denominations. I attended several of their meetings and was greatly impressed with the ease at which these men witnessed to their faith in Jesus Christ. Also I observed the over­ whelming joy that came to them as they spoke of their relationship with the Master. They made no attempt to impress anyone with their rhetoric, though there were many among them who could have done so had they chosen.

It was my association with the Full Gospel Business Men that led to my visit to the Soviet Union. Together with approximately 150 laymen and ministers we left Chicago on Friday evening, September 23, and arrived in Stockholm, Sweden the next morning. During the afternoon we were assigned to teams that scattered throughout Eastern and Western Europe.

I was one of seven who was permitted to visit Tallin, in Estonia, a republic that was absorbed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Estonia is a very small nation (population of about 800,000). In 1950, 200,000 Russians came to Estonia.

On Sunday afternoon we left Stockholm for Helsinki, Finland. We spent several days there consulting with our Finnish brothers who were to accompany us to Russia. While in Helsinki, I contacted the Methodist Church and was invited to preach there. At that meeting we had a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit; a number testified to having received Jesus Christ as their Saviour.

On Tuesday, September 27, we departed Helsinki by boat for the Soviet Union. Our journey lasted about four hours. For some unexplained reason we Americans were not permitted to leave the boat until all the others had dis­ embarked. We were kept waiting on board for several hours.

Our Finnish friends had made prior contact with the Estonian Methodists. So a large delegation from the Russian     Methodist Church was on hand to greet us when we arrived. Although we had never met before, they greeted us as brothers in Christ. Before long we were engaged in a vital and dynamic fellowship. Our delay on the boat caused a great deal of anxiety to the Russian Methodists. We were cleared only minutes before services were scheduled to begin at the church. l was the only Methodist in our group so I was asked to speak first. The only word of caution expressed by the pastor was, “Please do not speak about your government or ours. Tell us what Christ has done for you and is doing in your midst.” Later I discovered the wisdom of these words. l learned that the pastor had spent five years in Siberia for his refusal to follow the Communist line.

Words cannot describe the warmth of our reception by the Estonian Methodists. The church was built to accommodate 500 people. Yet there were over I I 00 in attendance. I thought the large crowd was the result of our delegation. But when l asked the pastor about this, he said, “We have services like this seven times a week.”

A short recess was held near the middle of the evening. I took the opportunity to greet the people. As I made my way through the congregation, many embraced me and wept. All but two seemed grateful for the opportunity to shake hands and exchange a few words of Christian greeting. Afterwards I learned that the two who refused to extend their hands were members of the dreaded Secret Police, whose presence is a constant reminder to the congregation “not to get out of line.” But this did not prevent the people from singing and praying with great fervency.

There are nine choirs in the Methodist church, several of which are made up of young people. Our ears and hearts were strangely warmed by a choir of 60 young people on the night of our arrival. It was not at all un­ usual for the young people to leave the choir loft between numbers and weep tears of joy upon our shoulders.

The Russian Methodists love to sing hymns about Jesus: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!”, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”, ” ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus”, “How Great Thou Art”, “When We All Get to Heaven.” They also sing hymns native to their own country.

The worship services in the Estonian Methodist Church are extremely long. They begin at 5:00 in the evening and last until about 10 :00. They consist of congregational singing, prayers, Bible reading, choral singing, orchestral numbers and preaching. At least three sermons are given at each service. In addition to the pastor and the district superintendent, there are 26 ordained elders and 26 ordained deacons within this one congregation. When questioned as to the necessity of such a large staff, the district superintendent replied: “We believe that the day will come when we will have our full religious liberty in Russia. Then we will have a ministry fully trained and ready to re-open all our churches throughout the land.”

Where is the evidence for such faith? The Communists harass Christians at every turn. They are not allowed to own their buildings, and must pay a sum of 5,000 rubles a year as rent to the government. The average in­ come of a Methodist family is 50-60 rubles a month. Allowing an average income of 500-600 dollars a month for the average American family, a comparable cost of rent in America would be $60,000 a year. A pretty steep church rental in any case!

The policy of the government seems to be raising the church rental to such a prohibitive figure that the will of the faithful will be broken. Then the Communists could declare, “We have not closed the church; the Christians are not dedicated enough to continue.”

There are no Bibles or Chris­ tian periodicals printed in Russia. The few Bibles now in circulation were printed before the Communist take-over or have been smuggled in by Christian tourists. l gave away the two Bibles that l had along and 1 could have distributed several hundred more if it had been possible. One of the recipients remarked, “I must translate this Bible into Russian 500 times before I can have the pleasure of reading it for my own edification.” The man does own a typewriter but he has no access to a mimeograph. Can you imagine yourself attempting to produce 500 copies of the Scriptures with only a typewriter and a few sheets of carbon paper?

After the evening service a group of Methodist Christians invited our delegation to an all night prayer meeting. We declined when we learned that there was a 12 o’clock curfew at our hotel. The next morning I was awakened by a group of enthusiastic Methodists who had ordered a taxi to wait until I was ready to accompany them to a spontaneous prayer meeting. We visited four homes in all.

On one occasion I was taken to a village outside Tallin to pray with one of the brothers who had been ill for several years. When it was announced to him that I was an American, the man began to rejoice and weep. He said, “For four years I have prayed that God would send an American to my home. Wonderful Jesus! Miracle of God! Thank you Lord for answered prayer!” In the privacy of his home we discussed the relevancy of Christ in our daily experience. How happy he was for me to be his guest and to join in prayer. During our conversation he pulled the window shades on his home. When I asked why he had done this, he said, “We must have a license to hold a prayer meeting in our home. We have no license so we must not allow anyone to see us as we pray.”

As we left the Methodist church to board our boat for Helsinki, the brethren gathered at the port to bid us farewell. The occasion was marked with grim­ ness as well as joy. On both sides of the port two huge destroyers lay in anchor. On their decks stood men from the Russian navy. Surrounding the port were elements of the elite Red Army. Our hearts were filled with sorrow to leave our Christian brothers and sisters behind to face the Red oppression. But our spirits were soon buoyed with joy when they began to sing: “When we all get to heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be.”

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