How foolish are the nations to rage against the Lord … the Lord merely laughs.

—Psalm 2

I’ve got to admit I was more than a little skeptical about my impending trip to the Soviet Union. I was going to observe a historic first: open-air evangelistic crusades by a major non-Soviet religious leader. But the more people I talked to about the USSR, the more depressed I became. They warned me about bad food, restrictive travel policies, and dreary sights. In their minds, the “Evil Empire” was not dead, only hibernating.

Polls show that, in spite of glasnost, 76 percent of Americans still feel hostile toward the USSR. And like most Americans, I felt the Soviet Union deserves the Evil Empire sobriquet as much as anyone.

Of course, Americans are not innocent, either. Our treatment of Native Americans and blacks has not earned us any merit badges. But when you stack up evil doings, atrocity for atrocity, the USSR wins sabers down. Thus I was determined not to go with an overly optimistic naïveté just because Luis Palau had been invited to preach in Moscow, Riga, Leningrad, and Kiev.

So I prepared. I read two good books, one by Kent Hill, The Puzzle of the Soviet Church, and one by Paul Steeves, Keeping the Faiths. I read articles in the Encyclopedia of Religion and reports by Keston College and Solidarity International. Sovietologists publish reams of stuff—it’s a seller’s market.

As I sat in my office, with a tape of Rhapsody in Blue playing in the background, I wondered what my Soviet counterparts might be listening to? Since the USSR claims a 98 percent literacy rate (compared with the U.S.’s 95 percent), it probably wasn’t only musicians who captured the Russian ethos as Gershwin captured the American spirit. No, they could well be listening to one of their authors. The Russian spirit is probably embodied in her great novelists. I probably should have spent more time reading War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov and The Gulag Archipelago—or at the very least, purchased the appropriate Cliffs Notes.

Under The Eye Of Big Brother

Moscow’s Sheremetyevo I International Airport is like any other international airport. The help is semifriendly, the facilities airport chic—marble floors, a ceiling of metal circles. People wait in line patiently for tickets, baggage, taxis.

I wasn’t there long, however, before differences started to show. A man sidled up to me and asked me if I’d like to exchange some dollars for roubles at about eight times the official rate. I didn’t even have a chance to say no before a small, wiry man ran up and whisked my brief friend away. No muss, no fuss. He simply disappeared into the bowels of the airport.

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I began to reassess my mental preparation for this trip. I was on a religious mission, prepared to suffer. But here was evidence of an X-factor that merited watching. I need not have bothered to rouse myself to vigilance. The Big Red Machine, in this case known as Intourist, the official Soviet government travel agency, would do it for me.

I tell you this next tale of bureaucracy and control not to make fun. I tell it because it typifies one of the challenges facing the Soviet church. If visitors experience the frustration, think about the effects on people who live there.

One of the cities on our tour had been inadvertently left off our visa by a travel agent in Cleveland, Ohio. Inadvertence in the USSR is a crime that can condemn one to eternal waiting in line. American church members have a standard dodge when they are asked to vary the routine: “We’ve never done it that way before,” they wail. In the USSR they cry: “It is impossible.”

The effect of this stifling bureaucracy is the death of hope. The Soviet system squeezes out the pungent juice of serendipity, leaving only the desiccated pulp of formality, which one is expected to eat with the same relish.

As we went through the tedious process of completing arrangements, I began to doubt even the Holy Spirit could change lives exposed to such a system. O ye of little faith! The Palau crusades of Leningrad would show how wrong I was. But for the moment, there seemed to be real doubt we could travel to Leningrad or any other city. It seemed I had stumbled into an international traveler’s Catch-22 and would spend the rest of my days in the Hotel Ukraine.

My fears were exaggerated, of course. But the schedule we started with was not even close to the one we ended up with. A Russian book publisher took pity on me and ushered me from office to office on my quest. He tried to explain it to me:

“Everything takes at least three days. Nothing happens right now because all paperwork must be approved at high levels. When I take a two-day business trip in the USSR, I must plan it in detail three weeks in advance. Only then do I know I have a chance of going.”

He explained this to me over a lunch of Sturgeon Monastery Style, ice cream, and Pepsi, as our hosts mournfully told us more about business à la Russe. It sounded like the food tasted: heavy, with plenty of grease to smooth the transition. As one Soviet Baptist pastor facetiously put it, “Russia is always behind. What other country would celebrate a revolution that happened in October in November?”

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Gorbachev In Pilate’S Robes

I almost got to take my plight straight to the top. In-between bouts with the middleweights in the Intourist offices, I toured Red Square and the Kremlin.

The Kremlin is impressive. It boasts the biggest cannon I’ve ever seen, the biggest bell I’ve ever seen, and the most churches within a hundred yards of a major world capital’s government offices I’ve seen—14. All are museums now, of course. But still, the heritage!

While I was crossing a Kremlin street to meditate before a huge statue of Lenin, a police officer suddenly told everyone to stand still. In front of us zoomed a black stretch limousine with President Gorbachev in the back.

I didn’t get to tell him of my plight. But seeing him set thoughts turning on the effect of his new policies of freedom and openness on the Soviet church. Much has been written about his sympathetic stance toward Christianity. His mother is a firm believer, and he was probably baptized as a child. His policies thus far have been favorable to the church. But few are ready to say just what his influence will be: Will he be a Pontius Pilate, aware that Christians are harmless, even just, but unable to see their beliefs as important enough to act on? Will he be like Cyrus the Great who used his subject peoples’ religions to control them? Or will he be like Constantine who embraced Christianity personally as he used it to unify the Roman Empire politically?

However he turns out, he’s probably the only one with clout enough to handle Intourist. And with him behind the church, great strides have already been made. They need to be made. In Moscow, a city of nearly 9 million people, there are perhaps 60 active churches. In contrast, New York, a city of 7 million, has 3,500.

There is no question he has already made some differences. Kent Hill lists some in The Puzzle of the Soviet Church:

• release of religious prisoners;

• fewer believers in psychiatric hospitals;

• partial openness to foreign critics;

• some administrative autonomy for the Orthodox church;

• increased numbers of churches and believers.

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But even under Gorbachev, there are problems:

• the official atheist dogma;

• the gulf between legal guarantees and practice;

• the harassment of unregistered churches and Ukrainian Catholics;

• the shortage of religious literature.

A leader who recognizes the absolute, transcendent values of religion could do much to reverse the economic relativism of the revered Lenin, whose tomb, only yards from Gorbachev’s office, still attracts long, silent lines of viewers who pay homage to the father of the Soviet Union. The lines are a graphic description of the difference in ultimate values between the Soviet and Western systems. One is directed to man (or more precisely, the state) and a desperate attempt to keep presentable a human body dead for 65 years; the other is based on the transcendent values of a religion whose founder’s tomb has been miraculously empty since three days after his death.

The View From The River

By the end of my first day in the USSR, I felt I had pretty well mastered the intricacies of church/state relations and the underlying problems that created organizations like Intourist, and that I had begun at least to get a fix on the needs of the Russian church.

To sort out my thoughts, I took a boat ride on the Moscow River. The river taxis stop at 13 landings along the winding, beautiful tree-lined stream. It is a cheap ($ 1.00) way to spend a couple of hours.

I saw families at play, lovers kissing on the banks, older women in traditional “uniform”: scarf, grey-brown skirt, sweater, and paper shopping bag. The fallish weather was what we call Indian summer and what the Russians call woman summer.

Some things are different here, I thought: two-tone crows, black and white like a saddle shoe; almost exclusively female janitors; square, not rectangular, bed pillows; and the gatherings around public park bulletin boards, where the day’s newspaper is posted for all to read.

Yet the people are more alike than different. It is the mold into which they have been squeezed that has created the vast disparity between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Soviet problems are obvious: failed economic policies, creating what some have called the poverty of communism; slipping health care, which has caused life expectancy to drop by five years; rampant alcoholism; frequent abortions (25 percent of the world’s abortions are performed in a country that has only 6 percent of the world’s population). Something isn’t working.

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I wandered back to my room, overlooking the river. It was decorated just like the Kremlin: yellow walls with white trim, a picture of a wintry Moscow forest on the wall. Tomorrow I would visit Leningrad and churches and watch Luis Palau speak to the believers and nonbelievers of this vast country. Perhaps then I would get more specific information about what is happening to the Soviet church in these heady days of openness.

In Leningrad’S Gray Drizzle

My arrival in Leningrad was greeted by a steady drizzle. What do you get when you add gray rain to a gray city? Gray squared. With a couple of hours to kill, I bought a book, Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and Humiliated. Dostoevsky wrote in Leningrad (St. Petersburg then), and I now understand his gloom a bit better.

I grabbed a taxi and headed for the Leningrad Baptist Church. I hoped to arrive in time for the Sunday evening service. As I rode, I realized that it was Sunday morning at home, and my wife and three sons were just getting up and getting ready to attend Evangel Baptist Church. How different from going to church in Wheaton was going to church for a Russian Baptist family?

The number of options would be one difference. Wheaton has perhaps 20 evangelical churches to choose from. All of Leningrad, the second-largest city in the Soviet Union with nearly 5 million people, has five. There would be no official Sunday school, since it is illegal to teach religion to anyone under 18. The pastors would probably be only part-time and relatively untrained. Although the Orthodox church is allowed a ridiculously inadequate three seminaries (in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev), the Protestant churches have none.

Yet in spite of these difficulties, more and more churches are being started, and plans are under way for a seminary.

I was late for the evening service. At 6:00 P.M.the two-hour service was just ending. I spoke to the three pastors. They were busily preparing for Luis Palau’s visit. As a host church they had much to do, and our conversation turned to the impact of Palau’s visit.

I asked what difference a campaign like this could make. “It will reawaken in people a desire for God,” said Maxim Stashchak. “For 70 years we have been a country that said it didn’t believe God even existed. But he does. And all it takes is a spark to rekindle that fire. We have seen it happen before. In 1983 Billy Graham came to Leningrad and preached in our church. Unbelievers came. They listened. And so now, even today, there are people in our church who are believers because of Billy Graham’s visit. That will happen again with Luis Palau.”

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Pastor Stashchak, along with senior pastor Peter Konavalchik and second pastor Alexander Volokitkin, are excited at what the new openness has accomplished: one hundred baptisms in Lake Suzdalskoye this year; three thousand church members; help from the West with Bible literature.

After our interview, the pastors showed me the church. There were people everywhere, some preparing more posters for the open-air Palau meeting the next evening, others in the large, five-church choir practicing to sing at the crusade.

A Bridge Over Old Borders

Luis Palau and his ministry team arrive in Leningrad from Riga, the first stop on their tour. Last night Palau spoke to a crowd of 5,000 people at an open-air stadium.

The meeting was a first, of sorts. Although there had been other open-air religious services, this was the first by a prominent foreign evangelist. That the authorities would allow it was significant. And it was certainly a first for the thousand people who came forward to accept Jesus Christ.

But there were perhaps more significant features about the meeting. Most telling was its ecumenicity.

There are many different kinds of Russian believers. And they are competitive. To some extent, 70 years of persecution has blunted the sharpness of their battles. But as persecution lessens, the old competitiveness is likely to come out into the open.

Here is just one example of how this competitiveness can become a ministry problem: Recently, some cases of Bibles were shipped to the Soviet Union for general distribution to new believers. Instead, they were reserved by pastors for their own congregations—or even sold to raise funds for important projects.

But at the heart of the competitiveness is an important issue: how to relate to an atheist government. And because the antagonists in this war believe the integrity of the gospel is at stake, the feelings are intense.

Over the years, the Russian Orthodox Church has tried, with varying degrees of success, to work with the government, giving up some of its freedoms and distinctives in the process. Protestants have split over the issue, some groups submitting to intrusive government regulations while others have gone underground rather than submit. Many members of these unregistered churches have been imprisoned. In the past several years, as persecution lessened, some Protestant churches have sought a halfway position: they have registered with the government directly without joining the Protestant All Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, choosing to remain autonomous.

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Confused? The point is that there are competing interests and feelings of suspicion among Soviet believers, and perhaps the principal achievement of the Palau meetings was that all of them joined together to sponsor the evangelist. And the government, while not officially endorsing the meetings, let it be known that it would be okay.

Luis Palau comes to Leningrad from Riga with representatives of all kinds of churches in his entourage. For the Russian church this is a significant step, and for Palau it is a dream come true:

“For years I have told my wife, ‘Some day I’ll get to preach in Russia.’ I don’t know if she believed me or not, but it’s finally true.

“Many others, of course, paved the way for this. Billy Graham is one. He sent me a telegram yesterday saying he was praying for our meetings.”

At 59 years of age, the Argentine-born Palau has preached all over the world, and has become an astute observer of churches:

“There is a sad spirituality about these people,” he notes. “They are electrified over the new freedoms. But there is a caution, too, lest it doesn’t last—and almost a feverish energy to take advantage of it while it’s here.”

Trying to make arrangements for the meetings has been horrific. “Almost every plan we made,” says a team member, “was changed. In Leningrad we had the three thousand-seat Winter Palace. But we got bumped by a sporting event. But then God opened the door to Kirov Stadium, which seats 70 thousand.”

The meetings have been advertised on radio and television, in newspapers, and on thousands of billboards throughout the city.

“Can you imagine a religious service announced on Russian television?” enthuses Palau. “Believers throughout Russia are overjoyed.”

Seekers In Kirov Stadium

Kirov Stadium sits on the edge of the Gulf of Finland where the weather can resemble that at Candlestick Park in California. Built for the 1980 Olympics, it is a beautiful facility. But it is cold.

It is Monday afternoon, and it has been cold and rainy all day. I do not have an overcoat. I have just finished reading The Insulted and Humiliated, and like all Russian novels it tells of people dying of consumption from cold, damp lodgings. I now believe this is true and believe it still happens today. The time has come to go to Kirov Stadium, and I am having a crisis of vocation.

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But I know the people of Leningrad Baptist Church have prayed and fasted all night for clear weather. It clears, and the shining sun gives me a reprieve.

I arrive early to talk to people already in the stands. Why did they come?

“Because I saw a poster and was curious,” says a young woman university student. “I don’t think religion solves problems, but I wanted to hear what he had to say.”

“My son is singing in the choir,” answers a woman who has come from Rostov, 700 miles away.

A man in a black leather jacket wants to “hear God’s Word made more comprehensible.”

A young woman has “many questions about religion” and wants “to learn.”

At 7:00, the meeting starts, but people trickle in for 45 minutes more. The final crowd of seven thousand fills only a small corner of the immense stadium, but no one seems to mind.

As the opening prayers and hymns are sung, I gaze at the 100-foot-high Olympic torch, now cold and silent. Will God’s Holy Spirit ignite new flames here tonight?

“I bring you greetings from Christians all over the world,” begins Palau at 8:00. “All my life I have dreamed of preaching to you, my dear Russian friends, and now God has made it possible.”

These crowds are polite. It takes a while to realize that behind the impassive faces lies an intensity that only comes through with a slow, purposive tide of collective energy. You can feel that energy build as Palau speaks:

“I want to tell you tonight that Jesus Christ is a contemporary. He makes a difference, right here, today, for each of you.

“Jesus can change your life. He has the answers for your life.”

After 40 minutes the sun goes down, and a bitter chill threatens to settle on the crowd. But just then Palau asks the people to respond to an invitation—to pray a prayer of commitment and come forward.

I don’t count crowds for a living. But at least half the people come forward. From my journalist’s perch of objectivity, high at the rim of the stadium, I watch the people form a halo around Palau, a huge circle of committed believers.

The Holy Spirit has worked powerfully here tonight. I almost expect to see the Olympic torch start burning.

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Indomitably Religious

As Palau is going on to finish his tour in Kiev and Moscow, I prepare to go home.

I want to say something positive, cute, clever about Soviet believers, but I can’t find the words. The Lord in heaven indeed is scoffing at 70 years of “the nations” trying to squelch the religious mind in the USSR. In fact, reflecting on my short time in the Soviet Union my first conclusion is that these people are indomitably religious.

These lands became Christian in 988 when America was churchless wilderness.

The Russian people are religious to the core. The descendants of those converted by Vladimir I over a millennium ago have become a third force in world Christianity, after Latin Catholics and Protestants. One can see the physical evidences of this spiritual empire everywhere. But perhaps the most striking is the fact that inside the limited area marked out by the Kremlin walls are fourteen churches, their gilded onion domes testifying to the indomitable Russian religious spirit. Although these particular churches have been converted to museums, they still stand, in most people’s minds, as churches, cheek by jowl with the highest government offices in the land. From the doorways of any one of these church-museums, one can watch the black limousines of well-fed officials pull up to the steps of the yellow and white halls of power, disgorging their richly appointed passengers as these ancient edifices silently testify to a higher power.

Estimates place the number of Russian Orthodox Church members at 50 to 60 million. In addition, there are 40 million Muslims in the country, 4.5 million Roman Catholics, 3.5 million Ukrainian Catholics, and 2 to 3 million Protestants.

But the real proof of the indomitable Russian religious spirit comes from talking to the people themselves. Believers are everywhere. For 70 years government officials have turned churches into museums, priests into prisoners, church members into party members. But they have not succeeded in extinguishing the Light of Life from the hearts and minds of the people.

The commitment to belief simply cannot be doubted. Let me give you a sign. Different churches worldwide have over time developed characteristic practices signifying special commitment: speaking in tongues, snake handling, foot washing, baptism by immersion come to mind. Some Russian churches practice the Holy Kiss: full mouth, frontal, man-to-man. Are we talking commitment here, or what?


But the years of persecution have taken their toll, forming the backdrop for our second conclusion: Only now is Christianity breaking out of its survivalist mentality, and more perceptive believers are finding that mentality, in an atmosphere of increasing openness, can be counterproductive.

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The church-museums inside the Kremlin symbolize Christianity’s hibernation during the cultural winter of communism. For centuries the government and churches coexisted side by side, coadjudicators of Russian culture. The revolution changed that. The church’s role was truncated.

The highest value of communism—complete and exclusive loyalty to the state—forced an unnatural choice on the people. For many of the Russian faithful, the church became at the same time both too much and too little. It had to dominate the interior life of a true believer, or the church would die. But the public face of the church had to be nearly obliterated in order to satisfy the government’s demands. And the balance between private and public was thrown completely off. In a sense, being divorced from the mainstream of culture for so long has left the church off stride.

Filling The Vacuum

Now, the balance needs to be reestablished. But a danger lurks here, too. Our third and final reflection: The Western church can help the Soviet people, but the Western church is not the answer.

The renunciation of Marxism as a religion has turned the Soviet Union into a kind of church without a creed. The past 70 years have proved atheism a totally dissatisfying dogma. Christianity must fill that vacuum, but with an authentic Russian spirituality.

The goal of Soviet society is not personal wealth but social justice, using economic levers like a machine to achieve justice. American society’s goal has been different: prosperity that uses politically guaranteed liberties as the climate in which wealth can be achieved.

The church faces danger in lands where either goal dominates. In the USSR, the danger is that those appointed to administer justice became arbitrary authorities. In the West, prosperity is no longer seen as the blessing of God, but as the sign that laissez faire economics is working.

The trick will be for the Soviet church to wean itself from finding its identity either in an accommodation to the goals of the state (or a reaction against them) and become the body of Christ—without falling into the opposite error of defining itself by Western standards.

In the USSR, people have felt trapped by a system devoted to bringing everyone down to economic equality; in the U.S., one feels trapped by an economic system devoted to amassing wealth to which all can aspire. The first is physically repressive, and the second is psychologically and spiritually seductive.

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In the past, the danger for theologians in the Soviet Union has been the glorification of persecution and martyrdom; the new danger will be the idolatry of opportunity, sacrificing lean and hard-won spiritual fitness by feasting at the table of human liberty.

So what does the Soviet church need to do? One pastor in Leningrad put it succinctly: “We have three huge needs. First, we need to educate our young people. We must use our new freedom to help us keep faith, not weaken the rockhard faith so hard won during the years of persecution. Second, we must take advantage of our new opportunities to evangelize. Freedom has caught us off guard and unprepared. We are scrambling. Third, we must train leaders. New seminaries must train leaders in both Bible skills and evangelization.”

Success or failure at these three frequently mentioned needs may very well hinge on their success at handling denominational fractionalism. If persecution makes strange bedfellows, freedom can encourage spiritual competition. The political version of this independent spirit is already being played out in the Baltic States and other places in the Soviet Union where centuries-old ethnic struggles are now reasserting themselves. Can the Soviet church avoid the same kind of counterproductive fragmentation?

It is sobering to sit in a church service with 15 people, 11 of whom have been arrested for their faith. Across from me sat a pastor who languished in a Soviet jail cell for ten years because he chose to be a public witness to Jesus Christ. Another was caught distributing Bibles. Others spent lesser terms—all for doing what we take for granted that we can do (but don’t do) every day.

But another meeting inspired me in a different way. I sat in a church that looks very much like millions of other churches worldwide, and listened to familiar hymns sung by a combined choir of Baptist, Pentecostal, and independent believers. They were just practicing for a crusade meeting, but the look on their faces and the sound of their voices said that these hymns, this singing, meant much more.

John 3:16 was chiseled into the stone wall, and a cross of glass blocks let the fading, late-afternoon light stream in over the singing faithful. No songs in any other language could sound as sweet, the Russian words testifying that faith knows no language barrier.

I have heard larger choirs. I have heard better choirs. But I experienced why God laughed as the nations raged. He knows that no matter what the governments of this world do, they will never be able to stamp out the fire ignited by the union of the human spirit with the Spirit of the living God.

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