In 1978, before the perestroika and glasnost movements were instituted in Russia, my husband, Jim, received an invitation to preach in the underground churches of Odessa and Kharkov. Jim was eager to accept the invitation and share his testimony about JESUS walking on the earth being more important than man walking on the moon.
We didn’t know what to expect when travelling in a communist country. In Russia, to share the gospel of JESUS was forbidden. We committed our trip to prayer, and began our journey in faith.
We flew to Finland first to meet our translator, Hannau. Hannau was only in his twenties, and wore glaring orange tennis shoes. Later we learned that his shoes were a sign to Christian believers that he was who he claimed to be – not a KGB agent sent to spy on them.
We were taken to the ferry boat that sailed from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. The sky was bright, but the wind that whipped across the water was arctic. On board, I pulled the collar of my coat a little tighter, and Jim and I went for a walk around the deck. It didn’t take long for me to spot the five KGB agents that were aboard. How did I know they were KGB? Unlike the average Russian, these men were dressed in expensive-looking suits. Jim’s Nikkon camera was hanging from a strap around my neck. I put it up to my eyes and focused the lens on the men. I wasn’t really going to snap a photo I just wanted them to think that I would. The agents quickly scattered. It took the rest of the Gulf of Finland ferry ride before we saw them again, drinking at the bar on the top deck.
In Tallinn, we went through customs and then to our hotel. At the hotel, our passports were taken. The staff assured us that they would be returned when we were ready to leave for our next destination. Still, we began to wonder if we might be held against our will – without proof of our identity and country.
Before we met with the first group of believers, we were warned that the KGB was always looking for Christians to arrest and imprison. The secret underground churches were continually on “red alert.” Whenever they did meet, there was always one person who would bring a cake. We soon found out why. As Jim was speaking in a private home, which was packed close
with believers who wanted to hear his testimony, a policeman soon arrived for a visit. Immediately, the cake was held aloft and the people began singing the happy birthday song in Russian.
Not only did Christians meet in private homes, but they often met in the forest, or any place thought to be safe. Because of the freedom to worship as I pleased in the U.S.A., it was difficult for me to understand the persecution and oppression of believers in this communist, atheistic country.
Jim also spoke in several of the “government-approved” churches in Riga, Kiev, and Moscow. After sharing his story in one church, he invited the people to accept JESUS into their hearts. The pastor translated the appeal, and one man came forward. He was given the microphone, and at that point, he confessed his sins before everyone and invited JESUS into his life. Many people were shedding tears as the man walked to the front of the church. They knew what that person would pay as a price for his public decision. For example, I had been told that, “If a university professor publically accepted JESUS, the next day he would no longer be a professor, but would be reduced to being a street sweeper.”
After Jim had spoken in another Russian city, a person came up to me and asked a question: “What do you have to give up in America when you become a Christian?”
I was astonished, bowled over. I didn’t have a ready answer. My heart was touched. All I could say was, “Nothing.” I realized then, that so great was the Russian peoples need to seek the LORD, and accept His salvation, they were willing to risk the loss of their safety and much more. We learned that the pastor, Joseph Bondarenko, who had issued our invitation, was now in prison for holding a youth meeting in southern Russia.
During our trip, we realized that we were being intensively observed at every public meeting where Jim spoke. In Odessa, Jim and I experienced harassment when our hotel room was ransacked, and our drivers were arrested.
Even with our inherent liberty to worship, we must in faithfulness, let go of the world with its tawdry glitter and financial greed. For in the end, it brings only empty promises, discontent, absence of peace, and spiritual death. In the gospel according to Matthew chapter 16 verse 26 (NIV), JESUS asked two questions: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
To lose ones soul by rejecting CHRIST would come at the worst possible price. The dear Christians in Russia were willing to deny themselves, risk arrest, and make a deep commitment to follow JESUS. The cost of their decision would lessen their chances of a good education, career, and future, but they knew that they would be gaining far more than they would lose.