Elza is one of our first School Without Walls graduates from Russia. She and her husband planted a church several years ago in the capital city of Kalmykia, Russia and they feel called to minister to the native Kalmyk people there. Elza has an incredible faith story about how God touched her heart and convicted her to renounce Satanic influence in her life. The Truth of Christ has truly set her free!
Elza and her husband considered themselves good Kalmyks – they zealously followed Kalmyk traditions, and their tribe could trace its ancestry back to Genghis Khan. They were very proud of their identity and history, studying Kalmyk culture, music, folklore, and making frequent trips to Mongolia. In keeping with Kalmyk tradition they married early, and by the age of 16 Elza was already expecting her first baby.
Elza’s husband was a third generation healer – he had inherited an ability to see injured joints and correct them. His father was very respected as he had the ability to find lost people and animals by rubbing two sharpened sticks together. “The superstition which surrounded us from childhood made us, on the one hand, very proud,” says Elza. “On the other hand, we were afraid to in any way break the traditional rules binding us, and were constantly afraid of curses, and looked to shamans and Buddhist teachers for guidance, hoping to please all the gods. Ironically, at the same time we saw ourselves as good Soviet citizens – educated, modern, making independent decisions.”
Elza’s husband was a professional wrestler, she graduated from a music conservatory, they hadn’t ever argued in their four years of marriage, yet their perfect lives turned upside down when the Soviet Union fell. As repressive state control disappeared, food shortages, drastic inflation, and a spike in crime took its place. Many people, unable to deal with the new reality, turned to alcohol or drugs. Others, upon receiving their freedom, started looking for something new to give their lives meaning. Elza and her husband joined this search.
Their folk Buddhism couldn’t offer a satisfactory solution to their hunger for the truth. So they started to search. “We searched, and it is hard to say what we hoped to find,” shares Elza. “We simply felt unsatisfied with our lives, so we went searching. We started with ufologists. This seemed like the most modern and likely explanation – aliens sent great teachers to Earth: Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and others. However this theory did not offer any answer to what happens to us after death, so we did not find it very comforting. The whole country was looking for the meaning of life, and there were many different teachings, societies, and groups promoting their worldviews. Every day we would visit a new group to hear a new take on the Apocalypse, reincarnation, or life on Mars.”
At one ufologist meeting someone told Elza’s husband that the reason for meaninglessness and for death is sin, and that God can free people from their sins through Jesus. Elza refused to listen to this new theory, saying it was better to stop their search altogether and to return to their Buddhist faith like good Kalmyks rather than even consider worshipping the Russian God.
Elza’s husband didn’t argue with her, but rather started secretly attending Christian services. After a few months he repented and gave his life to Christ. Elza noticed that he was changing, and couldn’t understand what was happening. They started arguing for the first time, and finally, at the end of her rope, Elza decided to go to one of these Christian meetings and create a scene. She was angry that this sect was destroying her family and her people.
The first time she came to a church service, Elza resisted the urge to create a scene because, to her shock, she found not only Russians there but also Kalmyks! After the service she approached the pastor, a Russian, to complain. To his credit, he patiently listened to her, and then suggested that they read the Bible together and search there for answers to the questions bothering her. They spent a month meeting, talking, and studying the Bible, and gradually her heart began to change. “The turning point for me was reading Jesus’ words in John: ‘And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!’” shares Elza. “I was tired of living with constant doubts and fears and superstition. I finally made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
Elza’s husband was overjoyed that God had answered his prayers for his wife. However, when they returned home they faced three days of intense spiritual warfare, and Elza realized just how bound up she had been in occultic chains, all the while thinking herself a progressive, secular woman. On the third day they finally prayed together, renouncing all of Satan’s influence in their lives and asking God to protect them from evil spirits and make them truly free.
Soon after, they moved to her husband’s village of Tsagan-Aman to plant a church. The people knew Elza’s husband as a healer and came to him asking for his help, but since their prayer rejecting Satan’s influence, he found that he had completely lost his ability to “see” and heal injuries. “However he understood that God had taken away this ability in order to give him spiritual gifts,” Elza shares. “Now instead of physical healing, my husband taught people about Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the only true Healer.”
After planting a church in Tsagan-Aman, the couple moved to Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, to plant a Kalmyk church. They faced many hurdles and had a lot to learn in the process of planting a church that was Christ-centered yet honored the positive elements of Kalmyk culture. Elza supported her husband, the pastor, and helped lead worship playing on national instruments. “Outsiders sometimes don’t approve of our efforts to present the Gospel in a way that is acceptable to the Kalmyk worldview,” shares Elza. “However our goal was to serve God and serve our people, who are sometimes aggressive and closed to change. We needed patience and a learning spirit!
“SWW was absolutely invaluable in supporting, training, and equipping us in the difficult task of sharing the Gospel in a culturally acceptable way. SWW has trained a new generation of Kalmyk leaders with a heart to reach their people. I graduated from SWW a few years ago and was amazed at how helpful the seminars were in preparing me to fulfill what I feel to be God’s calling in my life.
“Many SWW graduates have become home group leaders, or have moved to other cities as church planters. We continue to serve in Elista, raising up the Next Generation of missionaries and evangelists with a passion to share the Good News despite cultural barriers and the anti-missionary laws passed in Russia last year. We are grateful for the steady flow of innovative ideas and printed resources that we receive from SWW, which are invaluable evangelistic tools.
“The three-day SWW conference in Kalmykia in April brought together our network of church and home group leaders from throughout the region and taught us a wonderful method of building bridges with our people. We were overjoyed and refreshed in our commitment to serve, thanks to the tools we received at the conference, which are very practical and applicable in our culture.
“My life has been filled with deep meaning since I accepted Jesus! I was recently diagnosed with cancer, however I can say with confidence, ‘My Reedemer lives and my life is in his hands!’” Elza has gone through two rounds of chemotherapy and remains active in ministry.
Slava is a current School Without Walls student from Belarus in his first year of study. For many years he was an atheist who made fun of Christians for their faith. But after making some friends from School Without Walls and attending an Empower Conference, God began to work in Slava’s heart and transform his life:
“I’m 23 years old, and I grew up in a non-Christian family. For people like my father, I have a special name, ‘aggressive atheist,’ as he completely denies God’s existence. In fact, when I was growing up, the only person who talked with me about God was my grandmother. She taught me the importance of reading the Bible and praying, but I still didn’t want to believe in God. I needed proof, and I even made fun of Christians for their faith. However, my grandmother patiently listened and continued to talk with me about salvation.
“When I was older, I moved to Pinsk and got a job as a barista at a coffee shop where many Christians worked. We soon became friends, and I often asked them about their faith, but to my surprise, they never tried to prove anything to me. I still refused to accept what they believed, but two months later, one of my friends invited me to work at the Empower Conference, because they needed a barista. I accepted this offer, because I already knew many of the School Without Walls (SWW) students in Pinsk.
“During the Empower Conference, I was surrounded by Christians for four days. I was very impressed by the event and the friendly atmosphere created by the students. After working at the conference, I stopped making fun of Christians, because one of my friends told me, ‘Friends respect one another’s personal views.’ I also felt humbled when I realized that my Christian friends had never made fun of my atheistic views.
“A few weeks later, I went to the Joy Youth Club, and I really enjoyed talking with the Christians I met. I think God was working in me, but also giving me a choice. In the summer, I moved to Brest for a new job, but almost every weekend, I went back to Pinsk so I could hang out with my friends from church. I went to their home group, but I still avoided talking about God too much. However, He was continuing to work in my heart. In early autumn, the leaders of the home group said that we would be studying the entire New Testament, starting with the Gospel of Matthew. My heart started to change, and I found myself thinking about God. He was waiting for me to make a choice, and I finally confessed to the home group that my views about Christians and the Church were wrong.
“Three weeks later, I attended a SWW meeting at church, and afterward, I prayed a prayer of repentance with the pastor. And then my new life began! I immediately got involved in church life by serving at the Joy Youth Club. I thank God that my grandmother and friends endured my poor treatment, and I’m so grateful that they didn’t turn away from me. I know that I will face many challenges in my Christian walk, but I also know that my Father loves me and will be with me every step of the way.
“This year, I also started studying at SWW, and I’m so glad that this program is pushing me in the right direction. I also want to help others, because there are so many people in need, and the Lord calls us to serve our neighbors. Now, I serve coffee at the youth club and talk with young people about God. Even though I have repented, I still have many questions, but with God’s grace, I want to use my life to glorify Him. I want my faith to grow, and with the help of my church, the Joy Youth Club, and SWW seminars, I want the Lord to use me to lead people to Him.”
Anastasia is a young Next Generation leader and School Without Walls graduate from Belarus. Along with serving at our summer Bible camps, she also started a ministry that reaches out to young people on the streets to talk to them about God, faith, and other important topics. Together, she and her husband produce and edit videos for their church and ministry. But it was a long journey for Anastasia to accept her true calling to serve God, and she shared her powerful story of faith with us. Even though she fell away from God many times, He was always faithful to lead her back to Him:
“I was born into a non-Christian family. My parents divorced when I was only two years old, and after a while, my mother remarried and had a son with my stepfather. Sadly, my stepfather didn’t believe in God, and he and my mother devoted all of their attention to my brother. But in the midst of my loneliness, God showed me His love by allowing me to participate in the Children of Chernobyl program, through which I went to America to live with a host family for a month in 1999.
“At Sunday school in the US, I learned about Jesus and heard many Bible stories. However, I was only eight and couldn’t speak English, so I didn’t know what was expected of me. I fought with the other children and behaved very poorly, and I think this was a result of not feeling loved by my parents. I’ve now been to America four times, and each time, I’ve invested more and more in the American family that God gave me. They humbly helped lead me down the correct path, and since 2000, they’ve been coming to my city once a year to serve at the local orphanage, where I also served as a translator many years later.
“One day, during a worship service for Americans and Belarusians at Lord’s Grace Church, our pastor shared his testimony and made a call to repentance. I could feel God’s presence like I never had before, and I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I burst into tears and immediately repented. I promised God that I didn’t want to live like I had before, and I wanted to do something to impact the lives of other people.
“But sadly, the devil led me astray, and I didn’t keep my promise to God. My parents thought that I was behaving differently just because I needed something from them, so after a while, I felt burned out and returned to my old ways. I drank, smoked, and made friends with bad people. I still went to church sometimes, but I lied to my parents so they wouldn’t know what I was doing. I dated two guys that I thought I loved, and I tried to bring them to church and introduce them to God, but I wasn’t even pursuing Him myself. I couldn’t see that I was drowning in my sin.
“Eventually, I started dating someone new, and I thought he would want to go to church and everything would be wonderful for us. I prayed for him, we read Christian books together, and we talked a lot about God. Because he agreed to do these things, I thought it was my job to save him so we could have a strong Christian family. But I was so wrong. I agreed to marry this man, but I felt God pulling me in the other direction. I started to feel ashamed, and I hated myself for the way I was behaving. I asked God to give me a new heart and to free me from my addictions. And at a 2012 summer Bible camp, He changed my life! I prayed that He would help me make a real commitment to serving Him and standing firm in my faith, and I immediately felt Him giving me the strength to repent and follow Him.
“I finally decided to stop serving two masters. I stopped lying to my parents and tried to solve our problems peacefully. I also called off my wedding with the man I had been with for three years, because I knew it wasn’t God’s will for us to be together. Even though this was very hard to do, God gave me the strength to obey Him. After we broke up, my ex tried to manipulate me for several months. I also found out that he had been planning to forbid me from going to church and hanging out with my Christian friends after we got married. He had lied to me about everything, and I felt like a complete fool. One day, he even tried to stab me with a knife, but thank God that the door to his apartment was open and the neighbors saw him try to attack me. Because of that, I was able to get away, and from then on, I believed that God was with me and protecting me.
“Not long after, I joined School Without Walls (SWW), through which I learned more about God, myself, and my calling than I ever had before. Thanks to this program, God gave me the answers to the questions I had been struggling with, particularly about my purpose. I really wanted to serve in the church, but for a long time I didn’t understand how God could use me. And then I went to a SWW seminar about evangelism and youth ministry, where I, along with some other students, came up with the idea to start a ministry project in our city. We called this project Not Like Everyone Else, and it involved talking with young people on the street about important topics and what the Bible has to say about them.
“Through Not Like Everyone Else, we try to show young people how their opinions are often very different from the truth shared in the Bible. Since creating this ministry, many of our friends have accepted Christ, and God is continuing to bring us new leaders with various gifts. We have led picnics, hiking trips, basketball tournaments, and even concerts. God has also opened the door for me to work in media. When I was 16, I enjoyed editing my old family videos, but I never imagined that I would be able to do this kind of thing professionally. Now I am in charge of my church’s social media pages, along with preparing slides for our worship services, producing video invitations, editing photos, and more!
“God has greatly blessed me. I never thought that I’d be able to influence young people at such an important time in their lives. Even though it can be challenging and my family misses me when I am working, I am so thankful for the opportunity that God has given me. For a while, I prayed that He would also provide a way for my husband, Kolya, to get involved in my ministry, and now we work together to edit videos and written projects. I am so thankful that God is using me and my husband to serve Him. Thank you, SWW leaders, for helping me understand my calling more clearly!”
Artem is a current School Without Walls (SWW) student in Russia. He shared with us about his calling to do ministry and how the SWW training program and the examples of his SWW peers are encouraging him and pushing him forward in his service to the Lord:
“I’m 21 years old, and I live in the Krasnodar region. I accepted Christ in 2012, and a year later I was baptized. My parents are also believers, and I grew up going to church and learning about God. I always felt like He was preparing me for something, so I asked Him what His plans were for me, and I felt an urgent call to study church planting at a college in Omsk. I’ve finished my first year of study, and now I am going to do a year of practical ministry training in church planting.
“For the past year, I’ve regularly attended School Without Walls (SWW) seminars, and I have been very inspired and encouraged by the testimonies of those who led these events. I learned a lot about missionaries who are doing ministry work in other parts of the country, even though it is challenging. The challenges missionaries face sometimes frighten me, but at the same time, I know that I have chosen to experience these things by deciding to be a missionary. I’ve also learned a lot of practical information at SWW, and this knowledge is very helpful, since I am still learning about missionary work. I believe SWW will help me make new disciples for Christ.
“Now I am facing a choice: I can either use my life to serve the Lord through ministry, or I can ignore all I’ve learned and walk away from Him. And this I know for sure: the example provided by the SWW leaders inspired me to continue pushing forward in my ministry to expand God’s Kingdom. I want to express my deep gratitude to everyone involved in SWW. I’m so grateful for your active, sacrificial service.”
As Russia continues to escalate religious freedom restrictions in the country, our young Next Generation Christian leaders in Russia and the rest of Eurasia are becoming more creative and strategic in how they share the Good News.
Just last week, the Russian Supreme Court rejected an appeal of a previous ruling that labeled Jehovah’s Witnesses an “extremist group” and banned their activity. This is part of a larger trend of the Russian government cracking down on religious minorities in the country, particularly evangelical Christians. However, when we talk to our School Without Walls (SWW) students and graduates and national Mission Eurasia staff, they are sober-minded about the growing threats to religious freedom, but they are also resolute and filled with a passion for sharing the love of Christ despite increasing challenges. “We serve God and not men,” many young believers are saying.
Our Next Generation leaders are always on the lookout for innovative ministry opportunities outside the walls of the church. Already, they are preparing special Scripture resources and outreach initiatives for summer 2018, when the FIFA World Cup will be held in Russia. The FIFA World Cup is the largest single-event sporting competition in the world and attracts millions of spectators. Our national Mission Eurasia staff and leaders see this event as an exciting opportunity to share God’s Word with thousands of hurting people. Russia’s religious freedom restrictions are creating challenges, but they are also inspiring many new opportunities for ministry.
In light of increasing challenges to traditional evangelism in Russia, and other countries of Eurasia, our Next Generation leaders have found that personal friendships and connections with classmates, coworkers, family, and neighbors are the most effective way to share the gospel. This is why initiatives like School Without Walls and the Next Generation Professional Leaders Initiative (NGPLI) have never been more vital or more timely. The informal, flexible structuring of the SWW program is designed to train and equip young Christians for creative, strategic ministry in any context: workplaces, universities, neighborhoods, schools, rehab centers, war zones, and of course, churches. And our NGPLI events bring together thousands of Christian leaders from hundreds of vocations and empower young professionals to be an example in their workplaces so that others may learn about their faith and be open to the gospel message. Many of these professional leaders are in positions of great influence—doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers—and they are able to model the Christian life in contexts where the church alone cannot reach.
Please continue to keep our SWW students and graduates and national Mission Eurasia staff in your prayers, particularly as they plan for their outreach at the FIFA World Cup next year. We are taking these new challenges very seriously, but we have also been amazed at all the doors God has opened in the midst of these restrictions. We eagerly anticipate the great things He will do through the faithful witness of believers in Russia and Eurasia in the coming months and years!
Alima is a young Christian professional in Kyrgyzstan who teaches math to primarily Muslim students. After attending one of Mission Eurasia’s Next Generation Professional Leader’s Initiatives (NGPLI) forums in Bishkek, Alima was encouraged and filled with new conviction and ideas for sharing the gospel through her profession. She shared her story with us:
“I am a math teacher at a Christian school in Kyrgyzstan. I’ve always had a penchant for numbers, and when I had to choose between working as an accountant or a math teacher, I chose to be a teacher because I wanted to be able to connect with students. Moreover, I believe that, as a Christian, my calling is to work professionally while also building relationships with people so I can share my faith.
“I am a second generation teacher, as my mother was also a teacher. My father worked in technology and was considered a master of his craft. From my parents I learned the value of working hard, and from the Bible I learned that my work should glorify Christ. The intellectual environment that I work in has a huge need for the gospel, and the best way to respond to this need is by talking with people. God has entrusted me with my profession, and I believe that this profession is also my ministry. It is a great responsibility to share the truth of the gospel with others.
“The NGPLI forum in Bishkek touched me deeply, and I was freed from the guilt I used to feel because I didn’t think I could serve God through my job. It also helped me understand that work is an opportunity for ministry, and along with working hard, I also need to stand by my values, even if it’s detrimental to me professionally. My colleagues recognize me as a disciple of Christ, not because they see me at church (they don’t attend), but because of my work ethic and compassionate interactions with them. The NGPLI forum also helped to further establish my belief that my main focus should be people, because God has given them great value.
“The children at my school are from Muslim families; therefore I try to be a blessing whenever I talk with my students and their parents. The parents trust me, because they know I want to provide quality education, and because they trust me as an educator, they are also more likely to trust what I say about God. For me, it’s important that I have a mentor to inspire my work, so I always think about how Jesus would teach. We young Christian professionals have a great responsibility to work well in the midst of a system where people want to work less and receive more. I don’t work like this, because I believe that I am working for the Lord, and I hope this serves as an example for others.
“During the Soviet era, it was almost impossible for believers to pursue higher education and work in influential professions. Moreover, many people were afraid of evangelical churches, because they considered them to be sects. But today, much has changed, and sometimes people come to my church and sit through the service just so they can talk with lawyers who attend the church. I have even heard stories of people repenting after hearing the gospel while they were waiting during the service! This is a perfect example of how professionals add prestige to a community, and the Church is no longer afraid, because they know there are influential Christians in our society. And this is also an example of how we are called to bring the gospel to our nation through our professions.”
“My decision to serve Marina, her husband Sergey, and their five children rose out of my desire to be a doer and not just a listener,” shared Maria, one of our School Without Walls (SWW) students in Russia. “After realizing that there is a great need for evangelism in my community, I started praying that God would provide opportunities for me to share the gospel. And one evening, He moved me to start serving a family in my area.
“The next day, I shared this revelation with my fiancé, Rustam, and together we visited the village of Sosnovo, where I had met Marina and her family while distributing Gifts of Hope during the Christmas season. Marina told us that her family was facing very difficult conditions, as they had been living without electricity for two weeks. They had fallen behind on their payments, so their electricity was shut off, and even after they paid their bill, they couldn’t afford to have someone from the electrical company come out to reestablish their connection. Sergey works as a security guard at a café, but he doesn’t make much. Marina isn’t working so she can take care of the children, and even though she receives government assistance, it still isn’t enough to pay for everything her family needs. Right now, they live in a small wooden house with no running water.
“The first time we visited their home, Marina and the children were so excited to see us! We brought them food and spent time praying that God would provide for their needs. At first, it was hard for them to accept our prayers, but over time, we could see God working in their hearts. Rustam and I try to visit Marina’s family every weekend, and now we are reading the New Testament with them. During the past few months, we have seen God’s hand at work, and Marina even invited her friend, Tatyana, to participate in our meetings! Tatyana hasn’t been to church in two years, but she has really enjoyed talking with us about God. Right now, there aren’t any churches or home groups in Sosnovo, so we are praying that God would provide even more opportunities for us to spread the gospel.
“The most important thing I have learned during this process is that we must rely on God and obey His teachings. By ourselves, we can’t give people what they need, but the Lord is able to transform them from within. For me, not only has this experience inspired me to continue pursuing evangelism, but it has also helped me grow much closer to Rustam. It is such a blessing that we can work together to serve the Lord!”
After suffering from divorce and a tragic car accident, Fatima felt hopeless and bitter. But God intervened in her life in a miraculous way, just when all seemed lost. Fatima shared her testimony of faith with us and communicated the transformative impact that the witness and love of our School Without Walls teachers and graduates had on her life:
“I used to be very arrogant and proud. I didn’t believe in God, and I refused to acknowledge His existence. Since religion in Ossetia is a mixture of paganism and Christianity, many people are very devout, but they also worship false gods and build temples and altars to perform senseless rituals. My family would often reproach me for refusing to take part in their pagan rituals, but I argued that, if there was no God, then it didn’t make sense to do these rituals, and if He did exist, then He would accept me even if I didn’t do them.
“After my husband divorced me and left me to raise our son on my own, I became even more bitter. Not long after, I was in a bad car accident that left me bedridden for two months with a broken spine. I couldn’t understand why this had happened to me, but when the doctors told me that it was a miracle that I had even survived, I realized that God was giving me a second chance to accept His gift of salvation.
“After this, I asked my Christian friend for a Bible. I started reading the New Testament and learned that Jesus raised the dead and healed the sick, and I realized that only He would be able to heal me. Before I was taken into surgery, I prayed that God would help me to trust Him, even if the doctors weren’t able to fix my spine so I could walk again. My surgery was very complicated because the doctors had to replace several of my vertebrae with titanium pieces. Afterward, the doctors said, ‘We don’t know what God you prayed to, but it’s a miracle that you are able to walk, and that you even survived the surgery.’
“When I returned home after my surgery, I started going to church, and after a while I finally repented. I realized that, before accepting Christ, I was simply existing but not really living. My real life began at church. I finally had real friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, who offered me committed spiritual support. Two of my closest friends are Sophia, who is a School Without Walls (SWW) teacher, and Zarina, a SWW graduate. Since I turned to God, I have never felt lonely. And now my son is also feeling drawn to church, and he no longer enjoys spending time with his non-Christian friends. Instead, he prefers talking with young people from my church.
“Now I am very active in my church, and I have started serving in children’s ministry. I praise God for saving me and for giving me the opportunity to walk again so I can serve Him. The support and love I have received from my church and the SWW leaders is more than I ever received from my own family. I am so thankful that God has given me this wonderful, abundant life!”