Editor Jon Hanna Talks About His Visit to Russia with RFI

"By mission’s end, I eventually fell in love with a country and a people that I once learned to fear and hate." by Editor, Jon Hanna

While Russia has maintained a close arms race with the U.S., and although they have been unrelenting in the space race, it was painfully obvious to me that the human race in this 7-year young, democratic nation was grossly neglected.

In the large city of Novosibirsk, many live in poor tired houses, mostly made of third world material, or apartment buildings of the American ghetto flavor. Because credit for automobiles is not an option, approximately 60% rely on a public bus system, which operates vehicles that appear sorely outdated and are very worn at best. Unless boiled, the water is undrinkable and visitors are warned not to even use it to brush their teeth. Don’t even ask about the food.

Reminiscent of America’s gangster era, it’s common knowledge that most of Russia’s free enterprise is controlled by the ‘Russian Mafia’. In September, the head of Russia’s Federal Security, Vladimir Putin, announced to the Federation Council, (the upper house in the Russian parliament), that thousands of companies, accounting for about 40 percent of the country’s gross national product, are controlled by criminal groups. The people of Russia will tell you that "most businesses" have some criminal involvement and only those who can afford private security have a chance to protect their interests. One way or the other, businesses pay.

Clearly as this nation continues to reap the fruit of the communist doctrine sown long ago, they are in need of great patience as they struggle to plant and water the seeds of democracy.

A democratic government; however, is no guarantee that a nation will be prosperous. Proverbs says that it’s ‘righteousness’ that exalts a nation and that’s where Revival Fires International (RFI) comes in. Established by Cecil Todd in 1964, Revival Fires of Branson, Missouri, has logged over eighty mission trips to Russia. Their primary objective is to distribute free Bibles to the soldiers as well as to the civilians. Also, they have recently helped build a church near Moscow, and have plans to build more.

In late August, I visited the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, with RFI and their mostly experienced evangelism team of 37, volunteers. We were assisted by an extremely helpful and knowledgeable team of 8, Russian translators. Mission Director, Chuck Todd also joined us in the field, reminding us that a Christian receives the most benefit by "promoting the kingdom of God".

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His wife Helen is a native of Russia knows first hand, the tremendous impact that evangelism can make. She vividly remembers the day when her brother Levan brought home a Christian tract. When his parents saw that he had been in contact with foreigners, they began to get angry with him out of fear of losing their jobs. When Helen heard the commotion she came and picked up the tract, read it and decided to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Levan also accepted Jesus and today he heads up RFI’s team of Russian translators.

My personal experience as a member of this evangelism team began with uncertainty. When I first arrived in the country, the exchange rate was 7.86 rubles to one U.S. dollar. Within 24 hours the Russian stock market had crashed, and in some places the ruble had lost up to half of it’s value, plummeting below 16 to 1.

With contacts in Moscow relaying information, Chuck Todd expressed deep concern that there was going to be a possible revolution, or, at the very least, rioting in the streets. Yeltzin had fired the government just days earlier and most soldiers had not been paid for almost a year. Revolution seemed very likely.

However, in spite of all of the political and financial turmoil facing the people of Russia, Chuck Todd stayed the course and worked the team of volunteers on a busy, military styled itinerary, and made changes wherever and whenever necessary. Explained Todd, "This was the most problematic mission I’ve ever been on, yet it was the most rewarding." Days were spent distributing Bibles at orphanages, hospitals and on street corners, and small revival meetings were conducted at four separate locations each evening.

Things started off slow as team number one reported that no one attended their first evening service. However, by the third evening service there were approximately 50 in attendance, and by the 7th and final night their count swelled to over 170. "We usually get more adults," said Todd, referring to the majority of youths in attendance.

The other three teams reported similar numbers which are substantial when compared to the average American church attendance of less than 100. Regardless of the numbers; however, this was a group that became elated when just one person recieved faith in Jesus. At these evening services, volunteers sang worship songs, shared testimonies and read from the Bible. When invitations to accept Jesus were made, there was generally a 100 percent positive response.

The Russian Orthodox church, motivated by jealousy, often causes many problems for visiting evangelists, including previous RFI visits. On one occasion, an Orthodox priest made a complaint and had the entire RFI team placed on house arrest at their hotel. But this did not stop the volunteers. "God gave us the opportunity to minister to the 20 police officers who guarded us," said Johnny Baker, a seasoned veteran of several missions trips. Thankfully, on this visit there were no interruptions from the Orthodox church. In fact, the local Orthodox priest brought some of his own congregation to attend several nightly crusade meetings.

On the final evening of the mission, I was approached by an off duty police officer who had been attending a nearby wedding reception, already in it’s second day. He expressed thanks to my translator for the Bible we had given him the day before. He related his joy in being able to understand what he had read. When I asked him if he was ready to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior, he initially balked at the invitation because he felt that Jesus would be mad at him for being drunk. After I explained to him that Jesus loved him enough to sober him up and to change him, he joined hands with me, repented of his sins and openly accepted Jesus into his life.

Over 20 thousand Bibles were eventually distributed by our group of satisfied, yet somewhat fatigued volunteers. Another 20-25 thousand Bibles were donated to retired Russian Army Captain, Oleg Askalonok, who is a pastor and the Director of a ministry to Russian soldiers. He is also the editor of a small newsletter which features the testimonies of Christian soldiers.

During his military career, Captain Oleg was repeatedly harassed for having only one medal. After a military friend earned a medal for turning in a fellow soldier for being a Christian, an inspired Captain Oleg became an expert in atheism and began working tirelessly trying to catch a soldier in possession of a Bible. Only once did he come close when he discovered a soldier in possession of a cross. Upon further questioning, the soldier denied having faith in Jesus, making it impossible for Oleg to make a case. "I wanted to kill him," remembers Oleg, who retired 10 years later, still having only one medal.

Eventually, in an attempt to learn all he could about the Bible, so that he could properly confute it, Oleg became a believer. His decision was greatly influenced by the Christian testimony of American astronaut Charles Duke, and today he regularly ministers at military bases in Eastern Russia, where he plans to distribute the donated Bibles.

This mission trip was bitter sweet for Buddy Reed, a volunteer who pastors a church in North Carolina. "What breaks my heart is that in our own nation we’re at the point where we’re having to smuggle Bibles onto school campuses. And you know, 30 years ago it was the other way around - we had to smuggle them into Russia."

While most Russians initially appeared unfriendly and incapable of laughter, or even a smile, the average citizen was at first intrigued and then openly grateful when we gave them a Bible or a tract, unlike many Americans, who, as of late, publicly proclaim little to no regard for morality.

An incident that sums up Russia’s spiritual climate happened in a Moscow airport on the day of our arrival. A dozen or so RFI volunteers had a 10 hour layover in Moscow, along with hundreds of Russian travelers also waiting to connect. It was at this time that several volunteers, including myself, began to distribute over 500 Russian salvation tracts. Afterward, I began to stroll through the airport waiting area when I saw people sitting on luggage, leaning against walls and standing in lines intently reading those tracts. It's indescribable, the joy that flooded my soul as I witnessed the unexpected magnitude of this event.

It’s a testimony to our awesome God, that the people of this once devoutly atheistic nation now have such an appetite for the truth and righteousness of Jesus Christ. I was honored and blessed to be part of an RFI mission team, sowing the word of God in Russia. For this is as the Lord commanded us when he said, "I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth." (Acts 13:47, NIV)

To contact Revival Fires call 1-800-RF-FIRES.