John Oakes is now on a three week teaching trip to Ukraine, Moldova (try finding that one on a map), and Russia. All lessons from the trip are posted in another article on the site. I have now passed through Odessa and Kishinev and Kiev. I have also taught in St. Petersburg, and am now teaching in Moscow. See below for a report.
Missionary Teaching Trip to Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, 2016
Kiev, Ukraine June 14-15
I arrive in Kiev after 24 hours of travel. I am met by Leo and Inna, who do administrative work for the church. I am staying at a hostel on the largest technical university here in Ukraine. I get some time with Roman, who leads the campus ministry here. We get to share our love for God and vision for his churches. In the evening I take part in a campus devotional. There are about 100 university students in the group. They seem really encouraged about God and their ministry. Their summer is just getting started and they are really encouraged to be able to hire eight summer interns to gain some further momentum for the campus group. Here I meet Max. He is from Boston, but moved here to learn Russian. Little did he know that he would fall in love here. He was married to a Ukranian sister just last weekend. They are very in love with one another.
Picture is the campus group in Kiev.
This is not my first time to Kiev, but things are noticeably different this time. The people are really tense about the occupation by Russia of the two eastern provinces of the country (or the spontaneous revolt of the Russian-speaking East, depending on who you talk to). This has done great damage to the economy. Unemployment is very high. Here in the loyal part of Ukraine, there are significant numbers who favor the Russian-backed regime. Tragically, this tension has even affected the church to some extent, as some of the less mature have become so impassioned that they do not take the hand of their own brothers and sisters. Thankfully, this is a small minority and the church here is learning how to teach people to deal with such difficult issues. In fact, the church here in Kiev has continued to grow and is now about 1800 members. The church in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, is in a very tense relationship with the other Ukranian churches and a number have left.
Ukraine is a special country with a special history. It was the capital of Russia and the center or Russian culture from the time Christianity came to this country in the 10th century up until the 14th century. Then, after the Mongol invasions, power shifted to the North—to Moscow. Much of Ukraine fell under Polish domination and even the languages separated so that Ukranian and Russian are significantly different dialects. Everyone speaks Russian here, but Ukranian is a second language for most and the language spoken at home for many. Kiev remains the center of Russian Orthodoxy. The churches here are absolutely spectacular in their beauty, with their gold-covered onion skin domes.
Kiev is the largest city in Ukraine, with a population of nearly five million. The East of the country, where the war is, is the heart of Ukranian industry, which is part of the problem for Ukraine, but Kiev is the political, economic and cultural capital of the country. The Dnieper River runs through the city. It is very green here and the parks are really amazing.
On Wednesday I speak to the staff and interns—a group of about 30—on Evidence for Jesus. I also spent time with Max (a different Max), who has been a member of the church nearly since it was planted twenty-four years ago. He aspires to be a teacher for the churches here and is very talented.
On Thursday my luggage finally arrived! Today I teach to the interns from the Book of Ezekiel. After this, I am off to Odessa by train with Alex.
Odessa, Ukriane, June 17-18
Alex was just married one month ago. He and his wife have moved to Odessa to do campus ministry. The campus group here has twenty-five students in it. It has grown lately.
Odessa is a city of a bit over one million. It is on the Black Sea, a seven hour ride by train from Kiev. This is the most important port city of Ukraine. With the loss of Crimea to Russia, it is also the most important center of tourism for the country. The city was founded three hundred years ago by the Russians after they annexed this area to their empire.
At the Black Sea
I am staying with Sasha and Maya Telyatnikov. They lead this church of about 300 members. They lost their daughter who was killed by a drunk driver three years ago. This tragedy was devastating to the family, as you can imagine, but Sasha sees is at an opportunity to glorify God. They continued in the ministry despite their loss.
On Friday I tour the city with Sasha. The central area is really beautiful. The opera house is stunning. We spent some time at the beach on the Black Sea. We also share our vision for the churches. Sasha and Maya are the only full time workers for a church of almost 300, so they are very challenged to meet the needs. It would be so helpful if a more mature couple—perhaps empty nesters—could spend at least a year here, supporting Sasha and Maya. The singles ministry especially could use some mature leadership. Please consider this possibility. Knowledge of Russian would be helpful, but not essential.
In the evening I teach a lesson on the Existence of God. We need to remember that Ukraine, like Russia, was under an officially atheist government system for eighty years, so belief in God is common, but definitely not universal. There is much skepticism here. Hopefully, the lesson helped, as there were many visitors at the event. On Saturday, I ride with Slava and Sergei on a drive to Kishinev, the capital of the small country of Moldova.
Kishinev, Moldova June 18-20
The drive to Kishinev from Odessa (spelled Chisnau by Moldovans) is five hours. The countryside in Moldova is very idyllic, with beautiful pastures, hills, fruit trees and wonderful country scenes. This country is a hidden jewel which most in the West have never heard of. Moldova was one of the states in the former USSR which was formed by territory taken by Russia after WWII. It gained independence in 1989 when Soviet Russia fell apart. Moldova has had the bad fortune to be a pawn in wars between the Ottoman Turks and Russia. The locals speak Romanian, but all also know Russian. This is a very religious country, with the great majority being of the Orthodox faith. Kishinev is the capital, with a population of just over one million. The city is a combination of stark and frankly ugly Stalinist apartment buildings and beautiful local Moldovan buildings. Most of these were destroyed when Russia took the city from the Germans in the war. After this, many Moldovans were exiled to Siberia by Stalin. There is a sad history here, but the Moldovans are a proud people. The city has a charm which is hard to explain.
Of course, the highlight here is the church which I am blessed to visit. They are about sixty members, led by Slava and Yana Lisnik. Both are native Moldovans. I am helped immensely by my interpreter Sergei Markovetski from Odessa, as no one in the church here speaks English sufficiently well. The people here are very warm-hearted and open. The church is somewhat isolated, both because Kishinev is not a place most people pass through, including members of our church, and because so few speak English here. Our sister church in Champaign-Urbana has been helpful, and sister churches in Kiev and Odessa have provided spiritual support as well. The church here is mostly young families, but they also have a small singles ministry and a campus ministry. Perhaps an empty nester couple could consider spending some time here, as there is a lack of shepherding locally. Please keep your fellow disciples in Kishinev in your prayers.
Picture is an Orthodox Church in Kishinev
On Saturday I taught a class on Hebrews to the church. With only one day’s notice, nearly two thirds of the church came, along with some guests. Sunday included a lesson on Daniel. The singing was in both Romanian and Russian and the fellowship was very encouraging.
Kiev, Ukraine, June 20-26
Monday morning up at 4:15 for a flight back to Kiev. I say good-bye to my interpreter Sergei. Now I am back in Kiev teaching again. Today is a day of rest. On Tuesday I taught a four hour class on the Book of Matthew for the staff. Following that, I have the pleasure of teaching for the campus ministry on Living by Faith. Every chair is full. There are about 100 in the campus devotional. I learn that they are sending out five mission teams this summer, plus having eight local interns. This is a very active and faithful student group. I detect a very strong faith here. After the lesson, I go to a local restaurant to watch Ukraine playing in the European championship tournament. They played better than Poland, in my opinion, but lost the game. The Ukrainians seem resigned to their fate. Dinner includes a dish recommended by my waiter. I was shocked to see that it was a plate of, essentially, pure pork fat, with some toasted rye bread. Well, I ate it.
Wednesday was a day of teaching for the staff and interns on History, Archaeology and the Bible as well as the Christian World View. Afterwards, I was blessed to tour the historical district, including the Sophia Church, which was built around 1025 AD. The 11th century art and architecture is amazing. I also traveled to the central square of the city, which is one of my favorite places in the world. It is impossible to explain this place. You just have to visit it. I am blessed to spend time with Alex Polishchuk, who is traveling to Russia to support the Church in Novosibirsk as well as Amalia Calin from Bucharest, Romania who is here in the school of ministry and training to work for the church somewhere in Ukraine, as well as Olya Yakimacha who will move to Kharkov very soon to be an intern in the campus ministry. These young Christians really inspire me with their fervor for God and his church. Their idealism and zeal for God is an upward call.
Thursday I taught again for the staff on the Holy Spirit and the Book of Malachi. Afterward, I traveled with Max and Zhenya to visit the Lavra, which is a massive complex of churches, monasteries, and museums. It is essentially the headquarters for the Ukranian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch. The buildings are really spectacular. Here we hung out with a humble priest from the countryside. He is here on a pilgrimage. We spent the evening with him, including taking him out to dinner. In fact, he spent the night with Max and Zhenya. This was a very interesting time. The man has written a book on supposed miracles. To me he appears very superstitious, but we find ourselves respecting his humility and sincerity.
Friday I met with the teens and campus for two lessons—on Freedom in Christ and on How We Got the Bible. The session is almost four hours. It was hard to get this group to ask questions, but once they got started, their depth of thought was impressive. Friday night was an evangelistic talk on God and Science. The room holds 130 or so, but there are people standing and out in the hall. At least 180 came, including many visitors. There is a fairly significant issue here in Ukraine because most evangelicals take a hard stand for the young earth theory and teach that evolution is an atheist theory. Of course, I do not see it this way, so I have to treat this issue with some caution. Ukrainians are fairly emotional, which can make such issues even more provocative. Fortunately, the members and guests listened and seemed open-minded to a different perspective. In fact, this was a very encouraging evening.
Saturday’s teaching is the highlight of my visit to Kiev. I am teaching on the Book of Revelation. There is a relative lack of deeper Bible teaching here in Ukraine, so the response is really positive. The disciples are hungry. I was told to expect about 100 for this four hour lecture on a very hot afternoon. Instead, the auditorium was packed, with people out in the hallway and in the foyer. There were more than 250 in attendance. There is a great hunger here for a deeper knowledge of the Bible. The enthusiasm of the Christians is very palpable here. It was a lot of fun. After this we had a wonderful dinner of Ukranian dumplings and pancakes.
Sunday I give a class on taking our study of the Scripture deeper to the campus leaders. I had a great talk Brittany Yakobleva. She and her husband Max lead this group of campus students. Brittany is the daughter of Andy and Tammy Fleming. She has lived in Stockholm, Moscow, Stockholm again, London, Los Angeles, London again, and Birmingham. Then she went on a one year challenge to Kiev where she met Max. She has been here six years and is settling down in Kiev. She has lived a life of sacrifice which is an inspiration to me. Now I say goodbye to so many friends in the campus group I have made the past two weeks. This is followed by a meeting of the East region of the church in the evening. There are perhaps 350 or 400 at the meeting for a lesson on From Shadow to Reality. I get to hang out with Zhenya, who leads a sector here. He has been in the ministry for eight years, but I am a bit shocked to learn that he is only 27 years old. On Monday, I am off to Saint Petersburg.
Our fellowship has at least eight churches here in Ukraine with more than 2500 members. With all the upheaval here, there is great need. Please consider praying for our brothers and sisters here. If you have expertise in teaching the Bible, please consider traveling here as the churches here would be very receptive to learning more about the Word of God.
Saint Petersburg, Russia, Jan 27-29.
I arrive in St. Petersburg at 3:00 AM, after flying from Kiev to Frankfurt to Moscow to St. Petersburg. This roundabout path is required because flights from Ukraine to Russia are all forbidden due to the war. This is my second visit to this wonderful city. St. Petersburg was founded and made the capital of Russia by Peter the Great in 1703 as a window to the Western world. He built a beautiful city here, with its canals, churches and incredibly palaces. Despite the devastating siege of the city of over 900 days by Hitler, the city itself survived relatively untouched. This is the second city of Russia with a population of around six million. It is so far north that at this time of year it never actually gets completely dark. They call it the city of white nights because of this phenomenon.
I am visiting a church which has about four hundred members. My principal host is Alexander (Sasha) Solovyoff. He is fairly young. He and his wife Anya have their first child, who is not yet a year old. They work with singles and campus. The campus group here is fairly small, with about twenty-five, but they are quite zealous. I taught a class on God and science for them on Tuesday evening. There were some guests at the meeting. St. Petersburg is a city which tends toward the intellectual. The leading religious influence, of course, is the Orthodox Church, but skepticism, a remnant of the Communist influence, is also strong. As I am here, the Duma, the Russian parliament, is considering a law to make it much harder from outside churches to have influence here. This would be a great hardship for the churches.
The church I am visiting here is led by Yuri Solkolkin, but he is in the US for a conference in about a week. They help to oversee and support a number of churches in the Caucuses (Georgia, Azervaijan, Armenia) and in Rostov and Volgograd in southern Russia. The church here has struggled to grow, but they have great support from their sister church in Dallas.
On Wednesday I traveled with Sasha to the Peterhoff Palace. This was built by Peter the Great to rival Versailles. The palace and gardens are absolutely massive. It is right on the Gulf of Finland. It is a marvel. I cannot say if it rivals Versailles, as I have not been there. In the evening I taught a class on Freedom in Christ at midweek. The place was pretty much packed. Tomorrow I am off to Moscow by train.
Picture is at Peterhoff
Moscow, Russia, June 30-July 3
I travel by rapid train to Moscow. Eight hundred kilometers (a bit over 550 miles) in less than four hours. I am met by Sergei Glushonkov who leads of the sectors of the church in Moscow. The church here has 1600 members. It is fairly mature, with many members who have been Christians for twenty years or more. The church here helps to support a family of churches in central Russia.
Moscow is the political and financial capital of Russia, with about sixteen million inhabitants. It is a very impressive city—clean, with wide streets and very impressive public buildings everywhere. The Metro is world class and very efficient. This is my third visit to Moscow. Sergei takes me for a quick visit to Red Square and the Kremlin. The Kremlin is closed on Thursdays, so we cannot take the tour. I am staying with Dima and Olga who are very gracious hosts.
St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Campus Group
Friday is a very busy day, with a three hour class for the staff of the church on the Book of Daniel. There are about 35 in the class. The staff is large, but this is a large church. I am happy to see Sasha Bazashvili, who I hung out with my first time here. He is leading one of the two regions in the church. After the class I visit the national Orthodox Cathedral briefly. Then I spend time with the campus group, teaching a class on the Christian World view. There are about sixty in the campus group here and there are about sixty in the class. They have hired six interns for the campus this summer. The university group is doing really well here. I get a full hour of questions. Again, the question of the age of the earth and young earth creationism is a big issue, even for the university students. I get home late, but an treated to traditional Russian salad. The common foods here are the soups and the salads which are very different than what I am used to.
Saturday I gave a four hour class on the history of Christianity. Many are out of the city on holiday, but, still, one hundred and fifty come to the class. After this was time to hang out at a barbecue Russian style.