John Oakes June 20-July 14, 2008
Report on Missionary Visit
John Oakes June/July 2008
London and Scotland June 20-30
This is my fourth visit to the UK, so by now I have many established friendships with which to be reacquainted. My wife Jan and I traveled first to London. We visited the South region which meets in Croydon. CJ Wakefield leads the group of about 120. I taught a new lesson titled Jesus: Man, Myth or Messiah? as well as one on From Shadow to Reality. The meetings were in a Brethren church which was an interesting experience. We got some time with great friends Malcolm and Penny Cox and the Agerbacks. From there, we traveled to Edinburgh to teach for the church there. The Glasgow church, with its 18 members came along for a lesson titled: A Response to the God Delusion. This book by Richard Dawkins is still making a stir in the UK. Jan and I got a wonderful vacation/tour for three days through the Scottish lochs, into the Scottish highlands, staying at Glencoe, followed by a stay in St. Andrews, the home of golfing and the site of the oldest university in Scotland. We also got to tour Edinburgh, with the highlight being a visit to Edinburgh castle.
After this, we returned to the Edinburgh church for another lesson on how to grow deeper and more encouraged in our own Bible study as Christians as we mature. The church here, led by Ben and Nicola Brady is stable and happy. On Friday we returned to London. I taught a lesson for the Thames Valley church in Bracknell titled Hebrews: Fate or Freedom. This was a new class. It was a joy for Jan and I to visit with Tim and Shevvy Dannett. Sunday was a teaching day for the church in East London, which is a group of about 120 as well. My overall impression of the London churches is that they are far more unified than they were in the past. They have now hired Adrian Hill to do family ministry. They are preparing to hire a campus minister. Things are really looking up for this faithful group of Christians.
Moscow, Russia July 1-2
I said good-by to Jan and continued on to Russia. Flying through Munich, I arrived in Moscow at 3:00 in the morning, getting to my hotel at 4:00 and to sleep at 5:00. It was tough getting up at 7:30! Moscow is what I expected and at the same time very different from what I expected. This city of 18 million, according to those I met from the church here, has over 10 % of the population of Russia and almost 80% of the money. Moscow is the most expensive city in the world. A "cheap" hotel is $300 per night, while a normal one is more like $1000 per night. There is construction going on all over. It still looks much like a Soviet-era city with all its huge and fairly ugly apartment buildings, yet there is a feeling of newness and that Moscow is turning the corner. The food is a bit bland, but still interesting. I had the national favorite which is borscht. Very good. The city has put its socialist/communist past well behind itself. Materialism is the new religion for most people. I was surprised to learn that most Russians are not convinced all this democracy and out-of-control economy, with the corruption which comes with it is so good. They wonder why Americans assume that democracy and complete freedom is necessarily the way to go. Their desire is for stability. From the point of view of the Christians here, runaway capitalism brings with it a lot of materialism and self-centered thinking. Something to think about…
On Tuesday I toured central Moscow with Sasha Bazashvili (trained as a medical doctor) Sergei (a former world champion wrestler-very scary!) and Dima (airline pilot). I got to visit Moscow State University (125,000 students), Red Square, the Kremlin and St. Basil cathedral. There are six regions in the church in Moscow with 1800 total members approximately. Each region has a staff couple, and there are campus and singles ministries. There are still no elders and there is a great need for teaching on marriage and family. The church seems quite united. In the evening I taught on Freedom in Christ to about 300. The church was unbelievably appreciative for the visit and the teaching. On Wednesday I met with the staff of the church, doing a class on growing in our relationship with God. That evening 350-400 came for a lesson on From Shadow to Reality.
I asked Sasha what is it that we in the sister churches in the US can do better. What advice do you have for us? He answered very humbly that his only "criticism" is that we need to be more in touch with our sister churches in the former Soviet Union. They desperately need more personal interaction with disciples from the West both for fellowship and for help in solid Bible teaching as well as ideas about having strong marriages and raising children-especially teens. I left at 11:30 PM on an overnight sleeper train to Minsk, Belarus.
Minsk, Belarus July 3-4
The train ride to Minsk was 9-1/2 hours through countryside which is reminiscent of Old Russia. I saw many dilapidated tiny train stations, farmers using horses in their fields, lots of forests and a countryside which is populated mostly by older very poor people. I was reminded of the Russia of Tolstoy and Pasternak. The countryside was beautiful. Arriving in Minsk, the feeling is quite different from Moscow. The city of two million feels more closed than Moscow. This country is ruled by a repressive Soviet-style regime. Everyone lives in tall, unattractive Stalinist-era apartment buildings. I am staying in a flat rather than a hotel because Minsk has very few hotels.
The church in Minsk has about 160 members. The church is still not officially sanctioned. For this reason they cannot legally meet together. The leaders can automatically be jailed for three years just for preaching to the church. Nevertheless, they meet occasionally for "celebrations" of things like someone’s birthday as an excuse to have a worship service together. Singing is not part of this unofficial meeting. A local mainline Church of Christ officially sponsored my visit so that the church could meet together. I had a wonderful time with Valera and Irina, as well as the evangelist Alexei and his wife Yelena. We visited the spectacular National Library and the other sites of the city. The church is very grateful for outside visitors because they have had almost no guests or speakers from the West for many years. Please plan on visiting this beautiful and exotic country and the faithful Christians in Minsk. On Thursday I taught for five straight hours and on Friday for four consecutive hours. Belorussians have a better attention span than we do in the West. Friday night I was off on an overnight train again for a 12 hour ride to Kiev after a quick dinner of the local favorites, including potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage and cold cabbage soup. The good-byes were very emotional as Belorussians create loving friendships very quickly. The ride to Kiev involved a stop at 3:00 AM for customs to leave Belarus and at 4:00 AM for customs to enter Ukraine. Not much sleep on that trip.
Kiev, Ukraine July 5-6
Kiev is a beautiful city of 8 million. It is the heart of a renaissance of Ukranian culture and language. The city has a much warmer feel. Unlike Moscow and Minsk, one sees people smiling here occasionally. The wind of democracy has blown through here more strongly. The architecture is really wonderful. I visited St. Michael’s Cathedral, built in 1136 AD. St. Sophia’s was built in 1038 AD. Kiev is the old capital of Rus (the former name of Russia). It is where Christianity entered into Mother Russia. There is much history here. It is even more strongly Orthodox that Moscow.
I spent time here with Petra Avsec, a single sister from Slovenia who works for HOPE, as well as Ryan Brown, the son of Tom and Kelly Brown, who is here working for three years for HOPE. It is nice to be able to speak English with a native speaker. The church here is just under two thousand. It is strong and has many mature ministries. The leadership of the Wootens has really helped to mature and stabilize the church in Ukraine in general, and in Kiev in particular. I spoke to 200-250 on Freedom in Christ on Saturday. Someone reminded me today that yesterday was July 4th. I hadn’t even noticed. It is a very strange thing to me to miss the big US holiday and that I did not even think about it.
I went to church twice on Sunday. In the morning in the North Region (570 members). I could not speak because the Ukranian government has to give permission way ahead of time for a non-Ukranian to speak at such a large venue.. I was able to speak in the afternoon for the South region (about 270 members) on From Shadow to Reality. We spent more time touring this beautiful city of monuments, statues and ornate Orthodox churches and beautiful views of the Dnieper River. Tonight I am off again at 10:00 for a ten hour overnight sleeper train to Lvov.
Lvov, Ukraine July 7-8
Lvov (Lviv in Ukranian) is a city of two million in the westernmost part of Ukraine. It is close to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and the Carpathian Mountains. Whereas Kiev is the political, economic and religious heart of Ukraine, Lvov is the cultural heart of Ukraine. It is in the region where speaking Ukranian is most common. There are many universities here. Unlike so many other cities in Europe, Lvov was only slightly destroyed in WW II. I think this is my new favorite city in the world. It is so beautiful with its Medieval and Renaissance architecture and cobblestone streets-with its buildings from the Ukranian, Mongol, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian periods, and with its uneasy mixture of Roman and Orthodox Catholic religion. There are many very old universities in the city.
I was met by Zhenya and Ira Pashkov, leaders of the church of forty-seven in this city. They have had virtually no visitors from outside, which is surprising to me because this is such a spectacular place. All are hungry for more fellowship and more of God’s word. I spoke on Monday to 30 on the subject, "The Bible, from God or Man" and on Tuesday on the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. There is only one in the church here who can translate English to Ukranian. Her name is Ira. Zhenya Pashkov is learning English from Ira. His first language is Russian but he has learned to preach in Ukranian. The church here is half married and half single, with only one family having a child older than an infant. The Christians here are very friendly. They love to eat together. Of course, I shared the national food which is borscht, along with stuffed cabbage and other delicious local favorites. There are many skeptical people in this city. I can tell we are moving into Central and Western Europe when the level of religious skepticism rises.
Tonight I am off on the long journey of 14 hours to Budapest on another overnight train. I am getting used to sleeping trains, but it is also wearing me out.
Budapest, Hungary July 9-10
Hungary is a very unusual country. It is in a very large and fertile plain in the heart of Central Europe. The language and people are not related to any of their neighbors. The closest relative is Finnish. Budapest is the capital city, with 2.5 million of the 10 million inhabitants. Historically, Hungary was much larger. A large minority of Hungarians are found in Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. Budapest is a very old city, having been founded in the 10th century. The people are not exactly the friendliest in the world, but the city is clean and beautiful with so many amazing buildings, monuments and statues and a great love for art and music. This capital city is really two cities, with Buda on the West bank and Pest on the East bank of the Danube. The food here is really quite unique, with the national dish being goulash and the national spice being paprika.
The church I met with is quite international. About half speak English as a second or third language. There are about 130 members, with many singles and many young families with children. I had a great time staying with Adrian and Timea. The church leaders are Peti and his wife. They recently restarted the campus ministry, which is now growing and very encouraged. The leadership here is quite mature given that they are relatively young. I was able to speak on the Christian approach to Pain and Suffering which seemed to speak to this group quite deeply. There were also classes for the parents of teens and one on Old Testament foreshadows of Jesus for the marrieds. Hungary is at the crossroads of Europe; between East and West, North and South. I encourage all to consider visiting this wonderful country and the welcoming and loving Christians I met here.
Zagreb, Croatia July 11
Zagreb, the capital of newly independent Croatia, is only a six hour train ride from Budapest through lovely hills and verdant farmland. The capital has 900,000 inhabitants out of 4.5 million in this very small country. Croatia is famous for its amazing cities by the mountains and the sea, such as Dubrovnik and Split. I did not see these places, but find Zagreb to be a charming city. It was founded in the tenth century which makes it a new city by Croatian standards as this was the heart of Roman Dalmatia/Illyrica. The country is still recovering from the war with Serbia and ethnic tensions are reduced but not absent. This country is ardently Catholic, while Serbia is Orthodox Christian and neighboring Bosnia is Muslim. Nationality is defined as much by religion here as by where one was born because Serbians, Bosnians and Croats speak the same language. There is much building here and the economy is recovering, but people remain relatively poor by European standards.
I stayed at the flat of Vedran and Romana Pintek. The church I visited with is led by Oleg and Olena Sirotkin who are here from Kiev, assisted by Ivan and Natasa Strazicic, who are Croatian. The church has been stable for several years. There are about 75 members. Unfortunately I only had one day with this wonderful group of Christians. I was able to speak on Science and God Friday PM. This seems appropriate because there are many students in this city and they are reemphasizing the campus ministry here. Most members speak some English. They feel a bit isolated and off the beaten path here and long for more fellowship with their brothers and sisters from other churches. They are also taking responsibility to encourage very small groups of Christians in Lubyanka (Slovenia), Sarajevo (Bosnia) and Belgrade (Serbia).
Tirana, Albania July 12-14
Of all the cities I visited on this trip, Tirana seems the least familiar culturally. This is a very poor country which went through over fifty years of an extremely repressive Communist regime which almost completely isolated the country and virtually destroyed the economy. Like Bosnia, the country is predominantly Muslim, but its language is not Slavic. It is closer to Greek, but not really close to that language either. According to my hosts, the country is more than half Muslim, perhaps 10 percent Orthodox and 10 percent other types of Christian. The great majority of Muslims do not take their religion seriously. I saw no one wearing Islamic garb. Drinking is very common and the style of dress is Western. The country is a mix of very rugged mountains and narrow coastal plains. Tirana is a city of 800,000. It has a third world feel to it. The people here are very warm and friendly. They are very animated in their interactions. This is the opposite of what I experienced from Russia, through Hungary and even Croatia. It seems hotter climate (close to 100 degrees while I was there) inspires a hotter culture and temperament.
Before coming, I was told by my friend Douglas Jacoby that his visit to the church in Tirana was one of the greatest highlights of his teaching visits. I believe I now know why. The members of the church in Tirana are very passionate about their faith and practice of Christianity. They are passionate about being in each other’s lives, about sharing their faith and about being hospitable. The church of sixty members is very young. The leader, Vangjel Kojku, is only 27 years old. A big need is for older and more experienced disciples of Jesus to visit and perhaps even stay for a while. It was good to spend time with my friend Manol Jovani who just finished his medical studies in Bologna, Italy. Speaking about passion: He is very passionate about knowing God’s Word and bringing Christianity to Italy and Albania. Church on Sunday, including classes on Church History and on The Problem of Pain and Suffering lasted four hours. Just in case that was not enough, I gave a public lecture on Science and God in the late afternoon which was attended by over a hundred. Half were guests and the church was really excited about the results of their hard work. I had lunch in the home of Vangjel, his wife and family. The hospitality was something else as we shared olives and wine produced by the family as well as fried liver, fried peppers, feta cheese and fried potatoes. Great local fare.
Monday morning I was up at 3:45 AM for the flight back to San Diego. I am thoroughly exhausted but exhilarated in my faith to have the privilege of meeting with and encouraging so many on my trip.