God’s power at Russia’s frontier
I knew I could do it. The job was simple, according to the job description. I knew I had no experience as a teacher, but I also knew that there was something I could share with my would-be students: English. After a short period of training, I was going to teach English in a city on the eastern frontier of Russia—on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan.
For a student from Pacific Union College, in California, Moscow is far enough, but the International Teacher Service of the General Conference sent me to teach in a town 10 time zones east of Moscow, far away from home, friends, and loved ones. However, I was soon to learn that love knows no distance, and friendship knows no frontier.
However, a surprise awaited me. I was going to be not just a language teacher but also the pastor of their newly established church. I am no preacher. I had no sermon notes. I had no training, not even a book on preaching. Could I do it? Should I even attempt it?
I went to Russia more for taking a break from my hectic routine as a bioengineering student rather than for making any great contribution in a faraway land. Sure, I felt a tug at my heart string—something mysterious, something real, a feeling that God wanted me to go to Russia, to be of some use to His people there.
Teaching English was one thing, but preaching? I began to have misgivings. Did God really want me here? Was He leading me in my decision to come? Why would He want me to preach when He knew very well that I have no particular talent in that area? I felt totally helpless—and nervous.
But it is precisely at the moment of one’s helplessness, help comes from above. When I recognized I had no power of my own, God showed me how great His power is. When I was at the end of my knowledge, my resources, and my wit, God stepped in. His command became His enabling. I felt God’s power.
The first Sabbath I stood shaking before the church, but God’s Word speaks its message to its people through any person who is willing. Week after week, God was using me, and the attendance grew from 15 the first week to 50 in 4 month’s time.
Soon I discovered why God wanted me to be a pastor and a teacher in this distant land. One of my English students approached me with a surprising request. She wanted baptism. She was 17, shy, and when I first met her had no knowledge of God or the Bible. However, she regularly attended not only the English class, but also the Bible lessons I taught each day. She seldom spoke in the class. She never said a word about what we discussed, about Jesus, sin, salvation, or the Sabbath.
After the second week, she asked to borrow a Bible. She wanted to read it on her own. She must have read quite fast, for thereafter, whenever I related a Bible story, her eyes would pop up with enthusiasm. “I’ve read that,” she would say and join in the discussion. Eventually she decided to become a Christian. I asked her why. “I always wanted to be one,” she said, “but no one had shown me how. Your Bible classes taught me the way.”
When she was baptized, she said, “This is the happiest day in my life.” In mine too. I knew now why God had brought me so far, thus far.
The Spirit works
I struggled to understand how the faith of Russian youth could have survived under the circumstances in which I found them. They knew so little about basic Christianity. Their families were often against their attending church. In fact, a few months after I arrived on Sakhalin, the Orthodox Church leader for Eastern Russia, in a television broadcast, warned people to stay away from the Adventist Church because it was an evil cult. Consequently, parents of some of our younger church members forbade them to come to church, and for several weeks I agonized in prayer for those new, young Christians. However, they kept coming and bringing their friends.
I could clearly see the Holy Spirit working on the most unexpected people. One boy in particular stands out in my mind. He was 15 and started attending my English classes with a large group of his friends. They would walk me home after class every night, smoking their cigarettes and boasting about how much vodka they could drink before they passed out. It surprised me that Ilya never smoked like his friends. When I asked him about it, his simple answer was that he didn’t like it.
The next week we had a week of prayer at our language school. This was a special time when we invited all our students to attend the meetings right before or after their classes, so that more of them would have the opportunity to discover what we did in Bible classes. At the end of the week, I made an appeal and handed out decision cards. The cards listed several choices: “I’d like to study more about Jesus;” “I’d like to study for baptism;” or “I accept Jesus as my personal Savior.” While many students marked at least one choice, Ilya didn’t mark any. As the weeks went by, I wondered why he kept attending the daily Bible classes. He did this for 10 weeks, seven days a week. He would carefully turn his Bible to every text I referred to, often searching for several minutes. One day I asked him if he wanted to be baptized. Without hesitation he joined the small baptismal class. He was baptized shortly thereafter.
The witness spreads
The Spirit was indeed at work. I saw this in the case of Sveta also. Sveta taught English and Japanese in a village elementary school. One day, while waiting for a bus, she met a Filipino student missionary who invited her to attend his Adventist English Church. She agreed, if only to hear good English and pick up a skill or two in spoken English.
At church I met Sveta. I visited her home, shared my faith, and listened to her concerns. Soon she was bringing her family and friends to our church on Sabbath. When school started, she brought her English students to church. Even the two-hour bus ride did not keep her from attending. I had the privilege of seeing her baptized before I left.
I learned some lessons
My Russian experience taught me three important lessons. First, God doesn’t call us to do the impossible. When He calls us, He also enables us. Second, He wants us to trust in Him. The weaker we feel, the more He is glorified in us. Too often we see God in our perspective and limit Him; instead, we need to see us in His perspective and let Him use us as He wills. Third, let God control our lives. Life under our own control may be successful; but life under God’s control opens up great horizons, and we become instruments of His accomplishment. When I left Sakhalin, 60 people were attending the church, and I left with the satisfaction that God had used me for His purposes.
I am back to bioengineering, but I shall always remain an instrument of God’s service wherever He wants me.
Gina McHenry served in Russia as a volunteer teacher from June 1994 to June 1995. She is now studying bioengineering at Walla Walla College. Her address: Walla Walla College; 204 South College Ave.; College Place, WA 99324; U.S.A.