This post is part 5 of 6 in my series about my trip this summer to the outback of Siberia.
Our departure from Laborovaya was delayed by over a day because our driver Grisha got an offer to take some others back to the city the day before we needed to go. Since it’s a full day’s drive, it was a two day commitment. Then he had the gall to go work on a construction site the morning we were to leave without even telling us. In fact, he had to drive right past our door to get there! I was pretty steamed about it, because we had such limited time at our next location before our flight home. But God proved himself worthy of trusting when I realized after the fact that what had to happen was our visit to Simyon. Nonetheless, it was also sad to realize at the end of our last day how much an additional day with these wonderful people would have been.
Who are these wonderful people? They were the only believers we met on the whole trip. Here is their story. Our return trip brought us back to the capital city of Salekhard, but our destination was another hour out in another direction to a small town by the name of Aksarka. Here we arrived to the home of Yevdokhia (usually written Eudoxia in English), who is the pastor of a tiny fellowship that meets in her home. She, and this whole community, are of the Khanty tribe. They are also nomads who live in the chum and herd reindeer, but theirs is a different culture. You can see from the picture on the left (not mine) how their appearance and garb differ from the Nenets, though their language is also in the Finno-Ugric family.
For example, whereas in Nenet religious tradition the supreme god is impersonal, for the Khanty that god (God?) is personal, and the Creator of all that is. This stuff fascinates me, but I only had a day there, alas.
We arrived at Yevdokhia’s home just as church was starting, so we joined in for worship. After worship, they asked me to speak, but it ended up being me telling a little of my story with them telling me a lot of their stories, which was just great by me. Later they asked me to pray individually over each person, and they prayed over me and Kerith.
They told story after story of how they came to faith in Christ. For Yevdokhia the process of repentance and turning to faith necessarily meant (and she always insists on it for others) that the idols had to go. The idols, as I understand them, were like dolls with lots of layers of clothing, but they of course are considered to have powers. Of course to a Western mindset the idea seems to smack of cultural imperialism, but as I listened to story after story, I understood the meaning. Because of their belief that these idols have power, there must needs be a reverence (i.e., fear) associated with them, so the idea of getting rid of them altogether generates a fear that “something” bad might happen. This is exactly the kind of attempt to keep one’s feet on two stools that must be dealt with at the outset in a new believer. Is Christ the Lord of lords, or do my idols still deserve a place at the table? The question (for the skeptics reading) is not whether there is great wisdom worthy of preserving in the culture, but whether divided alliances is appropriate, healthy, or even safe. And every time, when the new convert overcame the wavering and made the decision to burn them, it was actually a relief. They even had a tradition where you have to make a doll to honor a person who has passed and then make offerings to it. One lady told me about this tradition, and that when her grandmother died she just secretly got rid of it. Her mother, however, although not Christian, never asked about it. The reason: it’s such a bother to constantly tend to these idols.
Yevdokhia herself once lived in a chum (tent). She told of how she received the word about Christ from some traveling missionaries and became insatiably thirsty for more. By the time later on two Orthodox priests came through to try to get her to become Orthodox, she was so well-versed and grounded in her faith that she confounded them to the point that one of them later became a Protestant. I was in awe. There was no school in the tundra. No TV or internet. No fellowship or pastor. She had a Bible, and she thought of creative ways of teaching her children about God and the Bible. Now all six of her daughters are Christian too, and they are impressive in their own right.
This is a fellowship that prays fervently and trusts God for big things to happen. I heard my fill of miracle stories, but the biggest of them they didn’t even tell with any particular drama or awe; they thought it was a really funny story. It seems that one woman, Ludmilla, had come to faith in Christ, but her husband Gennady had not. He was still an alcoholic, and once upon a very drunk evening he managed to fall off the second floor balcony and get killed. The neighbor wanted to call the ambulance, but the wife would hear nothing of it. She prayed for him, and he got up. And here he was in the room with us many years later. He even played checkers with Kerith. Such a sweet spirit this man had. They said that he had such childlike faith that whenever anyone would pray for him it would bring healing instantly.
Not only were miracles common for this group, they also work tirelessly to bring the light of Christ to the community. Naturally I wondered why there was no visible fruit in terms of their own growth. Yet the more I listened to their amazing stories, the more I got the conviction that they had planted seeds that are soon to sprout. Yevdokhia herself served for a number of years on the town council, and in that position had had the opportunity to meet and serve a large portion of the community. She also was responsible for convening a group of pastors from all over the region to see how they could work together.
Later in the day, however, Yevdokhia’s demeanor changed, and she stopped telling me all her incredible stories of miracles and conversions (and of people who had both but later reverted to their traditions out of fear of family rejection). She started being authentic with me about her struggles as a leader of a tiny fellowship that is not growing (including how some had gotten into weird teachings and broken off). She shared about her discouragement as a wife of a man about whom the most she could say after 26 years was that he had stopped drinking and supported her in ministry, but he had no faith to speak of himself. She lamented that her daughters had lost some of their passion for Christ that they had had as youth. My response was a combination of relating from my own experience, a (very) few words of wisdom, some encouragement from what I had observed, and some just plain listening. But it was an honor to be an ear to her in this lonesome and isolated place without Christian fellowship and encouragement for herself as a leader.