Almost 13 years ago, just after our arrival in Russia, I made a trip with Donald Marsden (now with the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship) and other colleagues to the city of Surgut in western Siberia. It was March, the beginning of the end of their long winter, but still cold and lots of snow on the ground.
There are more than one hundred small, native people groups in Russia. Donald had seen the early efforts of missionaries in this region to reach the Khanti people, and invited Harold Kurtz of the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship to share good missiology as a guide to their efforts. I tagged along, because the church in Surgut is in the Congregational Twinning Program, and it was an opportunity to listen to Harold.
In the middle of the ten-day program, the pastors returned home for services at their own churches. One of those pastors was Vladimir Tashtiev. On Friday afternoon, Vladimir invited three of us to travel to Nizhnevartovsk for worship with his congregation. We had no reason to decline, other than the fact that none of us spoke much Russian. It was an adventure the three of us have never forgotten, and the beginning of something that is finally taking shape.
What we found in Nizhnevartovsk was an extraordinary congregation of great love and determination. They were worshipping in the home of one of their members, filling the space and overflowing into the bedroom and kitchen. They had bought a piece of land and were beginning to build, yet they asked for nothing beyond our fellowship. It was a church I could not forget.
Two years later, the Outreach Foundation found funds for church construction in Russia. I shared the story of Nizhnevartovsk and the sum was sent, enough to put the roof on their new building. My husband Al traveled to Nizhnevartovsk that summer to see how building was going. He, too, was touched by these people. We have both longed to return.
Through the years, I have lifted this congregation up repeatedly as a potential partner, but found no one willing to go the extra mile to Siberia. Two years ago Vladimir found me on Facebook and posted a photo from that first seminar, tagging me and sending the congregation’s thanks for the gift back in 2004.
At about the same time, a church in Wisconsin was asking about potential partners, so I added Nizhenvartovsk to a list of possibilities. They were intrigued, and finally, after all these years, we had a match.
The partnership began over Skype, but it soon became clear that we needed a personal contact. Vladimir told me I had to get there by the 15th of October, before the rivers froze. I caught the red eye to Moscow on the 15th, and landed in Nizhnevartovsk that evening.
Vladimir and I both recognized the two purposes of my visit ― to reconnect with this congregation now in the Twinning program and to see their developing ministry to the Khanti.
Vladimir had made great preparations, planning a three-day excursion up river to remote settlements, but the day before my arrival, he got word that the rivers had already frozen and the elaborately planned trip had to be altered.
Wasting no time, we set out the next morning, and headed north onto the taiga. The taiga is a place where the modern world, in the form of oil companies and their roughnecks, is encroaching on the land and traditions of the native people. As we traveled, the snow began to fall. Winter had indeed arrived, early even for Siberia.
Vladimir’s outreach to the Khanti began in the past few years, as he has traveled out with other missionaries in the region on their expeditions. On vacation with his family, he befriended a family from the village of Var-Yogan, and has made new connections through them.
We found our way to the stoybishe (Khanti homestead) of Pasha and Tamara, a Khanti couple living the traditional way. We spent time simply getting to know a little about their lives. Their reindeer had not yet returned from summer wanderings, and Pasha would have to go looking for them soon. Tamara spends much of her free time doing the intricate beadwork that decorates traditional Khanti clothing. She took us out to their shed to show us some of her work.
We visited their neighbor down the hill, an elderly Khanti woman, whose children have left for city life. We spent the night in their low roofed hut, sleeping five-across on a raised wooden platform. I was impressed with Vladimir’s gentleness and his desire to respect and understand their culture while sharing his own faith.
As the snow continued to fall, and the roads grew more slippery, we made the decision to return to Nizhnevartovsk. Vladimir did not have snow tires. The early onset of winter had caught him (and almost everyone else) unprepared.
Back in Nizhnevartovsk, Vladimir turned our focus to his church and community. The church is unusual in its history and its outlook. Many of the members, including Vladimir and Valia, come out of the unregistered Baptist tradition ― a group so conservative that they refused to register with the State during Soviet times, and separate themselves from both society and other Christian communities even today.
Vladimir and his wife left the unregistered community more than 15 years ago. I was frankly surprised to find that they had been a part of this tradition, because they are so far from it now.
Vladimir crosses denominational lines in fellowship and ministry wherever possible. As we toured the city, we stopped by the Christian Center, an organization engaged in ecumenical ministry to the homeless, the handicapped and the lost. One of the staff members is a member of Vladimir’s church.
I was struck by her prayers at the Friday evening service ― prayers for unity and common ministry in the city. Again and again, I came across the pain of rejection this congregation feels, rejection from both Orthodox and unregistered Baptists.
It was important to them that the gift for the roof had come from Presbyterians ― people outside their own tradition, people that did not see boundaries. The church in Nizhnevartovsk is trying to be that kind of church today ― a church that does not see boundaries, that can love the addict, gather clothing for the homeless, and work together with other Christians.
I would ask for your prayers ― prayers for the developing ministry to the Khanti, prayers for the congregation in Nizhnevartovsk , and prayers for the very divided body of Christ in this place. May this congregation be a light in the midst of this division.
I am grateful for the prayers that travel with me to the ends of the earth, even to distant Siberia. Our partners recognize that you travel with me through those prayers.
Ellen Smith and her husband, Al, serve in Eastern Europe from their home in Berlin.