When the Soviet Union fell 30 years ago, doors opened to telling generations of atheists about the newborn Savior. Rev. Leif Camp first went to Russia as a volunteer missionary from 1995-1997, then was called as a missionary to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR) in 2000. Here, he describes what life as a Christian was like before the fall of Communism, and how as a missionary, he shares the Good News in Russia today. He writes:
Initially after the Communist Revolution, the Church had a few years of freedom, but already in the 1920s the persecution started. First, all social ministry was taken away. Hospitals, houses of mercy, schools and orphanages were all confiscated, and freedom of religion became defined as only freedom to worship, not freedom to live by one’s faith and practice a life of faith outside the walls of a church building. Then voting rights were taken away from anyone who was an admitted believer, and then believing itself became a crime.
Our ELCIR bishop emeritus, Rev. Arri Kugappi, recalls the times of his youth when public worship was still not officially allowed, but Lutheran believers worshipped house to house, at cemeteries, or other out-of-the-way places. And since there were no available pastors, worship was lay-led. Two pastors had survived the gulags and were finally released, and they did what they could, but still out of necessity the laity also often baptized and held funerals (they would go a long time without Holy Communion).
Sometimes I see the Lutheran Church of Ingria as this: Picture a ship sailing through rough seas, one wave away from sinking, going full speed ahead. Our pastors are underpaid or not paid at all; many congregations still have only temporary spaces in which to worship and spread the Gospel. We are short of qualified confessional and Biblically-grounded instructors, and a host of other “waves” that assail us, but still we are growing, spreading the Gospel at every opportunity. Full speed ahead, because we no longer have to meet in homes, in cemeteries, in secret, and until we have to do so again, we must make the most of the opportunity to proclaim publicly!
In Russia, public celebration of Christmas only began in 1991. Until then, Christians celebrated as one would celebrate a birthday party or other family celebration – not so much secretly, but not really publicly. Rev. Kugappi recalls how as a child and youth, the believing families would take turns hosting Christmas in their homes.
If a pastor was available (and mostly they were not as many were in the gulag), he would lead. If not, someone would read the Christmas story, and then the children would sing Christmas carols. If a child could not sing, he or she would recite a Christmas poem. Then Santa (or Father Frost, as he was called then) would arrive with his bag of presents and goodies.
Today, the LHF translation of A Child’s Garden of Bible Stories is a book we distribute a lot around Christmas in orphanages (pictured above), in schools where we are allowed, and in our own Sunday schools.
Of course, the Christmas story is only the beginning: the beginning of the story of grace and our Savior’s mission to save all lost sinners. So we cannot separate the Christmas story from the rest of the story.
Currently, we go through thousands of LHF’s translations of Luther’s Small Catechisms a year, since the policy now is that anyone visiting one of our Lutheran parishes may be offered a copy.
Just recently I met a man who, when he found out I was a pastor, explained that although he was not a believer, he had been asked by Russian Orthodox friends to be the godfather of their child. He admitted that when he had to promise to help take care of the child materially and spiritually, he realized that spiritually he was at a loss, being an unbeliever.
I asked if he was interested in knowing the basics of the Christian faith. He was, and so then I gave him a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism, explaining that it contained the basics, as well as a copy of Freedom of a Christian and Theology of the Cross. All three he eagerly accepted!
As long as we have the freedom to spread the Gospel, we must do so with an urgency, because we do not know when such freedoms will be curtailed again.