The following is an article written by one of the team members from our last trip to Yamal, Siberia. Paul, Igor, and their band “Vertex” once again spent a month in the Arctic Circle sharing the love of Christ with Nanet people of Yamal.
Jesus told his disciples that they were to be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem and the immediate neighborhood but also to the far reaches of the planet. This is the place where missionaries from Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia recently found themselves certainly qualified for the latter part of that assignment. You can’t get much more remote than a series of small villages near the Arctic Circle in Western Siberia, and just for good measure, the missionaries chose the dead of winter to make their most recent visit. In fact, winter – the beginning of March — is a good time for this type of mission trip. The Ob River is frozen solid with ice a yard thick, making it at least possible to cross the river to drive to many of the villages. The “ice roads,” pathways through the frozen tundra connecting many of the villages will become much less passable when warmer weather arrives, and things begin to thaw. So it was in February and March that Paul and Igor joined with two believers from Moldova, a former Soviet republic, and two other Russian-speaking believers to play a series of rock music concerts in several remote villages at the base of the Yamal Peninsula.
The concerts were advertised to local authorities as promoting a message against drugs and alcohol, a big concern in the target audience, but the songs, in Russian, also contained the seeds of the Gospel message. Both Igor, the lead singer, and Paul, the bass guitarist, emigrated from the Ukraine as young adults and both attend Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia. Joining them from Moldova were Dima, who plays lead guitar and Stas, the drummer. On one occasion the band had the opportunity to share their songs and speak to the Khanti people who inhabit the village of Kharsaeem (accent on the second syllable), a fishing village about an hour from the main port city of Salekhard. Unlike many villages, Kharsaeem is connected to Salekhard by asphalt roads. Many other villages are connected only by treacherous “ice roads.” It is a small miracle that our Christian rock band was able to play in this village. According to Peter, a local believer who has specialized in native customs, the Gospel message only first arrived in this village in the 1990s. It was brought by a foreign missionary (details are vague) and upon hearing the Word of God, a local woman was converted. Unfortunately, the locals were outraged, and a shaman killed the new believer. The gospel in this region faces several other obstacles, according to a local pastor. Many native peoples are willing to add the God of the Bible to a long list of gods they already believe in. The difficulty is getting indigenous people to accept the God of the Bible as the only true God, with an exclusive claim on their lives. Yet another difficulty is that the Russian Orthodox Church has persuaded much of the population that any Russian who is not Russian Orthodox is a member of a “sect.” That disparaging term is applied to any non-Orthodox faith, including Catholics and all mainline Protestants. Muslims, who are not ethnic Russians, are not tagged in this way, and are thus generally accepted as being faithful to their religious tradition. The venue in this small village looked like a community center such as you might find in many a small town in America. But outside, the nearby Ob River was frozen over. The thermometer read 25 below zero Celsius. (That’s 13 below zero Fahrenheit.) When the wind would gust it felt colder still. Adult members of the audience mostly sat still, while teenagers and young children sat, listened, and then ran in and out with their friends. The songs covered a variety of topics. One song, “Belaya Vorona,” or white crow, talked about the need to be different from a crowd that goes after bad choices. Another song challenged listeners to get off the treadmill of a merely materialistic life and to seek a spiritual perspective. Still another song honored mothers who pray. Over the course of a couple of weeks, the band played about eight concerts. There were several unanticipated barriers. The flu had struck Salekhard for much of the band’s visit, and all public meetings (including concerts) were prohibited by civic authorities.
On one occasion, the band set out over “ice roads” for a concert tour to several villages. The trip began at midnight. In the daytime, with the glaring sunlight and windy conditions, you can’t make out the path through the tundra, so at night, car headlights illuminate the contours of the ice roadway. Traveling the ice roads is like riding a bucking bronco; the uneven ice jars the vehicle up and down every few seconds. But the band set out in a Jeep and SUV for the seven- hour trip to the first of several concerts on that tour. About four hours out, the SUV went into a ditch. The driver of the Jeep, an American missionary working on a Bible translation project, used a rope to try to pull the SUV out of the ditch. Unfortunately, he burned out a clutch. Now – two vehicles were stranded. And yes, it was cold. The band members prayed. They slept sporadically. But mostly, they waited. The dawn of the new day brought a blizzard, dropping temperatures to 50 below zero Celsius. But then, at mid-morning, a giant Russian truck patrolling the ice roads happened to drive by. Over the next several hours, the driver pulled both disabled vehicles back to Salekhard. The band finally arrived back at base at 6 p.m. that day – some 18 hours after they set out. “If that truck had not come by, we would still be out there”, one of the band members said later. God was watching over us, he added. There were a few times when band members got a chance to more specifically explain the gospel to audience members who stayed to talk after their concerts and we praise God for the Gospel that was given very clearly to them. The band did what they felt God had called them to do, Igor said. The results, of course, were (and are) up to God.
Another missionary, Dave Markey, who has done church planting in other parts of the former Soviet Union, is scheduled to arrive soon. He will work among the indigenous peoples to plant a Calvary Chapel. Meanwhile, the band plans a follow-up visit this summer. This field is white unto harvest.