As communism crumbles and the Soviet Union shatters, the people of Latvia are savoring political independence for the first time in five decades.
Latvians also are rekindling the religious faith extinguished by Moscow in 1940, when the Soviets annexed the Baltic country.
To help in that rebirth of faith, Southern Baptists from Maryland and Delaware are undertaking a three-year mission program that would spiritually and materially assist the estimated 4,700 Latvian Baptists.
More than 100 local Baptist ministers and lay people are expected to travel to the Latvian capital of Riga to help renovate churches recently released from Soviet control, install computer equipment at the office of the Union of Latvian Baptists, and conduct seminars on Sunday school instruction and pastoral counseling, among other activities.
Riga has about 1 million residents, just more than a third of Latvia's population.
In contrast, 4,700 Baptists sounds like a small number. That's probably why the local Baptists will hold an evangelistic crusade in Riga each year during the mission program.
The first stage of the program will begin Sept. 30, when Aubrey Stewart, an official of the Columbia-based Maryland/Delaware Southern Baptist Convention, and David Flumbaum, a former convention president, will go to Riga to guide a two-week seminar on Sunday school instruction.
The Latvia program is one of many overseas operations of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, which is based in Richmond. The local convention has led similar missions in the African nations of Burundi and Rwanda.
"We've found that when we do this sort of work, we always get more out of it than we put into it," said John Faris, the local convention's liaison for the Latvian mission.
"As our churches have become involved in foreign missions projects, it gives our people greater awareness of what's going on in the world. Americans tend to be very inward-looking. But when our people come back from these missions, they're very enthusiastic, and their enthusiasm spreads. Some folks go on to become full-time missionaries or ministers," Faris said.
Contributions by local Southern Baptists will fund the mission, including the cost of transportation and materials, Faris said. He added that the convention has not yet determined the entire cost of the program.
Faris and Ken Lyle, the executive director of the local convention, visited Riga last June to lay the groundwork for the mission. They met with four Latvian Baptist leaders, including Janis Eisans, the head of the Union of Latvian Baptists.
"I got a tremendous amount out of being in Latvia and being around Christians who have really suffered from persecution and still are very dedicated to the faith," Faris said. "To see the depth of their Christianity, it does something for a person."
Latvia's Baptists belong to 60 small congregations served by 47 pastors. Some congregations share spaces with other faith groups. One of the 47 pastors is a retired minister who travels 120 miles round trip by bus or train every Sunday to lead an 11 a.m. service at one church and a 2 p.m. service at another church, said Faris.
After a recent tour of the United States, Eisans returned last week to his native country. During his travels here, he visited the Union of Latvian Baptists in North America, a group of eight churches with 437 members. Its headquarters are in suburban Philadelphia.
Eisans also stopped off in Columbia to talk with Lyle and other local convention officials. In an interview with Baptist True Union, the convention's weekly newspaper, Eisans spoke of Latvia's new religious freedom as "a great responsibility to use God's given time, which is short. I compare it with springtime, which is sowing time in the fields. If we lose the time, something else is sown in people's heart."
According to Faris, the Latvian Baptist movement began in 1860. By the 1940s, membership had grown to 20,000, but that number plummeted as the Soviet government confiscated churches and Latvians emigrated to escape religious and other forms of persecution.
Before the 1940 annexation drove most worshipers overseas or underground, the Latvian population was estimated to be 68 percent Lutheran and 26 percent Roman Catholic.