Carroll pastor visits Baltic republic

BAPTIST MISSION EMBRACES LATVIA

November 07, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

A Westminster pastor traveled to a country once steeped in atheism and found a people hungry for the Gospel.

The Rev. J. Lawrence Steen of Westminster Baptist Church was one of 14 pastors and laymen of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware who undertook a "preaching mission" to Latvia, a Northern European country of about 2.7 million people on the Baltic Sea.

"The country only became free of Russia a few years ago and there are still Soviet troops," he said. "There is a resurgence of Christianity and a strong desire in the whole country to look into spiritual things."

The convention established a partnership with the Baltic country about two years ago. Several members have visited on previous occasions. Mr. Steen's congregation here "graciously took care of the entire cost" of his trip, he said.

Through Allied Medical Ministries, the group left the United States on Oct. 7 with about $2,000 worth of pharmaceuticals for the needy in Latvia.

DTC While Baptists have been in Latvia for more than 100 years, under the Russian regime, their numbers dwindled from 12,000 in 1940 to 5,000 today, Mr. Steen said.

The denomination has struggled to attract members from among the population, most of whom belong to the Russian Orthodox or Lutheran churches.

"Religious persecution under the Russians reduced the number of Baptists," he said. "But now they have been growing at about 10 percent per year."

During his visits, Mr. Steen met many people who had suffered for religious beliefs. One woman told of her seven years imprisonment in Siberia for her faith.

During the two-week stay, the American group split into teams and worked in the small country towns. Mr. Steen and the Rev. Sherrill Dillon of Cumberland spent their days visiting hospitals, retirement homes and schools.

"We stayed in one town which just celebrated its 770th anniversary," he said. "It has a 13th-century castle and church."

In the evenings, the pastors led revival meetings.

"The people were so hungry for spiritual nourishment," he said. "One elderly couple rode their bikes several miles in the rain and dark to come to a revival meeting. A group of children walked two kilometers in the cold to hear us.

"Here, if there's a drizzle, they roll over and go back to sleep," Mr. Steen added with a laugh.

One Latvian pastor accompanied the team for a week. The man's wife had to work his job and hers so he could preach alongside the Americans.

The preachers took themes from the Bible and Christian literature for the revivals. "The children especially were glued to everything we said," he said.

Interspersed among questions on all things American, the men were asked to share their beliefs.

"They asked about our families and what kind of cars we drove along with, 'How can I know God?' " Mr. Steen said.

Through CNN and MTV, which broadcast in the country, the Latvians know "a surprising lot about us.

"They asked if the MTV images are what our society is really like," he said. "We answered, 'No, no, no.' "

Many Latvians have studied English and Russian and have a grasp of both languages, Mr. Steen said.

"We needed a translator but often we could get our thoughts across with one word or a gesture," he said.

Poverty and high unemployment define much of the life in the country, he said.

"This is a people who have learned to be without," he said. "They don't miss what we have.

"People live in rundown homes built by the Russians," he said. "We stayed in one apartment building which only had heat and hot water on the weekends."

In a country as far north as Juneau, Alaska, he said heat is no luxury.

"Economically, they are coping well," he said. "They live on salaries of about $100 a month and if they drive, it's an 18-year-old car."

The group met to assess their work in Riga, the Latvian capital, on the last day of their visit. They plan to meet here next year.

"We are hopeful that we made inroads," he said. "We know the interest is strong."

Mr. Steen plans to stay in touch with his Latvian friends.

"I have a lot of names and addresses," he said. "I will be sending back hymnals, books and records. They want Christmas music."

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