Westminster missionaries visit Russia 'with love'

May 09, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Although their eyes burned constantly from pollution and antiquated accommodations frequently tried their souls, the warm reception from the Russian people elated the missionaries from Westminster.

"We went with love in our lives," said Donald W. Pickens, the pastor of First Assembly of God, who led a group of 18 missionaries from his church to Russia.

"The Russian people absorbed that love quickly because they don't get it there. I think they recognized that we came out of compassion and care."

Since the missionaries returned last week from Magnitogorsk, a city of about 400,000 in southwestern Russia, they have forgotten the hardships and enthusiastically speak of the rewards of their trip.

"We were most impressed by the openness and the people's desire to hear about God," said the Rev. Pete Puckett, assistant pastor of the Cranberry Road church.

The team, which included the two pastors, traveled to schools, hospitals and orphanages and distributed 150,000 copies of the "Book of Life," a compilation of the Gospels translated into Russian.

"There was one grand experience of total openness, like we were family," Mr. Pickens said. "There was no rejection of us whatsoever."

Mr. Pickens' status as a father of five children made him an instant hero in the Russian culture.

"Whenever I mentioned five children, their eyes would light up and I would see a change of countenance," he said. "It usually ended in a hug."

When the mayor of Magnitogorsk asked for copies of the "Book of Life" to distribute in city schools, Life Publishers sought volunteers. The Westminster church responded by collecting $36,000 to pay travel expenses of the missionary team to distribute the books.

"The city is a center for the steel industry and weapons manufacturing," Mr. Pickens said. "No foreigners were allowed in until about 1990."

Few Americans have ever visited Magnitogorsk, and the

missionaries were unsure what their reception would be when they arrived two weeks ago.

"We were given complete freedom to share our faith and to issue invitations to the people who wanted to receive Jesus Christ into their lives," Mr. Pickens said.

During the day, the group traveled to schools and conducted services at the Good News church, one of the few in the city, which is near the border of Europe and Asia.

At the Children's Palace, the missionaries sponsored crusades for the faith in the evenings, often before capacity crowds of 1,500 people.

"The building was where children were once indoctrinated in communism," said Mr. Pickens, who saw the irony in the choice of location. "We were sharing the gospel with them there every night."

One official told the pastor that the "no God" theory of communism didn't work.

"The [communist] lifestyle left them without an anchor in life and hungry for the truth of Christ," Mr. Pickens said. "They were receptive to what we had to share."

Visits to Russian homes, usually two-room apartments, produced culture shock, Mr. Pickens said.

"We were back in the America of the 1940s," said the 60-year-old pastor. "I've lived through that, so it wasn't so difficult for me."

The Russian children, all of whom learn English from their early school years, frequently asked the Americans if they knew millionaires.

"The average American lives better than Russians, but we tried not to impress them with that," Mr. Pickens said. "The cost of our trip was more than two years' salary in Russia."

Magnitogorsk residents deal with constant crises and a bleak economic outlook for their children, said Mr. Puckett. A steel mill, 10 miles long and five miles wide through the center of the city, contributes heavily to the pollution that causes respiratory problems for 96 percent of the children living there.

"There is no pollution control," Mr. Puckett said. "The mill creates 2,000 pounds of dust per person per year."

The missionaries also donated basic medical supplies and toiletries to the residents.

"None of the hospitals have enough medicines," Mr. Pickens said. "Doctors can do little with what they have. Many patients have no treatment and no hope of recovery. It's heart-rending."

Mr. Puckett said, "They are resolved to the hopelessness."

He said he found the many babies abandoned in hospitals the most tragic situation of all.

"We wanted to bring them all home with us," Mr. Pickens said. "It was difficult to leave."

The friendships developed during the trip will "last a lifetime," Mr. Pickens said. He already is planning a return visit.

"We will go back," he said. "Many more people need the gospel."

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