Missionary finds fulfillment in his role in Russia

Commitment: In becoming an evangelist at a Bel Air church, Roland Gagnon also was able to continue his religious work in Samara.


October 24, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Roland Gagnon found his way back to his beloved Russia through a little church in Bel Air.

Some would say he found a lot more, as well - a job in the absence of employment and a chance to evangelize his Christian message.

His journey to his new permanent home in Bel Air began with a visit to the Church of Christ with a plea to support his Russian missions.

Since 1996, Gagnon has traveled to Samara, Russia, several times a year. He and his wife, Rosemarie, 49, work with a North Carolina couple that is struggling to cultivate their nondenominational Christianity in a country that, although dominated by Orthodox believers, had long required atheism.

Each trip, which costs more than $5,000, is funded by donations from member churches across the United States.

But this spring, Gagnon, 57, a retired postal worker from Nashua, N.H., needed a job. His wife had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and could no longer work. And the Church of Christ in Bel Air needed someone to cater to the needs of its growing congregation.

The trip proved serendipitous.

Gagnon's speech about the church in Samara - so new, it meets in a rented apartment - impressed the Bel Air congregation.

"You can sense how passionate he is about what he's doing," said deacon Bob Kilbourn.

Within days, the Bel Air church offered Gagnon more than a collection for the trip: It offered him a full-time job in a newly created role. The ministerless church asked him to be its evangelist, someone who would soothe the sick, visit the elderly and spread the gospel.

Gagnon quickly accepted. His full-time job would permit him to continue his mission work in Samara. Fund raising, however, would be left to him.

"It was amazing how things worked out," said church treasurer Marvin Bertsh.

Gagnon became intrigued by Russian mission work years ago after he heard a missionary's presentation in his church in New Hampshire.

"He kept talking about it," his wife said. "He was so good at providing for his family, his work, so I thought, `Why not do something for yourself?'" The couple have three adult children.

She urged him to go.

After his first trip, he couldn't stay away.

By 2001, he retired from postal work. Shortly after, when his wife's multiple sclerosis was diagnosed, he took over her accounting job. But his supervisors found they couldn't afford to lose Gagnon during his monthlong trips, so he quit.

About a year later, he visited the Bel Air congregation, seeking sponsors for his next Samara trip.

He was hired in June, and by September, he was back in Russia for a monthlong trip. "We are living our dream, doing what we don't consider a job," Gagnon said.

Samara, a gritty industrial city on the Volga River, is more than 700 miles southeast of Moscow. More than 1.1 million people live in the city.

Like most major American cities, Samara has its fair share of problems, including crime and poverty - the Russian per capita income is about $200 a month. Gagnon said a Samaran family of four can buy basic groceries with about $10 a week.

One year, Gagnon said, he noticed that some people had been wearing the same broken glasses he'd seen on previous trips. They could not afford new ones. So, one Sunday, he asked how many people needed glasses. About 10 people raised their hands, he said.

That week, he bought them all new ones. The cost for exam, lenses and frames: about $15 each.

Russians have rediscovered religious freedom. Russia relaxed religious restrictions in 1990, although the government still heavily regulates religious organizations. All churches must register, following strict criteria. The Church of Christ is one of several religions officially recognized by Russia.

In Samara, many people are returning to church, attending services for the first time, or are converting from Orthodox, the country's dominant religion. People have approached the church, Gagnon said. The Church of Christ in Samara has grown slowly over the past decade, to about 50 people.

Gagnon mentioned a teen he called Anya, a Goth-dressing brooding girl steeped in rock music and life on the streets. He never thought the church would win her over. But slowly, he said, he watched the young woman drop the black cloud shrouding her life. Her transformation attracted her mother and friends, hardened and embittered by poverty, to this new church that seemed to renew tarnished lives, he said.

"We try to lead by example," Gagnon said. "And it was a dramatic transformation for her."

The Church of Christ, which is nondenominational, formed in the early 19th century and teaches New Testament Christianity.

There is no hierarchical structure; each church is autonomous, and typically elders, not ministers, lead Sunday services. Congregations voluntarily support worldwide mission work. The church has about 2 million followers worldwide.

At home in Bel Air, Gagnon's work resembles his missions in Samara, where the Gagnons fill in teaching Bible classes or calling on congregants in crisis.

In Bel Air, Gagnon is expected to share the church's message with the community. He has held radio interviews, organized Bible studies - even in his condominium complex - and visited the sick and elderly.

"If we never see anybody additional in our congregation - that is all right," Kilbourn said. "We're still spreading the seed in community."

A shut-in, a woman described by Kilbourn as "90-something," has become smitten by the Gagnons. The couple visit her each week, taking her to the hearing-aid store and bringing her pepperoni pizza.

"He's just got a giving heart," said Kilbourn, who has known Gagnon more than 30 years. "[The congregation] just loves him."

For Gagnon, it's simple. He said he awakens every morning with a simple command found in a chapter of John: "Love your neighbor."

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