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Student life coordinator experiences life of missionary in summer trip
July 21, 2003
By Erika Nelson
Jonathan Leeman on his mission trip.
Ten years ago a man by the name of “Peter” quit his job as a secondary school teacher when he felt a call to missions. He and his family moved from Switzerland to a country in the former Soviet Republic.
Peter and his wife did not ask anyone for money, and they received no pledges. But enough funds were received shortly after their announcement to go on the field, and they were able to depart. To this day, the family has never asked anyone for money -- any human, that is.
Presently, Peter is working on three projects. He is helping to retranslate the Bible in the language of the people group he works with. He is compiling a hymnbook in the language of his people group. And he has translated the Emmaus College Correspondence Course from Russian into the language of his country.
He is also one of the many missionaries that Boyce College student life coordinator Jonathan Leeman met on his month-long trip to a former Soviet Central Asian republic.
“Peter is no intellectual superstar, nor does he have a charismatic personality,” Leeman said. “He is a fairly average person who has one thing in abundance -- obedience. He is obedient and God is using him remarkably.”
From May 22-June 22, Leeman stayed with a missionary family he had met while living in Washington, D.C. He went to visit them with two goals -- to serve and be an encouragement to the family and to expose himself to the work being done in the country and grow his own heart toward mission work.
“I did and still do feel called to pastor in the United States, [but] I have wanted a Chrisitan consciousness that extends beyond my own fish bowl,” Leeman said.
While Leeman said both of his goals were accomplished, his trip was not filled with typical missions activities, but instead involved observing as much activity and interviewing as many people as possible.
In doing so, he had the opportunity to interview people like Peter who have been diligently working for God in the face of persecution.
Missionaries who work and serve in the former Soviet Republic do not have an easy task. Seventy years of communism have sapped the country of almost all true religiosity. Islam has survived, but most of the people could be described as “cultural Muslims,” Leeman said.
The country is partially closed to religious practice. Technically, the law allows for “freedom of conscience,” but the government does not allow one to meet together with others of a similar faith without registering the group with the authorities. Registering any gathering with authorities, like in China, means opening the group up to government interference and regulation, Leeman said. Christians in this Central Asian republic face persecution, not only from the authorities, who also persecute Muslims, but also persecution from the Muslim majority.
The country is poor and would be classified as developing or Third World, Leeman said. The government has shut the door to the import of all food items, and tax rates are sufficiently high to prohibit business development.
While the country is “democratic,” several of the nation’s wealthier families ensure the politicians accomplish whatever is best for them. Most business is, thus, conducted on the underground market.
“Bribes are not commonplace; they are mandatory,” said Leeman. “Teachers are paid $30 per month and doctors are paid $40 per month. ... If you want your child to pass his present grade in school, you must offer the teacher an acceptable gift.”
Ultimately, well-meaning young people know it is impossible for a family to prosper and remain honest, Leeman said. The choice is clear: integrity and poverty or dishonesty and success. Due to the nature of the society, missionaries spend much of their time “playing the game,” Leeman said.
“They are constantly having to be careful about how they conduct themselves and their activity in order to not arouse suspicion,” said Leeman. “A worker is never completely safe.”
This situation, in turn, complicates a missionary’s ability to form relationships and share the Gospel in a multitude of ways. Leeman said most of the nationals he met were anxious and excited to see him, but he sometimes sensed they were more interested in the fact that he might open a doorway for them to the West.
“Western missionaries come to bring salvation, but they [the nationals] want economic salvation,” said Leeman. “We offer freedom in Christ, but they want freedom from political oppression.”
During his month in the former Soviet republic, Leeman developed a friendship with a 27 year-old man by the name of “Pavel.” Pavel has been working for the past year at Leeman’s host family’s “non-government organization” that specializes in teaching English.
Leeman and Pavel met on one of the first days Leeman was in the country.
“Pavel told me he was studying for the GMAT because his goal is to attend business school in the United States. I told him that I had formerly taught SAT and GRE classes and would be happy to tutor him for the GMAT if he wanted,” Leeman said. “He said ‘yes,’ and that provided a means for me to develop a relationship with him over the ensuing weeks.”
But in all their conversations and time spent together, Leeman found Pavel’s that heart saw salvation in only one place -- America.
“I have both that salvation that he wants, as well as the salvation he really needs,” said Leeman. “How can the rich American say to the poor foreigner, ‘No, it’s not really the money you want, and forget the fact that I have tons [comparatively].’ On the one hand, I want him to be able to provide for his wife and child, and I want him to have the political freedom, which would enable him to do so. I would love for him to come to America. On the other hand, I know how little that adds up to eternally.”
On his last evening with Pavel, Leeman was able to encourage him to read the Bible with the Leeman’s missionary host, and Pavel promised he would.
Leeman said he has been praying a lot for Pavel. And while Leeman is now back in the United States, the work of the few missionaries, like Peter, who serve in the former Soviet Republic continues on.
Peter had relayed to Leeman his frustration regarding the narrow confines within which most Americans evangelicals are willing to be obedient.
“We are proud of ourselves for giving 10 percent, and maybe a little bit extra from time to time. We are proud of ourselves for sharing the Gospel with the occasional stranger or our nextdoor neighbor. Peter, his wife and two children, on the other hand, lived in an apartment complex in the middle of a city wracked by war for 10 years,” said Leeman.
“Yet through all of this, Peter and his wife trusted God ... [and] the guns have been silent since last fall. They survived. And their work persisted. Think of the eternal fruit this man has been bearing through his projects.”
* Names changed for safety reasons.