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Travel Through Siberia with OIM Catechist, Rev. Daniel Johnson

–By Rev. Daniel Johnson

A group photo in Siberia includes Rev. Johnson, fellow LCMS Missionary Rev. Alan Ludwig, Bishop Lytkin (center), Rev. Alexey Streltsov (rector of the SELC Seminary -- standing to the right of the Bishop), Rev. Dr. Albert Collver of the LCMS, and Rev. Brian Saunders, along with pastors of the SELC. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

A group photo in Siberia includes Rev. Johnson, fellow LCMS Missionary Rev. Alan Ludwig, Bishop Lytkin (center), Rev. Alexey Streltsov (rector of the SELC Seminary — standing to the right of the Bishop), Rev. Dr. Albert Collver of the LCMS, and Rev. Brian Saunders, along with pastors of the SELC. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

One of the first things which the traveler notices in any foreign land is the language, and it is especially noticeable in Kamtchatka, Siberia, or any part of the great Russian Empire. What the Russians did at the Tower of Babel to have been afflicted with such a complicated, contorted, mixed up, utterly incomprehensible language, I can hardly conjecture. I have thought sometimes that they must have built their side of the tower higher than any of the other tribes, and have been punished for their sinful industry by this jargon of unintelligible sounds, which no man could possibly hope to understand before he became so old and infirm that he could never work on another tower. However they came by it, it is certainly a thorn in the flesh to all travelers in the Russian Empire.

These are the words of the Ohio-born, American writer and traveler, George Kennan, as they appear in his book Tent Life in Siberia (Kennan, George; Skyhorse Publishing, 2007, p.40). Kennan had been hired in 1864 by the Russo-American Telegraph Company to survey Siberia for the purpose of connecting the United States and Europe via land lines running through the Bering Straits and Siberia. For two years in the uncharted 19th century wilderness of Siberia, Kennan and his team lived and experienced this unique world. The telegraph line was never built but the book is a fascinating read for those interested in 19th century Siberia.

Since I first traveled to Siberia, in January and February of 2000, I have experienced the same confusion Kennan expressed concerning the Russian language. However, due to the patient tutorage of Rev. Dr. Gennadij Khonin and many of my Siberian friends, I have managed to learn enough Russian to order food at a restaurant, ask for help at a market, purchase tickets at a bus or train station, and have a confidence while on the street that I can travel and find my way from point A to point B without a Russian-speaking escort. But my initial goal of learning to speak the Russian language with fluency in a few years of study has not been realized. My new goal is to become proficient enough in speaking the Russian language to pray the liturgy and understand a sermon as it is preached. In addition, it would be a genuine victory for me to be able to communicate with a Russian-speaking native on matters of religion, world politics and the fine nuances of drinking Russian vodka, before I am too old and infirm to travel to Siberia and test my acquired skills.

Rev. Daniel Johnson, OIM Catechist to Russia and the Baltics, teaches during a seminar in Siberia. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Johnson).

Rev. Daniel Johnson, OIM Catechist to Russia and the Baltics, teaches during a seminar in Siberia. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Johnson).

This October and November I traveled to Lithuania, Siberia, Kazakhstan and Germany before returning to Iowa in time to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with my family. Rev. Dr. Brian Saunders, District President of Iowa District East of the LCMS, traveled with me for the first half of this journey. Iowa District East (IDE) has a long history with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania (ELCL). In 2003 I was part of a team that traveled to Lithuania to investigate the possibility of helping the Lithuanian Lutherans build a church and diaconal center in the resort town of Palanga, on the Baltic Sea. LCMS World Relief and Human Care partnered with IDE to raise the necessary funds to complete such a project. The diaconal center and church was built and dedicated in July 2012. President Saunders had been invited to speak at the fall pastor’s conference and renew the partnership which had begun in 2003, under the leadership of then IDE President, Rev. Gary Arp. I spoke on the topic of Confession and Absolution.

Following the conference, President Saunders and I traveled the four-hour trip by bus across the country to the capital city of Vilnius. We were scheduled to fly to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk via Moscow very early the next morning. The Siberians had invited us to deliver prepared papers at their seminary’s annual symposium. Also invited to deliver papers were Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, LCMS director of church relations, and Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, professor of theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, as well as local seminary instructors, Rev. Alexey Streltsov, Rev. Pavel Khramov, Rev. Andrey Lipnitsky, and Dr. Pavel Butakov. The symposium began on Friday evening, October 30, and concluded on November 1. There were many clergy in attendance from the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC), as well as clergy from the Ingrian Evangelical Lutheran Church and other church bodies. One such visiting participant was Rev. Alexander Burthev, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Lutheran Church in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

After the symposium concluded, President Saunders and I flew to Irkutsk (Yes! The same Irkutsk which you remember from your college days of playing RISK). Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin and Rev. Pavel Zayakin met us at the airport. We had a bite to eat at the new Subway restaurant at the airport and then took a taxi to the train station. We were scheduled to travel through the night to Ulan-Ude then by bus for six hours to Petropovlovka, near the Mongolian border.

Celebrating Holy Communion in a house church in Siberia. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

Celebrating Holy Communion in a house church in Siberia. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

During the reign of the Russian Empire, there were many Lutherans who lived in the city of Petropavlovka. But after the Soviet takeover, many of the Lutheran residents of the city were sent to Stalinist death camps, called gulags. Today there are only a few Lutherans remaining in the city. Our task as Lutheran clergy is to locate these “exiled Lutherans” and provide pastoral care for them. We met for liturgy in a living room of one of the Lutheran residents. Pastor Pavel prepared the altar on a makeshift table. A white linen altar cloth was placed on the table. On the cloth was then placed a crucifix, two candles, a chalice and paten. President Saunders and I were dressed in our clerical shirts. When Bishop Vsevolod and Pastor Pavel entered, they were each vested in an alb and stole with a pectoral cross of St. Nicholas II, indicating their ordination into a church of the former Russian Empire. The bishop’s cross was gold, as the cross given to a bishop, and Pavel was vested with the traditional silver cross, indicating his ordination as a Lutheran pastor. Other than the four of us, the liturgy was attended by about 8 women and several children. Following the liturgy, we were fed a traditional meal of cucumbers, pickles, tomatoes, potatoes, sausages, pickled fish, bread and black tea.

That evening we would stay in a hotel in Petropavlovka. The hotel was not generous in amenities. There was no shower and only one indoor toilet for 16-20 beds. Also the light in the room President Saunders and I shared was burned out, so we were left to read by flashlight until our eyes tired. We eventually gave up to the call of darkness and went to sleep much earlier than normal. We both needed the sleep and welcomed the unexpected opportunity. However, the room was warm and comfortable. We slept quite well.

Waiting for a flat tire to be changed on the road in Siberia while traveling by taxi. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

Waiting for a flat tire to be changed on the road in Siberia while traveling by taxi. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

The bus ride from Ulan-Ude to Petropavlovka was quite rough and uncomfortable. So the bishop decided to rent a taxi to drive us back to Ulan-Ude. While on the way, the car had a flat tire. But otherwise, the ride was comfortable. (This mishap was not like the trip in March 2014 when Rev. Dr. Matthew Rueger accompanied me. On that trip on the same road, the brakes on the car failed and we were forced to “hitch” a ride to Ulan-Ude). When we arrived in Ulan-Ude, the bishop suggested we go see the “biggest head of Lenin in the world.” This was for President Saunders’ benefit, as I had seen the “head” many times before. The temperatures had dropped and the wind had picked up making it feel much colder than the -15C we saw posted at the train station. In spite of the cold and the wind, we stood beside the monument and posed for a brief moment for photos to be taken.

Rev. Brian Saunders, the District President of Iowa District East of the LCMS, watches the Siberian landscape go by as they travel by train to the next lecture location. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

Rev. Brian Saunders, the District President of Iowa District East of the LCMS, watches the Siberian landscape go by as they travel by train to the next lecture location. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

From Ulan-Ude we traveled by train, through the night, to Chita. We arrived early in the morning and took a taxi to a downtown hotel. The temperature in Chita was -20C. To our delight, this hotel was equipped with many more amenities than the hotel in Petropavlovka, near the Mongolian border. We slept for a few hours then ate a breakfast of fried eggs, bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, sliced meat and black tea. We then returned to our room to shower and dress for the four-hour ride by car to the city of Yasnaya, where we would conduct liturgy at yet another house-church.

Even in October and November, it was COOOOOLD in Siberia. That's 5 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

Even in October and November, it was COOOOOLD in Siberia. That’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

Following the service, we ate and drove back to Chita. On the way we stopped at one of our favorite restaurants for a dish of the local cuisine. We stop at this particular restaurant every time I have been on this trip. One of the reasons we stop there is for our personal health. There are no health codes enforced for restaurants in this part of Siberia. We were traveling in the Far East where it is much too far from Russian authorities for any type of hygiene and cleanliness control to exist. The bishop and the local pastor, Igor Kizyeav, are very careful about where and what they eat when they travel outside of Chita. They both commented, “This place is very clean… according to local standards!” I will say no more, except to attest that neither President Saunders nor I experienced any ill effects from the meal. So we appreciate the conscientious attitude of our Siberian hosts.

We arrived back to the hotel late in the evening. The next morning, Sunday, we attended liturgy at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chita. I assisted Pastor Pavel Zayakin with distributing the Holy Sacrament, speaking the distribution verba in the Russian language. The bishop presided over the liturgy and preached the sermon.

A deaf congregation meets with the hearing congregation in Chita. Rev. Roman Kislov, himself deaf, is the deacon, serving the deaf congregation. They are always glad to see me and give me warm greetings with hugs and a pat on the back as we meet. They all remember Pastor Robert Wurst, who visited them from his congregation in Michigan, on two occasions several years ago. They all ask me to send him their greeting and inquire when he will return again to visit them. They also asked about Pastor Rueger from Iowa who visited them in 2014. They were very interested in our guest, Rev. Dr. Brian Saunders.

Following the liturgy, the bishop addressed the congregation, we visited with the parishioners, ate hard cookies (called pachinya) and drank tea. The congregation rents space from the local Roman Catholic congregation. They have outgrown the space they rent and discussion at the after-liturgy meeting focused on finding another place to rent or to purchase, which would allow them to grow and expand their attendance.

Having fun after a church service celebrating this little girl's birthday with friends in Kazakhstan. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

Having fun after a church service celebrating this little girl’s birthday with friends in Kazakhstan. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. Daniel Johnson)

The next day, we flew back to Novosibirsk. President Saunders flew back to Iowa and I continued on to Almaaty, Kazkhstan to visit my colleagues, Rev. Dr. Gennadij Khonin and Pastor Sasha Burthev, and local congregations for five days, then to Gelnhausen and Oberursel Germany before flying back to Iowa. The trip was long but very successful. The work of providing catechetical education of witness, mercy and life together to the clergy and laity as requested by our sister church bodies in Eurasia continues.

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