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Bridging the gap in the city of bridges


Joe Westbury/Index

The massive St. Isaacs Cathedral rises 30 stories above St. Petersburg’s numerous canals to serve as a focal point for the city. It was the world’s largest cathedral when it opened in 1858 and is believed to be the architectural inspiration for the U.S. capitol. Under communism the building was stripped of its valuables and reopened as the Museum of Scientific Atheism. Today regular Orthodox worship is held, but only in the left-hand side chapel. This is the first in an occasional series of stories exploring how Georgia Baptists can be Acts 1:8 emissaries through the new partnership with the Russian metropolis.

Joe Westbury/Index

Three generations – a grandmother, her grandson, and a young wedding party – enjoy an afternoon in Mars Field, an historic park in the heart of old St. Petersburg. Each generation has experienced a vastly different life in the sprawling nation – the grandmother who experienced the rise of atheistic communism, the wedding party who saw the fall of the Soviet Union, and the child who knows none of the suppression that came to symbolize the nation for 70 years. Each will have a different worldview as they consider the offerings of Christianity, free of persecution. The child is tossing a coin into the Eternal Flame, a tribute to fallen soldiers and victims of the October 1917 Revolution.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — As Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov – who would later become known as Peter the Great – stood on the bogs on the Baltic Sea in 1708, all he saw was flooded marshland with little intrinsic value. But he saw something much more important rising from the bogs – a world class city that would be the envy of nations and rival many of the world’s capitals.

True, he needed a fort on Russia’s northern border with Sweden to protect his fledgling nation’s boundaries and to assure it would have a seaport. However, there was little in the remote, marshy area that lent itself as the building blocks for a major city.

Peter was not known as “the Great” for nothing.

From the beginning the site of the fort struggled. Annual floods nearly eliminated the adjacent growing city until the lowlands were drained. He then redeemed the bogs by creating a network of canals and created what has become known as the “Venice of the North.” He eventually wrestled the capital city status from Moscow and moved the royal court – and most of the nation’s nobility and merchants -– to the city.

In 2011, more than 300 years later, the city is known for those scenic canals, its 475 bridges, world-class art museums including the Hermitage, classical architecture and international cuisine. It rivals Moscow as the cultural soul of the nation while the home of the Kremlin and Red Square are acknowledged as the governmental soul of the country.

Today, Georgia Baptists stand shoulder to shoulder with the Russian Baptist Union, looking over the rooftops of the sprawling area of 4.6-million residents. They share a similar, yet different vision as that first put in place by Peter the Great. While his vision called for redeeming the bogs, the Baptists are working to redeem the city.

The partnership is part of a dual relationship the state convention launched with both St. Petersburg and Moscow in January 2010. Messengers approved the relationship during the 2009 annual convention meeting at First Baptist Church of Woodstock.

Georgia Baptists ministering in St. Petersburg will have opportunity to work alongside International Mission Board personnel who serve as the go-between with the Russian Baptist Union.

Janet and Clint Stewart have served a total of six years in the city, along with children Emily, 16; Peter, 12; Mary Katherine, 5; and Ethan, 19. Clint Stewart serves as strategy team leader and oversees the work of fellow church planter Keith Sullivan and his wife Kristie, and evangelist Larry Moon and his wife Josie.

The Sullivans have served in Russia for eight years but joined the St. Petersburg team in July 2010. They have two children: Gideon, 9, and Emme, 5.

Stewart coordinates the team efforts as the Southern Baptists work through the Russian Baptist Union.

“The basic challenge we encounter is no different from what you see in other societies – trying to help people come to terms with the reality that they need God in their life. What makes it more unique here is that the younger generation’s parents were raised in a godless environment. That means that they didn’t see anyone benefiting from a personal relationship with God, so they see no value in having [a relationship] of their own.”

Joe Westbury/Index

St. Isaac’s Square is the heart of St. Petersburg and is home to the massive Orthodox cathedral and the equestrian statue of Nicholas I – both symbols of the city.

Those parents of today’s younger generation, now in their 30s and above, lived under Communist rule where they were told God did not exist and that, according to German economist and communist Karl Marx, “religion is the opium (or ‘opiate’) of the people.”


Churches become museums

As a result of those dark decades churches were closed and converted into museums of atheism or used for other purposes. Christians were imprisoned and Bibles were outlawed.

Moon, sitting across the small living room in Stewart’s apartment, agrees with the perceived lack of a need for God. He and Josie, as well as the Sullivans and their children, have gathered in the Stewart’s tiny apartment to discuss their ministries.

“Evangelism in Russia is like plowing concrete,” he begins. “We are spending a lot of time removing the rocks from the hard ground before we can ever get to the soil to plant the seed. The people we meet have no intention of considering the Gospel message.

“The average Russians, from my experience, readily accept they have sinned before God ‘but everyone has,’ they reason, so they see no connection between that and eternal punishment. They say they will confess that to God when they meet Him and let Him decide.”

And then there is the issue of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state church, which teaches that Baptists are a cult. It may come as a surprise to Georgia Baptists that the greatest persecution Russian Baptists encounter is not from the government but from the state-sanctioned church.

Stewart says it’s easy to meet a Russian who says he is an atheist while also claiming to be a member of the state church. When he asks how the individual can claim to be both an atheist and a Christian, the response is simply “because I’m Russian. To be Russian is to be Orthodox.”

Joe Westbury/Index

Clint Stewart, standing next to the bell tower of St. Nicholas Cathedral, leads the Southern Baptist ministry team in St. Petersburg.

Moon, the evangelist, has had similar encounters.

“An older Russian gentleman told me he was both atheist and Orthodox. When I asked how that was possible, he said he was baptized in the Orthodox faith as ‘insurance’ just in case he was wrong about being atheist.”

There is another factor at work, he adds.

“Deceit is so prevalent in Russian culture that many have learned to live with their guard up all the time. It takes a while of developing a genuine relationship with a Russian before they are convinced that you are not trying to con them out of something which they have.”

Sullivan, the church planter, is no stranger to that logic.

“In the United States an atheist has a general grasp of the differences between Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, etc. But that discernment doesn’t exist among Russians. They know more about America’s great poets and writers than I do, but they have no understanding of belief systems outside of the Orthodox Church. They simply believe they are part of a Christian community that might help them someday … if, in fact, they ever need it. Most do not believe they need it.”

In order to reach the nation’s two largest cities – Moscow as well as St. Petersburg – Southern Baptist missionaries work through the Russian Baptist Union, which is recognized by the government as an established faith group.

“We are very similar in central themes of theology and recognize that we can do far more by partnering together than by working separately,” Sullivan adds.

“They bring valuable cultural insight and we bring some leadership skills, a different way of doing some things, that they may not have. By bringing those two pieces together you get a great team.”

And that’s where Georgia Baptists are a valuable part of the team.