Thomas, please explain Christianity to me.”
Ilya motioned for me to come join him at his table. Exhausted from a long day, all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep. Despite the tiredness though, I knew I couldn’t pass up this open door, so I sat down, poured myself a cup of hot tea, and silently prayed for the Lord’s help, never imagining what the outcome of that night would be.
The year was 2002, and I was just beginning a summer mission’s internship in Russia. It was just after midnight in the village of Namtsy, but the Siberian summer sun had only barely dipped below the horizon. Our team of four interns was experiencing our first week of orientation to village life in Russia, soaking up everything, meeting new people and learning about ministry. We were up early every morning, and down late every night.
I was a guest in the home of Ilya and Katya Burnashev along with their teenage son Vova, accompanied by a missionary kid who was my translator. The Burnashevs were Sakha, one of the Native people groups of Siberia. Katya had recently become a Christian. Ilya was still skeptical but very open to talking about the faith. InterAct missionaries Ted and Kate Mole lived in the village, and Ilya had heard the gospel from them already. I suspected he wanted to get my explanation and compare it with what he’d heard already.
Talking through translation was a little rough at first. Ilya spoke Russian well, but it was still his second language. But the Lord had better plans.
Another guest had arrived that same evening, a young man named Alexey*, Ilya’s nephew who spoke English, Russian, and Sakha! Ilya and I were just a few minutes in when Alexey spoke up and offered to translate directly into Sakha. This made it possible for Ilya to ask questions and hear the gospel clearly in his mother tongue, a detail that was crucial to the evening’s outcome.
We talked for almost three hours. I walked Ilya through the Bible, explaining God, his holiness, our sin, and God’s righteous wrath. I then shared the Good News that even though we were sinners, God showed his mercy in sending his son Jesus Christ, who came and died that those who repent and believe in him might have eternal life.
Seeking to bring clarity, I shared an illustration I had seen before. Picking up a book nearby, I explained to Ilya, “Imagine that this book contains a record of every sin you’ve ever committed.” I laid the book in my left hand and said, “Without forgiveness, our sins are laid on us. When God sees us, he sees us in our sin, which he cannot tolerate." I then quoted Isaiah 53:6,
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
While saying that, I passed the book from my left hand to my right and said, “For those that trust in Christ, God has removed their sins and laid them on Jesus, punishing him instead.”
I wish I could tell you that Ilya repented and believed after that, but shortly thereafter our conversation ended for the night. Ilya said,
“Thank you. I think this is all really interesting, but I still don’t know if I believe it or not.”
From a human perspective, this might seem like a “failure.” But years later I would learn that God was doing much more that night than what I could see.
Fast forward eight years to 2010. I was now married and serving on InterAct’s Russia field. Our family was living in the city of St. Petersburg, learning Russian and supporting local church planting. My phone rang, and to my surprise, it was Vova, the Burnashevs’ son. He had just moved to the city to study at the local Christian university and was wanting to get together with us.
When I first met Vova in 2002, we didn’t interact much. At that time he only spoke Sakha, and I only spoke English. In the years that followed that initial visit I learned that he had become a Christian and was faithfully walking with the Lord, but I didn’t know his testimony. So when my phone rang, I was excited to hear from him and invited him over for tea that afternoon.
Having both learned Russian in the interim years, were able to sit and talk freely. For two hours we swapped stories and shared about what God was doing in our lives. But it was at the end of the conversation that Vova told me something that left me speechless.
That night when you shared the gospel with my father was when I believed. It was when you gave the illustration with the book and how my sins were laid on Jesus.”
Vova shared that prior to my visit he had heard the gospel from the Moles and others, but he didn’t fully grasp why Jesus died. But that night in 2002, God orchestrated everything perfectly. With Alexey translating into Sakha, Vova heard the gospel in his native language and trusted in the finished work of Christ. That night God changed Vova’s life for eternity and set his feet on a new path.
It has been seventeen years since that night in Namtsy, and the Lord has led Vova’s steps to many different places, preparing him for gospel ministry. Over the years I have had the privilege, along with many others, of walking alongside Vova and seeing him mature into a man of God.
While studying in St. Petersburg, Vova met Tanya, and in 2011 they were married. Within a few years they moved back to his home village of Namtsy where they now serve as missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators among the Sakha people. Their ministry focuses on promoting the spread of the gospel through the translation and study of the Bible in the Sakha language. They’ve also been blessed with three beautiful children, and daily model a Christian family in a culture where such a thing is virtually unknown.
I heard another missionary once say, “Go and disciple a local leader that he would become the missionary you always wanted to be.” For our family this rings true in so many ways. For many years after my first visit to Namtsy, my heart desperately wanted to go back and serve there full time, but a number of issues in our family, mainly centered around health concerns, meant that the door never opened. But, I feel deeply blessed to be one of many people that have had the privilege to share in Vova’s life and see him return to Namtsy with his family to be the missionary to his own people.
Had the story been up to me, I wouldn’t have written it this way. But God in his wisdom leads our steps wherever he ordains.
InterAct’s Urgent Financial Need
The story you’ve just read is the kind that thrills my heart because it’s not about what we’ve done, but what God has done, and how he lets us be a part of it.
InterAct has never been about numbers. Over the years there have indeed been periods of growth and clear results we could measure. But more often than not, we’ve had to trust God along the way that he was bearing fruit through this ministry, even if we didn’t see it. Some might ask, “What are you accomplishing?” I often point them to stories like Vova’s and others like it that have happened on the twenty year plan! Stories of coming to Christ, being discipled, and telling others that unfold in GOD’s perfect timing.
In the past five years InterAct has experienced a significant drop in general fund giving. In 2018, in order to cover basic mission operational expenses it was necessary to draw $120,000 from investment accounts. Though we are thankful to have these emergency resources, this is not sustainable. To continue the work we’re doing in the unreached communities of Siberia, Alaska, and western Canada we need to see a significant increase in giving to our operations fund.
At the end of 2018, most of you should have received our 2019 Gift Catalog. This catalog highlighted areas of InterAct’s operational costs and specific ways you could help support the ministry. If you still have this catalog, I would invite you look through it again and prayerfully consider a one-time, or ongoing gift to InterAct Ministries.
If you don’t have this catalog, don’t worry! Below are links to give online and still give to support the work of InterAct Ministries.
Thank you for your interest in InterAct Ministries. Would you consider financially supporting the work? In doing so, you’ll help make more stories like Vova’s a reality.
InterAct needs to increase giving to Operational Ministries by $120,000 this year.
Would you help us meet this need?
Created with an image by Frank Busch - "untitled image"