Frankie, I can see myself going to an unreached people group in Siberia as a missionary,” Irina mused aloud to me, after we’d attended a missions conference together. I spontaneously chuckled— I could not help myself! I laughed in joy because of the irony that Irina herself is a member of the second largest unreached people group in Siberia, and because I realized in that moment that I wanted to marry this woman.
Irina grew up in a loving Buddhist family whose Buryat culture greatly values the arts. Like many Buryat children, she was enrolled in music at a young age which nurtured a lifelong love for this creative expression. As an adult, she graduated from Kazan State Conservatory and has been a professional musician in the Buryat State Orchestra “Baikal” for the past ten years. Her radiant smile shines as she plays her main instrument, the chanza—a plucky sounding Buryat string instrument.
Irina was six-years-old when she first heard about Jesus from an Orthodox priest as she lay in a hospital bed awaiting heart surgery. Through her growing up years, God continued to reveal Himself through several impacting experiences. In high school, she was introduced to American missionaries through her older brother. Her heart was drawn through their visits to learn more about Jesus. At seventeen, Irina accepted Christ and was baptized along with her brother.
Not surprisingly, the global number of professional musicians, conservatory-trained on ethnic Buryat instruments, who are also followers of Jesus, is extremely small! This places Irina in a very unique position to be a bridge between the world of Buryat folk music and praise music to the Father.
While God was weaving the threads of Irina’s story, He was actively working on mine as well. At age three, when my parents were short-term missionaries with InterAct Ministries in the Aleutian Islands, my mom ran a Vacation Bible School. I must have been paying attention in class, as one evening while my dad was tucking me in, I asked him to pray with me as I asked Jesus into my life. As a teenager, I decided to give every aspect of my life to Jesus and was baptized. Just after college graduation, a shattered relationship left me feeling heartbroken and abandoned. Yet, over the course of that summer, Jesus proved his love and faithfulness. That experience caused me to realize I had to dig deeper into my relationship with Him. It was then that God drew me back to the mission field in Siberia that I’d grown up on as a youth.
Just as Irina was immersed in music from childhood, my love of it also began as a youth, with my dad singing to the radio all the time as I was growing up. I started piano training at a Russian music school when I was eight, then bought a guitar and literally “picked” my way through self-taught lessons. More unique instruments were added to my repertoire along the way, and I sang in choirs from childhood through university. Even Tuvan throat singing became a fascination— where the voice is the instrument. Along the way, I’d been exposed to the term “ethnodoxology,” a study which encourages culturally-inspired artistic expression for the purpose of worship. Little did I know when I first returned to Siberia in 2018 that God had a plan to use this background in my life in a way I could not have imagined.
Nor could I have imagined that just a few months after reaching Siberia, I would meet the woman who would singularly captivate my heart. I first met Irina in July 2018, while spending a week in her city of Ulan- Ude, Buryatia. We were introduced at an after-church lunch through a teammate. Over text, following my return to Krasnoyarsk, Irina invited me to join a group from her church traveling to a conference in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. I eagerly accepted, and we set out with the team on July 30th for 25 days, covering 4,200 miles through Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. During the trip I became so ill with pneumonia that I was barely functional. Irina personally cared for me and shared with such openness in conversation that I couldn’t help but be drawn to her.
Later that same year, Irina’s church in Ulan-Ude held a missions conference which focused on reaching indigenous people groups through the writing of praise songs using the native language and instruments. A partnership was formed between the foreign missionaries and the local Buryat believers, including Irina. The Praise Workshop ministry was born, with the goal of spreading the Good News about Jesus to the villages of Buryatia through native music.
By this time, Irina and I were dating long distance with me in Krasnoyarsk and Irina in Ulan-Ude—a mere 929-mile drive. The tapestry God was weaving began pulling our separate lives together. In January 2019, I wrote to my supporters, “I find it amazing that my passions for missions and music, God’s own current working in the Buryat Church, and the girl He connected me with last summer all fit perfectly together! I believe this is my future.” By September, we were joyfully married in Buryatia.
Soon after our wedding, the Praise Workshop director asked me to join their ministry as a permanent member in the role of a percussionist. Apparently, the choirs were struggling to sing together without the presence of a drumbeat. I enthusiastically agreed, and our performances went off without a hitch.
Dressed in colorful, traditional clothing with the beautiful vastness of the Buryat landscape as our backdrop, two videos were produced that are on the The Praise Workshop YouTube channel. A Christmas project was created to use at an outdoor venue. A children’s choir was trained to perform alongside the Praise Workshop team. Children are memorizing songs in their native language about the love and light of Jesus. The impact is both internal—reaching their own hearts, and external—reaching those who hear.
A miracle in itself is this partnership of believers from eleven small churches that previously did not interact at all. Using songs written by choir members, we hope to penetrate the expansive area and scattered villages that have no Gospel witness. The videos seen on the Internet, beautifully executed in the heart language, may open opportunities to perform concerts in unreached areas. The many restrictions on outreach could be overcome in the context of music and art, sharing the truth and love of the Father.
Looking back, it is astounding to see how God uniquely raised Irina and I in completely different worlds, with conjoining passions, training, and love of the Savior—to meet in a Buryat church in the vastness of Siberia. Now we know, we were meant for one another and for this ministry.
Have you ever asked yourself the question, “How can I be sure this is God working?” When strands of lives and circumstances get intricately woven together, I choose to believe that Jesus is the weaver on that loom creating a stunning new piece of work. That is the exquisite quality of craftsmanship my Jesus loves to create! And, He partners with each of us along the way…we are just instruments in His hands.
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.’”
~ Acts 9:15 (ESV) ~
Dale Smith, Executive Director
The Bible’s account in the book of Ruth is proof that God loves a story of romance! Having prayed for godly spouses for Frankie and Irina over the years made it an incredible highlight when they found each other. God’s sovereign hand is beautifully portrayed in the parallel paths they traveled on opposite sides of the world. And then in the last act of His divinely orchestrated romance He brings them together from the ends of the earth–to both enjoy one another and to serve Him as one! What a God we have watching over every detail of our lives!
Even more wonderful than the love story of Frankie and Irina is the love story of our Heavenly Father pursuing His lost children. His plan to rescue us was conceived in eternity past and brought to fruition 2,000 years ago through Christ’s sacrificial death. Now the victorious Savior has come together with His Bride, the Church, bringing about the most powerful love story in history!
InterAct Ministries is in the business of sharing His love story in least-reached places! The enjoyment I get from hearing a great romance is eclipsed many fold when I see the excitement of lost sinners discovering the Father’s love for them. It is a love story that never gets old.
Would you partner with us as we carry the Good News of His love story to those He loves?