Relatively few Christians get to announce God’s love to a group for the very first time as InterAct missionary Bill Chesley did.
In 1991, he stood before a night-school class in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, and said,
"I am here to tell you that God loves you!”
A hush settled over the class. Could it be true? This good news seemed unlikely to people who, for seventy years, had been clenched in the grip of atheistic Marxism. The class moderator finally broke the silence, “I cannot believe God would love Russian people!” But He did, He does, and for thirty years InterAct Ministries has made that love known in the former land of the hammer and sickle.
His story took place in the early days of gospel witness to Russia’s frontier following perestroika and glasnost. These were Gorbachev’s political and social reforms that began to open the communist nation that was once closed to American missionaries. Forty years after the mission began in Alaska, Bill was the first InterAct staffer to travel to the vast area of eastern Russia, known as Siberia, opening doors into a new InterAct field.
Saturday Night Live political jesting aside, some people in Alaska do have a literal view of Russia from their house! The 135 residents of Little Diomede Island live 2.4 miles west of Big Diomede Island, part of Russia’s Chukotskiy autonomous district. For decades, InterAct missionaries cast figurative glances westward and wondered how they could take the gospel across the Bering Strait. They sensed ethnic and linguistic links between their native Athabaskan friends in Alaska and the peoples of Siberia. When the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War ended, InterAct was poised to take the Good News to the unreached across Siberia.
InterAct’s legacy of service among Alaska Natives comprised a niche for the organization to equip Slavic evangelicals ministering among the Sakha and other people groups. Many of these missionaries moved from western Russia and Ukraine to the “Wild, Wild East” of Siberia with a remarkable fervor and deep commitment to the gospel but little exposure to cross-cultural ministry methods. Frank Emrick, a former Siberia field director, put it like this,
“We reached the Native peoples through the Russian and Ukrainian churches” by equipping the latter to serve the former.
Under (then) General Director Gale Van Diest’s leadership, InterAct officially launched its Siberia ministry in 1992 in partnership with Svet Evanglia, a Ukrainian missionary organization working in Yakutia (now called the Republic of Sakha). Initially addressing their need for cross-cultural preparation, InterAct Ministries offered to train these workers in the dynamics of cross-cultural outreach. The partnership started with a six-week summer training institute for Russian and Ukrainian missionaries. Sixteen pastors and gospel workers traveled from Yakutia to Arctic Bible Institute (ABI) in Palmer, AK where InterAct missionaries taught them Bible study methods and other ministry courses.
The training concluded with a celebration picnic held at ABI. Russians headed the food line, scooting along the table to assemble buns, beef patties, lettuce and tomato—many unfamiliar with this American cuisine. One man completed his burger, and en route to a chair, lifted the top bun, took a bite, and replaced it, evidently planning to work his way down layer by layer.
That droll moment illustrated a flaw in the otherwise successful venture. Better to bring the training to the ministry context than vice versa. All future training was held on Russian soil by American missionaries who traveled to Siberia (and, no doubt, learned a few particulars about Russian cuisine).
George Schultz, Alaska field director at that time, joined one of the first teams to travel to Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, and on to Yakutsk in the heart of Siberia. George remembers,
“We were celebrities. Public schools invited us in to share and a TV station wanted to do a piece on us. We met with Siberian Native leaders and missionaries from western Russia. These folks worked incredibly hard, serving as pastors with amazing zeal and passion.”
These Russian missionaries took the InterAct team on week-long preaching tours, working daily till midnight and rising at six to go again. George asked them, “When do you guys rest?” and has never forgotten their reply:
“We will rest in eternity.”
They had an open door and were anxious to maximize the opportunity; no one knew how long it would last.
Soon afterward, the mission realized that full-time resident trainers were needed to go to Siberia to make their teaching more effective. David and Kay Henry led the way. After serving 34 years in interior villages of Alaska, they blazed a trail in 1993, by moving to Siberia in their fifth decade of life. The Henrys built a network of ministry contacts in Yakutsk, the capital city of Yakutia, and in towns and villages in the region. At an age when many people buy recliners, the Henrys bundled in winter garb and traveled harsh roads to disciple and encourage tribal believers living in remote villages.
Forty-six different people groups lived in rural villages and among their Slavic majority neighbors in the cities. Like Alaska and Canada indigenous peoples, most unreached Siberians spoke the “trade” language—Russian— but their heart language, worldview and values were often in sharp contrast to those of their Slavic neighbors. Few resources were available for the tribal peoples in their language. In 1994, InterAct, in partnership with three Siberian organizations and David C. Cook, produced the first major Scripture portion in the Yakut language, the Illustrated Life of Christ and New Testament.
For most of InterAct’s history, its missionaries have served in communities across Alaska and Canada where English is the common language. Few of our missionaries had experience with language learning, a dimension of cross-cultural service normal in many fields. The value of this type of training became clear to Mike Matthews, former Siberia field director in the late 1990s, who recently recalled an incident arising from the language barrier.
In 1996, Mike was traveling with a Russian pastor and several believers from one small Yakutian village to another in the dead of winter when temperatures can dip to minus 50. Suddenly the jeep they were driving lurched to a stop when the fan belt began seriously slipping. Mike describes what ensued when he tried to help his Russian friend remove the jeep’s fan belt in the frigid cold.
“The pastor handed me an old-fashioned hand-crank to turn the motor, helped me find where to put the crank and gave me directions on what to do, in Russian. He then stuck his head and hands under the hood. He said something in Russian, so I turned the crank. Then he hollered louder. So, I pushed the crank harder. Then he screamed. That's when it dawned on me that maybe I was a bit mixed up by his directions. When he finally got his hand out and I saw the blood—I realized that having a Russian who did not know English giving instructions to an American who did not know Russian was not a very good idea.”
Eventually, InterAct developed a language-learning policy. Within the next several years our field workers began learning Russian along with the heart language of the people they served. These first years laid the foundation of our ministry in Siberia up to today.
When Siberia became an InterAct field, God stretched our work over the top of the North Pacific. Thus derived the label North Pacific Crescent. Given that two continents nearly kiss at the Diomedes and Russia is right next door, embracing ministry there seemed a no-brainer. But to travel from the office near Portland, Oregon, to the city of Yakutsk (via New York and Moscow) is a trip of ten thousand miles.
Some have endured that expedition repeatedly to offer member care and administrative support for our staff on the ground. In the early days, this travel included requests from field missionaries which necessitated extra baggage. On one trip, to accommodate such requests, a missionary wore three sets of clothes on the plane to free up space in his luggage!
Maybe that’s what love looks like in the family of InterAct Ministries. Maybe it’s a little picture of God’s love for the people of Russia. This early strategy of partnership with Russian and Ukrainian missionaries has opened the door to work directly with the unreached people groups of Siberia today. Now InterAct’s field staff live alongside and disciple both Russian and Native believers.
Thirty years after Bill Chesley proclaimed the message of the gospel, many seeds of love have been planted and much fruit has grown.