To Russia With a Bearhug
EDITOR'S NOTE: Operation Bearhug, an evangelistic initiative of the North Pacific Union Conference in the early 1990s, left a legacy of global mission that continues to bear fruit in Russia to this day. Recently, several who were involved from the start returned to Russia to see how the Bearhug story has evolved. Read more in the following pages.
When two former Northwest Adventist administrators revisited Russia this year, they found old and new friends anxious to see them. Phil White, former Washington Conference pastor and administrator, and Dave Weigley, former Washington Conference ministerial director and president, experienced a spiritual family reunion of sorts, all because of an unprecedented North Pacific Union Conference (NPUC) mission initiative nearly three decades ago.
Operation Bearhug galvanized the missionary fervor of Northwest Adventists during an opportunistic time of dramatic global change. The long-standing Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was in a state of thaw. Challenges and opportunities once presumed unthinkable became possible.
In communist Russia, religious freedom had been scarce. Leaders exercised their power by making religious materials impossible to get. Christians were forced to smuggle or hide their Bibles. Public evangelism was out of the question.
But as the Soviet Union began to collapse, new hope emerged. And as rules and regulations began to lift and more religious freedoms were granted, the time was ripe for Operation Bearhug.
But in announcing the Operation Bearhug initiative in 1991, Bruce Johnston, NPUC president, acknowledged in the Gleaner that timely action was critical. “There are many opportunities, but how long they will be available we don’t know,” he said. “The news tells of turmoil and chaos in Europe and Russia. This is a critical time because we may have only a short time frame in which to work.”
In long distance telephone conversations, M. Murga, Russian Union president, urged Johnston to help them share the gospel throughout Russia and equip every church member as a missionary.
“Murga was calling for a missionary vision, coupled with missionary action, that would result in a missionary movement,” said Ted N.C. Wilson, then Euro-Asia Division president.
In response, Johnston and the NPUC created a global mission strategy committee to explore ways to reach the people of Russia. Operation Bearhug grew out of this committee as a program to mobilize Northwest members toward the new evangelistic opportunities. Preliminary plans called for the sending of three evangelists to Russia in the spring of 1991.
But after word of the project spread throughout the NPUC, Northwest members sprang into action, dedicating funds, time and prayer. Some chose to lead groups of their own to help spread the gospel. It was soon evident that God was going to use Operation Bearhug in ways greater than ever imagined — and that this was just the beginning.
In May 1991, the first Operation Bearhug group traveled to Saratov, Russia, led by Weigley.
Since Saratov had initially been off-limits to foreigners, the group had to navigate several restrictions. They could not enter it by air, so embarked on a 22-hour train ride to the city.
Once in Saratov, the team received permission from the local government to hold public meetings. During the next four weeks, they visited seven cities along the Volga River, and the response was overwhelming.
“There was electricity in the air,” says Weigley. “It was such a novel experience to be preaching the gospel openly in the Soviet Union.”
With fewer than 50 Adventist members, and with only one small in-home church in the Saratov area, nearly all who attended the meetings had never heard the Adventist message. In fact, in Saratov, no one from outside the Soviet Union had preached there during the past 70 years.
“We were the first of any Protestant or Catholic organization to go in and preach the gospel,” Weigley explains.
In all, more than 12,000 people in the cities along the Volga River heard their presentations, with 1,200 signing up for Bible studies with Russian pastors.
On the last night of the meetings in Saratov, a former general in the Soviet Army approached Weigley. “All my life I’ve been taught that God was dead," he said. "However, I’ve heard you preach fervently about a living God.” Then, holding up the Bible he had received, he added, “I want to study this Bible. I want to know about the God with whom you speak of.”
Weigley’s trip in 1991 opened doors for future evangelistic efforts in the region. By April of 1993, another NPUC group returned to Saratov.
This team was led by Phil and Jan White, pastoral team from the church then in Sedro-Woolley, Washington; Stan Beerman, church pastor in Mount Vernon, Washington; Beerman’s daughter, Sherisa; and Sedro-Woolley Church members Dean and Lois Dietrich and Helmut and Lillian Stutz.
They spent the next six weeks giving health seminars and presentations and preaching sermons to build lasting relationships with the Russian people. The nearly 1,000 people who attended each night heard amazing stories of God’s power and love for His children.
As a result, 155 people were baptized at the end of the meetings, with dozens more involved in baptismal studies. Through these efforts, the team helped plant the new Saratov Two Church on May 15, 1993.
The Operation Bearhug initiative ignited a spark in people’s lives — not just in Saratov, but throughout all of Russia — leaving a lasting impact on those who had never experienced the gospel.
Here are some of their stories.
A Family Forever Changed
In 1993, word spread throughout Saratov of the evangelistic meetings. Alexandra Gordon, a recent convert to the Adventist Church, heard of the meetings and took her 11-year-old granddaughter, Luba Tishin, along with her. Luba’s father, Slava, a first retaliation missile officer in the Soviet Army, was fearful his daughter’s mind would be filled with lies. But Luba was insistent on continuing to attend and convinced her mother, Galya, to go with her. Galya was reluctant at first, but decided to attend some of the meetings. Slava, resistant, feared his family’s involvement would reflect badly on his career or possibly get him fired.
Desperate to disprove Christianity and his family’s interest in religion, he challenged Galya to read the Bible herself. He was convinced she would come to realize it was just a book full of fairy tales.
So she began to read the Bible. And she noticed the way the meetings were impacting her daughter’s behavior.
“I saw how my daughter was living and how she behaved, and I was convinced that she became a different girl,” says Galya. “As I was reading the Bible, I found that my husband and I were living totally different lives from the Bible.”
Galya and Luba continued to attend the meetings. At the series’ conclusion, Luba decided to be baptized — much to Slava’s dismay. Luba recounts, “Aware of the challenges I faced with my family, when Pastor Phil baptized me, he said, ‘Now Luba, go win your family to Jesus.’”
After further Bible study with the Saratov Church pastor, Galya became convinced of the truth of the gospel message and was baptized in 1994.
Soon, Slava started to notice the change in Luba. His daughter’s faith began to seep into his life as well. Reluctantly, he began transporting Luba and Galya to church and interacting with the members, who he noticed were different from most people he knew.
“I knew from my previous life in the army, everyone looked out for themselves,” Slava says. “But the way the people interacted at the church, they were mindful of each other — they cared for each other.”
In 1995, the Whites returned to the Saratov Church to hold a revival series and saw the Tishin family, including Slava. Although uninterested in accepting the gospel, he still attended the meetings with his family. There, Phil asked Slava, “When are you going to accept Jesus?”
Brushing it aside, Slava responded, “I’ll never be a church member here. I’m not ready.”
While a kind man, Slava, also a former KGB informant, was hard in many ways. “He told us there was a time in his Soviet military career that he was stationed at the Berlin Wall in East Berlin,” White recounts. “He was trained and ready to shoot anyone who tried to escape to the West.”
With limited communication, White had not connected with believers in Saratov for several years. In July 2008, White returned to speak for the 15th anniversary of the Saratov Two Church. After the service, a young lady approached White. “Pastor Phil, do you remember me?" she asked. "I’m Luba Tishin! You baptized me in 1993, and as you challenged, I have won my family to Jesus.”
Luba, now a physician, had brought her entire family to Christ, including her father, Slava, and brother, Sasha, now an Adventist lay leader in Moscow.
Two years later, White was astonished to run into Slava at the 2010 General Conference Session in Atlanta, Georgia. Now a local church elder and publishing ministry director for the Volga Conference, Slava was representing his newfound faith as an official delegate.
The Lord had brought the story full circle. Once a soldier in the Soviet Army, now a lay pastor, Slava's life and course of his family was changed when God used his daughter, Luba.
“And now,” Slava says, “I’m a lay soldier in the Lord’s army.”
A Free Bible Transforms Lives
Leading up to the 1993 evangelistic meetings in Saratov, the NPUC group advertised that free Bibles would be given to those who attended each night.
Bibles were still extremely hard to come by in Russia, and the advertisements caught the eye of another Luba — Luba Volkov.
“My mother really wanted to know the Bible,” explains Tanya Prisyazhnyuk, Luba’s daughter. “She desperately wanted a Bible of her own.”
So when they saw the large posters throughout the city promoting the meetings, they were excited and made plans to go.
“My mother said, ‘If we go to the meetings every night, then we can get a Bible.’ So that’s what we did,” Tanya says. “And then she invited all of her friends, so they could get Bibles too.”
At the conclusion of the meetings several weeks later, many were baptized, but Luba and Tanya weren’t sure yet if they were ready to make the same decision. The two wanted to dive in deeper and chose to do Bible studies with the church pastor. After nearly a year of studying, both mother and daughter were baptized in March 1994.
But this was just the beginning of their family’s story.
Through the years, Luba faithfully prayed that her husband, Anatoliy, a devout Orthodox, and her son Alexey, who had been miraculously released from prison, would also come to have a relationship with Jesus. Alexey continued to make troubling decisions, which led to run-ins with the law. But Luba and Tanya continued to pray that God would work a miracle in their loved ones' lives.
Over time, Anatoliy grew interested in knowing more about their faith. He started reading books that Luba had brought home from church and soon indicated that he wanted to attend church with the family.
Within two years, Anatoliy gave his life to Jesus. Not long after, Alexey felt the Lord calling him to give up his old life and become baptized.
Today, both Alexey and Tanya continue to be active leaders in their church and will never forget the impact the free Bible had on their family.
“Thanks to the Operation Bearhug meetings and the support of Northwest members, we are here,” says Alexey. “You brought our mother into the church, and through her we are all a part of the church.”
In May 2018, the Whites, now pastors in Simi Valley, California, were invited to go back to Saratov to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the evangelistic meetings and planting of the Saratov Two Church. The Whites were joined by one of their church members, Becky Stroub, as well as Weigley, now Columbia Union Conference president, and his wife, Becky. The team went not only to celebrate what had happened nearly three decades before, but also to encourage members, as the doors for evangelism in Russia seem to be closing again.
While the work of God has experienced growth in Russia, it has slowed since the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain. Western culture and secularism have influenced Russian society. The enemy is doing all he can to halt the proclamation of the good news about Jesus.
The team’s initial goal was to host a 1993-style revival series within Saratov and the neighboring cities. However, restrictions on public evangelism have increased tensions throughout Russia. Recently, several Jehovah’s Witnesses have been jailed for spreading what the government classified as “propaganda.”
In light of this, the West Russian Union was hesitant to have the group host large meetings in local churches. Instead, the team decided to focus on encouraging the Adventist brothers and sisters through personal in-home visits and small gatherings.
“We had to call an audible on our original plans,” White said. “While that created some angst, we had confidence that God was in control. The house-to-house model in the book of Acts was followed and lives were changed.”
The Weigley-White team members were able to encourage believers in Saratov, and the neighboring cities of Engels, Marks, Zaumor'ye, Petrovsk and Yagodnaya Polyana — a rural community about an hour out of Saratov. Adventist believers in Yagodnaya Polyana, many of whom were converts through the Operation Bearhug effort, have started a lifestyle center and sanitarium to meet the needs of their community.
Through Whites' efforts ahead of the trip, the team was also able to present more than $22,000 to the Volga Conference to help the area churches in need. These funds were made possible by the generosity of the North Pacific Union Conference; the Columbia Union Conference; the Southern California Conference; the North Cascade Adventist Church in Burlington, Washington; Georgia's Calhoun Church; and the Simi Valley Church.
The Adventist church in Petrovsk needed $3,000 to help cover serious repairs to endure another winter — a huge amount for a small, struggling church. With tears in his eyes, Nicholi Deryabkin, Saratov One and Petrovsk churches pastor, accepted a voucher from the Volga Conference for $3,500.
On Sabbath May 26, 2018, just 25 years after the 1993 meetings, the Saratov Two Church held a large celebration commemorating their origin and the work the Lord has done since.
The celebration included greetings from most of the former church pastors — including a video greeting from one who lives in Portland, Oregon. Additional video greetings came from the entire team of the 1993 meetings: Beerman, Stutzs and Lois Dietrich Griffone, widow of Dean Dietrich. John Freedman, NPUC president, also sent his greetings to the Russian members.
God continues to use the fruits of Operation Bearhug to change lives. During the 2018 in-home meetings, Yura Seryy — a young man who had wandered away from the Adventist Church — decided to bring his wife, Luba, who was not a believer, to the meetings.
They attended each meeting faithfully and chose to start Bible studies with Sasha Kuznetsov, Saratov Two Church pastor. On July 15, just weeks after the team left Russia, Yura and Luba were baptized in a sunrise ceremony on the Volga River.
Reflecting on her experience, Luba shares, “I don't have words to express how grateful I am to God for that day I first entered the Saratov Church in May. This played a very important role in my life. When my husband brought me to the church the Holy Spirit spoke to me, and I accepted Jesus. I am very grateful and send my hugs back to all of you.”
Today, there are more than 950 Adventist members in more than 10 churches within the Saratov region of the Volga Conference — many of these are a direct result of Operation Bearhug and the empowerment of the Russian people to be missionaries in their own communities.
It is clear the fruits of the labor of Northwest Adventists, through Operation Bearhug, are still visible today.
A Lasting Legacy
At the start of Operation Bearhug in 1991, there were fewer than 8,700 members in all of Russia, in only 139 churches. Northwest “bearhuggers,” seizing a divine opportunity to reach the Russian people, dedicated countless hours of their time and invested more than $2 million for training seminars, evangelistic campaigns, health education, Bibles, Sabbath school supplies and church buildings.
As a result of Operation Bearhug, 6,332 were baptized by 1995 — nearly doubling the membership throughout all of Russia.
This was all because someone in the NPUC wrote a check, planned an itinerary, got on a plane, preached a sermon, used outdoor plumbing, went hungry and interceded in prayer. During the extended time of the Bearhug projects, nearly 2,000 Northwest members went on an evangelistic effort to Russia.
And today, there are now more than 35,700 members in 514 churches.
“It was exciting to see how the church had grown over the years,” Weigley says, reflecting on his visit. “It was great to see the people who are still so faithful, even 27 years later.”
God used Operation Bearhug to reach a community of people who were grasping for hope in the midst of persecution, and the impact of this initiative continues to permeate the lives of thousands of people today.
Duane McKey, then NPUC church ministries and Operation Bearhug coordinator, summed up the impact of the initiative perfectly in a 1994 Gleaner article.
“As we have touched lives in Russia, our own lives have been touched too — our lives have been changed forever,” he said.
So how then can we draw inspiration from this global initiative and identify the needs of those in our own backyards or in a country that is grappling with the very same issues? Take a look around you and ask yourself: Is there someone within your reach who you can extend a bearhug of God’s grace, love and mercy to today?
Anthony White, North Pacific Union digital media coordinator, and his wife, Carrie White, accompanied the team's recent return to Russia and provided this report.