'I Didn't Want To Go'

August 29, 2018 | Phil White

While growing up during the height of the Cold War, I came to view Russia and Russians as the enemy.

When the Iron Curtain finally fell in 1991, I was serving as a pastor in the Washington Conference. The following year, a delegation of Russian Adventists came to the Northwest, and I was asked to host them at my church. Furthermore, the North Pacific Union Conference (NPUC) had launched Operation Bearhug, and I had been invited to lead a six-week campaign.

I was skeptical. Go to Russia? Minister to those people I had grown to detest? I felt like Jonah being called to Nineveh!

My first reaction was to say no. Yet with some reticence, in April 1993 I took a team of eight to Saratov, Russia, 500 miles southeast of Moscow on the Volga River. Despite assurance we would have professional translators, I was given a young translator, Svetlana “Sveta” Gavelo, who had no experience and was herself a new Adventist. My angst grew.

Sveta’s Story

Sveta grew up in an atheistic communist home. Her mother, Valentina, was active in the Communist party. As a teenager, Sveta was a member of Komsomol, the Communist youth organization designed to proliferate Soviet propaganda. While attending the local university Sveta even became a Komsomol leader.

“I believed in communism and was convinced it was the way to go,” Sveta said. “In my mind, it was the answer to the world’s problems and was going to change the world.”

In the late 1980s, while attending university, she met a fellow student, Volodya Gavelo, who was an Adventist member of the little church in Saratov that had for many years held its meetings in secret. Volodya and Jesus began to work on Sveta. Though she was not a Christian, they married in early 1990. Occasionally she would attend church with Volodya but was skeptical of Christianity.

That November, Sveta gave premature birth to their first child, Anna. A few months later, Anna was hospitalized with a serious intestinal infection. The doctors told Sveta that Anna’s condition was serious and that survival was doubtful. Sveta walked home from the hospital and had a heart-to-heart talk with a God she didn’t know and wasn’t sure existed.

As she arrived home, a strange peace came over her. She felt assured everything would be fine. When she returned to the hospital, the doctors told her while they couldn’t explain it medically, Anna was well.

That day God healed Anna physically and Sveta spiritually. She decided to take Bible studies, and on September 5, 1992, Sveta was baptized into the Adventist family. Seven months later she became my translator.

While she had studied English and could speak it, she was concerned about her ability to translate. She told me that some words she didn’t know. But later, when she would check the dictionary, she found that she had translated accurately. God was speaking through her. In the years since, God has used Sveta to translate for numerous other evangelistic meetings in Russia and Ukraine. In her work as an English teacher, God has used her to communicate the good news of Jesus to countless students.

So Many Others

Sveta was one of many. There’s Dima Koganov, who lost everything due to a gambling addiction but, because of his mother’s entreaties, attended and was baptized at the Operation Bearhug meetings.

Several months later he became a literature evangelist actively involved in organizing other evangelistic meetings in the region. Dima now makes his living as a plumber and is widely known for his integrity and quality work. He is an active soul-winner and serves as a Sabbath School teacher.

Taking our cue from Hebrews 11, we could modify verses 32 and following just a bit: “And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Valentina who gave her life to Christ through Operation Bearhug and is now a literature evangelist, leading others to Jesus. Or what about Tanya who was demon-possessed but was freed from the chains of sin and now too is a literature evangelist in Saratov? Or what about Natasha and Raisa, Sergey and Olga, Sasha and Katya?" And what about you?

The justifying, sanctifying power of Jesus changed the lives of many people through Operation Bearhug. But perhaps the biggest life change happened to me. It stripped away the prejudice and bitterness I had for the Russian people and has become the most defining experience in my entire ministry.

What if NPUC leaders had said no to the possibility and opportunity of Operation Bearhug? What if Northwest Adventists hadn’t invested in Operation Bearhug? What if my personal prejudice would have won and I had said no to Operation Bearhug? I asked these questions of Tanya Prisyazhnyuk, one of my recent Russian translators, who at the age of 14 was an Operation Bearhug convert along with her mother and eventually her entire family.

“It's scary even to think what my life could have been without God,” Tanya said. “I'm very thankful! I'm happy God brought Operation Bearhug to Russia and we found out about Jesus and His love.”

Our willing hearts, placed within the power of His Spirit, can help make eternal connections. Who is Jesus calling you to hug for Him?