Mission Stories: Russia

A master fisherman

In an instant, Gennadi Stepanovich’s life changed forever. Gennadi loved to tag along with his older brothers as they played and worked in a village just outside of Berdsk, Russia. But one day tragedy struck. Gennadi fell off a horse and lost all hearing in both ears. He was five years old.

Young Gennadi soon stopped talking, but the happy boy with the sunny personality remained popular with his friends. When the other boys started school, Gennadi went to work. In the summer and fall, he picked berries and mushrooms for his mother in the nearby birch and pine forest. Every day in the winter, he and other boys cut holes in the frozen river and dug channels to the riverbank so the village women could draw water. The boys earned just a few kopecks for their efforts. But hardworking Gennadi was the first to save enough to purchase his own long sheepskin coat with a big fur collar. Young Gennadi took pride in his hard work and success!

At age 8, Gennadi started learning carpentry. For 15 years he worked in the village constructing wooden work sleighs. In 1960 he moved to the city of Berdsk in search of better pay. Eventually he landed a factory job building wooden radio cases. Gennadi’s years at the Berdsk radio factory brought him new success. He made many new friends among the factory’s other deaf workers. The plant manager frequently posted Gennadi’s picture on the board of model workers. He joined the factory’s acting club and performed skits in Minsk, Kiev, and Riga. He went to dances with his sisters. He met a lovely woman and married her, and they had a baby girl.

Gennadi worked at the factory until it closed in 1999. Then he retired and went to work for himself, doing the things he loved best. He built a pleasant wooden house outside the city on a large garden plot called a dacha. In the summers, Gennadi tended his dacha. In the winters, he went ice fishing.

In his own modest way, Gennadi had a successful life: a loving family, a decent pension, lots of friends, summers tending his garden, winters spent ice fishing. What more could he want? Gennadi is typical of many who grew up during Soviet times. He was perfectly happy working, fishing, and gardening—and never gave a thought to God or spiritual things.

But God was thinking of Gennadi.

Jesus casts a net

Larisa Ivanovna can hear, but she grew up using Russian sign language with her deaf parents. When she was just 16, she was commissioned to start a school for the deaf. As teacher and translator, she soon became a trusted member of the deaf community in Berdsk and the surrounding area. When some of the deaf began attending our Bible classes in Iskitim, she agreed to translate for them. She herself was not interested in the Bible, but she did want to help her friends. The Holy Spirit, however, had his own plans. He worked in Ivanovna’s heart, and she soon put her faith in the Savior and joined our church.

When the Berdsk deaf club lost its meeting room in 2010, Ivanovna asked Missionary Luke Wolfgramm if they could meet at the church’s Christian Information Center. Wolfgramm agreed and started visiting the deaf club’s meetings too. Eventually the deaf asked him to lead Bible studies for them.

Because they are cut off from much of society, the deaf love to converse with one another. It was only natural for the group to invite their friend Gennadi to the Bible study. Gennadi was happy to come and talk fishing with the other men. Little did he know there was another Master Fisherman in the room!

Then one week’s Bible lesson focused on Baptism. Wolfgramm learned that Gennadi had never been baptized. He asked him, “Gennadi, would you like to be baptized? God wants to give all his wonderful blessings to you personally.”

“Oh, no, Pastor, I’m too old for that kind of thing!”

But Gennadi kept coming and kept listening. And God kept working in his heart. Finally, about a year later, Gennadi came to Bible class and announced that he would like to be baptized. What a happy day that was!

Gennadi kept coming, and he kept listening. About six months later, Gennadi came to Bible class and announced that he would like to be confirmed. Why? Gennadi wanted to take the Lord’s Supper with us.

Wolfgramm likes to think that the Lord Jesus instituted his Supper just for Gennadi. Do you remember the time when Jesus spoke sign language? Before healing that deaf man, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. He touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven, heaved a sigh, and spoke one powerful word: “Ephatha!” Be opened!

The Savior does the same thing now for Gennadi. “Look! Take and eat! This is my body, which I gave for you. Look! Take and drink! This is the blood that I shed for you on the cross. Gennadi, go in peace. All your sins are forgiven!”

On Gennadi’s confirmation day, Wolfgramm said, “Gennadi, we all know you like to fish. Jesus is a fisherman too. The only difference is that Jesus catches people. Gennadi, when you catch your fish, you take them home and eat them. When Jesus catches his fish, he takes them home and gives them eternal life. And now, Gennadi, Jesus has caught you too, hasn’t he!” And Gennadi nodded and smiled.

Blessings of the catch

Gennadi and the other members of our deaf congregation in Berdsk treasure their worship services and Bible study, both for the fellowship with one another and for the peace and joy that only God gives. Even Gennadi, who was living a happy life and not searching for anything, declares, “I like to hear God’s Word. My heart is happy. I know where I am going, and I am at peace.”

Valentina, another member of the group, recalls, “Before I learned about my Savior, I was always nervous. I would make myself sick with worry. Now that I know Jesus, my heart is at peace. I’m not worried about the future.”

Maria states, “We have found a home here at the Lutheran church. Here we can come and learn about the Bible in a way that we can understand, with pastors and translators who take the time to teach us.

“Before we learned about Jesus, we were always angry and fighting with each other. Now we have peace. Now we have joy. Thank you for teaching us about our Savior!”

Jennifer Wolfgramm and her husband, Missionary Luke Wolfgramm, live and serve in Berdsk, Russia.

View the WELS Russia Missions PowerPoint


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Author: Jennifer Wolfgramm
Volume 102, Number 3
Issue: March 2015

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