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Faces of Faith – Irina, Olga, and Alisa

Irina Yevpak was shocked. She was a young girl growing up in the Soviet Union when she first learned that people die. “Why? Surely science can cure old age and death!” Deep philosophical questions drove Irina through her high school and university years. She studied chemistry and even visited a local church. But she never found peace.

Irina married and had a daughter, Olga. Later, Irina got sick with cancer. The enemy she so dreaded stared her in the face. While standing in line at the clinic, Irina noticed our church’s invitation: “Come study the Bible!” She brought her questions, and God told her everything she wanted to know, and more! Meanwhile, Olga was getting ready for college. She remembers hearing, “You might have three university degrees, but if you’ve never studied the Bible, you’re not educated!” She boldly opened a Bible and began reading, but nothing made sense. Irina noticed Olga’s frustration. “Why not come with me? We can study together.” In December 2002, mother and daughter were both confirmed. Years passed. Olga married and had a daughter, Alisa. Today twelve-year-old Alisa declares, “I don’t even remember becoming a believer!” She has known Jesus her entire life.

The Yevpaks are the first three-generation family in our Russian Lutheran Church. What a blessing when young and old worship together! Irina no longer fears death. Olga treasures God’s mercy. Alisa loves her Savior. The Yevpaks have good news to share with others – including the next generation!

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Pandemic blessings and challenges in Russia

So, how are you handling the pandemic? Let me share just a little bit about how God led us through the past six months in Russia.

Challenges

Stress and loneliness

My wife Jennifer had barely completed her 14-day quarantine after the World Missionary Wives Conference in Spain when the Novosibirsk governor declared strict self-isolation requirements for our region. People were allowed to leave their apartments only to go to the nearest grocery store or pharmacy, walk their dogs, and carry out trash. For six weeks people adopted stray dogs and fought for the privilege of taking out garbage!

On a more serious note, many worried about their health and the well-being of their extended families. People lost their jobs as normal routines ground to a halt. Worst of all, after March 29, we could not gather with our brothers and sisters at church. I’m guessing that many of our struggles in Russia were similar to challenges you faced in the United States.

8th grade distance learning

At first the quarantine seemed like good news for our youngest son, Peter. The governor’s declaration called for an extra week of spring vacation. So of course, Peter put off doing his homework. But then we got word that the order had changed and that distance learning would begin the next day! Peter had to scramble to get his homework done. Meanwhile, teachers and schools scrambled to teach online classes – a completely new experience for everyone. The next three weeks were chaotic because each teacher chose a different platform for teaching and collecting homework. Jennifer and Peter spent many hours figuring out computer logistics so they could get lectures, readings, and homework assignments. Our whole family celebrated May 27th when the school year finally came to an end.

Travel restrictions

Our Russian pastors wanted to comfort their people, especially older members. But the fear of spreading a dangerous disease prevented us from travelling. Instead they led devotions and prayers by telephone. Special legal documents allowed us to travel for work, but even these papers only permitted us to travel within city limits. Police cars sat at the edge of the city to enforce travel restrictions. I could not visit Iskitim or Tomsk. National borders were closed, so trips to Albania and Bulgaria to visit our sister churches were cancelled.

Tamara appreciates online worship services and devotions

Personal issues

Because of closed borders, we decided at first to postpone our furlough until next year. There was just one problem: Peter was planning to start high school in Wisconsin. We started searching for ways to send Peter to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor. We are grateful that WELS World Missions convinced us to find a way to travel back to the U.S. as a family. Jennifer and I spent many hours in June and July searching for a way to travel to the U.S. Most years planning the trip is half the fun, but this year all routes were closed.

I confess that our family struggled with stress and worry, fears and feelings of helplessness. But God was near! “Do you really trust me? Do you really believe I’m almighty and loving – that I haven’t forgotten you? You know who I am. Take another look at my Son’s cross. I am with you, even when you can’t feel my warm smile!” It’s true! Even now. Especially now. God is pouring out blessings.

Blessings

Sharing Jesus online

The Russian church had a website before COVID-19, but the quarantine pushed us to enhance the way we share the gospel online. We began streaming Sunday morning worship services with better audio/video. We posted mid-week devotions on Christ’s resurrection, David the Man of God, and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Our members started sharing digital comfort with their isolated friends and relatives. WELS Christian Aid and Relief provided funding so we could purchase modest cell phones for shut-in members. Our Iskitim grandmas were delighted with the opportunity to see worship services and devotions from their own homes. Our most technologically savvy granny made sure that our members in Iskitim were able to connect online to each other and to the gospel.

Luke and Andre

Local seminary

Travel restrictions allowed me more time to work with our seminary student, Andre Gydkov. The two of us spent many hours studying Biblical doctrine. . . everything from the Trinity to the person of Christ, from God’s creation and the fall into sin to the High Priest who reconciled us with God. We also discussed a wide range of topics that fall outside of formal seminary curriculum, but which are vital for soul-ministry.

Peter’s Confirmation

My son Peter and I had ample opportunity to work our way through catechism classes. We discussed the chief parts of our faith and explored practical ways for Peter to dive into his adult life of faith. At the very end of July, we organized an at-home confirmation. We invited Andre and his daughter and set up a video call so that our stateside family could witness Peter’s vows and encourage him on his special day.

God provides an open door

Peter’s Confirmation

After weeks of struggle and prayer, we saw God’s answer. At just the right time, Russia opened her borders to Great Britain so that we could travel to the U.S. through London. We spent two weeks self-isolating near Jennifer’s side of the family in Nebraska. And now just this week we traveled to Appleton, Wisconsin, and met with Peter’s faculty advisor at Fox Valley Lutheran High School. We’re grateful that God allowed us to travel together so that we can help Peter get ready for a completely new and exciting chapter in his life. We’re also looking forward to spending time with our older daughters and offering them our love and encouragement.

God is in control

Without a doubt, the past six months have been a time of testing. God is asking, “What is most important to you? Do you really believe in my power, in my love? Will you trust me?” This season is providing us with special opportunity to remember God’s great promises and share his rock-solid comfort with others. We know Jesus is with us. We know he will give us joy and strength so that we can be his lights in a dark world longing for hope.

Please keep us in your prayers. Please pray that God would bless our time here in the States. We have much that needs to be done! Please pray that God finds a way for us to return to our mission field in his good time.

Written by Pastor Luke Wolfgramm, Russia


 

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25 years of autumn blessings

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever!”

Decorating church for the Harvest Festival

Autumn is a beautiful time in Siberia! Graceful birches are dressed in gold. Rugged apple trees are weighed down with their small, red fruit. Markets overflow with sturdy pumpkins, plump tomatoes, and mounds upon mounds of potatoes and cabbages. Delicate mushrooms pop up in the forests. Once again, our gracious Father has filled our vegetable cellars and pantry shelves with the fruits of a bountiful crop. Our Russian congregations have the tradition of thanking God for his good gifts with a Harvest Festival the beginning of October.

But our thankfulness doesn’t end with vegetables! This fall marks the 25th Anniversary of our Russian Lutheran Church. In 1994, the very first members were confirmed. Now, 25 years later, we have much for which to be thankful:

  • Four national pastors faithfully preach and teach God’s Word to any who will listen.
  • One talented seminary student serves as an apprentice to Missionary Wolfgramm, studying in the classroom and practicing his skills in the Iskitim and Tomsk congregations.
  • Active men lead the congregations, taking care of practical matters like building maintenance, finances, and fire codes, all the while insisting on sticking to the truth of God’s Word.
  • Gifted women show their love for the Savior by teaching Sunday School, bringing vegetables and flowers from their gardens, playing and singing for worship, encouraging each other, and helping their neighbors. When their eyes are weak and their bones are feeble, they continue to show their love for Jesus with their encouraging words and faithful prayers.
  • Energetic children learn Bible stories, sing for worship, listen to children’s sermons and grow in their understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ love.

On November 3, our congregation in Akademgorodok will host a joint service celebrating the Reformation and commemorating our church body’s 25th Anniversary. We will give thanks for these blessings and look to the future. How can we best use the time, talents and treasures our Heavenly Father has entrusted us with to serve our congregations and those around us? How can we share the Good News with others in our community and throughout Russia?

Autumn blessings are readily apparent to all of our senses. See the vivid colors at the market. Smell the pumpkin baking. Feel the horseradish burning in your eyes. Let’s make time this fall to remember these blessings, both physical and spiritual. Please join your Russian brothers and sisters in thanking God:

  • for his providence. Thank him for nourishing food, warm clothing and homes, sunshine, and even snow.
  • for spiritual blessings: for forgiving our sins, hearing our prayers, and giving us eternal life for Jesus’ sake.
  • for pastors and leaders who remain faithful to the Bible.
  • for places where we can worship God and encourage each other.
  • for the blessings he has given the Russian Lutheran church these past 25 years.

Please pray that God would continue to bless the Russian Lutheran Church with strong, spiritual leaders and faithful members who work together to share Jesus’ love.

Written by Jennifer Wolfgramm, missionary wife in Russia

To learn more about world mission work in Russia, visit wels.net/russia.

 

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Moments with Missionaries: Tomsk, Russia

Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr

Hello! We are Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr, and we volunteer in the Daylight Mission in Russia. Coming from Miami, Florida, our warm home didn’t deter us from volunteering to serve as English teachers in the frigid city of Tomsk in central Siberia! As a couple we desired to volunteer in a foreign mission field, but we were uncertain if there was a place right for us. Naturally in Florida we didn’t know much about Russia, yet after talking to the Russian missionaries we found ourselves eager to learn more about this unique culture and people God was reaching. After much thoughtful prayer, and perhaps some family hesitations, we finally agreed to the experience of a lifetime in Tomsk!

Our position in Tomsk is mostly conducting English Clubs, a twofold purpose of teaching English while studying the Bible. Through this unique outreach, we can provide Russian learners exposure to the Lutheran church and the truths of the Bible. Culturally Russians can be leery of foreigners, so our outreach is primarily focused on connecting to people through different activities in the community. This is essential to advertise and promote the presence of the Lutheran church, and we have been blessed to see our attendance almost triple in our time here.

Volunteering has been a blessing to us because there is no greater joy than to share Christ with people. We see that God is intricately working when his Holy Spirit is able to reach places we cannot, such as when students ask to take catechisms or Bibles home or inquire about our church. One woman named Marina, who grew up atheist, has consistently attended our Bible lessons and even visited the church a couple times. Although she has not yet fully committed to joining the church, her understanding of the Bible and who Jesus is has grown tremendously. The life application of Jesus’ words always profoundly challenges her spiritual preconceived notions. Like Marina reading the Bible for the very first time, Russians are struck by the impactful truth of God’s Word in their often difficult lives. We hope and pray through our efforts to continue to be a witness to Marina for the gospel. Nothing has deepened our faith like seeing God work in these amazing ways!

Of course, we are also blessed to have fellowship with Russian believers in the Tomsk church. It is uplifting for our faithful Russian brothers and sisters to welcome volunteers from America willing to serve in their congregation and provide like-minded fellowship. In addition, we feel our presence is a blessing to the Tomsk believers because it publicizes the Lutheran church in a place where there are few Lutherans. We hope and pray they are encouraged by us as we are mutually encouraged by them and their faith!

Whether engaged in fellowship or outreach, we are so thankful we chose to volunteer in Tomsk. Though a climate far from Florida, the generous hospitality and enduring kindness of Russians continually warms our hearts, and we consider ourselves privileged to serve people here as we point the way to Jesus. Please continue to keep this vital mission in your prayers as we seek to be Christ’s ambassadors to the expanding kingdom of God in Russia!


Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr arrived in Russia in March of 2015 and will continue serving there until the fall of 2017.


One missionary, four national pastors, three deaconesses, and five Daylight teachers serve five congregations and one preaching station in Russia. Learn more about the Russia mission and other WELS mission opportunities at wels.net/missions.


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Author: Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

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Lenten prayer from Russia

Jennifer Wolfgramm, wife to missionary Luke Wolfgramm, gives insight into to political situation in their area of Russia and a Lenten prayer from their congregations. 

People often ask about the political situation here. We have not experienced any problems. We are far from the unrest. Our streets are peaceful. People are friendly to us.

However, we have experienced some changes because of the political situation. The Ukrainian Lutheran Church had a congregation in Crimea. This congregation woke up one day in 2014 and found itself in the Russian Federation. Political reality makes it unrealistic for the congregation to remain in the ULC. The congregation is re-registering as a member of our Russian Lutheran Church. Luke and Pastor Alexei went to visit the congregation in December. It takes all day to get from Novosibirsk to Crimea, so working together and supporting each other will provide some challenges. The pastor already Skype in to the regular Monday meetings of our missionaries and Russian pastors. We are enjoying getting to know the pastor and his congregation.

You may have seen on the news that the ruble is losing value. In the past six months, the ruble has gone from $1 = 30 rubles to $1 = 60 rubles. The devaluation of the ruble is already bringing on higher inflation. The economic crisis that has begun is supposed to be quite bad for the next year or two. So far, prices have not been rising as fast as the ruble is devaluating, so for those paid in dollars (like the missionaries), overall things are a little cheaper. However, our Russian friends and congregations will be struggling.

The economic crisis is a result of western sanctions and the falling price of oil. The economics and politics are connected. As economics worsen, we wonder what kind of political fallout there may be. Please pray that we can continue to work here in peace and quiet. We know that God will use everything for good.

Now, like you, we are preparing for the greatest day of the church year, Easter Sunday. Each of our four congregations plus the deaf congregation has mid-week Lenten services. This year we “Stand with Isaiah” and study Isaiah 53. Our children and adults are preparing special music for Holy Week. The children in Iskitim are preparing a play for the Sunday after Easter about the Emmaus disciples. Our missionary team quartet is preparing for five Easter outreach concerts, beginning on Palm Sunday. Another busy season, filled with the blessings of working with our Russian brothers and sisters to share the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection! May God bless you and us and we do His work around the world!

Prayer Requests

  • Thank God for our Russian pastors! Please pray that God would continue to bless them.
  • Thank God for our Daylight teachers! Please pray that they would make many contacts and be allowed to see some fruits of their labors. Pray that more teachers would desire to serve in Russia next school year.
  • Please pray that the children in Iskitim would grow in their faith. Pray that their parents would also want to learn about their Savior.
  • Please pray for the health of our deaf translator.
  • Please pray for the congregation in Crimea during this time of political transition.
  • Please pray for our members during the economic crisis.
  • Please pray for peace.
  • Thank God for blessing the children’s ministry in Iskitim!
  • Please pray that God would bless our efforts to share the Good News during Lent and Easter!