In 2009, I led my first international mission trip. I led a group of twelve people from my church in Ponchatoula, Louisiana to Volgograd, Russia to work alongside one of our International Mission Board missionaries and a local church that he was a part of. If you’re not familiar with Russia, Volograd is about 500 miles south of Moscow. Volgograd is a fairly large city of about a million people. Less than two-percent of the people in Volgograd and the surrounding areas identify themselves as Christian. This area desperately needs the Gospel!
Our assignment was to travel with members of the local church in Volgograd to various villages outside of the city of Volgograd. In these small villages, we ministered to community members during the day by helping out with projects around their homes. In the evenings we performed jazz concerts in parks and public spaces. I had several jazz musicians who were members of my church that accompanied me on the trip, and our evening jazz concerts drew great crowds which opened up opportunities for the non-musicians to walk around the crowd and share the Gospel.
During our ten days in Russia, we traveled hundreds of miles to various small towns and villages. Some of these villages were so isolated that it is likely we were the first American missionaries to ever enter these villages. In these villages, there may have been a few Christians, but these believers were shunned by their communities because of their faith.
Toward the end of the trip, we spent a couple of days in Solonka. Solonka is a village of several thousand people a few hours north of Volgograd. In the village lived a small community of believers who had been shunned because of their faith. This community of believers was made up of about a dozen elderly ladies and one middle-aged man who served as their minister. He wasn’t an ordained minister. He wouldn’t even have called himself a minister. He simply tried to take care of the physical needs of these elderly ladies. By trade, he was a beekeeper, and the sweetest honey I have ever had came from his hives.
These ladies were considered part of a cult, and all they had was each other. They didn’t have a church in the sense that we think of a church, and they didn’t have a pastor to minister to their spiritual needs. In fact, in their ecclesiology, they couldn’t even take communion unless an ordained ministered administered communion. It had been over a decade since these ladies had taken communion. We had the opportunity to have communion with them, and it was a powerful moment to share with these suffering believers. I’ll never forget it.
While we shared communion with these precious saints, there was one woman who did not join us. She was in her 90’s and bed-ridden. My wife and I, along with the missionary, his wife, and the beekeeper, went to her home to share communion with her. We sat at the bedside of this 90-year-old saint who had spent most of her adult life as a suffering believer in her small community. She could barely see or hear, and she knew that she was getting closer and closer to eternity.
While we sat in her home we were blessed by this woman’s remarkable faith. The missionary translated her words for us, and over and over again she talked about how thankful she was for Jesus and the life He had given her. Over and over again, in her native tongue, she praised the Lord. I couldn’t help but be emotionally moved as I witnessed this woman who was the object of some much hatred during her life continually lift her voice in praise to the One who had saved her.
She told us several times that when she died, she wanted her home to be used as a church. She wanted her home to be a gathering place for believers in her community. In her dying days, she had a vision for her community and how what she had could be used for the Kingdom. I know that she was blessed that evening when we shared communion together. Like the others, she had not participated in the Lord’s Supper in years, but I know that I was the one who walked away with the greater blessing that day as I had the opportunity to witness the faith of a godly woman lived out in extremely difficult circumstances. The life of this godly, elderly lady reminded me of three realities that I already knew, but were cemented into my soul on that day.
(1) When life is hard, you need a Savior.
It’s so simple, but it’s so true. Jesus really is enough. For this community of believers in Solonka, and for this dying lady, Jesus is who kept them going day after day when they experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of their community. Their life was difficult, but they were certain that in Christ, they had lasting hope. I need the daily reminder that Jesus really is enough for me as well. No matter my struggles, He offers me hope beyond this temporary and broken world. What a joy to rest in the arms of my Savior who will bring me into His perfect rest.
(2) When life is hard, you need a community.
About a dozen elderly ladies was the entirety of the church in the town of Solonka, but they were family. They supported each other when times were tough. They prayed together, encouraged each other, studied the Bible together, and were there for each other in the darkest days. I can’t imagine living the Christian life apart from the help and support of other believers. If you’re like me, you often take the local church for granted, but what a gift we have in the local church! What a joy to know that no matter how hard life gets, we have a community of brothers and sisters that we can run to for prayer, support, and wisdom.
(3) When life is hard, you need a vision for the Kingdom.
I loved that as the bed-ridden lady in Solonka looked toward her final days her mind was on how God could use what little she had to further the Kingdom in Solonka. Until her final breath, her heart was focused on the Kingdom of God in spite of her years of suffering. I have found in my life that when life gets challenging my vision for the Kingdom decreases instead of increases. When life gets hard, I focus on me and not what God wants to do through me. What about you? I imagine you probably do the same. However, your difficulties do not exempt you for living for the Kingdom. Rather, your seasons of hardship may be the very thing that God uses to bring about His Kingdom work through you. May our challenges and difficulties not drive us away from Kingdom work but give us a bigger vision for God’s Kingdom work!
It’s been ten years since my trip to Solonka. While I’ve been to Russia many times since 2009, I’ve never returned to Solonka. I do not know what has happened to the believers in Solonka, but I am so thankful that God allowed me to meet and minister to these precious saints.
I’m so thankful for the lives of faithful believers that teach us so much about living by faith even in the midst of hard times. I hope you will join me in praying for the believers in Solonka and let me encourage you to pray for believers all over this world who are suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Let us pray that God would continue to help them endure as they shine the light of Christ through their faithful obedience to Him!