FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – A severe drought threatened a village in the Russian region of Udmurtia a few years ago. Wholly dependent on rain for their crops, the villagers paid a Russian Orthodox priest to bless their fields and pray for rain. After two days, they saw no sign of rain. To appease the spiritual world and save their crops, they then sacrificed a lamb.
“That story,” Will Thompson* says, “is a perfect explanation of what goes on in Udmurtia. The Udmurt people have this overtone of Orthodoxy, but the root of their faith is actually paganistic, animistic in belief, reflecting nothing that we would read of in Scripture. They are basically controlled by fear. A lot of Udmurts still pray to their ancestors, still worship the spirits of the forest.”
Two years ago, Thompson and Charlie Murphy*, both graduates of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, set out with their wives to the Russian city of Izhevsk in order to take the living water to the spiritually dry region of Udmurtia. Another team of students and faculty from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary joined them, May 25-June 12, 2012, sowing God’s Word in Udmurt towns and villages that had not yet been reached.
“The seminary team got to share the Gospel with people that would not have heard it otherwise,” Thompson says. “They connected us with people that we would never have met.” They also provided refreshment for the Thompsons and Murphys.
“Where we live,” he says, “there are basically no Americans, except for the occasional Mormon who might pop in. So getting to be around likeminded people, speaking English, getting to be around seminary students was just such a refreshing time. They gave us a lot of encouragement, and of course they were all praying with us and praying for us, and that meant a lot.”
Traveling to Russia as tourists interested in Udmurt culture and religion, Southwestern’s team was welcomed by various villages, towns and schools. Moreover, the Udmurt people willingly listened to them proclaim the Gospel. In this way, students shared with Udmurts who followed a folk blend of Orthodoxy and animism, as well as with some Muslims and atheists.
According to Thompson, the fact that they listened to seminary students share the Gospel reveals that God was at work. Often, attempts to do so are hindered by a general suspicion of “Western” religion.
“Whenever people in Udmurtia will let you share the Gospel and get through that whole message,” Thompson says, “that is a success.”
Yet the people of Udmurtia are thirsty for the Gospel, he says. Once they hear it, the message that salvation depends upon Christ alone sounds wonderful—in fact, too wonderful to be true. Many struggle to believe that they do not need to earn their salvation. Such is the case, at least, for one couple, who study Scripture daily and served as tour guides for the Southwestern team.
“They love the message,” Thompson says, “but it is difficult for them to surrender to it. They love the message so much that they are taking us to tell people that message, although they themselves have trouble submitting to it.”
According to Charlie Murphy, the boldness of Southwestern students in sharing the Gospel helped them find other “people who were spiritually sensitive.”
“We would never have been able to engage as many people as they did in a two week time period,” Murphy says. Because of the presence of the seminary team, for example, they were able to enter a village that had a small museum. When they did so, they met a young man and his wife who showed interest in the Gospel and in what the team was doing.
“That opened homes in a new village,” Murphy says. “That never would have happened had the team not been there. Anytime, especially, that we get an opportunity to connect with a man, and in this case it was a young man, it is really a sweet thing. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to share the Gospel with women and old grandmothers, but men will generally be polite but won’t stick around to listen to anything spiritual. For me, that was worth everything that was put into that trip—the logistics and the prayer.”
To read more about the Murphys and Thompsons, check out the winter 2010 edition of the Southwestern News magazine online:
*Names changed.