After the iron curtain came down
The cost of giving gospel hope to students in Eurasia
It was a cold night. Werner had learned that there was a student who was stuck in a village and couldn’t afford the bus ticket to get back to the city. He and one other student set out on the perilous three-hour journey through the snow to fetch her.
It was a dangerous decision. Georgia in the 1990s was not a safe place to be. Three foreigners would be beaten up and robbed in an average week. The man who lived on the floor above was shot dead on the staircase. Werner and his young family walked past the bullet holes on the wall every day. For those like him, pioneering student work, just surviving seemed unlikely.
A narrow escape
They reached the student in the village and started the journey home. As they were driving back they saw three armed men in front of them, indicating that they must stop the car. Was this the end? The students in the back were shouting at him not to stop. What was he to do? He slowed down the car and turned off the lights, as if about to stop. But before the men could open the doors, Werner put his foot down and they sped off into the night, as fast as they could go. It was terrifying.
When they finally arrived back in the city, they told their friends what had happened. One of them, a pastor, turned to Werner:
“Well done. Now they know that you really love them.”
Werner never had to motivate the students to make sacrifices for Jesus after that experience. Any student turning to Christ in those days understood about the costs involved.
Ready to sacrifice everything
The stories of courageous students abound. One was beaten up by a street gang because he was a Christian. Another student was threatened with a knife at her throat because she was sharing her faith. Another risked walking through a cemetery at night to reach a student dormitory and start an evangelistic Bible study group. She often spoke of the need to be ready to sacrifice everything for Jesus. She was one of the girls from the car. She went on to become the student movement’s first general secretary.
The remarkable transformation
It would have been hard for those Christian students to imagine how different life would be in Georgia today, just twenty years later. The transformation has been remarkable. The country is still predominantly Orthodox, but there is freedom of religion. Today there are active student groups in three cities and pioneering work in a fourth. There is also work among high school students and graduates. In the last two years there have been two fruitful university mission weeks and a performance of the Mark Drama to which 200 people came. Over 30 students made professions of faith in 2017.
Though there remains a lot of work to be done, there is certainly much to celebrate.
There are still several countries in Eurasia which are as seemingly impenetrable as Georgia was 20 years ago. Gaining access to those countries might not be possible, but there have been some incredible opportunities in recent years to reach those students. Universities in some of the most closed nations in Eurasia are now sending their students to neighbouring countries for a year or more to study. In this way, many have had the chance to meet believers and hear the gospel.
Praying for change
Last year one of those international students became a Christian. As he finished his studies and moved home, he resolved to try to meet up with the students who had become Christians and returned home a year before him. He hoped they would be able to encourage each other to keep going in their faith. For security reasons, contact with this international student had to stop when he went home. No-one knows how he is doing or whether he managed to meet up with the other Christian students. No-one knows if he’s been able to share the hope of the gospel with his family and friends. Please pray for him.
With Islam, Orthodoxy and nationalism on the rise across the region, it’s easy to lose heart. Werner now leads IFES pioneering in Eurasia. We asked him if he thought the situation would ever change. “Yes”, he said. “It will change. But there might be some great costs to pay.”
Pray on with us for transformation to come to these dark corners of the world. Pray boldly that God would raise up more risk-taking students there with a burden to share the gospel, whatever the cost.