Taking the Plunge in the Former Soviet Union

Originally published in 1997

In a flurry of laughter, two young Tatar women whisk “Jennifer” from a living room chair into the kitchen for a round of tasting.

The joke is that Jennifer, an American, hardly knows what it is she is tasting, much less what additional seasoning the dish needs. But the rite of friendship continues and everyone seems pleased when Jennifer gives her grin of approval on the dish.

Jennifer tries again to settle in the living room only to be again swept up by the arm. Another sister in the family wants to talk to her and the two disappear from the room in more laughter.

Jennifer is part of a Cooperative Services International team that has plunged into the Tatar culture. The language is as daunting as the depth of the culture. But currents of friendship flow deep.

In this [Soviet-style] apartment—and in many others—long conversations about dreams, life and God have sealed friendships, explains Jennifer.

“You live for opportunities to speak about our Lord and when the situation is right, you go for it,” she says.

“You don’t live here thinking of the people around you as a target group or potential converts. Yes, we want them to know the love of Christ, but they have to see that love in us.

“So you live day to day with an open heart and life. When people see that you are who you say you are, they first respect you and then they listen to you. In this culture, like most others, that’s the first requirement for really being heard.”

Such an approach takes time, explains “Thomas,” another CSI team member. New team members cannot jump into the culture equipped only with a handful of Christian tracts and a phrase book.

“If you come in here full force without getting to know people or appreciating how they see the world, you are going to bomb fast,” he cautions.

The Tatars have collided with Christianity in so many destructive ways, he says. Most Tatars see Christianity as a Western religion that carries seeds of destruction. But Thomas, Jennifer and others on the CSI team know this nation has never seen the Christ of Christianity.

“This job demands that we live lives that point to a loving God. And I know my God is faithful and when we live whole lives without letting this world drag us down, people will want to know about our Lord,” he says.

This was the case when Jennifer had a conversation with a woman she had recently met. A Tatar friend introduced Jennifer to the Muslim woman because the friend was impressed with Jennifer’s commitment to her faith.

“The woman had gone through some bad times during which her husband came close to dying. The experience had left her confused and she was trying to make sense of her life,” Jennifer relates.

Over several weeks, Jennifer and the woman shared conversations about each other’s belief in God. Then late one night when Jennifer was staying at the woman’s home for the weekend, Jennifer explained again the meaning of salvation and Christ’s love for her.

“After I had finished, I knew she was not ready to make a commitment, but she was still so excited about what she was hearing. She told me that she wished her sisters and husband were around to hear all that I was saying.

“I would have liked to see her turn to Jesus that night, but it didn’t happen. Still, I believe this family is so close to coming to Christ. I believe God is working in the whole family because of all that they have been through.”

Since that night, the woman has asked Jennifer to return and talk more.

“I would like to say I know the outcome of all this—that I’m sure they will all be Christians soon. But I don’t know that,” Jennifer admits.

“What I do know is that we have been commanded to be known by our love and this means I say to people like this friend, ‘I will love you regardless of where you are in your search for God.’ That’s my part.”