A letter from Ellen Smith in Russia
December 4, 2009
Dear Friends and Family,
As some of you have been praying for the Roma missionary, Nikolai, whose health has been so poor. He shared a story with us at the recent network meeting. We were so glad that he was able to join us. It is never an easy thing for him, as he can barely walk under the best of circumstances, but we were quite worried about his health earlier this fall. He seems tired and somewhat weak, but well. Thank you for all the prayers you have lifted up on his behalf.
As we went around the circle at the network meeting, Pyotr asked Nikolai to share his story with the group. New members were present who had not heard about his journey of faith. I had heard the story, but never from Nikolai. I found it moving and humorous and treasure it for its glimpses into Roma culture.
It is customary for Roma families to live in the same community. There are very strong family bonds. As Nikolai is an invalid (he has cerebral palsy or something similar), he has lived with his brother Pavel. Years ago, they had been living in the Republic of Kalmykia in the northern Caucuses. They had a good house there, but decided to move to the city of Astrakhan to engage in the fish trade (Astrakhan is on the Caspian Sea, home of sturgeon and caviar). Kalmykia is sparsely populated and one of the poorer regions. What they sold their house for was not enough to buy a house in Astrakhan, so they purchased an apartment. It happened that they purchased the flat from Jehovah’s Witnesses who proceeded to witness to the family. Nikolai was seeking and attended a number of gatherings. He was hungry for something, but he wasn’t sure that he was hearing the truth, so he prayed to the Lord for a sign.
In a short time, his niece came to him with a Gideon Bible. She had been playing somewhere in the city and a woman had given it to her. She could not read, but her uncle could. Nikolai immediately wanted to know where she had been, and whether she could find the place again. She could, and led him to a Baptist church. A woman there came out, asked him what he wanted, and invited him to their evening service, which Nikolai gladly attended. He was caught up with the music, and then a powerful sermon. When the altar call came, Nikolai went forward in tears and nearly shouted his prayer of repentance.
He began attending the church three times a week, hungry for their teaching. He heard about accepting Jesus in one’s heart, but didn’t understand how. He wondered if this was like taking a tablet. He didn’t fully understand the language of this new church. It was foreign to him, yet was speaking to him in a new way. Eventually, one of the members asked him if he wanted to accept Christ. Nikolai asked, “How?” He desperately wanted to know. The member responded that he just needed to accept Christ as his Lord. Nikolai was astonished and relieved that it was that simple.
When Nikolai went home and told Pavel that he had joined the Baptist church, Pavel was appalled. He told Nikolai that he had disgraced his family and the Roma people. Nikolai thought about this for a while, and offered to move out. This wasn’t a solution—it would be more of a disgrace than going to the Baptist church. Pavel decided that the best thing would be for Nikolai simply not to tell anyone he’d become a Baptist.
Their sister was also living in Astrakhan at this time. She and her husband were engaged in the rag trade. One day she had asked the Lord for help with their business, promising to light a candle. In the evening, she headed to church to fulfill her promise. She and Nikolai walked together to a crossroad, his church lay in one direction and hers in another. As they stood at the crossroad, Nikolai said “Why don’t you come with me tonight?” She was also moved by the music and the preaching. At the end of the service, she too was in tears. When the altar call came, Nikolai suggested she go forward, as he had.
Soon, Pavel’s son was joining Nikolai at church, as well as Pavel’s wife. Things were getting out of hand. Pavel had been talking about the problem with his father and older brother, who lived in Bryansk, and they suggested that he bring Nikolai to visit. They spent much of the weekend talking. On Sunday morning, both Nikolai and his father were praying. His father was praying before an icon, and Nikolai on his knees. When his father finished his prayer and turned around, he found that Nikolai was praying with his back to the icon. He was shocked that his son had turned his back on God. As they continued to talk, they found some common language and parted in peace. Nikolai returned to Astrakhan and his church, and invited more members of the family to join him. After two years, Pavel finally followed them, but follow them he did.
Nikolai and his brother now live in the city of Michurinsk, where Nikolai is leader of a small group of Roma Christians. He and his family are one of the evangelization teams for the Roma network, reaching out in their local community and to Roma communities beyond. He is not a pastor, but he is a powerful preacher and missionary. Recently, they lost their place of worship. It is a challenge, and Nikolai asked us for prayers. Please join us in prayer for this small group, for Nikolai and his ongoing health problems, and for the Roma network.
Peace and blessings,
Ellen and Al
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 177