While teaching in Russia recently, Spokane pastor Earl Appleby met a former lawyer who had left his well-paying job to make a meager living as a street sweeper so he could devote more time to his church.
Two years ago, Vladimir, the only name Appleby knew him by, resigned as an attorney to attend Bible college. He never returned to his law career.
“He gave that up in order to give more time to be a deacon in the church,” says Appleby. Vladimir’s experience is an “example of the dedication I found there.”
Appleby, minister of Shiloh Hills Baptist Church on the North Side, spent two weeks in Samara, Russia, as a visiting professor at the Samara Baptist Bible Institute. The school has been operated by the North American Baptist Conference since 1994.
Samara is a city of 1.8 million people about 600 miles southeast of Moscow. It’s the city where Sputnik was built and home to a large military base that made the city off-limits to Westerners until recently.
Appleby taught discipleship training and small-group ministry to 28 Russian students enrolled for one year of intensive training. The students train to be church leaders.
“It was very inspiring to meet the people who had been under communism for all those years, only out from under communism for five years,” Appleby says. “They’ve lived very simple lives. They have very little of the world’s material things.
“They live very meagerly, and yet their faith is very rich, very deep.”
It’s difficult to make ends meet in Russia, something Appleby learned when he spoke to church leaders.
For example, the pastor of Samara’s host church earns $200 a month and with apartments renting at between $40 and $60 a month, his salary doesn’t go far. People who work in the church must hold other jobs to make ends meet.
The language barrier prevented Appleby from getting to know the people well even though he was a dinner guest in the homes of students and instructors. The homes he saw bear no comparison to what we have in the United States.
“All of them were apartments but one, and that house was really just a shack,” he says. “It would have been torn down here.” It had one bedroom, a kitchen with a little table, “and that was it,” he says.
Despite the hardships for Russians, things are better than they were under the Communist regime - especially religious freedom. Four new mission churches have been started in the area, says Appleby, something that never could have occurred under communism.
“The KGB was in charge of seeing that no new churches were started,” he says. “Under communism they had registered churches and unregistered churches, and the unregistered churches had to meet underground. If the KGB caught them, their pastors usually ended up in Siberia.”
Every Russian church must be registered, and the process can be lengthy. Registration is never denied, he says, but if for some reason the government doesn’t want a church to be registered, the paperwork just never comes back.
Some churches members refuse to register their churches because they feel they are compromising their Christian convictions if they cooperate with the government, Appleby says. These days, however, there aren’t many negative consequences to deal with.
“Since the Communists fell, there’s not as much a threat,” Appleby says. The government lets the churches operate with little restriction.
Whether it remains that way is uncertain.
“In talking with the pastor there, he thinks the Communists will come back into power,” Appleby says. “What happens as far as religious freedom is concerned is anybody’s guess. Nobody really knows. But they don’t expect the same kind of takeover of dictatorship.
“They’re all concerned about Boris Yeltsin’s health” and are waiting to see what happens, says Appleby.
The people Appleby came in contact with welcomed him with open arms.
“I just found that they were just very warm, loving people and very open to my being there and teaching there and just glad to have me there,” he says. “I found myself very much drawn to them.”