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From Bible smugglers to suppliers: Eastern European Mission at 50

IVANO-FRANKIVSK, Ukraine — If you thought the Cold War was tough, just wait.
A high school academic team in this former Soviet nation eagerly awaits the chance to do battle with American counterparts.
The subject: Bible knowledge.
The seven students, all ages 16 and 17, attend Public School No. 11 in this western Ukrainian town. They went toe-to-toe with the big-city schools and prevailed, winning a competition that tested their command of Scripture and its application to daily living.
On a break between classes, the students sit in a white-walled auditorium and talk about the Bible stories they referenced in their speeches.
Speaking in English — a key focus of the school’s curriculum — Bohdan Navrotsky describes Jesus’ parable of the vineyard tenants who beat their master’s messengers and killed his son. His teacher, Anna Dmytrychenko, watches and smiles, gently correcting him when he dips back into Ukrainian.
The vineyard parable “shows that God is your master,” Navrotsky says, and “explains how God loved us enough to send his son to rescue us from our sins.”
“These stories protect us from bad decisions,” adds teammate Viktoriya Kalynyuk. She’s the only girl on the team. (“One girl is worth six boys,” her sly teammate Aksentiy Volodymyr chimes in.)
Kalynyuk, an academic standout and an accomplished dancer, dreams of working for the International Red Cross, helping the hurting in Africa, with the Bible as her guide. Such dreams seemed impossible a generation ago, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The government discouraged religion and confiscated Bibles.
In 1961, seven young couples from Abilene Christian University in Texas moved to Vienna, Austria. They set up a printing press, produced books of the New Testament in the languages of Eastern Europe and smuggled them under the Iron Curtain. Their ministry became known as Eastern European Mission.
A half-century later, the ministry produces Bibles in the countries where once they were forbidden.
In Ukraine, an independent nation since 1991, the Bible has become part of the public school curriculum. From kindergarten through high school, students can opt to study Christian ethics, using the Bible as a textbook.
EEM gives Bibles and Bible-based literature to all 763 schools in the Ivano-Frankivsk school system. To date, the ministry has provided biblical texts to more than 2 million children in 9,201 public schools in Ukraine and Russia.
The ministry also is a sponsor of Ukraine’s Bible competition and provided prizes for the winning team from Public School No. 11.
“Christianity is a world religion,” says team member Ihor Kozak. “Every country should have a competition like this.”
Richard Baggett, EEM’s vice president of advancement, and members of the ministry’s Ukrainian staff traveled to Ivano-Frankivsk to make sure the Bibles they provide were getting into the schools. Arriving unannounced, Baggett and his teammates found copies of their materials in each library and many of the classrooms.
The books, especially the illustrated children’s Bibles, are particularly popular with elementary students, said Olesya Andrusyak, head librarian at Public School No. 11.
At each school the team visited, teachers asked for more copies.
Eastern Europe’s access to — and hunger for — gospel literature is a dream realized for Barbara Camp, who moved from Texas to Vienna 50 years ago with her husband, Lynn.
She remembers wearing a “Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat” and learning the ins-and-outs of grocery shopping and laundry washing in a foreign culture.
Lynn Camp, now president of EEM, remembers pulling cloth diapers from a drying line in the rain, as his Viennese neighbors giggled about him doing “women’s work.”
He’s not sure what they would have thought about the young Christian men that visited him in Vienna — and squeezed into support stockings.
That way, “you can stuff a lot of Bibles under your jeans,” he explained. “One of the kids took a tire tool, let the air out of the spare, loosened it from the rim and put 80 Hungarian Bibles in the spare.”
Throughout the Cold War, teams of students from Christian universities stopped in Vienna on their way across the Iron Curtain. EEM armed them with tiny New Testaments in the languages of the Soviet world.
“Can it fit in a shirt pocket?” was the ministry’s governing rule, said Murray Czeczotka, EEM’s former director of operations in Vienna. The nondescript testaments bore no writing on their covers and could be mistaken for cigarette packs.
Small groups of Christians, meeting across Eastern Europe, helped conceal and distribute the literature. A farmer in Czechoslovakia buried thousands of Bibles under the hay in his barn.
A few Eastern Europeans, including Hungarian believer Ivan Marcos, made regular trips to Vienna. Marcos traveled there two or three times per year to collect royalties from books written by his father. He often returned home with contraband produced by EEM.
Once, while riding a train to Vienna, a Hungarian border guard went through Marcos’ belongings and found his personal Bible.
“A man like you with a Bible? You should know better,” the guard told Marcos, a high-ranking banker in Hungary. The guard took the Bible and “just sailed it out the window as the train was moving, maybe 50 miles an hour,” Lynn Camp said. “And though we could get him another one in Vienna, he still wanted his Bible.”
About two years later, Marcos got his Bible back in the mail. Some children playing near the railroad tracks had found it, a note explained.
“We must apologize to you that we kept your Bible so long,” the note said, “but it took us this long to make copies of it.”
“They had handwritten copies of that Bible,” Lynn Camp said. The story “really taught us about what God was doing and wanted to do through us.”
For more than a quarter-century, EEM workers did their best to alleviate what Scott Hayes, the ministry’s publishing director, called “spiritual starvation” in the Soviet world.
Czeczotka believes that “people’s desire for religious information contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall” in 1989. After that, EEM received tens of thousands of requests for Bibles.
Now, 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Christians in Russia “just take it for granted, because if we need Bibles, we simply write to Eastern European Mission,” said Igor Egirev, a former electrical engineer in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, who was baptized by a U.S. campaign team in 1990. Egirev is director of the Institute of Theology and Christian Ministry in St. Petersburg, Russia, which trains indigenous church leaders for the former Soviet world.
Russia now has 55 Churches of Christ, Egirev said. Most are aware of the role EEM has played in their development. Recently, a Church of Christ in Barnaul, Russia, made financial contribution to EEM part of its budget.
In 2006, EEM sold its Vienna facility and outsourced the printing of its materials to companies in the former Soviet Union.
Increasingly, Eastern Europeans take leadership roles in the ministry.
Dasha Novikova grew up in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where she now directs EEM’s Ukraine office. Even as a youth, she hungered for a relationship with God.
For her 10th birthday, “I told my parents not to buy me any presents, but to pay for my baptism in the Orthodox Church,” she said. Later she was baptized again, after meeting a group of campaigners from Churches of Christ in the U.S.
The campaigners gave her the first copy of the Bible she ever owned, “and, by the way, that Bible was from Eastern European Mission,” she said.
In Vienna, Bartosz Rybinski serves as EEM’s vice president for European operations. He grew up in Poland and was converted while studying in the U.S.
“I witnessed firsthand the communist repression of religion and freedom,” Rybinski said. “I would have never thought that a day would come when we could read Bibles in schools and talk about God openly.
“When I left my homeland in 1993 in search of an adventure and a greater sense of purpose, I couldn’t have imagined that one day God would lead me back to Eastern Europe to find both through a ministry that puts his word in people’s hands.”
EEM prints Bibles and spiritual literature in more than 20 languages and distributes them to Churches of Christ across the continent.
Each summer, the ministry supplies literature and teams of U.S. church members to host youth camps in Ukraine. In the Soviet years, the camps were used to indoctrinate young people with the values of communism. Now Ukrainian youths learn the Bible.
EEM also provides funds for religious TV broadcasts and evangelistic seminars — all overseen by indigenous believers. The ministry partners with Ukrainian churches in outreach efforts to orphanages.
In 1998, a Russian government official, Vladimir Skovorodnikov, approached EEM with a way to get Bibles into the hands of 436,000 students and 80,000 teachers — by producing a “morals and character” curriculum for his country’s Altai region. To meet the challenge, EEM promoted a “Million Dollar Sunday,” among Churches of Christ.
The churches met the goal, and EEM provided the schools with Bibles, illustrated children’s Bibles, the “Newcomer’s Guide to the Bible” by former EEM president Mike Armour and “Morals and Character Lessons,” written by Armour and his wife, Fran. As he reviewed the material, Skovorodnikov decided to ask for baptism. During a U.S. visit, Armour baptized him at the Prestoncrest Church of Christ in Dallas.
In the past decade, EEM has provided the Bibles and character curriculum to schools in five states in Russia and two in Ukraine. Officials in two additional Ukrainian states have requested Bibles. To finance the work, the ministry will host its seventh Million Dollar Sunday in April.
In Ivano-Frankivsk, EEM’s books line the shelves of classrooms next to paintings of Jesus. Schools aren’t allowed to teach religious doctrine, said Volodymyr Raikovsky, an ethics teacher at Public School No. 16. Instead, they focus on the principles of Christianity and how they impact daily living, School officials point to studies in other Ukrainian cities that show juvenile delinquency rates declining where schools teach ethics.
Like most of western Ukraine, Ivano-Frankivsk has a strong Orthodox tradition. In an ethics class observed by EEM visitors,  instructor Nadiya Matsuk taught students about “agape” love.
“Agape is the highest form of love,” she told the class. “This is how Christ loved all of us.”
Then the students stood and Matsuk led them in the Lord’s Prayer. They formed the sign of the cross before heading to their next class.
Churches of Christ are few in western Ukraine, compared to the larger congregations of the east. But workers with EEM see signs that Ukrainians, as they study the materials given by the ministry, yearn for simple, non-dogmatic Christianity.
The parents of students in Ivano-Frankivsk write to the ministry and ask for their own copies, Baggett said. Church members teach the Bible at summer camps, and a Church of Christ in the city is growing, he added.
The academic team at Public School No. 11 represents the first generation of Ukrainians to grow up entirely free of the Soviet Union.
Despite decades of communism, the people of Ivano-Frankivsk kept their faith close to their hearts — and instilled its value in their children.
“We know that Christianity is the greatest treasure we have,” says Kozak, 17, one of the team members. “Now the people of Ukraine can believe in the God they want. After 70 years, people want to believe in the Master who loves us.”
After meeting the students, Nickoli Plaksin, a Ukrainian church member and distribution manager for EEM, beams with pride.
“That’s the future of my country,” he says.

  • Feedback
    What an inspiring story! EEM is truly fulfilling Jesus’ great commission. As someone who participated in moving Bibles across borders where they were once considered contraband, I can’t express in words how thrilling it is to print them within the borders of countries where they were once outlawed. I wish that the United States had such freedoms as are described in these lines. This article tells the story of God’s faithfulness to His Word. A righteous, God-fearing, Scripture-quoting generation is a great return on years of investment of faith, prayer and finances. I know that God is doing much more than we know about!
    Roger Massey
    Zagreb, Croatia
    December, 9 2011

Filed under: International

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