Each college student attending received a printed copy of a world map. Almost 200 countries, each unique and mysterious, sat right before their eyes.
"What country will you pray for?" they were asked by Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, one of the Christmas Conference speakers. "Write your name on it."
He then thought about a good friend's commitment to somewhere Darin had never been. His friend's willingness to travel there for a mission trip despite the tight grip of communism had made a big impression on Darin.
So he wrote his name on the Soviet Union. It was 1985.
Moving From Intrigue to Action
What is now known as Russia seemed cloaked in darkness, controlled by a government not wanting its people to have the freedom of choice. Yet both Darin and his then future wife, Susan, were intrigued.
"I can pinpoint my interest in Russia to 1980," Susan remembers. During her father's sabbatical, the family lived in Germany. "The Olympics had just happened, and I had this huge desire to visit there. It was a curiosity about the country and the mystery that shrouded it."
The intrigue soon turned into a passion to see God at work in the lives of the Russian people. She and Darin separately went there on short-term mission trips. Both actively participated in student ministry. Darin even helped pioneer a new movement on his campus in Oregon.
Coupled with his study of the Russian language during his final 2 years of college and Susan's minor in Russian history, a common goal emerged: taking the message of God's love to Russia.
By the end of 1991, now a married couple and staff members with Campus Crusade, the McFarlands set their sights on a rapidly changing country.
Getting There is Only the Beginning
The couple's first international assignment took them to serve with the campus ministry in St. Petersburg, Russia, just a few years after the fall of communism. A team began to form mixing short-term interns with full-time workers and soon, young leaders from Russia.
But building a vibrant ministry didn't happen overnight. For their first 2 years alone, the McFarlands had to concentrate on language study to become fluent in Russian while helping out the existing team on campus. Conversations were challenging, and the negative effects of years of governmental oppression still lingered.
By the fourth year, though, the future looked bright. "We felt like we were hitting our stride in Russia," Susan remembers. "We were thriving. We were comfortable with the language. Our best friends were Russian."
Darin saw some bright spots among the students in the city, too. "I think it was the most fruitful semester we had seen. About 25 students had accepted Christ that year," he says.
But when they traveled back to the United States for the birth of their second son -- a necessity due to the lack of quality medical services available to them in Russia -- their plan for a quick return to build on the past semester's momentum quickly changed. Christopher was born with Down syndrome.
Changed Plans Allow for Surprising Opportunities
"Our initial reaction was, 'I guess that means we can't be missionaries anymore,'" Darin says. With no indication of what kind of care Christopher might need, the couple decided to stay in Texas with their 2 sons for a while. Darin enrolled in seminary classes.
The team back in St. Petersburg, however, needed a leader.
A new Russian staff member in training, Misha Goz, was challenged to take over Darin's role. "From the very beginning, the goal was to replace ourselves," Darin says. "But when we had to leave, that caused Misha to have to step up probably earlier than he would have, and maybe earlier than we would have been willing to step back."
Under Misha's direction, the ministry continued to flourish and grow. New members were added to the team. The reach of their efforts spread wider throughout the city. New partnerships were formed.
When Darin graduated from seminary, the family was ready to return to Russia -- now with 2 additional children.
Yet in 3 years, the success of one goal presented a new challenge for the McFarlands. They had successfully raised indigenous leaders to guide the ministry. But it meant no place for them.
"For us to stay on the team would have been a step backwards [for everyone]," Darin says.
It was time for the McFarlands to move on. Yet they were certain God was calling them back to Russia.