Josh McDowell Celebrates His love for St. Petersburg, Russia, by Giving the City a Gift

By Jennifer Abegg
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Photo by Tom Mills

"Chicken."

In a dim, smoky, basement restaurant with a disco ball dangling from the ceiling, Josh McDowell tries to order some food.

Though Josh speaks Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Costejuano in addition to English, they're of no use here at one of his favorite restaurants in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The server scrunches his face in a way that indicates he's still baffled. So Josh tucks his hands under his arms, flaps them up and down, then squeals, "Bock ... bock, bock, bock."

The dark-haired waiter's eyes light up and he nods in understanding. Later he sets a large, steaming chicken on the table.

Josh flew to St. Petersburg to deliver a gift to the city, in honor of its 300-year anniversary. Japan plans to plant 1,000 cherry trees in the European city. France constructed a five-story "Peace Tower" with the word peace plastered all over it in various languages to present to the city. Fifty countries showered St. Petersburg with gifts. So why did one American and his ministry also offer the city a present?

Though he still can't speak Russian, Josh has been to Russia 45 times, and to St. Petersburg 30 times. The spiritual need, the responsiveness and a love for the people keep him returning. Josh is a well-known Westerner in St. Petersburg. Perhaps that's also why city officials asked him-the only foreigner-to participate on the committee for St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary.

His interest in the country started when he was a boy. In the early 1950s, Josh watched on TV when the then president of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev, visited a farm in the United States. At that time, significant leaders from foreign lands rarely crisscrossed the globe. The young American became intrigued by the man and the country he represented.

Once Josh started following Jesus, he realized that the country was spiritually closed off to the message of hope.

"During the Cold War years, it was really on Josh's heart to pray for the Soviet Union," recalls Charles Debter, a staff member with the Josh McDowell Ministry, a division of Campus Crusade for Christ. "There were 300 million people in the population; so many people-generations-who had not heard the gospel."

In the early 1980s, Josh confided to fellow Campus Crusade co-worker Bob Tiede, "I just want to go to Russia once, and then after that, I'll probably never go again."

When his dream came to fruition in November 1989, he became hooked. The father of four flew across the Atlantic Ocean with his wife, Dottie, and managed to gain access to the Communist-controlled country.

While there, some Russian pastors invited him to a luncheon.

"I warned him before going that we had no money and he should give nothing away," says Bob, Josh's long-time right-hand man.
During the meal, the pastors stood and formally asked Josh for copies of his books More Than a Carpenter and Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Both resources provide strong arguments for the validity of Jesus, the Bible and the Resurrection.

Josh thought about Bob's caution, then rose from his chair: "I'll do my best to somehow give you 5,000 copies of each."

Instead of hearing "Spaciba" ("Thank you"), the church shepherds shook their heads.

"You don't understand the need," they explained. "Our people have been schooled in scientific atheism and believe that the Bible is a fairy tale and Jesus is not real. We want 250,000 More Than a Carpenter books, and 50,000 Evidence."

Shocked, Josh offered to pray for such resources and asked the Russian pastors to do the same.

Twelve months later Bob filled his parka pockets full of the Russian translation of More Than a Carpenter books before he stopped by the market. Among vendors selling meat, vegetables and cheese, a man approached Bob and in very broken English asked, "American?"

"Yes," replied Bob.

"Where you from?" asked the Russian.

Bob was struck that the Russian purposed to meet him. Normally we Christians take initiatives, he realized. But instead this man is. So Bob reached into his pocket and offered a book to him.

"How much?" he asked.

"Free," Bob replied.

The man thought Bob was asking for "three."

"Rubles?"

"Nyet, nyet," answered Bob in Russian; no charge.

Instantly bystanders surrounded Bob like children around an ice-cream truck wanting the book. In just 45 seconds Bob distributed all 30 books he had stuffed into his coat.

The next day Bob insisted that the author experience this firsthand. So, equipped with boxes of 500 More Than a Carpenter books, Josh stood outside the market and handed out what he calls his "little missionaries." Then two police officers began closing in on him.

Instead of hauling Josh off to jail, they both enthusiastically reached for a copy of his book. Josh distributed the entire stash in eight and a half minutes.

"Bob, wow!" he exclaimed on the ride back to their hotel. "We have to do whatever it takes to come back here and bring Americans to help assist the Russian church."

Josh McDowell Ministry staff members prayed for 100 Americans to return with them the following year, 1991. Four hundred took the plunge.

Rev. Faye Logan, who introduced Josh to a personal relationship with Christ, observed the spiritual hunger during that trip: "It's harvest time in Russia. I have enough farm in me to know that at harvest time, all forces in the field bring in the crops."

Josh and his team decided to focus their "forces" on bringing in the Russian crops.

"It was harvest time then," says Charles, special assistant to Josh, "and it continues to be."

Josh, with the assistance of other staff members and American volunteers, has lugged sewing machines across the ocean for mothers of young children so they could work from home. They now have a lucrative toy business. Once he met a man who needed life-saving heart medication. Josh delivered it from the United States.

"We try to only promise half of what we can do," explains Josh, who leaves suitcases of clothing in country; when he visits he can pack donations instead. "That way we become known as generous people who keep their word."

That generosity translates into a total of 3,589 tons of donated goods, with a cumulative price tag of $42.8 million.

"His good deeds have helped orphans and elderly, the sick and those in hospitals," explains Ludmila Borisovna, who works in the St. Petersburg government and with the Northern Forum, a branch of the United Nations. "He helped where help was very needed."
With that as his goal, Josh asked the government officials and leaders in the city what kind of gift he could present to them in honor of its 300th anniversary. The Russians asked him for help with business.

So Josh, always the visionary, dreamed up the idea of an American-Russian business symposium.

"I remember when Josh came to me and said, "I have this idea," says Bob, who now serves as chief executive officer of Josh McDowell Ministry. "I couldn't flesh it out alone, so I called Charles into my office. 'Dear Charles,' I said, 'I need you.'"

They put it together with the help of their Russian liaison, Sergei Yerdeschenko. "Details are us," Charles jokes.

They invited American business leaders to accompany them to St. Petersburg, to show Russian business professionals how they run their businesses. But there's a twist. All 27 of the American business executives recruited for the symposium follow Jesus. The former vice president of Dell Computer and the former executive president of J.C. Penney, among others, accepted invitations to speak and interact with the hand-selected group of 100 Russians last April.

The Russian and American business executives gathered at St. Petersburg's Astoria Hotel, the same five-star resort where Russian president Vladimir Putin met with the political leaders of Germany and France that very week to discuss the war in Iraq.

In rooms with vaulted ceilings and elaborate chandeliers, the Christian business people explained their companies' strategies and techniques for running successful businesses, briefly mentioning God. Then, during the last two days of the symposium, the group of mostly men met one-to-one with Russia's top business professionals.

Susanne Forbes Dicker, a high-profile real-estate agent in Dallas, was assigned to meet with real-estate magnate Alex Romanenko. Based on the security, she wasn't surprised to discover that he was the No. 1 real-estate agent in the entire country.

They discussed business. Afterward, the Texan asked spiritual questions such as, "If you were to die tonight, would you be certain you'd go to heaven?"

"I hope so," Alex replied.

"I know you're a Type-A personality," Susanne said, "so I'll make this quick." Jesus died on the cross and rose again for Alex's sins, she explained. She asked if Alex wanted to accept Jesus as his Savior.

"Yes," he said.

To make sure he understood, she asked, "What do you have to do to get into heaven?"

"Tell God you want him to be your CEO."

Josh intended the business symposium to help Russian business professionals understand their ultimate need for God. The people had been so indoctrinated in atheism until democracy replaced communism in 1992, that even today, Campus Crusade's director for Russia estimates that only 7,000 to 9,000 of the 4.7 million people living in St. Petersburg follow Jesus.

Josh knows one person can't change those numbers, even someone high-profile like himself. But he's passing along his passion for the Russian people to men and women like Susanne.

And that is his real gift to St. Petersburg.