Defrosting the Freeze of a Siberian College Campus With Warmth of Christ

By Howard Hardegree
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Photo by Tom Mills

As Elmira (pronounced el-MEE-ruh) Gizatullina and Tanya Shayakhmetova dodge sidewalk sledders and walk briskly toward the dorms of the Linguistics University in Irkutsk, Russia, Elmira consciously ticks off her mental checklist for her meeting with several girls there.

Her hair -- the color of strong coffee-along with most of the rest of her is bundled into a powder-blue parka, an island of color amid the grayness of Irkutsk.

"If the dorm lady is in a good mood, we get in," says Elmira. "If not . . ." she shrugs her shoulders as if to say, A long walk, in minus-10-degree temperatures, on the dark Siberian streets -- wasted but worth it.

Elmira is a full-time staff member with New Life (Campus Crusade for Christ in Russia) and works among the 100,000 university students in Irkutsk -- along with eight American staff members and three Russian interns.

Tanya, who accompanies Elmira on the evening walk, is one of the interns, and like the others, she is taking this year to decide if she wants to join the team permanently.

Their work puts them squarely against both cultural and spiritual obstacles as they help lead students to Christ and help them grow enough to lead others to Jesus. Today's work hones in on several girls Elmira works with in the dorm.

The dorm lady pleasantly waves Elmira and Tanya inside. Then it is up five unlit stairways and through a labyrinth of hallways. They find the room and, as customary, put their shoes in the pile by the door.

The room is surprisingly warm, and lit by a single bare bulb, hanging from what may have once been a light fixture. Four students -- Darima, Irina, Nadia and Nastya-are expecting their guests and chitchat while sitting cross-legged on one of the four beds.

Elmira begins with a Bible passage.

Darima looks at her new Bible and fumbles through random pages. Elmira smiles and patiently finds the passage for her.

Darima is a Buryat, one of three people groups in the region considered unreached with the gospel. Her appearance is much like the North American Eskimo and, like most Buryats, her family has practiced Tibetan Buddhism for uncounted generations. They live in a tiny village a 24-hour train ride north.

Recently, after watching the JESUS video in Elmira's apartment, Darima placed her faith in Jesus.

"Since I was a child, I knew there was a God," says Darima. "Elmira helped me choose between Buddhism and God."

Tonight's lesson is on prayer, so Elmira takes prayer requests, then they all pray for the rest of the hour.

"Most of the believers we work with live in the dorms," says Elmira, "so I take every opportunity to pray there."

Elmira grew up in Abdulino, a Muslim village in the Ural Mountains, about 1,900 miles west of Irkutsk. She first heard of Jesus when she attended the university in Ufa, oddly enough through cult members from Sun Yung Moon's Unification Church.

But she learned of a true relationship with Jesus from Rod Powell and Chip and Diane Cowles -- New Life staff members she met there.

"I thought they were fake," says Elmira. "I thought no one could really be as loving as they were."

Diane explained to Elmira how to have the same relationship with God that they had, and two years later, Elmira decided she wanted it too.

"I am amazed in Irkutsk when I share the gospel and people just say, 'OK,'" says Elmira.

On the next evening the team hosts a meeting in their office, a converted apartment within one of the myriad gray, concrete, Communist-era complexes.

The meeting is for students who want to discuss the various occult manifestations they face -- or practice -- in Irkutsk. Eleven students show up.

Spencer Nicholl, who directs the New Life work in the region, says, "It is common to see a person wearing a big cross, a baptized Russian Orthodox, who, on his way out of town, will tie a prayer flag on the trees and, at Lake Baikal, offer a sacrifice of vodka and money to the god of the lake."

Another intern, Natalia Popova, leads the discussion.

Elmira is distracted. A white-and-gray kitten shivers outside in the minus-20-degree temperature. Someone has let it into the hallway to warm up, but it is hungry and cold. Patches of fur are missing where neighborhood boys have been burning it with matches.

Inside, Rangineld, a Norwegian student with ginger-colored hair, pays close attention. Rangineld likes Elmira and enjoys her friendship, but says she has no interest in Jesus. "After this school year, I'm going to India to listen to Karma Pa," says Rangineld. "He's magnificent."

Still, Elmira invites her to continue to come to the Christian meetings.

Elmira will not give up on Rangineld. Elmira will not give up on anything. Eight years ago, as an 18-year-old student in Ufa, Elmira wanted to go back to her village for a holiday.

There were, however, no bus tickets available to Bolshe Ustisk, the town on the highway nearest her village, and her family did not own a car. So she hitchhiked the 105 miles to Bolshe Ustisk, then walked the last 20 miles to Abdulino, up the Urals, into the wind, with the temperatures at minus-31 degrees.

"I wanted to go home," says Elmira.

In the morning -- minus-25 degrees -- the team meets at Eric and Kara Coe's apartment for prayer.

Jenny Batty, an American staff member, reads a letter from a friend who prays specifically for each teammate. For Elmira he prays "that her tongue will be tempered with grace."

"I have a problem with my tongue," admits Elmira. People tell her she comes across as harsh. Clearly, it doesn't keep the students away.

That evening several gather in her apartment for dinner: chicken soup with dark Russian bread.

Rangineld is there. She says these are the only people she trusts. Elmira fixes her black eyes on Rangineld and quizzes her about Karma Pa. She can't get a sensible answer. But she knows Rangineld is searching, so Elmira will be ready when her young friend is ready to hear the truth.

Elmira cares and Rangineld knows it.

So do the children at the Irkutsk State Regional Children's Hospital, a cancer ward. After another long walk in the cold and dark, Elmira meets the rest of the team to show cartoons to the patients.

Hairless children, joined by their mothers and hospital workers, giggle and squeal as Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam -- projected on the wall-argue in squeaky Russian voices.

Elmira began coming to the hospital on her own, and before long she brought the rest of the team. The children get good care, but resources-nurses in particular -- are so scarce that while a child is a patient, the mother is required to live there, too, sleeping in the same bed, cleaning, giving shots and taking care of the child, sometimes for years.

Dr. Svetlana Gorbacheva, the hospital oncologist, knows exactly what the New Life team does.

"They do good," she says. "I'm glad they come here."

That night, back in Elmira's apartment, one of her disciples, Nadia, leads another student through a New Life Bible study while Elmira silently monitors.

The white-and-gray kitten-now named Frisca -- watches from the couch. Frisca is warm, fed, cleaned and treated for worms. Around Elmira, hope rarely seems out of reach.

While at the university in Ufa, Elmira won a scholarship to study in the U.S. at Truman State University in Missouri.

"While I was there," says Elmira," I saw a news story about a 7-year-old boy who had been kept in a box his whole life. The psychiatrist asked him why he didn't try to escape. He told the doctor, 'I didn't know there was another world out there.' That is exactly how Russia is spiritually. They don't know there is another world out there."

If Elmira and this team have their way, the Russians will know soon.