I'll never forget that September morning. As I gazed out the train window at the Russian countryside, the fields faded to concrete-block apartment buildings. The orange sun slowly crept into the sky, and I breathed deeply. This was the city I would call home for the next year.
Tired and anxious, my team of eight Americans gathered our luggage and got off the train in Krasnodar, Russia. Only one person in this southwestern Russian city of 650,000 people knew we were arriving.
Relieved, we spotted someone in an American-flag T-shirt -- Irena Rayushkaina. Irena worked at the university where we planned to study Russian. But most importantly, Irena's university was the place where our ragtag little group hoped to launch a campus ministry.
As a new college graduate, I felt that the world awaited me. With no house, no job and no spouse, I realized there was no better time to move halfway across the world.
I had come to Russia on STINT. Standing for Short Term INTernational, this yearlong program is the vehicle for 400 American Christians, mostly recent college graduates, to spend a year in full-time overseas ministry with Cru. One primary goal of STINT is to establish ministries in cities where Cru has no long-term American or national staff members.
Our team began with what we knew: English. We'd been told during our training that Russian students were anxious to learn about anything American. Many students studied English for years but never interacted with a native speaker.
"Over the past two weeks our ministry has really begun," I wrote in a letter home, dated September 27. "Every Friday our team hosts an American movie club where we watch and discuss an American film. Mondays we have an English discussion group where students practice English and discuss important life issues. Over 100 students attended our first two English clubs."
These groups became gathering places. From there, we spent hours building relationships with our new friends -- drinking tea, teaching them ultimate Frisbee and exploring the city. We quickly learned who would talk about spiritual things.
Natasha was one of those girls. One evening she came to my room -- in a dorm on campus where I lived with some of my teammates -- to have dinner. Afterward Natasha spotted my guitar leaning against the wall and asked me to play. Since I only knew Christian songs, this launched us into a spiritual conversation.
She was fascinated by our worship. The Russian Orthodox Church -- home to Natasha's spiritual roots -- believes in the "otherness" of God. Yet we were singing to a God we knew personally. This was the first of many conversations with Natasha about God and the Bible.
In February, Natasha was one of 12 spiritually interested students we took to a Cru conference in St. Petersburg, a 48-hour train ride away from Krasnodar. On February 11, I wrote in another letter home, "The time at the Winter Student Conference was possibly the best week yet of my year. Our students heard biblical talks and worshiped God -- all in Russian! It was fun to see my friends grasp things we haven't been able to communicate with them because of the language barrier."
At the weeklong conference, the students were trained in evangelism using a Cru staple: the Four Spiritual Laws booklet. While learning how to use it, Natasha prayed and received Christ. Although God had allowed us to bring her this far, it was interacting with Russian believers that led Natasha to truly understand her need for Christ. She and the others returned home with a newfound passion to tell others on their campus about Christ.
"This evening our newly formed Christian student group, made up mostly of students who went to the conference, met in the dorms," I wrote in an e-mail to my parents on February 28. "It was encouraging to see how excited they are to be part of the group. As I looked around, I realized that of the nine students there, five were new Christians."
Natasha and I spent hours together over the next few months. We studied the Bible together, she helped me with my Russian and we talked about life. I taught her what I could but realized my time was running out.
At the end of June, Natasha attended an outdoor leadership camp for Christian and non-Christian students. "This weekend I realized my time here is done," I wrote in my last letter home, dated July 2. "Natasha knows what she needs to share her faith with her Russian friends. She will be the one to give hope to the next generation of students in Russia."
I left my yearlong home on July 13, 2002, not knowing what would happen to the ministry. But two and one-half years later, 25 believing Russian students carry on the work. I watched the sun come up that first day from my train window, and I watched the sun set. But the day's just beginning for many students in Krasnodar.