Eastern Europe's New Leader

Marek Wyrzykowski journeys from Polish student to ministry leader in Eastern Europe.

Bill Sundstrom

The time had come to let Marek in on the secret. The Polish engineering student had met a winsome young woman named Ala. He wanted to spend more time with her, but an American, Larry Thompson, kept asking her to do things. Larry’s plans got in the way of Marek’s intentions, so the young believer approached the American.

“You need to keep your nose out of other people’s business!” Marek brashly declared.

So Larry revealed the secret to Marek Wyrzykowski (Vizh-i-KO F-ski) -- Ala actually worked for an international Christian organization, and Larry was the national director. However, in Communist-controlled Poland of 1984, affiliation with a Western organization would be dangerous, so this group, Cru, could not work openly.

Marek, outgoing and mischievous, had become a believer just a few months earlier, after someone introduced him to two men -- a Syrian and a Pole -- leading Bible studies in their Warsaw dorm.

Marek went to a study on the Gospel of John, and by the fourth study, was ready to give his life to Christ.

That turned out to be Marek’s first step down a path that led to him becoming the first Eastern European to lead Cru in the countries of the former Soviet Union. His deep understanding of the culture, along with his optimistic personality and collaborative leadership style, equip him well for this task.

A second step took place when Marek learned to explain the gospel to others and discovered that people really wanted to know about God.

Those were the days of the trade union, Solidarity, and the Communist government was more concerned about political opposition than spiritual movements. Cru, known on campus as just a student group, had freedom to explain the gospel in the university.

“There were informers, but we didn’t know how many,” says Ala. “At first, we didn’t know how people would respond to us going door-to-door. So we just said we would begin doing it and see what happened. Nobody ever stopped us.”

“I wouldn’t call it freedom,” Marek breaks in. “I would call it not being bothered. We knew the authorities could act at any moment.”

Nevertheless, Marek’s leadership skills blossomed. “Leadership comes natural to me,” he says, “but I didn’t notice it until after I became a believer. I wasn’t aware of it before, maybe, because those were communist times, and people tried not to stand out. Everybody knew that the piece of grass standing taller than the rest got cut down first.”

“In Communist times,” explains Gabor Grész, Cru leader in Hungary, “the system did not support raising up leaders. They would say, ‘You are stupid, you cannot do this, we will tell you how to live.’” As a result, Gabor says, leadership development in former Communist countries takes a long time.

The next step in Marek and Ala’s journey was marriage. Marek wanted to work full time with Cru, but one had to be invited back then due to security reasons, and the invitation did not come. So the young couple began a family and became involved in an evangelical church while Marek worked.

“I like to say I was the first to join [Cru] staff,” breaks in Ala with a laugh, “and the first to leave. Then I was the first to come back!”

In 1990, as the walls of communism were falling, Marek was finally invited to join the ministry. He knew he’d been considered 4 times before, but each time was not invited. “This has taught me humility,” he says calmly.

It didn’t affect his confidence, though. Marek likes to win. “I’ll spot you 7 points and play left-handed,” he said recently, while playing ping pong with a visitor. “And I’ll still beat you!” But even as he spoke, Marek had a twinkle in his eye and wore a playful grin.

He has the same confident outlook on ministry. “Marek looks at reality and sees possibilities, not obstacles,” says Henryk Piechota, Polish staff member. “He often says, ‘We can do this!’”

This spirit has served Marek well this year, as he and Ala have taken up the reins of leadership in Eastern Europe and Russia -- a region with more than 1,000 staff members and Cru ministries in 20 countries.

“[An Eastern European in leadership] is a great sign of maturity for our movement,” says Ylli Doci, Cru director for Albania. “It’s also a sign of maturity for us as Christians.”

Most Eastern European countries, Ylli explains, have had problems with nearly every other country, and the ghosts of the past come up in unexpected ways. “We would be more suspicious of another Eastern European, and it’s easier to have an American unite us. An Eastern European director shows we can overcome cultural handicaps that we inherit.”

When Cru first carried the message of Christ behind the Iron Curtain, the path to national leadership seemed long. Yet that has always been the plan.

“We build our leadership from scratch,” explains Brian Birdsall, a long-time Cru missionary in Ukraine. “We start with a lost student who becomes a Christian. When that student shares the Four Spiritual Laws booklet for the first time, he has moved one step along in indigenization. There may come a time when that student has the maturity and skills to be a campus director, then a national director. And as he rises through the ranks, he has full identification with Cru methods, materials and ministry values.”

Marek and Ala have been walking that path from the earliest days. Not only does Marek embody Cru’s conviction that local people are best suited to lead the ministry in their countries, but his life also proves that Cru’s strategy works, even in the atheistic countries of the former Soviet bloc.

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