by Bettina Krause
One family followed God’s call to retreat from the city. To their surprise, He then gave them a mission to return and pioneer a ministry that’s focused on building trust and meeting the needs of busy Russian urbanites who have little interest in the Advent message.
Tver, Russian Federation
If you make the nine-hour car journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg on Russia’s M10 highway, you’ll drive past the city of Tver, just 150 kilometers north of Moscow. This city of almost half a million people spreads out from the banks of the leisurely flowing Volga and Tvertsa rivers, which converge here. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings mix with Soviet-era architecture, and the streets of this thriving administrative center are busy with traffic and pedestrians. If you follow the signs to the city center and drive along one of its main thoroughfares, you may come across a small shop, surrounded by office buildings, with a sign displaying its name: Garden of Eden.
More than one thousand people each month—many of them workers from the nearby offices—open the door to the Garden of Eden and walk inside. They may be looking for information about improving their diet or searching for some natural remedies. They may just want to browse the shelves of vegetarian food and diabetic products or look through the store’s selection of books.
This downtown Garden of Eden store is one of two healthful living shops in Tver that are operated by members of the nearby Emmaus Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the words of Valeri Zhinov’ev, leader of the Garden of Eden project, each store is a “lighthouse” of hope in this difficult urban mission field.
The city of Tver holds a fascinating place in Russia’s rich literary heritage. More than 200 years ago, author Alexander Radischev wrote A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, a book that traced an imaginary journey between these two cities. Radischev presented various stories—allegories—set in the towns and villages along the route to Moscow, and he devoted one chapter to Tver. His goal? To expose the political corruption and social ills he saw within contemporary Russian society. Radischev’s book catapulted him to fame, but it was probably not the kind of attention he wanted. Catherine the Great, the reigning empress of Russia, had Radischev arrested for treason, and he was sentenced to death, a punishment that was later lightened to eight years’ exile in Siberia.
Catherine was correct in sensing the potentially revolutionary impact of Radischev’s book. In the chapter set in the city of Tver, Radischev includes an “Ode to Liberty,” which through the years has inspired generations of revolutionaries, not just in Russia but in many other countries as well.
Today in Tver and across Russia, people still have the same age-old desire for a life of purpose and fulfillment, according to Victor Kozakov, Adventist Mission director for the Adventist Church in the Euro-Asia Division. And yet sharing Christ’s ultimate gift of liberty—freedom from sin and hopelessness—is not easy in the urban centers of Russia.
“In many Russian cities, people are quite secular, and they don’t show any particular interest in spiritual issues,” says Kozakov. Paradoxically, many also consider themselves to be Russian Orthodox believers—a label that carries a vast cultural and historical weight for most Russians. It’s the faith of their parents, the faith of their nation, and it’s an integral part of their self-identity as Russians.
And yet, for the vast majority, their faith is nominal. “They know very little or nothing about Christianity,” says Kozakov.
A related challenge is the Adventist Church’s often negative public image. If the church is thought of at all by ordinary Russians, it’s as a “foreign sect”—an unknown, unfamiliar organization that one would probably do well to avoid.
This alone can be a formidable barrier for any form of urban ministry, explains Kozakov.
Kozakov also identifies more practical challenges. The availability of vast quantities of information online or on television means that Russians are now far less likely to leave their homes of an evening to attend health lectures or meetings that, in times past, have been such a key element of traditional evangelistic methods. As Kozakov points out, why should people go to so much effort to seek information when they have many more electronic resources at their fingertips?
A personal spiritual quest
These are some of the daunting obstacles to mission that Adventist Church member Valeri Zhinov’ev has often pondered. Prior to 2012, Valeri, his wife and their three children lived in Tver, and he describes their life then as similar to any “average church member.”
“Work, family, Sabbath. But my heart was not fully satisfied, there was a feeling of emptiness,” he says.
Valeri, a successful businessman, felt pressured to be always on the move, to “catch up to something,” yet when he achieved each goal he felt no satisfaction. There was always a new goal to chase, and so the cycle continued.
Ironically, Valeri’s path toward urban mission work began when he and his wife decided to move out of the city. In 2011, they began to study Ellen White’s writings and other spiritual books, which strengthened their long-held desire to move from Tver into the nearby countryside. They were motivated by the hope that they could break the pattern of endless goal-chasing, spend more time in nature, and experience more fully a sense of the Lord’s presence. They teamed up with some fellow church members and searched for a piece of land, finally purchasing 40 hectares of property on the banks of the Orsha River, about 20 kilometers from Tver.
But Valeri was still searching for God’s purpose for him. For a short time, he and his wife attended a medical missionary school in Novye Obihody in Ukraine, and on returning to Tver they decided to leave secular employment and dedicate their lives to ministry. In 2013, they returned to Obihody with their three children for a six-month program.
Here, everything changed for Valeri and his family. He developed friendships with many people who, in his words, “don’t live by the principles of this world”—whose goals don’t include buying an apartment or owning a car and mobile phone.
“I don’t mean that we don’t need this, but it all has very little value in the end,” says Valeri. “However, if you start to live instead for others’ happiness, it will give you indescribable joy.”
Spiritual revival—for mission
On returning to their home outside Tver, Valeri and his family continued to pray and ask for God’s guidance. They came up with the idea of holding a camp meeting on their property as a way of seeking spiritual revival for the church in the Tver area.
“It’s important, like the people of Israel during the Feast of the Tabernacles, to leave our work and gather in nature for a few days to listen to spiritual instruction and think about our life and ministry.” At this gathering they met someone who invited them to a meeting in Krasny Mak in the Crimean mountains to learn about “health food ministry.” They went, even though they thought it might be a waste of time.
But it was here that Valeri and his wife first began to understand that the Lord had called them out of the city to prepare them for a special mission—one that would take them right back to where they began.
In Krasny Mak, Valeri met Alexey and Veronica Lubsky, a family from the town of Pyatigorsk, located more than 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles) from Tver in the mountainous Caucasus region of southern Russia. Alexey and Veronica had opened a health store in Pyatigorsk a few years earlier. “Would you help us if we decided to open a store in Tver?” asked Valeri. The couple agreed, and the Garden of Eden project was born. Valeri’s first step was to take his idea to the leaders of his local congregation near Tver, the Emmaus Adventist church.
The Emmaus church, established in 1997, is a growing, active congregation. When church pastor Stanislav Petrovich Bazilo arrived in 2011, there were 15 members. Today, the church has a membership of 45, but about 60 people attend worship each Sabbath morning. “We also have many children in our congregation,” says Bazilo. “We don’t have enough space in our church building.”
Bazilo describes his church members as very missionary minded. The members organize the distribution of an Adventist newspaper to surrounding towns and villages, and the church’s Pathfinder club takes on various outreach projects, such as health exhibitions or community cleanup days.
But until Valeri came to them with his idea for a health food store, the church lacked any permanent ministry presence in the nearby city of Tver.
The Emmaus church was immediately supportive of Valeri’s plan—in fact, the entire congregation voted to officially adopt the ministry.
Finding God’s plan
The first hurdle was locating suitable premises—not a simple proposition given the tight budget and the need to be in a central, and thus more expensive, location.
A frustrating search followed. “All that was offered to us was very expensive or wasn’t the right size,” recalls Valeri. One morning during worship, Valeri was reading from Proverbs and was struck by the counsel in chapter 24, verse 6: “Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers” (NIV).
He spoke first to a church elder, who advised Valeri to adjust his plans and accept a smaller store space, but Valeri found the idea of downsizing his dream difficult to accept. Later that day, Alexey from Pyatigorsk called Valeri to see how the search for a premises was going. He, too, suggested Valeri find a smaller, less expensive place to rent.
“I realized that the Lord had talked to me through two people, telling me the same thing,” says Valeri.
Still, Valeri talked to one more person—someone who had promised to support the ministry financially. This man pointed Valeri to Ellen White’s counsel that sometimes ministries need to start small.
The next day, Valeri was shown premises on a main street near the center of town in an area with office buildings and near a Russian Orthodox chapel. It was a small space but well located, and Valeri did not have to think long before signing a rental agreement.
Immediately, the Emmaus congregation moved into action, helping fit out the shop with Russian-style wooden shelves and counters, sourcing products and negotiating supply contracts, helping sew aprons for shop servers, and filling shelves with goods. Even Valeri’s children helped by packing products and sticking on labels and Bible verses. Valeri’s friends, Alexey and Veronica, made the 20-hour car trip from Pyatigorsk, their car filled to overflowing with products from their own health store. Within a week, the Garden of Eden store was ready to open its doors.
“Afraid” of Adventists no more
The store has been operating for only a short time—it opened on October 26, 2014—but already it is making its presence felt in the community.
“We have good communication with the people who come into the store, and distribute many Adventist newspapers and books,” says Valeri. “Many people come into the store just to take a newspaper or to talk.”
“I can see that many people, as they get to know our shop assistants, are not afraid of the word Adventist anymore,” adds Valeri. “They see that we are not fanatic but that we understand their needs.
“These people become more open when they realize we’re not trying just to sell something or tell them about our doctrines, but we care about them.”
Valeri says that the time will come when it’s right to invite them to church, but not yet.
For now, he says, “they are not afraid to come to talk to us.” A seemingly small thing, but, in the context of urban mission in Russia, it’s a momentous step forward.
A needs-focused ministry
Within just a few months, the Emmaus church opened a second Garden of Eden store in Tver, this one in a residential district, and a church elder, Sergei Kirillov, became its manager. The second store attracts a different type of customer—mainly workers and pensioners who enjoy coming by to talk or browse the shelves. On average, between 800 and 1,400 people visit each store every month.
The Russian Orthodox chapel near the original Garden of Eden store has also become an unexpected source of customers. The Orthodox tradition calls for fasts on certain weekdays and throughout the liturgical calendar, when eating meat, fish, dairy, and eggs is forbidden. Valeri says that some people from the Orthodox fellowship came to the store and decided to advertise the store among their members. They went even further, entering details about the Garden of Eden in a local information service for the wider community.
Since beginning this ministry, Valeri and his team have been constantly learning and adapting.
“One day a woman wanted to buy a book in our store but couldn’t afford it,” says Valeri. “The next day, two brothers from our church, who have their own businesses, came to the store and asked us how the book selling was going.” Valeri explained the problem—it wasn’t that customers weren’t interested, but many simply didn’t have an income that allowed them to buy many books.
The two businessmen came up with a solution. They offered to provide money to cover most of the books’ cost, allowing the store to offer the books at a vastly reduced price.
Valeri has noticed, also, that many customers treat the store like a pharmacy and come in simply to get diet or remedy advice from the sales assistants. He says that if they could open an associated health room, it would spark a “revolution in the ministry.” Even further down the track, he sees the possibility of opening a vegetarian café.
Victor Kozakov, the Adventist Mission director, sees tremendous potential in the ministry that Valeri and the Emmaus church have started in Tver, as well as other similar ventures around the Division. Early in 2015, a healthy living store called The Fig Tree opened in St. Petersburg, with a second store set to open soon in a different district of the city.
“A healthy food store is a ministry that responds to people’s needs,” says Kozakov. He also says it builds on issues of growing interest for many people in Russian cities—good nutrition and building a healthy lifestyle. He points out that traditional means of offering this information, in seminars or special programs, has lost much appeal for city dwellers. But the opportunity to come and buy inexpensive, healthy food and to talk with knowledgeable sales assistants is intriguing for many people.
“Through such stores we not only give valuable information to people but we also show them how to apply these principles in real life,” explains Kozakov. “When they talk with staff, customers see that these are not just regular food stores but that the staff are committed to giving practical help to every customer.”
Creating a Non-Threatening Space for Mission in the City
Lessons from the front lines of urban mission
- Listen for God’s leading. Listen and follow, no matter where it takes you. Sometimes you need to retreat from the city to gain spiritual insights and strength for urban ministry.
- Lean on fellow believers. Depend on the knowledge and support of fellow believers who are also engaged in urban outreach. Through them, you can be inspired with new ideas and draw on a wealth of experience-based lessons for reaching the cities for Christ.
- Engage local churches. Sometimes, the crucial first step in an urban outreach project is engaging local Adventist churches. They are your invaluable partners in mission, but at first, some may need extra time to catch a vision for where the Holy Spirit is leading.
- Learn and adapt as you go along. Be prepared to let go of some of your assumptions about how your ministry should look. Trust the Lord to lead.