Ministry in Moscow: Ups and Downs (But Mostly Ups)
Published on 09/22/2016 |
It was a routine Sunday in Eastern Pennsylvania, September, 1991. We had this large lawn to mow and weeds to pull; that was to be our day. Then the phone rang. It was Elder Neil Wilson, the General Conference President, calling to ask if we would consider moving to Moscow, Russia, for a couple of years to begin a medical work there. The General Conference had obtained an old kindergarten building to house the clinic. I am a physician with a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) specialty, which the Russian government was very interested in exploring. They had very limited rehabilitation in their country and wanted to know more about it.
But the clinic would be a “poly” clinic, not just PM&R; the Russians also wanted Western Dentistry and Health Education. Thus the question to me was this: Would I be willing to take my family to Moscow and be the physician and administrator of this clinic, which didn’t technically exist at that moment?
I had 10 days to decide.
Now, I don’t usually make fast decisions, especially of this import. My wife’s decision though was instant: “This is from the Lord. It fits us and our education!”
We had just made the last payment on the mortgage after building our new home. We couldn’t have said “Yes” if the call had come even six months earlier (mission work generally does not pay mortgages on new homes). The Lord knew exactly where we were financially, and let us enjoy our new house for about three years, until it was paid off and the landscaping and last details were finished. We never lived in it again.
We arrived in Moscow with our two children, ten-year-old Kristy and eleven-year-old David, in early February, 1992. The USSR at this point was still a mission, not a division, so the only SDA foreign missionaries before us were Chuck and Charlotte Bowman, who had come two weeks earlier to work on reconstruction of the kindergarten building that was to become the clinic.
Upon arrival in Moscow, we were officially welcomed by our government appointed joint venture partner, Victor Zukov (the Russians insisted on a “joint venture partner”). At this stage of the USSR’s transition to a new form of government, we had no choice in the matter, though in time we were able to break that partnership. We did, though, experience the truth that you can never go against God’s Word (in this case, “do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers”), without paying a high price. Victor Zukov ushered us into our sixth floor apartment with great aplomb. Our hearts sank when we saw the tiny apartment. But it was sufficient, and we thanked the Lord for providing for us in this gray, wintery land.
From the beginning, life was a challenge, but nothing the Lord couldn’t handle. Missionaries from other denominations were regularly amazed that the relatively small SDA church was getting a foothold across the spectrum of our work so quickly: simultaneously a seminary, publishing house, medical/dental clinic, and hundreds of church buildings were being constructed, as well as conducting hundreds of evangelist efforts per year, and the building of a rapidly growing educational work. The Adventist Health Center was operating two years ahead of any other medical or dental clinic’s arrival.
I can’t take credit for it; it’s the way the Lord has set up our church organization. During the first year we made friends with a Church of the Nazarene pastor, Dr. Hill. Our children were approximately the same ages, and we got together to visit. Hill wanted to know everything about how “I” did it. But I didn’t do it; it’s the church working together within its structural plan with the Lord’s blessing.
Prior to coming to the Soviet Union (USSR), I had been a somewhat independent, self-reliant physician. I had even found myself doubting the workings of the church organization at times. My experience seeing the united efforts and spirit of the General Conference, Loma Linda University, and individual members from around the world working together put to rest any doubts I ever had as to the God-inspired structure and workings of our church.
During more than two years there, we were the most visible, most known, and the only Western dentistry in the USSR. If you couldn’t get in with us, you had to fly to Germany, England or the U.S.A. Upon opening our clinic doors, we immediately had a six month waiting list to see one of our dentists. We even had the clinic open deep into the night so mafia men could come privately for dental work.
As Russia was coming out of communism, the people were not accustomed to paying for services rendered. The 13 local Seventh-day Adventist churches assumed that, because they were Adventists, our clinic would be free to them. After all, why have a church clinic if it isn’t there to serve you and yours?
Upon our arrival the large churches asked me to speak and share my purpose and what services I had available for them. I had already picked up that they expected us to serve them first, and for free—but our clinic was a mission to the community and had to pay its own way. It was not set up to be a free service for church members. A dear Russian summed up her perspective of us, looking us scornfully in the eyes, throwing her head back, and snorting: “You are capitalists!”
It was not a compliment. Our goal was not to be capitalists, but to share Jesus, yet we still had to make enough money so we could keep the doors open. We wanted to help those people, who had absolutely no chance of dental care, any time. We wanted a chance to love these people, to give them hope of a better way. The wealthy may also need us at times, but the poor were so downtrodden.
Building the clinic up was slow and challenging. I would check on the reconstruction of the kindergarten into the clinic-to-be. I would go there to find that my dress shoes could actually kick the newly-poured concrete and it became gravel. The electrical outlets would regularly blow up in black soot. (The building was cement, so there was no fire hazard, at least so we were told). We replaced the concrete and rewired the building. The workmanship quality wasn’t the only challenge; our joint venture partner was married to a Russian dentist and—when they caught a glimpse of our “latest,” top of the line dental chairs and equipment—the battle to steal our clinic became close to warfare.
The challenges were endless, but God’s grace always topped them, even if we openly acknowledge that there were agonizing times. We worked and lived in Moscow for four and a half years, building up the Adventist Health Center. Our Russian Adventist people were so proud of it. Some would come in from another city or country and want to take a tour of “their” Adventist clinic. These were the older men and women who had fought the good fight of faith most of their lives and were so pleased to be alive to see an Adventist clinic, as well as an Adventist publishing house and college. We never tired of taking them on a tour of their impossible dreams come true.
The dental portion of the clinic was an instant hit. Everyone knew what dentistry was, though most hadn’t seen a dentist in their lives. The challenge was that we had four dental chairs, one Western dentist (usually), two to three Russian dentists in training, and about 12 million people in the Moscow region who needed a dentist. And, as previously stated, the 13 SDA churches felt their members should get first priority with complete reconstruction of their mouths for free. Then we had the head of the local prefect (the district within the city in which we were located; similar to counties in the USA) who demanded that she and her friends, and the local poor, should get their mouths fixed for free because of our location in her prefect. Then there were our “friends.” In the Russian culture, friends take care of their friends; it is not a light obligation and it works two ways. After much prayer and calculating, I came up with a formula to assist churches, prefectures, “friends” and yet still accomplish our mission: 20% paid full American prices, 20% were free, and 60% paid the very discounted Russian prices, which the average person could afford.
My medical portion of the clinic, the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, would have gone just fine except for one detail: Russians had no health insurance at the time. Thus, everything was in cash. They like massage, injections, and physical therapy, but they didn’t have cash for that kind of long-term treatment. But they did have enough money for a dental crisis. We started out well and had two great physical therapists to work with, but the interest in PM&R faded as the years went by because so few could pay for long term care and we couldn’t do everything for free.
The Health Education Department translated a lot of health materials, provided health talks for many of the evangelistic meetings, wrote the first vegetarian cookbook for the Adventist people, and conducted the first vegetarian cooking school there. But, again, these activities do not generally bring in money. It was the dental department that generated the money and kept the entire “polyclinic” going.
We had a wonderful team of mostly enthusiastic, high-energy young people eager to learn. We wanted the Russian people to consider the clinic as theirs, even if Americans were running it. We started an International Church within the clinic on Sabbaths, and let the young people hold meetings and parties in the clinic on Saturday nights. The first of the 13 churches in Moscow was a Baptist church that our Russian leaders had rented for many years. The 12 “newer” churches were generally in theaters. You would go past video games and loud music into a cold theater (at that time most of our churches couldn’t afford to pay for heat). We dressed warmly. Thus, at the time, our clinic was pretty much the only space our church had for meetings outside of church. This was their clinic; we were simply getting it going.
The time came when my life became largely administrating a dental clinic and health education department; it was a full time challenge and certainly not what I was trained for or what I thought God wanted me to do for the rest of my life. Our children were in, or headed into, high school and we felt it was time to take them home.
Leaving Russia was difficult. My immediate replacement was temporary—who ultimately would take it over? Would they empty the $180,000 that I had saved so carefully? Would they waste it? Would they see the incredible gift God gave for witnessing through the clinic? We couldn’t measure our baptisms in the way you can with evangelistic series, but we know of many hearts that were thrilled to hear God loved them. And to know that they didn’t have to pay a priest to pray for them, but that they could talk to Jesus for themselves, directly. This was a truth that, truly, touched them.
Ultimately, the clinic was closed after 14 years of serving the community. It seemed a tragic and unnecessary closure. It took me a while to figure how to live with all “my” efforts being dumped.
But that is, again, the beauty of the Lord. It was totally His clinic and His power that got it up and going, and it was His power that kept it going. Take a look at Paul in the Scriptures; aside from his letters, what do we have of all that Paul did with and for the Lord? Do we have any church buildings, organizations or congregations? We do the work that is set before us, and as the Lord wills. He sees a much larger picture, and I can live with that. God is still omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. And I am thankful for the minute in time when God used our family in a special way in this clinic in Moscow.
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