A Church Gets Moving
M o s c o w – A major bike tour is finally over. On the evening of 3 September in the Moscow offices of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist” (RUECB), many of those who participated in the transcontinental bike expedition “The Gospel to the Peoples of the World” gathered to celebrate its completion. The tour had started in Varel, Germany on 13 May and ended as scheduled on 2 September in Vladivostok. Anyone wanting, as this group did, to scoop water from the North Sea near Varel and deposit it into the Pacific at Vladivostok, now knows exactly how many kilometres need to be covered: 14.711 (9.102 miles).
Even the eight cyclists’ nine-hour flight from Vladivostok back to Moscow on 3 September was tiresome. Vladivostok is located seven time zones (or hours) ahead of Moscow – or nine zones ahead of Germany. Transporting the bikes back to Moscow in the two acoompanying, motorised vehicles will take between 10 and 14 days.
Heat and cold played a part on the tour. Siberia offered temperatures as high as 40 Centigrade (104 Fahrenheit) and swarms of flies. West of Kassel, Germany on 16 May, the thermometre dropped to 8 Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) with a cold rain. But probably the dust clouds in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East were the most trying. On incompleted, rough gravel roads, the cyclists achieved only a little over 100 kilometres (62 miles) per day. The best performance for a single day lay far to the west: 318 km (196 miles). Daily riding distances of 250 km (154 miles) were common.
Four stages with four teams of riders were planned. Yet only one of 31 total riders stayed in the saddle for the entire distance from Varel to Vladivostok: the 50-year-old church deacon and father of 10, Vladimir Skovpen (Klintsy near Briansk). He was the USSR`s national cycling champion in 1980. There would have been two, but German officials had in their wisdom denied entry visas to all participants with Ukrainian passports. The hearing-impaired Moscow Baptist Victor Kabachevski was therefore forced to begin his tour on the Belarus border in Briest. At the closing Moscow festivities on 3 September, this athlete still appeared vigourous. The dentist Levon Sarkisov (Krasnodar) was also along for the entire distance from Varel to Vladivostok, but he occasionally needed to spend time recovering in an accompanying vehicle.
Yet the people contacts – and not the atheletic performances - stood at the centre of this missionary expedition. As many as 500 persons attended the events scheduled for most every evening. Once the children`s team had 100 children to deal with. Moscow pastor Alexei Markevich, who was along for a portion of the 4th stage, reports: “We were a well-coordinated team. Each person had specific responsibilities: music, preaching, children`s hour, sound, logistics. It functioned very well.” Even the composers had their day: A song about the tour was composed and sung on the way.
Finding lodging for the group was no easy endeavour in Poland and Germany. Yet two days before Chita in Eastern Siberia, the expedition was hosted by a congregation featuring a total membership of 1. Markevich reports that even then the group had plenty to eat and everyone was offered a place to sleep.
“Our church is up and moving,” concluded Valery Pashkovetz, one-time military pilot and current pastor of the Kaluga congregation, at the Moscow festivities. “Until now we have been lethargic, living isolated from the world. But now we are getting up out of our couches and moving out into the streets.” Not only did Pashkovetz peddle the entire first stage from Varel to Briansk in Western Russia, he afterward organised along with 33 persons from his congregation (16 of them on bicycles) a 10-day tour through the villages of his region. During this summer, bike tours took place in 32 of the Russian Baptist Union`s 52 church districts. Next summer, all 52 should be involved.
That is in any case the intention of Leonid Kartavenko (Moscow), Director of Home Missions and spiritual head of the cycling movement, now into its third year. He concluded: “One has many more possibilities for conversation when sitting on top of a bicycle. We get a very different kind of access to people. The uninvolved young person standing off to the side is forced to provide himself with an answer: “They are believers and ride bicycles. I am an unbeliever and I drink. Why am I not out riding?”
Valery Pashkovetz adds: „You can`t start out cold turkey with God and heaven. That`s too much for the listener. But sport, health and sustance abuse – almost everybody knows something about that. That creates an immediate bridge to people – especially to youth. Young people can`t imagine owning a car, but bicycles are something much more attainable.” The arrival of expedition members in the early years in motorised vehicles was interpreted much more readily as agitation and was of interest - if to anyone - only to adults.
After countless conversations with government authorities this summer, Kartavenko is convinced they should be regarded as allies. “We held our meetings on the central market place. And the local authorities almost always helped us organise things – for free. We have the impression that the government authorities suffer from the sorry state of their people. How can one provide people with a positive future? We are seen as strong and healthy people capable of helping Russia overcome its crisis. We can give people hope for the future. The government is not against us. There are only certain religious interest groups wanting to turn the state on us. Official religion is attempting to damage us through government channels.”
Besides pouring water into the Pacific on 2 September, the invitation of the Vladivostok region’s Vice-Minister for Youth and Sport is regarded as a second glowing finale for the tour. On that day he had approached the region`s leading Baptist pastor with the request that a joint Baptist-government tour back to Moscow be organised for next summer. Back in Moscow a pleased Kartavenko responded. “That`s something very new for us – that the government would request a favour from us!”
An initial Orthodox cycle tour took place in August in region of Belgorod. It was financed by the regions`s youth ministry.
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 4 September 2007
A press release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #07-31, 1.040 words.