Interview with a Long-Time Church Worker in Eastern Europe: Harley Wagler

Emphasizing the First 15 Centuries of Church History


L a d u s h k i n / P a r t r i d g e -- After turning 80, the Mennonite Slavist and church worker Harley Wagler left Russia and moved back permanently to his hometown of Partridge/Kansas in late September 2021. He had been working in Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga since 1993.


Harley had left the Amish church, the church into which he had been born, at age 20. He had been baptised in that church several years previous. He began alternative (non-military) service in Costa Rica in 1962, then restarted his foreign church service in Yugoslavia eight years later. He moved on to Bulgaria in 1979.


Then, after extended periods in the States, he began to serve in Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga in 1993. He worked there as director of the Russian Studies Program run by the “Council for Christian Colleges and Universities” for exchange students from North America. After the CCCU closed shop, he began serving as a lecturer at Lobachevsky State University in 2011.


I posed these questions to Harley in writing and he responded likewise. I chose not to abbreviate – may this treatise be a testament to his many decades of study and toil.

Harley, you were brought up in the Amish church. Do you believe this helped awaken your interest in Eastern Europe? How about the trips of your Amish father, Raymond Wagler? I know you have a brother who served for many years in the Middle East.


Ironically, my Amish upbringing fostered an early interest in Eastern Europe. My Dad's cousin, Joseph Overholt, visited us in Kansas when I was seven years old. I remember sitting on the living room couch in the light of a kerosene lamp, transfixed as he told us about standing on a huge square, facing an ominous red brick wall, fronted by a large stone structure that held the dead body of a leader named Lenin who had tried to wipe out all vestiges of religion in the country. As he stood on that square, Joe gripped a Bible in his hands and prayed that the people of that country would be allowed to find God. That's the first time I recall hearing the words "Russia" and "atheism". Joe wasn't Amish, since as a Conservative Mennonite he drove a car, but my parents treated him with great respect.


Later that year my grandfather Peter Wagler was visited by Peter Deyneka Sr. (1897-1987) from Chicago, and on Saturday evening the visitor drove over to our place. I had to sleep in the haymow (a delightful adventure for me) so that Peter could sleep in my bedroom. The next day Deyneka went to the Amish service with us in the horse and buggy, and I still remember his conversation - even as we were driving along the gravel road with the buggy rims cutting a ribbon in the sand - stories about persecuted Christians in the land of his birth. I later discovered that this was Belarus, but at that time the term was "Russia". That weekend I learned more about the persecution of Christians and how Deyneka was working to spread the Gospel in the Soviet Union. This squat little bundle of energy fitted in nicely with our family, enjoying the food and praying with an enthusiasm that was a bit unconventional for staid Amish people. But he loved how the Amish knelt for prayer during family worship and in church services. He headed an organization called "Slavic Gospel Association" and years later I found myself cooperating with this selfsame organization.


My father Raymond (1913-1980), along with his brother Willie, made quite a splash in the Amish world in 1937 when they embarked on a trip "around the world", having saved money from their farmland for a year. They sent weekly letters to “The Sugarcreek Budget” to document their travels to Europe and the Holy Lands; these letters were later published as a booklet. They ran out of money in the Middle East, so they were forced to return before achieving their initial goals. This venture, I suppose, reflects something of the adventuresome Wagler spirit.


You initially began as a church worker in Latin America in 1962. Why did you switch to Eastern Europe? Must Mennonite workers in Latin America remained in that region.


I worked in Costa Rica with Conservative Mennonite Conference (presently Rosedale Mennonite Mission) as an alternative to mandatory military service. Those fruitful two years were formative inasmuch as we lived in a foreign culture, spoke another language, and were separated from the comforts of Amish domesticity. But we served in an agricultural setting, quite far removed from the cultural and intellectual challenges of artistic literature where my heart really resided. Colleagues from the English language classes gave me copies of Cervantes and Miguel de Unamuno, which made a great impression on me, and I had a full collection of Shakespeare's plays on my bookshelf. But I could never forget the impact of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," which I had first read when I was fourteen years old.


So later in life, when I pursued higher education, I chose literature and philosophy as majors, and exposure to Spanish, German and Russian literature unquestionably helped shape my spiritual biography. 


You were the first North American Mennonite, I believe, sent to Eastern Europe as a fraternal worker in 1970. (The Anabaptist “Church of the Brethren” did have workers in Poland in the 1960s.) What was unique about that approach taken by North American Mennos? What of it still rings true today – what remains of lasting importance?


Prior to 1970, “Mennonite Central Committee” had a few workers in Yugoslavia; this in addition to the workers in Poland you mentioned. I heard passing references to the workers in Yugoslavia, but since I was in a different geographical area, I had little knowledge of their activities.


The late Paul Kraybill, from “Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities”, invited me to his office to set out my vision for possible church work in the socialist-bloc countries. It's important to understand the context in the 1960s and 1970s, when numerous missions sprouted up. Cold War rhetoric prevailed and people assumed Communism equalled atheism and few policy-makers considered the role of culture when they were shaping foreign policy. Even in elite academic circles, too few foreign policy experts listened to the genius of George Kennan, who decades earlier had proposed a policy based on soft containment and genuine mutual respect. 


Terms such as "Underground Evangelism," "God's Smuggler," and later, "The Persecutor," pretty much defined mission strategy at that time. My Amish sensibilities found abrasive the in-your-face directness and arrogance and the indifference to historical and cultural realities that characterized many missions. Cloak-and-dagger drama prevailed over the quiet contentment of holiness in daily life.


These were the principles I proposed:


--We will not establish new churches in the "resistant" countries, but will identify with an existing local congregation, making clear at the outset that we will submit to the discipline of that group. Our agenda will be determined by the local Christians, not a foreign institution.


--Our presence will be incarnational, and we will share our spiritual journey with local residents. The lure of dramatic adventure attracted many mission groups, but the tool box for daily living is more complex than lug wrenches and screwdrivers to open secret compartments in vehicles.


--We will establish legitimacy by offering services that genuinely benefit society. Our passports will never become an expeditious tool.


--We will obey the laws of the host country and seek to learn from the local culture. People in Slavic cultures have a keen nose for hypocrisy, so our lives must correspond to our words. Socialist countries demonstrate all too well the corrosive effects of government corruption and hypocrisy.


--Ask ourselves daily: What are the consequences of our activities for the local congregation 20 years down the road?


--Come with an attitude of learning and openness. Don't overlook the shortcomings of socialism; seek to analyze social events with a critical but understanding eye. Learn the language. (Early on I studied authors like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Dimitrov, Djilas; in fact, I determined to become more of an expert on Marxist philosophy than Communist Party members themselves). Select some aspect of the culture - hospitality, music, art, theater, literature, handicrafts - that attracts you and enhances your love for the people. Allow the culture to speak to you and make you a better person.


--Being precedes doing. Glorify Jesus in daily life, with social activity becoming a necessary appendage. May we be characterized by conciliation rather than confrontation. Our very presence is to advance shalom, since our primary identity is found in the Peacemaker.


Many of the 25-or-so North American fraternal workers in Eastern Europe during the years 1970-90 ended up as academics in the good old USA. Is that a happy ending? Had you hoped for other results?


I'm more concerned about academic excellence than about location or choice of discipline. The Anabaptist approach for centuries has emphasized discipleship and holy living; this is relevant since the fraternity to which you refer was an Anabaptist endeavor. You are correct in assuming a recent shift to academia, but from what I observe, it has provided unexpected results. For example, the recent Anabaptist move towards political engagement has created a new awareness of complexities in peacemaking. The role of "historic peace churches" is being re-evaluated.


We bring to academics our own biases. There is a difference between discussions in academic lectures to students, whose world views are being shaped, and casual conversations by farmers in rural areas over lunch. At this moment (in 2022), I find astonishing the facile stereotypes by scholars, posturing as experts, who comment on the Russian-Ukrainian political situation. Russophobia is fashionable among American academics; we need objective observers who can give plausible explanations for events everywhere in Eurasia. Of course, Anabaptists don't feel called to comment publicly on political matters, and that has been my position.


Similar biases thrive in Western attitudes towards the church in Russia.


What was most interesting for you in your work with university students in Nizhny Novgorod? What is most appealing to you about Russian culture?


I enjoy students, to understand who they are and where they come from - as Chekhov says, to see the sparkle in their eyes when a new idea captures their attention. I love their attentiveness and questioning. Russian universities tend to be more selective than their American counterparts, although that is changing as they adopt more Western educational policies, and more students are accepted as "paying" students. I got a kick out of hearing Russian professors rail at the recent Ministry of Education policy to use standardized tests (based on the American system) as a basis for admission. They argue that it's "dumbing down" the educational system.


When I was with the CCCU, I translated for many Russian-language professors delivering lectures, so I got to know them well. One Old Believer professor, when talking about Orthodoxy, always placed a modern icon on the desk and was careful to use two fingers of the left hand when pointing out elements in the icon that he found objectionable. Another professor was an accomplished caricaturist, and at the end of his lecture the blackboard was covered with drawings of historical figures.


But my greatest satisfaction was in talking about the Christian elements in Russian literature, since it's been an integral part of Slavic culture for a thousand years. During the Soviet period, scholars either dismissed or avoided treating this topic favorably; additionally, most Soviet-trained professors had little knowledge of the Bible. The classical Russian authors are all steeped in Orthodox culture, and even writers from the Soviet period - opponents of the church - like Gor'kii and Bulgakov, wrote works that can be mined for their Christian ideas. A core of morality always remains, and one can discuss profitably these works with an eye to ethical complexity.


Since I lived in Nizhny Novgorod, I often participated in the "Gor'kii Readings" and enjoyed giving papers on Orthodox elements in this revolutionary writer. When one department chair asked me to lead a seminar, I reminded her that I would interpret texts in light of my specific religious views. She responded: "That's exactly why I want you to conduct the seminar."


When I was in Bulgaria, sponsored by the Academy of Sciences, I gave a paper on the Christian image of the Trinity in KHristo Botev's famous poem, "KHadzhi Dimitur". Years later, I discovered that Ivan Radev, a literary critic, had written an entire monograph on biblical imagery in Botev's works and he used ideas I had suggested back in the most restrictive days of the Communist regime. It's rewarding to see radical ideas developed and improved, when you as a foreigner can stimulate discussions that locals cannot touch.


Compare the Russian Orthodox with the Russian Baptists. What do you see as the strong and weak points of each? What can they learn from each other?


I have related to Christians in both the Russian Orthodox Church and within the Russian Baptists, the latter being my home congregation when I lived in Russia. The Orthodox are the majority religion among the Eastern Slavs, dating back to the conversion of Kievan Rus' in 988. The Russian Baptists, on the other hand, have a much shorter history, dating back only to the mid-nineteenth century, and they have also drawn heavily on several indigenous Russian groups, notably the Molokans. The lead pastor of the Baptist congregation in Nizhny Novgorod when I first arrived was raised a Molokan, and he had memorized so much scripture as a child in the Soviet Union that he could comfortably preach without needing a Bible. Whereas the Orthodox Church traces its history back to the Byzantium, both in culture and doctrine, the Baptist church was shaped largely by Western influences, notably German leaders such as J. G. Oncken, who played an important role in establishing a Mennonite renewal movement in Russia, which in turn helped shape Baptist congregations.


The Orthodox Church greatly influenced the development of Eastern Slavic culture, with a key contribution being the sense of worship - God is truly "awe-some and awe-full" - essentially an apophatic approach to theology. Prayer is central to worship. The Baptist church emphasizes personal piety and devotion - a reflection of Western individualism. And throughout Soviet history, Baptists were pressured into a weaker sense of self-importance. The Orthodox tend to view humans as essentially good, but sinful; much of Western Protestantism views people as essentially "guilty". Orthodox prefer the term "sinfulness," and deal with this problem via the use of confession, an uplifting sacramental witness to onlooking seekers. Protestants lay the burden of guilt (a Latin legal term) on people, and in many churches confession of sins is rarely administered.  


These differences are illustrated in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's masterful novella, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". Solzhenitsyn, an Orthodox believer, was no friend of the Baptists, but the power of Alesha's witness in the labor camp could not be suppressed. The character Alesha, named after Dostoevsky's Orthodox protagonist in "The Brothers Karamazov", stands out. He diligently devotes himself to prayer, regularly meditates on scripture, and shares his meager food ration with prisoners who are sick. In Solzhenitsyn's description, other prisoners, rowdy and cynical, mostly Orthodox in culture, are touched.


Russian Orthodox worship is heavenly; in fact, according to the chronicles, the beauty of worship in Constantinople led the pagan Prince Vladimir to choose Christianity over the other candidate religions. Every worship experience takes one through the fundamental stages of the liturgical calendar. The a capella singing, (especially for someone who grew up listening to the incredible power of the "Lob Lied" during every Sunday service), has powerful resonance. The Orthodox faithful recite the Nicene Creed and the Lord's Prayer together at every service, and one is touched by the strength of traditional words which have been spoken by Christians for centuries. Faith is incarnated in the worship service through prayer, demonstrated physically with candles, gestures, icons, confession, and the Eucharist. Heaven has come down to earth so that the earthly can experience heaven.


Russian Baptist worship in many ways resembles the practices of their Western counterparts. Because of their minority status during the Soviet period, they were often unjustly stereotyped as "Western" groups, with attendant government and social pressures. Consequently, the Baptists understand the significance of suffering for their faith and take seriously personal piety, prayer, and Bible reading, and it affects the tone of their worship.


Baptist and German Lutheran influences helped produce the Russian-language translation of the Bible, and they developed a system of colporteurs to distribute scriptures. Dostoevsky's New Testament, so influential to his faith during the Siberian exile, was the product of Protestant activity. Aleksandr Men' (1936-1980), a remarkable Orthodox priest during the latter days of the Soviet regime, studied theological literature that was brought from the West by Baptist and Catholic connections.


The Baptists can teach us how to live holy lives outside the church building. The Orthodox, on the other hand, can teach us how to worship and pray. A new Baptist church building in Nizhny Novgorod is, to my knowledge, the only Baptist building in Russia with frescoes.


My students worked for years helping restore and rebuild Orthodox church buildings in Nizhny Novgorod. We were a group of Western Protestant Christians, but I wanted to build bridges of understanding between the two groups. One Orthodox leader, a former Soviet naval officer, helped organize our service projects. Over the years, he recorded the names of our Western student helpers in his notebook. Until his dying day, in his personal daily liturgy, I know that he prayed for every one of those students by name.


You are very familiar with the “eastern” Orthodox Slavs of Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia. Do you find differences between them?


Eastern Orthodoxy represents the original church of the Eastern Mediterranean, which over the centuries became identified with Byzantine/Greek culture. The Western Church had become identified with Roman/Latin culture when the official division occurred in 1054. The highest hierarch in the Orthodox Church is the patriarch, so various ethnic groups and cultures can express themselves in their own ways, whereas the Roman Catholic Church has a single leader in the Pope.


The Eastern Slavs were the first people to create their own alphabet and translate the scriptures into their own colloquial language, 600 years before Luther made his German translation. The original language, known as Old Church Slavic, is still used today, 1,100 years later, in the Russian Orthodox Church.


Eastern Orthodoxy is characterized today by the various ethnic groups it represents, since the groups you ask about have their own patriarchs, their own languages, their own cultures. But the center of their faith is one; you can visit an Orthodox church anywhere in the world and the liturgy is essentially the same, with similar prayers, creedal statements, and music. Cultural practices can vary. For example, in Russia, congregants stand for worship, while in Greece people sit on benches. These cultural differences sometimes transition easily into political differences. Witness the conflict in Ukraine, where a faction of the Orthodox leadership has broken away from the "Russian" segment, and there were also conflicts between the Macedonian Orthodox Church and the Serbian one. But theologically, differences are minor.


Your life was seriously endangered during a big-time robbery in your flat. What and who kept you going in Russia after such a traumatic experience? Much later, in 2021, it was Covid that attacked you.


I wouldn't over-dramatize the robbery in my apartment, although at the time it was traumatic. The robbers probably knew that at the time, funds for the semester were hand-carried to Russia by my assistant since private foreign citizens couldn't have bank accounts. After the initial shock wore off, I was increasingly thankful that God spared my life, and it was gratifying to see the remarkable support of local people. The rector of the university demanded, categorically, that the police find the perpetrators. Administrators and students at the university demonstrated the best in Russian hospitality and communal solidarity, so I experienced, as I had so often, the beauty of Slavic culture. An ancient Slavic proverb says: "For every evil there is some good."


Yes, I suffered a Covid infection, and spent ten days in one of the field hospitals specially constructed for Covid patients. I was largely asymptomatic, although I had blurred vision for several days and my speech was slowed. Again, this was an opportunity to see the very best in the Russian health care system (everything was free), and in the overwhelming support of concerned friends, who railroaded me into taking tests and calling health care workers. The treatment was basically a ten-day vacation, since for the first time in my life I was lying in a hospital bed, isolated with nothing to do. As the head doctor told me: "They must really care about you at the university, since they call every day." 


As of 2021, one could say that Russia has just gotten through or over 31 years of relatively intense Protestant mission activity. Well, perhaps the intense period was over by Maidan in Feb. 2014. What were the weak and strong points of that endeavour? What would you have done differently? Where did the Western mission efforts fail?


When future missiologists analyze the decades of foreign missionary work in Russia after the 1990s, I fear it will not be a glorious chapter. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge isolated pockets of success. Individuals and families emerged from the Soviet period as transformed people, and Russia has seen the emergence of some proto-Western mega-churches. Many works of charity were done.


But in my opinion, what you call "intense Protestant mission activity" left much to be desired. The flood of missionaries came with negative stereotypes of Russia, Russian culture, and the church.


Too much emphasis was placed on the so-called "underground church". The image of the suffering church, of course, resonates with my own Anabaptist tradition of martyrdom. Too few missionaries actually took an interest in learning the language and culture. Western pragmatism cultivates a desire for exciting and dramatic stories, with a subsequent focus on Western donors rather than on the actual on-the-ground situation among the people.


Too many missionaries came with an agenda driven by their sponsoring organization. We weren't taking Jesus to Russia, as an advertisement in "Christianity Today" proclaimed; many local people found such a characterization insulting, since Christ had long existed in this land.


In the same way that Western political advisers often came with an unseemly hubris, wanting to shape Russian politics into the image of Western understandings, many missionaries came to reshape the Russian churches without carefully acknowledging nuances. One group came to Russia, believe it or not, promoting the King James version of the Bible! Millions of dollars were spent by well-meaning organizations with excellent administrators, when more emphasis should have been placed on relationships, especially with people at the grassroots level. Protestantism tends to emphasize individualism more than the Slavic mentality allows, with the attendant phenomenon of "atomization" in congregations.


Then there is the bugaboo of personalities. Very often missionaries are strong characters, moved by a powerful purposefulness.


In recent years, two groups of disaffected young people approached me to establish new congregations. The work of reconciliation has vast possibilities in Russia, as in many areas of the world.


You were involved in the exchange programme run by the Washington-based “Council for Christian Colleges and Universities” and in Moscow’s “Russian-American Christian University”. The later programme ended in 2012. Do you think either project could have survived? If yes, what would it have taken to survive? We have a kind of Cold War going on now between the USA and Russia.


The Russian Studies Program was closed in 2010, and while I lament its closing, I understand the financial pressures that led to closure. Not a sufficient number of North American students were interested in spending a semester in Russia, and most students are wired to seek educational opportunities that can bring direct career benefits. The burgeoning new "Cold War" attitude, widely dispersed in the West, didn't help matters.


As for the Russian-American Christian Institute, I recommend reading John Bernbaum's book describing the venture, "Opening the Red Door"; in the closing he elaborates candidly on why the enterprise failed. His honesty is commendable.


A few comments: The focus was dispersed too broadly, with a vision that incorporated everyone from the simple Protestants to the powerful Orthodox, with a "liberal arts" focus little understood in European academia. The endeavor illustrated the difference between the hedgehog and the fox in the ancient Greek fable, where the hedgehog excels at one thing, while the fox does many things well. It would have been more productive to focus on one or two specific disciplines, such as social work (much needed in Russia, or perhaps small business ethics), and to zero in on academic excellence in these disciplines. By not identifying clearly with any particular group, the Institute was scattered among many groups, with no one having a clear investment in its success. Emphasis on English training generated a patina of "foreign-ness" which could not but draw attention. Besides, Russians already have excellent foreign language schools which are far superior to their American counterparts. Emphasis was placed on raising money for a building, while a less ambitious program could have created a social work school by renting an abandoned building or some apartments somewhere in the outskirts of Moscow, and like the hedgehog, doing one thing really well.


I know you are very worried about the course of the Mennonite movement in North America. The liberal end, as you see it, is disappearing into the woodwork as it becomes part-and-parcel of the mainstream liberal order as portrayed by politicians such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The century-old humanitarian aid and service organisation “Mennonite Central Committee” (MCC) appears stagnate. On the other hand, the conservative, much less academic end of the church seems to be thriving. What should this teach us? What do you believe can still be changed?


I'm not fond of "liberal" and "conservative" since they are pliable and subjective terms, with different meanings for different people. True, I'm concerned about the direction of Mennonites in my home country. I consider the merger which led to the formation of MC/USA to have been a mistake, and I have consistently expressed a concern about combining two different subcultures. During my service with the fraternity, and during my time in Russia with the CCCU, my denominational identity was insignificant. I want to glorify Jesus Christ with all my being; however, at the university's farewell ceremony this spring I was surprised to find how central were the epithets "Mennonite" and even "Amish."


Anabaptist history, as I view it, has for centuries cherished a radical minority mentality, with a keenly developed sense of suffering. Somehow the Kingdom of God should be incarnated in practical ways. As I read my father's German-language editorials in fifteen years of "Herold der Wahrheit," I saw, and witnessed in my own Amish community, an awareness that our faith is costly and precious. Scriptures are to be taken seriously, community worship and costly discipleship are understood as a given. In my opinion, there has never been an Anabaptist theology - it's Catholic and Lutheran theology flavored with our own protestations (we are Protestant); but the essential metaphysics hasn't been altered. The late Gordon Kaufman, a leading theologian and self-proclaimed Anabaptist (one of a rare breed), avers that the Virgin Birth of Jesus is a "folk myth," and he summarily dismisses some of Jesus' teachings because they run counter to his ethical system.


Anabaptist differences with the magisterial churches have been in the area of ethics and ecclesiology. Erasmus' humanistic influence has always been lurking in the shadows; how we behave takes precedence over the concept of truth. In recent decades, as modern information technology has enabled us to observe firsthand horrific violence throughout the world, even Mennonite ethicists have moved closer to the Augustinian view of justified war. Mennonites have become aware that social injustice is a nuanced monster, so we are more prone to listen to popular views that challenge our ethics, and more willingly abandon the absolute verities that have shaped our lives and have given Mennonites a certain reputation in the world.


The Mennonite church today needs prophets who can speak the truth in love and can soberly analyze the processes in light of their history. Look at the sixteenth-century discussions that gave rise to Anabaptism, and see how they reflected the Renaissance view of personhood, individualism, rationality, the place of God in the universe - in short, social ethics. We need to place more emphasis on church history in the fifteen centuries preceding the Reformation and examine carefully the stereotypes we traffic in. We must be more humble in recognizing how our interpretation of key passages has been shaped by Western, Roman, (and legal) terminology rather than by Semitic, Greek, and Byzantine traditions.


Harley Wagler with William Yoder

Partridge/Kansas and Ladushkin/Russia, 9 February 2022


A journalistic release for which no institution is responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #22-04, 4.853 words.


Sadly, Harley Wagler died unexpectedly of cancer in Hutchinson, Kansas on 30 September 2022. He was 81.