I am on my way home from ten days in this region speaking at the annual conference of a 'company' with its 'workers' gathered together from throughout the area. Sorry - I have to be a bit vague for security reasons.
Here are a few observations...
While the church is not a building one building does stand out. A church in the UK embarked on a massive rebuilding programme and decided to 'tithe' their costs ... and as a consequence it paid for two churches to be built - one in Africa and the one I entered in Central Asia. WOW!
The church as a people in Central Asia has known the tide come and go. Before about 1450AD it was thriving as the Nestorian church with archealogical sites to prove it. Then it died out. Centuries later along came the repressive Stalin who sent various people groups into exile as a way of maintaining control. And so off went the Germans and the Koreans to Central Asia and with them came the good news! WOW!
There can't be many places in the world where you encounter 40degree temperatures and then lift your eyes to the hills to discover snow-clad mountains ... or turn into multiple city streets to find those same mountains lurking at the end of them. The conference was held at a lake lined with snowy mountains as far as the eye could see - a lake so big it makes NZ's Lake Taupo look like a substantial puddle and mountains so tall that they routinely double the height of Mt Cook.
What a 'company'!! Among the 90 adults were people from England, Malaysia, Romania, Australia, USA, Scotland, Korea, Germany, Canada, Holland, Singapore, Switzerland, New Zealand ... with a range of vocations including health care, youth work, community work, English-teaching, prison work, university lecturing, IT specialists, and schools together with business ventures in the areas of second-hand clothing (import), candle-making, freight moving, cafe, and construction. As a speaker who tries to honour the context as well as the text, this diversity proved to make it the most demanding setting in which I have ever spoken.
And yet amidst the diversity, a remarkable unity around a person and a purpose which they all hold in common.
I grew up in post-British India. Here is post-Soviet Central Asia. What a contrast in hangovers. There is a PhD here for someone.
Creativity and initiative and excellence still remains under-developed here. The botanic gardens are left to become an overgrown ramble. I was asked the routine question: "how old do you think this apartment building is in which we live?" It looked about 40-50 years old, but sensing a trick question I respond cleverly with "20-30 years". The right answer? 10 years.
The British left a better legacy in health and education. Many 'workers' commented on how caring for people did not appear to be integral to the medical profession. One 'worker' is trying to initiate the first emergency/trauma care programme in the country. Another is trying to establish the first hospice care programme.
After years of repression distrust is endemic. Checking in and out of a hotel is a prolonged process ensuring that nothing has gone missing. Taking the room towels down to the lake was tantamount to inviting explusion to a new gulag in Siberia.
Ironically (and sadly) a free-er society has led to one where the people are far worse off than they were under the Soviets. Progress is going to be slow...
I visited the leading cross-denominational theological college in the region, principal-ed by a Kiwi. It is 10 years old. A 3 year programme in Russian and a 2 year programme in the indigenous language. 75 graduates spread around the country. A distance programme underway. It is just SO strategic ... if the church is to grow it will be through these graduates.
... and then I was taken to the library - in a room the size of a bedroom in my home and a collection about half the size of my own. It stirred me. So much so I am going to launch a Project 200 on return to NZ, raising the money to buy 200 Russian-language books for this college. What I have in mind is to approach people who value their (theological) education and encourage them to cull their own personal libraries, selling unused books and so 'out of our plenty supply their need.' Each Russian-language book will cost about NZD25 and so people will commit to buying a certain number of books. I am aiming to provide the first 40 books by culling my own books and praying that others will join me with a book here and there. If you are interested contact me at Carey Baptist College and I will send you an explanatory letter.