Stoneworks board member Larry Heller reports from his recent visit with Stoneworks missionary Yura Belonozhkin:

As one would expect, it’s cold above the Arctic Circle. I had the good fortune, however, to arrive when Murmansk was having some very pleasant Spring weather so the temperatures were only down around the freezing mark. My hosts, Yura and Masha Belonozhkin (Stoneworks International’s missionaries to the far north of Russia) took me to see some of the sights in Murmansk on my first full day there.

To my eye, the city of Murmansk looks much like the other big Russian cities I’ve visited with its large apartment blocks, drab Soviet architecture contrasting with spectacular European architecture and the ubiquitous monuments of great Russian leaders, cultural figures and remembrances of wars. One big difference is that the land is ‘rolling’ in Murmansk so sidewalks include steps instead of being only flat.

Yura and Masha serve their region with four important ministries.

One: They pastor a registered home church. They hold regular Sunday worship services at their apartment or at the apartment of another couple who attend regularly. Masha & Yura have noticed changes in the children of their small congregation – no longer little monsters, but calmer, feeling more loved and feeling more secure. I asked if that was because of the ‘changed heart of a changed man leading this family’ and Yura said no. “The husband is a genuine ogre. The wife is learning in church to be more patient and growing fast in her faith, finding strength from God to cope with her three children and difficult husband.”

Two: Masha has a crafts ministry where she teaches women how to make very special and customized cards, journals and scrapbooks. She welcomes all women from the community (not just those who attend church). The warm and genuine atmosphere is a safe place for women to talk about what’s important to them, and and it serves as an outreach to come to church to see what makes the women of this group different. (Masha is second from left)

Three: At the invitation of the commanding officer, Yura holds meetings with the young men of the Russian Navy at the port in Polyarny, teaching life lessons and using stories from the scriptures as illustrations. Yura is not permitted to “preach” or pray with the men, but he is able to present the Gospel, and some men have come to men’s group meetings off base seeking more. These men are only stationed there for a short time so Yura considers this a mission of seed planting. Yura understands that this mission makes a small but essential contribution to God’s Kingdom work.

Four: Yura organizes a small-group men’s ministry in Murmansk and three other towns in the Murmansk Region – Polyarny, Nickel/Zapolarny and Olenegorsk. He tries to have bi-weekly meetings and three to four all-group weekend retreats during the year. I spent the largest part of my visit with this ministry.

Yura and I drove a lot! His territory is spread about the Murmansk Region and we booked close to 1300 kilometers (810 miles) in four days. Our first men’s group meeting was there in Murmansk. About 12 men assembled and the meeting began with prayer and worship. Those familiar with Pentecostal churches will not be surprised when I describe our time of prayer as fervent and simultaneous. Standing with the brothers and lifting up prayer with abandon reminded me of how God inhabits the praises of his people, and it occurred to me that my orderly and sedate (in contrast) church at home could learn a thing or two about praising God and lifting up prayer before His throne. But I digress.

When it was time, we sat back down and several of the men gave their testimonies – most of which were about the retreat Yura had organized back in February (read about it here). As with previous retreats, the lessons Yura had arranged for the men to receive (Manhood in the State of Confusion, and Father Wound for example) sparked a lot of conversation which led to transparency among the men which eventually led to confession, repentance and a life-changing touch from the Holy Spirit. Again and again, I heard testimonies from the men that included statements like:

“When we confessed our sins, the sin no longer had any power over us.”

“I had NOT wanted to go and made every excuse I could think of but there I was and now I realize that I need this in my life to fight the battle of my flesh against my spirit.”

“It was a time of amazing truth telling, transparency, and REAL communication among men – like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”

One man described being on the retreat with his 16 year old son and wanting to seize the moment to confess, but felt it wouldn’t be appropriate with his son there. For no apparent reason, the son decided he wanted to go do something else and excused himself from the group. It was as if God orchestrated each moment of the retreat for maximum impact to the men’s lives.

While Yura says that he considers his calling to be more about planting seeds than harvesting, he is seeing fruit and is expecting more. After the retreat, several of the men’s wives have come to Yura to thank him for making their husbands different people – gentler, taking the leadership role in the family, starting to love them as Christ loved the church. “Whatever you’re doing, do it some more!”

A few things occurred to me as a result of my time with Yura and Masha. One was that there is no substitute for being there! The impressions I got were far greater than the mere sum of the parts.

Another thought that came to mind is how rare and precious it is that this devoted and obedient couple has been dropped into in a place of such hostile and challenging conditions and such fertile soil where people are eager to embrace the Gospel and be changed into the likeness of Christ. In my own pragmatic world of ‘faith light’, this is like finding a water park built in the middle of a desert.

Finally, it occurred to me what a gargantuan hole would be left in the community if the Belonozhkins were, for some reason, to be called away. There is no one else meeting these needs in the region. Yura and Masha are standing at the helm of a remote yet vibrant body of Christ. It defies logic… and isn’t that just like our God.