North of the Arctic Circle, tundra near Murmansk, looking toward the Barents Sea

Above the Arctic Circle — I’ve just returned from visiting Stoneworks missionary Yura Belonozhkin and see the work he’s doing up north. I met some wonderful people and saw an amazing part of the world.

The Cizmanskis in St. Petersburg

Vladimir and Mariana Cizmanski were visiting from Montenegro. I met them in Estonia and introduced them to our friends and ministry partners there. It is always gratifying when our Stoneworks partners to meet one another. My wife Olga and I had a good time showing them St. Pete.

While Marijana stayed in St. Petersburg with Olga, Vladimir and I headed north. The first day, we drove 1300 km (800 miles) to Zelenoborskiy, where Yura met us at a Christian drug rehab center.

Yura with guys at the rehab

Yura and I spoke at a men’s meeting at the rehab center. It’s a great group of people, and several local churches support the center. Yura has led men’s meetings there and has very good relationships with the leadership. Over the next few days, as we visited other churches, we continued to meet men and women who are either in the rehab center or lived there before.

On the second day, we drove north to Olenegorsk to attend a prayer conference. Several local churches participated. I was asked to speak at the afternoon session, and I did a teaching on intercessory prayer. Peter Makarchuk is the bishop of several churches in that area, and he made us feel very welcome. He and Yura have a good relationship.

Speaking at a prayer conference in Olenegorsk, Russia.

We spent that night with Yura’s friends from that church; there we saw some Russian ingenuity. The next morning, Sunday, Vladimir was asked to preach the sermon, and he gave a sermon on self-denial that was warmly received. We then drove north to Murmansk.

At every stop, we were witnessed how Yura builds relationships and has earned the trust and friendship of many people in the area. I’m impressed with the breadth of his ministry.

Yura and Masha Belonozhkin

In Murmansk, on Sunday afternoon I spoke at a church. I also had the opportunity to pray with several people after the service. That evening, we stayed at a hotel in Murmansk. Yura and his wife Masha live in a closed military town, Polyarny; foreigners are not allowed into the town. So, I was not able to stay with them, but the church kindly put us up in a hotel.

Masha is very creative and leads women’s ministry in various settings. She and some friends have also opened a small business teaching creative arts to people in the area; they rent two rooms in the hotel where we stayed. They specialize in visual arts, jewelry, book-making and the like.

I should say that I had intended to be ‘in the background’ and watch Yura in his ministry, but I was also asked to take part in ministry and am very honored that I was invited to participate in the life of the church. It was good for Yura and me to serve together. We had a lot of time in the car together, and our conversations were good and meaningful. I’m impressed with is focus on men’s ministry and his purposeful approach to that work.

On Monday, as we drove to a men’s meeting in Nikel we stopped at an over-look to see Yura’s hometown from a distance. That’s the closest we could get to his home. The picture at top was taken there.

As we drove to Nikel (a mining town), I noticed that the forest seemed to have burned recently. I asked Yura about the fire, and his reply shocked me: the forest has not been burned by fire but by chemicals. The mines and factories there produce so much pollution that the land has been burned by acid rain. Tens of thousands of hectares (acres) are affected.

It’s really shocking how much damage has been done in the years since Russia took the area from Finland in 1944. Compare this picture with the picture at top and you can see how much has been ruined. It will surely take decades to heal if the mines stop polluting the land now.

Landscape near Nikel
Men’s meeting in Nikel

The land may be in ruins, but the hearts of the believers in Nikel are warm and full of life.

We had a great time with a small mens’ meeting at a ministry apartment owned by a local church. Yura is doing a great job of ministering to the men, and all our conversations were deep and meaningful.

After spending the night in Nikel, we crossed the border into Norway, less than 30 minutes away. Earlier this year, Yura led a men’s retreat in Norway. He and several men took three days to walk across the Varanger Peninsula. Yura wanted us to see this amazing land. He had told me how beautiful it is, and he was right: it’s quite impressive —

The coastline of Varanger Peninsula

After visiting Hamningberg (where I saw some Norwegian ingenuity), on the Varanger, we stopped in Vadsø to visit with pastor Max Yekee, a Liberian refugee who has settled in Norway and pastors a small church.

With Arne Skare in Lakselv

 Yura has invited Max to attend a men’s conference, and Max is feeling called to minister in Russia. I hope that Max and Yura will minister together over the coming years.

From Vadsø we made our way west to Lakselv and visited Arne Skare, a Lutheran priest that Yura met at a conference earlier this year.

Arne is planning to start a men’s retreat center near Lakselv, and he and Yura are talking about how they can partner in men’s ministry. Arne is a very good man, and we felt very welcomed.

That was our last ministry-related event. For our last day we decided to go as far north as we could so we visited Slettnes Fyr, very close to the northern-most point on the European continent.

Reindeer feed on the tundra at Slettnes Fyr

At this point, we were halfway between St. Petersburg Russia and the North Pole. Here are some other pictures from that region, called Finnmark:

Vladimir on the shore at Slettnes Fyr, by the Barents Sea (Arctic Ocean)
Laksefjord, Finnmark
Arctic tundra, Finnmark

From Finnmark, Yura returned to Russia while Vladimir and I headed south through Finland. We enjoyed a beautiful drive along Utsjoki, the river in Lapland that borders Finland and Norway:

Sunset on Utsjoki; Finland on the left bank, Norway on the right

In closing, I’d like to say how very I am impressed with Yura’s work. His ministry is spread out over a large territory; he is constantly traveling to lead meetings. Thankfully, his car is in good shape, and he needs other tools for his work: a good computer and a GPS unit come to mind. It would be good if he had more financial support.

Many people are being blessed and encouraged through Yura’s service. He is making disciples. Please keep Yura, Masha and all those dear souls in your prayers.