I wonder how many of the News-Sentinel's readers have been to Novokuznetsk, Siberia, in the Russian Federation. It is 9,000 air-miles from Lodi. I just returned from there, where I spent time working with Teen Challenge leaders from throughout Siberia and Russia.
Teen Challenge is a ministry that began in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1958, to help see people addicted to drugs and alcohol set free.
As you can imagine, Novokuznetsk was very different from life in Lodi. Yet in some ways, it's very much the same.
In 1989, after more than 70 years of Soviet communist domination, the Soviet empire began to crumble.
Russia has 11 time zones; in comparison, the continental U.S. has only four. The population of Russia is approximately 143 million, with more than 130 nationalities and individual languages. There are many diverse cultures, and many religions are practiced throughout the region.
The Soviet regime was our enemy for many years, but that is the political structure and government. In my experience and years of ministry, I have discovered that the people of Russia are much like we are. Some are friendly, some are not; some are wealthy, some are poor.
But every one of them is a human being loved by Jesus Christ. To watch a mother with a child there is the same as watching a mother with a child here.
One of my translators was a 35-year-old woman named Oksana. She is a single, Christian woman who is very involved in the ministry of English/Russian translation, both written and spoken. She was quite a blessing to me.
I asked her what her dreams for the future are. She said that her life as a translator has been very rewarding. She's met many people and has had several exciting adventures.
However, she feels that this season of her life is drawing to a close, and she would very much like to marry and raise a God-loving family. In that respect, Oksana sounds like many young women right here in Lodi.
Teen Challenge is getting ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary in Russia. There is a tremendous need to help set people free from the bondage of drugs and alcohol. The Teen Challenge ministry operates in 92 nations. Thirty more nations have asked for Teen Challenge's help.
In talking to leaders in Siberia, I was told that approximately 70 percent of their young people are using some sort of illegal drug. There is a new drug that is being widely used throughout the country, called the "crocodile drug." It's very inexpensive, and destroys the mind.
The alcoholism rate among the older population is epidemic. Drug addicts die young, while alcoholics tend to live longer, but the results are ultimately the same — destroyed lives with unbelievable collateral damage.
My ministry with Teen Challenge is to help start more centers, training programs for the leaders and business plans to create micro-businesses in order for each center to become self-sustaining.
Every leader I spoke to, from Moscow to Iskutsk, expressed how great the need is. It's truly beyond comprehension.
The atheistic communist regime effectively undermined belief in God and made the state preeminent over the family. With the collapse of that regime, the floodgates were opened to a variety of influences over a culture that had been spiritually and economically decimated. The result has had cataclysmic effects on the emerging society. It is impossible to describe the situation in a brief column such as this.
On the positive side, the doors are open to the evangelical Christian world to help, but that help is often met with extreme opposition. Many leaders in the Orthodox church do not embrace evangelical Christianity, so there have been bitter attacks to stop ministries such as Teen Challenge.
Although no overt opposition has been directed from the national government in Moscow, there has been tremendous resistance by some local governments to the ministry of Teen Challenge.
In Novokuznetsk, the local prosecutor has done everything in his power to close the men's centers in the area. He has had KGB SWAT teams and other "enforcement" entities barge into centers looking for anything to charge them with.
At one center, all the computers were confiscated. They were returned two months later when nothing incriminating was found on them.
On Sept. 14, a regional government prosecutor filed official charges against Pastor Ilya Bantsee, director of five Teen Challenge centers in Novokuznetsk, for running what he called an "extremist religious organization." He also heads a ministry to the homeless and orphans.
If convicted, Pastor Bantsee could face three years in a Russian prison. I can't emphasize enough how much he and his family need our prayers.
Purchasing property and facilities is very complicated throughout Russia. Government officials have tried to confiscate property or thwart Teen Challenge from purchasing or renovating buildings. Not only that, I was told that there is no incentive to curb the sale of illegal drugs. It is so profitable to so many that many government officials turn their backs.
There is not only resistance from the Orthodox church and local government, but also from organized crime. On Sept. 7, Holy Trinity Church in Moscow was demolished. It is believed that the destruction was caused by organized crime because they want the property for themselves.
The Evangelical Union called for a three-day period of prayer and fasting. I have observed the opposition to the Evangelical church first hand in Novosibirsk, Novokuznetsk and Irkutsk. Jesus warned us in Matthew 16:33 that in this world, we would have opposition, but not to worry — He has overcome the world.
With political tensions the way they are in the world today, I sense the urgency to assist Teen Challenge and Christians in Russia and Siberia while we can. It is quite an extensive process to obtain a religious visa in order to work in Russia. But I'm reminded that Jesus admonished us to work while it is day.
We need your help. If you are a businessperson and would like to help plant the seed for a start-up micro-industry in Russia that will help provide job training and sustainability for Teen Challenge centers throughout the nation, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 209-993-7597.
If you feel led to assist with finances to help establish new centers to reach addicts and alcoholics with the Gospel, you can make donations directly to Global Teen Challenge at www.globaltc.org.
The devastation to individuals and families caused by drugs and alcohol is epidemic worldwide. The hope of the Gospel and delivering power of Jesus Christ is setting people free from the strongholds of addiction. Much needs to be done, but many hands make light the work.
Together, we can do our part.
Rick Souza is a longtime resident of Lodi. He is president of Aerie, Inc., and Director of MicroEnterprise Development for Global Teen Challenge. His ministry has taken him to many countries around the world, where he has built churches, Bible schools, orphanages and Teen Challenge centers. He can be reached at email@example.com.