The New Moscow Circus
Anita Deyneka with Wil Triggs
It has always seemed oddly appropriate to me that the office of Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries in Moscow is just across the street from both Moscow State University and the New Circus. When my husband, Peter, and I moved to Moscow in 1992, where we now live part of each year, our goal was to build bridges between Western Christian organizations and various sectors of Russian society to enhance evangelization of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The university reminds me of our need to know as much as possible about every aspect of Russian society and to connect with both the Christian church and society at large. But faced with day-to-day life in Russia, the circus sometimes looms larger than the university.
Often our office resembles a three-ring circus. Only seven small rooms, desks, and office space are juggled in shifts by as many as 50 staff and associates from other organizations and a steady stream of visitors engaged in polyglot conversations about a plethora of projects. Like the circus which provides several hours of amazing and unexpected performances, daily life in Moscow often leaves one wondering what event will happen in the next day, hour, or minute.
Currently Russia provides ample excitement, danger, and unpredictability, as well as all the confusion and chaos of several shows under way at once. Who is the ringmaster--the government or the mafia? What will the ruble be worth tomorrow? How many double-digit percentage points might taxes and the cost of a loaf of bread rise in just one day? Where and when will a new ethnic conflagration erupt?
Of course, it is Russian citizens who face the greatest challenge as they try to find some balance in their society which so often these days seems teetering on the edge of a new calamity. But Russian society is also an unusually unpredictable place for Westerners engaged in Christian mission. Welcomed with open arms after the collapse of Communism, Westerners are now considerably less popular, especially in the big cities. People in urban centers like Moscow, who only a few years ago were starving for the spiritual after 70 years of force-fed atheism, are now less hungry and also more interested in sampling an array of religions. While existing laws still provide full religious freedom, political fluctuations of the past three years have left missionaries wondering what laws the parliament will pull out of the hat next.
Christian work, while above all spiritual, also requires earthly props--buildings, transportation, finances, and other resources. For a Western Christian organization to find housing for its staff and offices to rent or purchase can seem an insurmountable feat. On a trip to the Crimea that would ordinarily require only a few hours by air, one missionary recently spent 24 hours on plane and train because of fuel shortages and visa red tape. Money often performs a disappearing act when brought into the country or when stored in Mafia-controlled banks. Such difficulties in the former Soviet Union, where one country is in the process of re-forming into at least fifteen, are now more the rule than the exception.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Western missionaries is the acrobatic-like choreography of cooperation between nationals and Westerners that must occur if Western missionaries are to make a contribution to the evangelization of the CIS. Possibilities for misinterpretation and misunderstanding are infinite. Among all cultural cues, perhaps language provides the greatest pitfall for miscommunication. Sometimes these have a humorous side. One well intentioned American preacher, for example, mentioned that he "used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day." The American was bewildered when some of his Christian audience walked out, not knowing that his interpreter had translated the phrase "used to smoke" as "was accustomed to smoking."
Some national believers wonder why Westerners seem so sympathetic and make promises they don't keep. At the same time, Westerners question why it is so difficult to have a binding contract, even with Christians. It can sometimes seem like Western and Russian partners miscommunicate more often than they communicate, making a mirrored-house version of a circus clown act. When the media look at us from the outside, they often deride or make fun of every error.
The most serious and significant calling in life is to bring people to God. So why cite these embarrassing moments of missionary life? What is the point of comparing what we do with the animal tricks, juggling, and high-wire acts of a circus? Two reasons. First, both missionaries and circus performers can achieve amazing things. Though it seems to defy its own nature and the laws of gravity, an immense seal has performed to the delight of young and old at the Moscow circus. This animal weighs hundreds of pounds and can balance its weight on a single fin after climbing the smallest of ladders. For that animal, the trainer and training is everything. Like that seal, Christians can do things that seem impossible, but only with God's help.
The moment we take our eyes off God, we ultimately fail. And it must be admitted that not all Western Christian organizations and individuals have been culturally sensitive, relevant, or even wise in all their actions. Nevertheless, during the past five years of so much tumult and trouble in the former Soviet Union, Western missionaries have been part of God's plans and purposes as they have worked together with national Christians. As partners with indigenous Christians, we have witnessed "great and mighty things" happening for God's kingdom.
As a person struggling to do my best for God, I search for metaphors to communicate what missionary life has really been like. The classic safari-style missionary isn't quite right. Neither is the Western business worker establishing a branch office in Russia. The circus metaphor fits the situation because it does portray the possibility of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Our only success as Christians comes from Christ's working through us. Supernatural intervention is needed, of course, not just in the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe, but everywhere in our fallen world. However, the ways God has been manifest through such a variety of Christians in these countries in the past five years is remarkable and a source of hope for what may be even more challenging days ahead. As we missionaries do our work, it may feel like we are on the highwire or trapeze or riding bareback on a zebra. But when we stand back and witness the wonders of God taking place, we can only respond with childlike awe at the One who works through us.
Anita Deyneka is director of research for Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries. Wil Triggs is EWC&M Report coeditor.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies