Editor’s note: In the winter of 2004-05, the author, while conducting research for a dissertation on Sakhalin Island, worshiped in a church fellowship in the capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk led by Pentecostal Bishop P.M. Yarmoliuk. Following is her firsthand account of the life and ministry of Rev. Yarmoliuk.
Missionaries from Ukraine and Belarus
Originally from Belarus, Petr Mikhailovich Yarmoliuk has ministered in the Russian Far East since 1987. His family of five is among the many Slavic missionaries serving in remote parts of Russia. (Forty-two of 56 bishops in pastor Yarmoliuk’s Pentecostal denomination serving in Russia are from Ukraine or Belarus and at least nine missionary families on Sakhalin are from Ukraine or Belarus.) Christian youth, motivated by the impact of a revival that swept through congregations of (then) unregistered Pentecostals in 1985-86, began to hold secret meetings to pray for places in Russia where the gospel was not preached. As a result, hundreds answered the call to missionary service in remote areas. Initially serving with an informal team of Belarusian and Ukrainian single men and women from various churches, Petr Mikhailovich married in 1989. In preparation for missionary service Yarmoliuk and his Ukrainian bride both took Russian citizenship. When asked about preparation for ministry, Petr Mikhailovich pointed out that in Soviet times, all men in the church preached, and were trained accordingly, albeit without an official Bible school. He has since attended modular courses run by Westerners in the Russian Far East. His wife Lydia, prior to their marriage, spent several years in a vocal trio that accompanied a traveling evangelist in Ukraine, when such activity was still forbidden. She considers that an important part of her preparation for ministry, although she had previously held no official position in the church.
Living by Faith
The Yarmoliuks, like other missionaries at the time, were “blessed” by their home churches for missionary service, but such blessing did not entail financial or other support. On occasion, individuals or teams from Ukraine and Belarus have visited them in the Russian Far East, but no one exercises systematic oversight or administration. Missionaries continue to live by faith, generally supporting their families through secular employment, often construction work, which provided Petr Mikhailovich’s income for his first few years in the East. Currently, Lydia works as a clerk at an auto parts dealership, while Petr Mikhailovich serves fulltime as pastor and regional bishop of the Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith (formerly Christians of Evangelical Faith-Pentecostal). The family tells story after story of God’s provision in the most difficult of times: food from unexpected sources; gifts of warm winter clothes, boots, and blankets; packages from Japan, Korea, Europe, and the United States; a Finnish missionary in Japan who donated dozens of used Japanese cars to missionaries in Siberia and the Far East. Such testimonies abound, and God’s provision continues today, as evident in testimonies of the congregation.
When asked about future plans, or if they expect to return home, Petr Mikhailovich responded simply that “where we are together, that’s our home.” With their three children, they have lived in four Russian Far Eastern cities. Lydia feels it is a supernatural gift that the family has adjusted so easily to new locations. While they have no plans to leave Sakhalin, they do not see it as a permanent home. A number of family members have emigrated to the United States and they do not exclude God calling them there. However, until He does, they remain where they are.
Their families supported their decision to move to the Russian Far East, despite the fact that it meant almost complete separation, above all due to rising costs of transportation. The Yarmoliuks last returned to Ukraine and Belarus in 2001, travel costs covered by an unexpected donation, and have no plans for a future visit. Petr Mikhailovich’s mother was especially supportive of their calling. When Petr was a child, she had a vision that he would serve God far away, somewhere people did not want to go. Assuming that meant prison, like his father and grandfather, she was relieved that her son’s travel to the Russian Far East was voluntary.
Evangelism and Social Outreach
The Yarmoliuks have participated in the planting of a number of churches, most recently founding a new church in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk that emphasizes evangelism and social outreach. The small but enthusiastic church of under 40, which meets in the Yarmoliuks’ living room, conducts weekly ministry in two local orphanages, a hospital, and a cancer ward. Church members regularly bring recovering addicts and children from the orphanage to Sunday services, and the church seeks to provide housing and meet other needs of former addicts. It is not unusual to find them living temporarily in the Yarmoliuks’ living room. In addition, the regional Military Christian Union is based in the church, and they are active in interdenominational efforts, such as the annual citywide Easter choir. Yet there is no inflated pride in their accomplishments or ministry. When an enthusiastic parishioner exclaimed during a service that “our church is the best,” the preacher gently rebuked him, reminding all that God calls each church to its own ministry and worship.
A Taxing Schedule
Petr Mikhailovich, as bishop, regularly visits churches throughout the island, often driving long hours in bad weather to visit northern Sakhalin. On one occasion he insisted on taking me to the airport at 6:30 a.m., as I was part of the church family. Afterwards, his plans were to drive south to pray for a member of a church facing spiritual battles, return home for the Wednesday evening service, and after making sure everyone gets home (the city’s public transportation stops by 9 p.m., so the Yarmoliuks offer rides home to all who attend), drive through the night to a city some distance north, where meetings were planned for the next day. In addition, Petr Mikhailovich serves on the Sakhalin Regional Council for Religious Affairs, along with the Orthodox bishop and various government officials.
The Church’s Attitude Toward Money
I was especially struck by the church’s attitude toward money, which seemed unusual for both Russian and Western churches. While the congregation is supported entirely by donations, the bishop nonetheless places no pressure to give a certain amount, or to give up comforts in order to donate to the church, as can be the case. Yet the subject of money comes up regularly in sermons, with an emphasis on determining each week in prayer the amount to be given. Parishioners are taught to bring the money they had set aside, making the offering neither a last-minute decision based on guilt or pressure, nor leftovers after the week’s expenses. No one is to feel guilty for giving little, nor to feel good about giving much. Emphasis is also placed on living a dignified—rather than a meager—lifestyle, as representatives of God’s kingdom on Earth.
Parishioners are instructed to dress and act in a way that attracts people to God’s kingdom, rather than repels them, a teaching in contrast to the widespread stereotype in Russia that Christians should be poor and unsuccessful.
The Bishop’s Advice
When asked what advice he had for Westerners seeking to minister in Russia or the Far East, there was no hesitation in Petr Mikhailovich’s response. “Above all, love God and love people, not theology. Introduce people to Jesus Christ. Don’t think you need to plan everything well. If God is calling you, go! Don’t wait.”
On the subject of provisions, he noted, “We have never received a salary, but we have never gone without bread. Listen to the Holy Spirit, to what He is calling you to do. He may not be calling you to go, but instead to support others. We all need to listen to God’s voice, and to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. If your ministry is giving, listen to God to know whom to give to. That’s how God answers the prayers of those in need—by prompting others to give to them.” With his characteristic humor, he said to tell readers: “We seek to be fools for Christ’s sake, and we wish them to be wise in Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10). In addition, he wants to share his firm belief in a coming revival that will begin in the Russian Far East.
An Example to Follow
Without seeking to place a single church, pastor, or ministry on a pedestal, and recognizing that the congregation has many faults (by my third month, I was frustrated with certain things), my time in this Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk fellowship was an encouragement and a learning opportunity that differed from my experiences in larger Russian cities or in the West. May the Yarmoliuks’ willingness to follow God alone be an example for those of us tempted to place our trust in our skills, training, donors, and mission organizations. May this church’s devotion to society’s outcasts challenge us when we are tempted to put our own church’s needs and comforts first. May we learn to listen, going where God calls us to go and giving to those whom He calls us to support, as part of His family. And as Petr Mikhailovich challenges us, may we be wise in Christ, while never being afraid to appear as fools for the sake of the Gospel.
Sharyl Corrado is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian history at the University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, completing dissertation research on the history of Sakhalin Island.
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© 2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report