This compelling travelogue shares stories of the bold faith and brave witness of Christians living in more than 20 of the most dangerous countries in the world, including China, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
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About the Author
Tim Keesee is the founder and executive director of Frontline Missions International, which has served to advance the gospel in some of the world’s most difficult places for over twenty-five years. He has traveled to more than eighty countries, reporting on the church from the former Iron Curtain countries to war-torn Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Keesee is the executive producer of the DVD documentary series Dispatches from the Front. Learn more at frontlinemissions.info.
Read an Excerpt
END OF EMPIRE
The Former Soviet Republics
It's easy to romanticize the experiences of the underground church in the Soviet Union: cool, courageous stories of smuggling Bibles; cat-and-mouse games with the KGB; and images of Soviet Christians worshipping in the forest, their pews fallen logs and their chapel walls silver birch with a cathedral ceiling that reached the sky. But it was no picnic, no James Bond movie. The Soviet Christians were brutally persecuted, and their pastors' preparation for ministry usually took place in a prison rather than a seminary.
But the underground church was not underground. Believers spoke of Christ and won many to him, even in prison. This was Galina's story. Galina Vilchinskaya was a twenty-three-year-old Sunday school teacher who spent five years in prison for her gospel work; but prison, hunger, and beatings could not silence her. She led many in her prison to the Lord, so she was transferred to another prison — and after that, yet another. For her, these transfers were just new gospel opportunities. Finally, Galina was transported by prison train to the utter east of Siberia, along with scores of other prisoners — the worst of the worst. As the condemned in their cages rumbled on through the Siberian vastness, the din of cursing and fighting was broken by a clear, sweet voice of singing. It was Galina singing of her Savior. A hush fell over the train car. Even the most hardened criminals turned their faces away to hide their tears — and mile after mile, hymn after hymn, Galina sang the gospel.
It's really absurd, though, that the full force of the Soviet Union was bent on crushing a Sunday school teacher for the crime of "being a Sunday School teacher." Such senseless hatred, when it erupts to the surface, is like opening a furnace door to hell. But the gates of hell were no match for Galina's God. One striking proof of that is that today Galina is a pastor's wife in Siberia, where once she was a prisoner of an empire that no longer exists.
The collapse of the Soviet state brought unprecedented freedom and gospel opportunity to believers living across the eleven time zones of that massive empire. Fifteen new countries rose up from the rubble — and new tyrants rose up, too. Persecution has returned — but now, it's not only from tyrannical governments but also from resurgent Islam, over a vast swath of central Asia, from the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan.
The rise and crash of nations provides a perfect backdrop for our Christ's unending kingdom and his saving grace — news so good that even a starving prisoner couldn't help but sing of it! Christians in these unshackled lands are still singing of Jesus, still speaking of him.
This afternoon Sergei and Ilona, friends of mine from Warsaw, drove me to the outskirts of Riga. There along the shores of the Daugava, the old Soviet naval base and airfields sit in quiet decay. Once the proud vanguard of a great empire, the sprawling military complex is succumbing to the ravages of rust and crabgrass. Yet many retired veterans still live in the crumbling apartments near the base, and that is what took me there today — to look up an old friend. I've been here before — a dozen years ago. Then it was a blustery night with a light dusting of snow. A friend of mine arranged for me to stay with a Christian, and so I was brought here. Nothing looked familiar today, though, until the door of apartment 38 opened up, and there was Alexei Beloborodov. He was a bit grayer, but still ramrod straight with a soldier's bearing, and he was as kind as ever. Twelve years ago he took a stranger in on a cold night. I remember he made me a meal of black bread and fried eggs with steaming black tea. It was right after the USSR collapsed, and the ruble was worthless. I learned later that my host was so poor that he only ate one meal a day at that time, but his little one-room apartment was a place of joy and hospitality.
How good it was to see Brother Alexei again today! He invited us to tea. There have been so many questions I have wanted to ask him about his life, and today was my chance. Alexei went to war at age sixteen — that was in 1943. As a young tank commander, he quickly proved himself in battle, as evidenced by the box of medals he brought out of his closet and by his scars. He fought all the way to the smoldering ruins of Hitler's Berlin. He returned home in victory, only to find he had no home. His village near Moscow had been destroyed in the war and his family all killed or scattered. So Alexei returned to the only life he knew — the Soviet military. He became a naval intelligence officer, got married, raised children, and spent nearly thirty years in the service.
As an officer, Alexei had access to shortwave radio, and he heard Christian broadcasts beamed into the Soviet Union. The gospel changed him forever! He repented of his sins and received Christ into his life. That was 1968. He had no Bible, no church, no pastor, no Christian friend — no one to fellowship with, except the Lord. Alexei told me that he would often take long walks deep into the woods, where he would pray and weep and sing. His was a lonely walk. It was seven years before he met another Christian — after he left the military. He said when he first learned the man was a Christian, Alexei gave him a big bear hug before he could even get the words out to the surprised man!
Yet Alexei's walk would get even lonelier. Shortly afterward, he was baptized, and this public testimony of his faith was a great dividing line in his life. His wife divorced him, and his children would have nothing to do with him. For several years he was homeless, living in a cold, dank basement without electricity or running water. He eventually found a job in a factory and a place to stay, but his penchant for passing out smuggled tracts and sharing his faith kept him in trouble with the KGB during the years of persecution.
For over twenty-five years now — during persecution and during freedom — Alexei has never missed church a single time. In fact, when he worked at the factory and was scheduled to work on Sunday, he would pay a coworker a full day's wage to take his place!
We talked until dusk, and he took out a little box of mementos. Among them were yellowing photographs of a handsome, young officer in his crisp uniform, decorated with many medals. He took one of them out of the box. Stamped in red on dull silver were the Russian words — "for bravery in battle." He gave it to me, but I said, "I cannot take this — it is a treasure won at great cost." He smiled and said, "I am going home soon and will have no need of it there."
My friend has known so much loneliness in his life, and yet the Lord has filled the emptiness with himself. We walked outside, prayed together, and parted ways. As I set out for Riga, the last, long light of day brightened the birches as old Brother Beloborodov turned and walked back alone.
ON THE RAIL, MOSCOW TO KAZAN, RUSSIA
The Kazan Express jostled out of the dusty Moscow rail station and lurched eastward, slipping through a sprawling, industrial section of the city cast in hues of concrete gray and rusty red. Outside of Moscow, though, even with approaching twilight, there was vibrant color — a spring countryside waking from the long Russian winter — dappled forests of birch, fresh green fields, and little cherry orchards wreathed with white blossoms. Despite the unseasonable heat, Pavlo, my friend and interpreter from Kiev, fills the teapot a second time. I enjoy another strong, steaming cup as we settle in for the evening and our five-hundred-mile trek to the east.
After a long night on the train, I awoke to see the morning sun shimmering on the vast Volga River. Thin light fingered through birches and maples dressed in the crayon colors of spring. Mist hung over the vast swath of the great river, leaving the minarets of the White Kremlin in silhouette on the sunrise side of the city.
I think my heart skipped a beat at first sighting this storied shore. The legendary city of the Golden Horde was Ivan the Terrible's prized conquest, the gateway to Siberia and an even greater empire. But I had little time to relive the past, for as soon as we stepped off the train, we were stuffed into a little Lada and went careening through the streets of Kazan with Pastor Mikhail Trofimov. He drives like Jehu, but it was well that he did, for we barely made it in time for the Sunday service, where I joined the slate of preachers. Typically, there are two or three sermons in a service, punctuated with hymns, prayer, and poetry. The morning service concluded around noon with the afternoon service following at 1:30. This proximity is necessary, since few people have vehicles; the distances to walk and the cost of train tickets make it best to have the two services before and after lunch.
Between services I got better acquainted with Pastor Mikhail over a flavorful lunch of pickle soup, smoked sardines, and buttermilk. Pastor is an intense and energetic man whom God is greatly using here in the Kazan region. Because of his commitment to a trained ministry, he has organized a two-week Bible school. I'm teaching Pastoral Epistles starting in the morning.
We have a good group of students at our Bible school, which is meeting in a borrowed classroom of a public school. Despite the fact that they have seven hours of instruction each day, they are attentive and diligent. We had expected about twenty students, but as of today we have thirty-three. Most of them are pastors who, during the years of persecution, never had the opportunity for formal Bible training. Some of the pastors have traveled considerable distances to be here, even from as far as the city of Perm — a seventeen-hour train trip to Kazan.
Lectured this morning, and in the afternoon accompanied Pastor Gennady Yeliazarov of Kazan to appeal to the commandant over all the prisons in Tatarstan to allow us into the strict-regime prison on the west bank of the Volga. Gennady also hoped to gain greater concessions for his ministry among prisoners, such as having Communion for believers and baptizing new converts.
Gennady, who serves as one of the pastors here, has a great heart for prisoners, for he was once a prisoner himself. His crime? Preaching the gospel and organizing choirs in various parts of the Soviet Union. When the KGB caught up with him, he was in Uzbekistan, training choirs among the underground churches there. Gennady was sent to prison in Rostov near the Black Sea. Each cell in his gulag held a hundred and fifty men with barely enough room for all to stand. The only facilities was a bucket in each cell. When Gennady first arrived, the guard took him to his cell. When he opened the door, it was so packed with standing prisoners that Gennady said, "There is no room here." The guard then shoved him in with a laugh saying, "Then make room," and slammed the door. Gennady spent three years in this gulag for the cause of Christ.
The irony of our meeting today was that the commandant was once the police chief in Gennady's village. He was the man who had ransacked Gennady's home looking for Bibles. He was the one who had hounded the pastor and his family and flock. He was the man who had gathered evidence against Gennady for which he was ultimately sent to prison. Now, after all these years had passed, they met again — the preacher and the persecutor.
There was no animosity from Gennady. None. In fact, he had told me earlier that going to prison had been a "good thing." I was puzzled and asked, "How was it a good thing?" "If I had never gone to prison," he replied, "then I would not have been able to understand prisoners and reach them with the gospel. The Lord has allowed me to lead thirty prisoners to Christ already." In fact, that is why we were meeting the commandant. It would take special permission for these men to be baptized and receive the Lord's Supper inside the Soviet-style prison. Only the commandant could give such permission. Actually, Gennady had already gone "over his head" in asking permission, because he had requested it of the Lord in prayer.
As is typical with these ex-Communist encounters, our meeting with the commandant turned out to be a long wait, interrupted occasionally by promises of a meeting. During the wait, we walked around Lenin University, named for Kazan's most famous dropout; the impatient revolutionary studied here for only three months. Afterward, Gennady and I returned to the prison headquarters. When we were finally given admittance, we climbed many flights of stairs, and, after more waiting, we were at last escorted into the commandant's office. There he sat behind a desk with so many telephones on it that I thought he must collect them. Behind his darkened glasses was a hard, oily face. He and Gennady entered into a sometimes intense discussion that lasted for nearly an hour. I had little to do at the meeting, other than the fact that Gennady believed having an American "doctor" present would help the cause of gaining concessions.
At the end of the meeting, we all shook hands and were escorted out. The discussion had been in rapid-fire Russian, so I didn't know what the outcome was until we walked away and Gennady leaned over and whispered, "Slava Bogu" (Glory to God)! God, by his grace and sovereignty, turned the commandant's flinty heart. He agreed that we can preach in the strict-regime prison tomorrow night, and my brother Gennady may hold baptismal services there and strengthen believers around the Lord's Table. I agree with Gennady — Slava Bogu!
After lectures today, Gennady, Pavlo, and I took the train out to the strict- regime prison, where two thousand murderers, kidnappers, and assorted thieves and rapists are packed in behind steel bars and razor wire. Among these criminals were those who had accepted the Savior, the "Friend of Sinners." Many of these men came to the service, and I believe our visit encouraged them in the Lord.
To reach the meeting place, we had to surrender our passports, receive warnings about assaults, and go through three steel doors with our escort. Then we proceeded through a maze of cordoned walkways in the prison yard. The men crowded on both sides of us, their faces dark, eyes empty, forms shrunken. This is a maximum security prison, and, unlike its American counterpart, there is no cable TV or air-conditioned fitness center.
It was a privilege to have a service with these prisoners. About thirty gathered, of which about twenty-five are professing believers. We had hymns accompanied by a guitar. I preached, and Pavlo interpreted. There was good attention and many expressions of gratitude from the prisoners before the guards escorted us out. Surprisingly, the officer in charge stayed for the service. He, too, thanked us for coming and even invited us back! We returned by train to Kazan with much joy, recalling Isaiah's words, "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Isa. 61:1).
Spent much of the day in the city. Gennady took us all around Kazan. As far back as the Mongols, Kazan has been an important crossroad between East and West. It developed into an important industrial center during World War II, as strategic industry was moved further east, away from the German offensive. In order to supply the resistance, munitions production and aircraft design were done here. Today, much of the state industries are crumbling, casualties of perestroika. There is one massive plastics factory on the outskirts of Kazan. It is a sprawling, black-plumed complex, belching fumes into the air night and day. Some of the smokestacks look like giant Roman candles, as gas fires lit at the top burn off the most noxious pollutants.
In the heart of the city, amid the confluence of the Kazanka and Volga Rivers, sits the White Kremlin, a citadel that dates back to the time of the Golden Horde. All around the kremlin, the mosques and orthodox churches reflect the religious and cultural divide between Tatar and Russian. We entered one mosque, and the imam proudly showed us everything — from the pulpit to the washrooms, where men ceremoniously purify themselves in preparation for prayer.
One of the great needs in reaching Tatar Muslims with the gospel is to have the Bible and tracts published in the Tatar language. A century ago, the Gospels and Psalms were published in Tatar, but more needs to be done to effectively reach these six million Tatars!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dispatches from the Front"
Copyright © 2014 Timothy D. Keesee.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Justin Taylor 11
Prologue: Danville, Virginia 17
1 End of Empire: The Former Soviet Republics 23
2 Children of Cain: The Balkans 49
3 Ten Sparrows: China 77
4 Within a Yard of Hell: Southeast Asia 101
5 Souls of the Brave: Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan 129
6 Amazing Grace: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea 159
7 Prison Break: The Horn of Africa and Egypt 181
8 Dimmed by Dust: Afghanistan and Iraq 209
What People are Saying About This
“Beware of Dispatches from the Front if you don’t like being moved and inspired and shaken out of the ruts of your life. These are kingdom stories that build faith in the present providence of God over his mission and stir up action for the sake of lost and hurting people near and far. I would love to see thousands of people mobilized as senders and goers for the sake of the glory of Christ and the relief of suffering on the frontiers, especially eternal suffering.”
John Piper, Founder and Teacher, desiringGod.org; Chancellor, Bethlehem College & Seminary; author, Desiring God
“Dispatches from the Front is a thoughtful, moving, understated, and ultimately convicting narrative depicting the work of the gospel in some of the most challenging corners of the world. It tells of brothers and sisters in Christ who in God’s grace display faithfulness and transcendent joy, unflagging zeal to share the gospel, and an unfettered allegiance to King Jesus. To read of the kingdom advance in the teeth of challenges is to learn humility and rekindle contrition, faith, and intercessory prayer.”
D. A. Carson,Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Cofounder, The Gospel Coalition
“Like a war correspondent, Tim Keesee has brought us to the frontto walk down bomb-shattered streets, along jungle paths, and into the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Their Christlike courage in living as ‘lambs among wolves’ is a striking witness to the power of the gospel.”
Jim DeMint,former United States senator; Chairman, Conservative Partnership Institute
“The Lord promised to call to himself people from every nation, tribe, and tongue, and few things thrill me more than seeing and hearing how he is fulfilling that promise. Tim Keesee has a remarkable ministry in traveling the world to seek out what the Lord is doing and to make these things known. Dispatches from the Front allows you to travel with him, and if you go along, you will be blessed, you will be encouraged, and you will praise God.”
Tim Challies, blogger, Challies.com
“Dispatches from the Front is a fascinating look at how the gospel is penetrating some of the world’s neediest places. These are regions where all the worst agonies of human life are multiplied and magnified relentlessly by war, extreme poverty, sex trafficking, drug dealing, false religion, and disease . . . but your spirit will be encouraged by the triumphant power of Christ.”
Phil Johnson,Executive Director,Grace to You
“We have been far more successful at westernizing the world than gospelizing it. Tim’s book is a kind but firm challenge to a church that has exchanged the great commission for a smaller, more comfortable version. Each chapter is a serious wake-up call for churches and Christians to return to an authentic, New Testament mission.”
Sam Horn, President, Central Theological Seminary
“This book is intriguing, well-written, and culturally informative, and it introduces us to fellow-believers who otherwise would remain unknown. Read it for those reasons. But read it first and foremost because it reveals anew the first-century Christ, who is now remaking diverse people of this twenty-first century into the elite citizens of his everlasting kingdom.”
David J. Hesselgrave, Emeritus Professor of Mission, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“Riveting. Tim writes with artistry and passion about gospel needs and gospel triumphs. He labors in the world’s toughest places and, through his journals, takes us along for the ride. Read this book. Rejoice. Weep. Pray. Then find a way to join those serving on the front lines for the glory of Jesus Christ.”
Chris Anderson, Pastor, Killian Hill Baptist Church, Lilburn, Georgia
“Dispatches from the Front is a powerful book. It spreads a vision for God’s mission to call a people for his name and provides incredible reminders of the gospel’s power. Read it and your heart will be stirred to praise God for his mercy among the nations and to pray for its continued spread.”
David M. Doran, President, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary