Our ministry has been a great adventure and we see the power of Gospel message that brings a spiritual freedom to Russian lonely, forgotten prisoners. I would like to give you an update on our work in Russian prisons. One in every four adult men in Russia is a former prisoner.
There is no single country in the world where as many citizens have been sent to prison as Russia. More than one million people are held in Russian jails that remain overcrowded and disease ridden with soaring HIV and tuberculosis infection rates. Three percent of Russian families have lost their provider to the ill-treatment of the justice system.
A jail sentence in Russia means time inside a grim institution, and also the real possibility of contracting a serious disease. Conditions are harsh. Many of the old Soviet era institutions are crumbling and badly under funded. Russian prisons are often overcrowded places that are breeding grounds for disease and despair.
One inmate wrote: “I was sentenced to four years imprisonment for a crime I committed, but now everything looks as if my life is taken away and that is not just a saying. I am dying here…coughing out the last bit of my lungs.”
Much of the problem is due to the fact that Russia has a history of putting a lot of people behind bars. Under Stalin, millions of Russians were incarcerated in forced prison camps (gulags), a system which became synonymous with mass repression.
Today, non-custodial sentences such as community service are rare, and conviction rates are extremely high, another legacy of the Soviet legal system. People are sent to prison for relatively minor offenses. Russian Missions has been working with the prison populations in Russia for many years and have had heartfelt success with many prisoners. Prison ministry is alive and growing. We praise God for all He has allowed us to accomplish.
One reason the government has allowed our programs is that our programs have been effecting positive changes in the lives of the prisoners. These prisoners have joyously received the Lord through our ministry. For the first time in their lives, they have experienced Christian love, compassion and best of all–hope. With their newborn faith, they are now strengthened to deal with the harsh problems life sends without reverting to their prior lives of drugs and alcohol–the main reasons most were imprisoned.
Here is just one of the example of the way that God is working to bring prisoners to Himself.
Alexei discovered the freedom to live victoriously by applying God’s Word to his life and in turn desires to help others do the same. Over the years, God has provided Alexei with many opportunities to share his testimony and the life-changing message of the Gospel.
His is an incredible testimony of the dynamic, redeeming work of Jesus Christ. He believes and teaches that regardless of a person’s background or past mistakes, God has a place for them and can help them on their path to enjoying everyday life.
Alexei had fallen so deep into trouble, pain and emptiness, he no longer knew the way out. He felt as though he was wasting his life. But God reached down from on high and took hold of Alexei rescuing him out of the deep waters.
Alexei Polyakov writes: I thought I was a free person. Relishing in the criminal world brought me a life of false comforts…expensive restaurants, luxurious clothes, gambling, and drunken parties. After years of my immoral lifestyle, I landed in jail for fraud.
It was May 1995 and I still continued to brag that my two expensive lawyers would have me free in no time at all. In spite of their promises, I remained in prison. Idleness in prison breeds frustration and having nothing better to do, I began reading. I picked up whatever was available and swallowed it page after page.
For the first time in my life, I had come across something so pure. I was hungry to continue reading, but I could not…not like I was. So, I jumped off my bunk, and by pouring water from the teapot I washed myself, changed into clean clothes, replaced my bed linen and laid down to return to reading the Bible.
I needed to pray the Prayer of Salvation. But how could I do it? With 23 others in the cell, privacy was no longer part of my world. As I lay in bed, I began to pray for God’s mercy. You see. God truly is a God of miracles. I can honestly testify that God reached down that evening, took hold of me and shook me from my former self. I could no longer deny the obvious.
There had to be another purpose to life than just to indulge my impulses. I woke up the next morning a different person. I felt a warm feeling as if some great bondage that was in me had melted away. Since that evening, Jesus has given me peace and hope for the future.
It became very clear to me that God had called me to run from my old ways, repent and become a soldier in His army. Having saved me, He gave me a ministry the very next evening. I shared with my cellmates what had happened, 23 people listened. I told them that God had never given up on me! He certainly will never give up on you. No matter how far down you are in life, God is willing to meet you there and bring you out. The answers to life’s questions are all in His great book—the Bible.
My testimony could have ended there, but I believed that if God started something He would finish it. There were letters about God and His love that I sent out to my parents and my wife. A year after my sentencing, I was permitted a day with my wife, Tatiana. “There is something different about you. You have changed and are no longer the same person I married.” I tried to explain to her that I had experienced a spiritual birth and was a new creature in Christ but she did not understand. I prayed “Lord, open her eyes and let her accept you as I have.”
However, nothing happened until one Sunday about a year later, when an invitation to accept Jesus was offered at our church service. Tatiana went forward to accept Christ! I was flabbergasted, “Lord I haven’t started praying for her yet today and she has already accepted you!”
In December 1996 I was transferred to another prison in the town of Solikamsk. My wife followed me, found employment and lived in the town until my release. In April 1998, I was released. On the 5th of July, I was baptized. I am blessed to share with you that out of the six people who were baptized that day, five were former prisoners.
A week after baptism, I was approached by some brothers of our church. They offered me a prison ministry. As I still had many friends in both prisons, I immediately agreed. I had spoken about God who could perform miracles and my transformation and early release were proof of God’s miracles.
During the next few years, I spoke at many prisons throughout Russia and spent one-to-one spiritual counseling time with many prisoners. With feelings of regret, I left my prison ministry in 2002 to be come a pastor at a local church in the city of Kurgan.
However, God called my church to adopt two prisons—women’s adult prison and a boys youth prison. In addition, we were blessed to be able to work with a locked down boarding school for teenage girls who have committed misdemeanors. There are many aspects of all these ministries that go beyond simple spiritual outreach. For instance, two sisters from my church take in children born in prison and raise them in a Christian home atmosphere until their mothers are released.
Now I no longer wander through life. Christ is transforming me in new and wonderful ways. I am conscious that I’m on an exciting journey. I wish I had become a Christian sooner.
I believe that a passionate pursuit of Christ is foundational to our continuing prison missions. He is our vision, our ambition, our satisfaction. It’s our love for Him that compels us to lay down our lives and join Him in establishing His kingdom on the earth. And it’s His love for us that sustains us in that work. My wife and I desire to be people who are continually growing in our knowledge of God and who are quick to follow Jesus wherever He leads.
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” – 1 John 3:17-18.
So please, for the sake of those who cannot help themselves, let me urge you to “comfort God’s people” by sending a generous gift of kindness and care today.
Allow me to leave you with this biblical blessing: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deeds” (Proverbs 19:17).
Pastor Vitali Yuchkovski
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