How I Ended Up in Siberia
By Dave Whitman
This article was first published in the Summer 2005 issue of MOVE Magazine.
Dave Whitman reflects on his journey from Leeds University to Krasnoyarsk.
“I was enjoying a lazy university afternoon with a good book and a cup of tea, when the doorbell rang. No one else was in, so I was forced to open the door…”
“It turned out to be a fresh-faced chap from Northern Ireland who wanted to survey me. I decided to humour him by answering his questions, and after the survey he began to explain the gospel. When I finally let him know that I was a Christian he stumped me with a simple question: “Next time I go out to share my faith, why don’t you come with me?” I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go (though I thought of a hundred the minute he left) so I agreed.
“That was my first contact with Agapé. Dessy and I would spend an afternoon a week together ‘hassling’ people (as my flat-mate called it). I didn’t know this was discipleship, but I slowly grew from being a silent observer to helping others share their faith. Each time I went it was a step of faith. It felt good to finally be talking about my faith after so many sermons which talked about it.
Towards the end of my time at Leeds, Dessy invited me to go on a secret summer project – four weeks in the Soviet Union. My memories and impressions from that first trip have stayed with me. In fact, they grew into what I later realised was God’s call for my life.
In 1989 I was offered the opportunity to live in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) for six months to help build an Agapé movement amongst students. During that time and the months that followed, God made it clear that he wanted me to leave my homeland to serve him. So I joined Agapé staff and by January 1993 I was back in Russia, this time in Moscow on a team with six Russians.
I worked in Moscow for two and a half years, and in the last year directed the team. This was difficult as well as fulfilling. I met Luda, a native of Kazakhstan who was on Agapé staff. She was somewhat famous for translating at Moscow Bible Church. At the end of that academic year I married her.
Then there was the call, “Go east, young man!” My idea of Siberia was formed more from the film Dr. Zhivago (shot in Finland) than from reality. To me, this romantic place was the heartland of Russia, the final frontier of the wild east. It was a cold day (-20ºc) when Luda and I finally persuaded our leadership to let us move 3000km east to Novosibirsk. We were to start a student ministry at its prestigious university which attracts students from all over Siberia and central Asia.
Two months after our wedding we set up home ten minutes walk from the university, fighting the cockroaches and cleaning the dirt from our first flat. After working in Moscow, Novosibirsk was great. There were no guards at the dorms to stop you getting in. Students were open to hearing about the gospel. Everything was within walking distance. No more hours of travel on the Metro.
And soon we were connecting with students. Marina was a Christian student we met in the dorms and Vitaly was a bright young maths student who liked Marina. They started spending time together, but Marina was torn because Vitaly was not a believer. One night I came back from the dorms to find Luda, Marina and Vitaly all very happy. Luda had just led Vitaly to Christ without even waiting for me! About a year later Marina and Vitaly were married (with their reception held in our one room flat). These days, both have high powered jobs in Moscow, are active in their church and support some of our Russian staff.
Five years after settling in Novosibirsk, we sensed that God was calling us another time zone east, to Krasnoyarsk. With our team, we are now working to give all 70,000 students in Krasnoyarsk the opportunity to discover Jesus. We also feel for the many other cities in our region where no one is giving this opportunity to students.
Perhaps God is calling you to go?