Pastor, tell us about your life in Norway before coming to Russia.
I was born in 1972 in the city of Christiansen, in the south of Norway. My parents were believing Christians, so I have been familiar with the church since childhood. At two years old, I began to attend Sunday school classes, at the age of 17 I rethought my life: I wanted to become an engineer, but became a missionary.
How old were you when you heard the invitation to go on a mission to Tuva?
In 1990, we had an internship in the north of Norway and visited Murmansk for several days. This trip impressed me, but I did not consider Russia as my place of relocation. I believed that the mission was somewhere in Africa or South America, and I did not even have a thought that I needed to go to Russia. However, the trip to Murmansk impressed me greatly. Then in the USSR perestroika was already underway – there was publicity, the country was open to the Gospel. In one of the public gardens in Murmansk, we held a street meeting, at which many people got saved.
After that, I went to a missionary school in Norway. While studying in my first year, while fasting, I received the revelation that I needed to go to minister in Russia. After that, I began to prepare – to learn the language. A year later, in my second year of the missionary school, I went to practice in Central Russia. Once I came to Kostroma, where I was invited to visit and was told that in the Komi Republic, in the city of Usinsk, there is a small group of believers, but they do not have a pastor. At first I didn’t react to these words, but after a couple of days the Holy Spirit told me to go to Usinsk. I went there in 1993, I was 21 years old. I hardly knew Russian.
Russia seemed to me a wild country with an alien culture. Moreover, 1993 is not a very quiet time in Russia.
I served in Usinsk for two years, during which time we developed ministries in the church. After that, I lived in Moscow for a year, studying the Russian language at the Pushkin Institute. Once I came to Oslo, where I had to pass an exam in Russian. I lived with my friend, in a communal apartment. One of the tenants of this apartment once asked: do we know someone who can go to serve as a missionary in Tuva? His father worked as the general secretary of a missionary organization that wanted to send a missionary to Tuva, but at the last moment he changed his mind. I said that I do not know anyone who wants to become a missionary in Tuva. However, after a couple of days, I realized that such a person is me. In 1998, I went to Tuva for the first time, for three years.
Did you have any fears before going to Tuva?
YesI had. It was scary to go into the unknown. However, after several years of living in Russia, Tuva no longer seemed scary for me, despite the differences between Tuvan culture and Russian.
Tell us about your preparation for the trip: what difficulties did you face?
I have been preparing to move to Tuva for a year. It was difficult for me to get a visa to Russia. Despite the fact that I was invited to teach English at Tuva State University, the documents took a very long time. I no longer had problems with the Russian language. Of course we prayed.
In 1995 I came to Kyzyl. We opened a church, over time it became part of the “Church of Worship”, which in turn became part of the “Cornerstone” church association. In 2001 I left Tuva. In 2006 I returned there again.
What surprised you the most in Tuva?
Tuvans surprised me. They are people who do not speak directly, as they do in the West. In Tuva, as in other Asian cultures, you need to understand what a person means. Although, probably, I was more surprised when I arrived in Central Russia from Norway than in Tuva. I remember I was surprised that in Russia people said one thing and didthe other. For example, they said that they would come to the meeting, but did not come, or they said that they would try to do something and did not, but I thought that they would really try.
In what ways did you begin to preach the Gospel among the local population.
The Tuvan people are quite open to the Gospel, they believe in the existence of the spiritual world, which simplifies the preaching of the Gospel. At first we preached in Russian, since we did not know the Tuvan language. Many people in Kyzyl know Russian. It seems to me that the local population found it easier to understand my primitive Russian language than the Russians themselves. I traveled a lot to the villages: people usually received us well. In principle, now it has also, perhaps, become a little more difficult. Once we came to a village preaching the Gospel, the director and teacher of a local school came to listen to us. Services are still being held in that village. Then we began Alpha courses, rehabilitation centers were established – in general, they began to use different methods for preaching.
Tell us how the local population reacted to the fact that a foreigner preaches the Gospel?
Tuvans are very proud of their culture, especially when foreigners come to Tuva. Therefore, the locals treated me well. I taught at the university, so I had a lot of contacts with people who were interested in English. I have not encountered difficulties in preaching the gospel. Tuvinians, as Buddhists, it seems to me, were not interested in who I was: an Orthodox Christian or a Protestant. It seems to me that they generally accept the Gospel as part of Russian culture. They say that the Russians have Jesus, and the Tuvans have a God – Buddha.
How many people attend your church meetings?
About 150 adults and about 40 children attend the meetings. During the coronavirus pandemic, there are fewer people in the church. However, now the number of parishioners is growing.
How many missionary churches have your community planted in Tuva and beyond during your leadership?
Outside Tuva, we do not have missionary churches. Last year, we wanted to send missionaries to Mongolia, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, we were unable to do so. The trip was postponed until the coming May. In Tuva we have seven communities of believers.
What difficulties did you encounter while preaching among the local population?
Tuvans for the most part believe that Christianity is not their national religion. They consider themselves Buddhists and shamanists; therefore, Tuvan Christians are considered traitors. This is the main problem of Tuvan brothers and sisters. Plus strong ties with relatives. If someone comes to Christ, then relatives begin to put pressure on thrm. I saw how people accepted Christ with joy and greatly experienced Him, but because of strong pressure from relatives and friends, they stopped going to church.
In preaching the Gospel, do you focus on the indigenous population or on other peoples too?
We have Russians, Armenians and Tuvans in our church. It is clear that the majority of the parishioners in the villages are Tuvans. In one of the villages where Russians live, there is a Russian pastor, but most of the parishioners are Tuvans. In Kyzyl, we conduct services in Russian. In rural areas, services are held in Tuvan.
While serving in Tuva, we want the indigenous population to accept Christ. However, I know that every person needs to be saved, so the gospel needs to be preached to all nations.
The positions of Buddhism and shamanism are strong in Tuva. Have you faced pressure or threats in connection with your preaching work?
I think that shamans opposed us in the spirit world. Buddhists generally have to be peaceful when they are not drunk (laughs). If the locals call themselves Buddhists, but at the same time drink alcohol, then they are not Buddhists, since they do not drink at all, but simply nationalists. They can argue with believers. But personally, we have not encountered such people: no one attacked us or our building. I know that sometimes drunk husbands beat their wives because they are Christians. As for the authorities: I think that we have fewer problems than in general in Russia. There was no harassment from the authorities.
In 2020, 45 murders per 100 thousand of the population were registered in Kyzyl. Thus, the city became the most dangerous in Russia. Can the Church rectify the situation?
When it gets dark outside, it is better not to go outside. Most of the murders here are related to alcohol consumption. During the day, attacks almost never occur. Therefore, I am not afraid to live in Tuva. But the situation in the republic is really not very good. I’m sure it has something to do with the spirit world: idol worship and shamanism. Hence – the big problems with alcoholism, drug use (cannabis).
The police are fighting this phenomenon. I believe the drug trade can be defeated with the help of the church and the gospel. I do not see the spiritual power in Buddhism and shamanism that can defeat the spirits behind drug trafficking and alcoholism. Therefore, believers can pray, preach the Gospel, free people from the evil spirits of drug addiction and alcoholism. Protestants have an advantage in preaching Christianity, since the Russian Orthodox Church is considered a church for Russians. There are, of course, Tuvans there, but they are few. In the Protestant communities on the territory of Tuva, there are much more Tuvans than Russians.
Local Russians complain about discrimination from the indigenous population. Have you encountered her?
Discrimination against the non-indigenous population is manifested in certain areas. For example, you are sitting in a clinic, a doctor comes out of the office into the corridor and starts speaking Tuvan. It can be difficult for those who do not understand the Tuvan language.
Tell me, did you want to leave Tuva for Norway? Why did you decide to stay?
No. Norway may have a quieter and safer life, but it’s boring there. I understand that my life in Tuva is God’s will.
I have no thoughts to leave.
I married a Tuvan and became a local resident. With my family, we usually go to Norway every summer. There I work as a taxi driver. In Norway, salaries are very good, which helps us improve our financial situation. We go to visit, we live with my mother. It didn’t work out last year because of the coronavirus, but we were in December. This year, if everything works out, then we will also go for a month and a half.
“Whatdid you give up in order to go on a mission?
I gave up comfort, as we are here periodically faced with needs. Norway has a completely different standard of living. Among my classmates, I am the poorest. However, I consider myself the richest in terms of inner life. If I had stayed in Norway, I would have envied myself who had left for Tuva. I believe in God’s blessings. This does not mean that we will be rich or successful if we go on a mission. We must seek God’s kingdom and everything else will follow.
You have children growing up. How much do you want them to stay in Tuva when they grow up?
Perhaps, when they grow up, they will leave, but so far I do not want them to study in Norway, because there, as in the West in general, society is unhealthy in terms of attitudes towards homosexuality. From this point of view, I am eager for my children to grow up in Russia. Of course, Norway also has good churches, in particular in my hometown. But still, I think it will be better if the children grow up here. Although my oldest daughter, now 12 years old, wants to move to Norway when she gets older.
How much is there a lack of Protestant missionaries in Tuva? And what can you say to those who are afraid to go on a mission to this region?
Those who want to come to Tuva should understand that there is Asian culture here. This must be understood immediately. But don’t be afraid to come here.
We are faced with a shortage of ministers. Our church is part of the “Cornerstone” association of churches of Christians of the Evangelical faith, where the emphasis is on social service. We have our own building, where it would be possible to organize a monastery community to help dependent people, but there are no those who will serve. It would be good if someone received a call to come to serve in Tuva. However, I believe that missionaries are in short supply everywhere.
How successful do you consider your work in Tuva?
I expect it to be successful. For the seventh year in a row, we have been running Bible courses to train ministers. Previously, the church has grown a little, but recently there has been no growth at all. But I feel that God is doing invisible work, the results of which will be visible. How successful is difficult to say. I think we are in God’s will because God has a purpose for our work.
How do you see the future of Tuva?
I believe that the future of Tuva is connected with the Gospel. There are so many problems in this region that there must be a revival to solve them. I believe that the statistics that portray Tuva in a bad light will change; I believe that Tuva will become an example for other regions of Russia.
Share what God revealed to you about the people of Tuva?
Tuvans are a good people, they are very open. They have a kind of inner closure, which is why some people are afraid of them. But in general they are very peaceful and friendly. They are open to the spiritual world, including Christianity. I believe that God loves Tuvans.
Alexey Kovalenok specially for GOD.NEWS