Pastor from Norilsk: “Local residents have an unspoken desire – to leave here”

Pastor Alexander Lebedev has been serving in the North of the Krasnoyarsk Territory for 12 years. He told correspondent about the peculiarities of preaching the Gospel in the harsh conditions of the North.

Pastor Alexander, tell us, were you born in Norilsk or moved there?

I was born in Central Asia, near Alma-Ata, in the Kazakh SSR. These are warm places. In the 90s we emigrated to Russia, to the city of Zheleznogorsk, Krasnoyarsk Territory. In 2009, after 2.5 years in church, I was sent on a mission trip to Norilsk. My pastor received a revelation: to send me to the north of the Krasnoyarsk Territory. However, he gave me the opportunity to pray and to make a decision on my own. I did not pray for long, because God quickly told me: “If you want to see great miracles – go.” I agreed with God.

Norilsk is a city of regional significance in the north of the Krasnoyarsk Territory with a population of 181.8 thousand people. It is the northernmost city in the world with a population of over 150 thousand people. Norilsk is a large non-ferrous metallurgy center. The city-forming enterprise is the Polar Division of the Mining and Metallurgical Company Norilsk Nickel.

What were your expectations when you arrived in Norilsk?

I had no illusion that everything would start very quickly. However, it turned out to be harsher than I expected. I didn’t think that everything was so sad, but when I arrived, I faced black and gray everyday life – especially in autumn – it all looked very sad. The city where I came from is very picturesque, like a little Switzerland, with a lake in the middle. The landscape of Norilsk was radically different: there are no trees, everything is gray, and there is also industrial waste: gas, sulfur …

Was there a desire to go back?

Of course. In the first month, I dreamed of going back. However, the realization of my calling held me back. I understood that I was needed here. There was a feeling that I needed to stay in a new place for a while and something would happen. Only thanks to this I conquered myself and stayed. Subsequently, I began to see God’s help. There were times when I received step-by-step instructions from God: what to do. We acted in accordance with them and got the results. Since at first we specialized in alcohol and drug addicts, we opened centers for spiritual and moral recovery, people began to come to the church. After that, I realized that I would stay in Norilsk.

Shift workers come to Norilsk to work. Who do you emphasize in preaching the gospel: them or the locals?

We do not divide people into local residents and visitors – the church is open to everyone. Indeed, many visitors come to the church. At the same time, local residents have an unspoken desire to leave Norilsk at any cost: to earn money to buy an apartment “on the mainland” and leave this region. Few people connect their further destiny with Norilsk. Therefore, we have come to terms with this and work in such conditions. Of course, if people didn’t leave, the church would be bigger.

How many actual parishioners are there at the moment?

“We calculated that in the first three years of our ministry in Norilsk, 400 people passed through the church. Then we stopped keeping statistics, since there is no time for this, and we do not see any sense in this. Now the payroll of the church is 130-plus people. About 100 people attend the services. It is difficult to instill in people the culture of going to church on Sundays, because they work at the factory on Sundays. Of course, those who were saved in our church try to carry this culture into their families. However, middle class person – if he works on Sunday, then he works. Not coming to church on Sunday is not out of the ordinary. If there is a day off on Sunday, they come to church. Of course, at first we branded this behavior, saying that the spirit of Mammon prevails among people. However, then we stopped making such judgments: a man came – we rejoiced; a man left Norilsk – we blessed. We are warned in advance about the planned move. We accept their decision calmly. If they are ministers, then we stop relying on them. Recently, however, we have been trying to send people out as missionaries when people move to another city – so that they not only join the local church, but begin the ministry on their own. So far, only one family has left us in this format – they now serve as missionaries in Lesosibirsk (Krasnoyarsk Territory), and so we want to send another family to Belgorod.

How willingly do local workers accept the gospel?

They accept willingly, but not always the Word falls into good soil. Because most often it is a type of soil in which the cares of this age choke the seed. And so people willingly come to church by invitation and after personal testimony. Street evangelism is not so developed in our country, since throughout January we have the temperature below – 40c. But, even after they come to church, these stern men subsequently lose the .essage of salvation because of the worries of the world. More often than on the mainland. I served in Zheleznogorsk – there were more home groups there in a shorter time, and more people came to church. Here people have more desire to make money.

What tools do you see in order to change the attitude of local believers towards Norilsk?

We are now focusing on building clean and selfless relationships – when people understand that we love them not for the result, but simply to build relationships. It’s just that there is very little warmth among people in Norilsk. We ourselves have reformed internally. Previously, we were focused on the result: it played a big role how many people go to church, how many attend Sunday services. Now we do not put emphasis on this – everything has come down to spiritual and mental fellowship, to love between us. This is not a pathos or lyrics, this is what we came to after 10 years of ministry in Norilsk, after we realized that it is very difficult here to motivate people for results. Local residents are influenced by several factors: the polar night lasts three months, long winter from October to early June, and low oxygen concentration in the air due to the fact that Norilsk is located on the Putorana plateau. We understand that due to the combination of these reasons, it is difficult to demand results from people. We ourselves do not feel very well, although we pray, and take fasts, and hide in the Word. This is not to say that the result is unimportant, but it is secondary.

Do you preach the Gospel among the indigenous population of Taimyr?

As a pastor, I have no revelation to do this. We are more concerned with those who are addicted.

According to the website of the local authorities of the Evenki Municipal District of the Krasnoyarsk Territory, “in recent years, the incidence of alcoholism among the indigenous peoples of the North of Russia has increased by 20-25 percent. During this time, the mortality rate from chronic alcoholism among the male population increased 6.5 times, and among the female population – 19 times.

Alcoholism is widespread among the northern peoples. Are you planning to somehow start helping people with alcoholism?

In terms of alcohol – yes, they are very tight on the traffic jam. To get drunk, they only need to sniff the cork. We are already helping them, they come to us. Representatives of the local peoples of the Nenets and Nganasans passed through our church. Two Dolgans, a boy and a girl, got rid of their addiction to drinking. They stuck to the church, the Nenets, Nganasans. The boy will soon have a family. But I noticed that the indigenous population has a hard time taking the Word of God. Perhaps this is due to their mentality. They seem to believe, but in terms of sin they are cowardly. After completing the course of spiritual and moral restoration, they leave to wander. Probably, their nomadic lifestyle and lack of attachment to a specific place does not allow them to accept the Gospel. In general, we are not looking at whether it is indigenous or non-indigenous. We have Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, Tatars, Bashkirs in our church. People come to Norilsk for a big ruble, and then they get into trouble, and then they come to churches.

To what extent do indigenous people preach the Gospel to their fellow tribesmen?

“They do not value salvation of their people. They, of course, pray for their people, but in order to attach legs to their faith – it has not yet reached him. When he meets, he preaches to his family. Most of the Dolgans live in Dudinka. There are small churches of about 20 people, where both Nenets and Dolgans are saved.

How can the church influence the trends when residents of remote regions of Russia leave for more developed areas?

Hard question. I myself am in frustration looking at what is happening. While the residents of Norilsk are leaving, young migrants from Muslim countries come here. Sometimes they behave defiantly, insolently, in particular, towards local girls. When the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated again, young Azerbaijanis started driving around in cars, waving their national flags. However, all this was very quickly calmed by the local criminal authorities.

On February 11, Interfax reported that FSB officers detained a local resident in Norilsk for recruiting people into the Islamic State terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.

I cannot say that I, as a pastor, have any tools to keep young people in Norilsk. It is rather a social sphere: projects for the development of the North and this will be relevant for young people. From the point of view of a religious background, this is only prayer and the preaching of the Gospel. Recently, we have more young people in our church after young people started playing in the worship team. Our worship ministry uses computer graphics. We have moved away from the format when they could be in the church only at a certain time, now the youth can spend their leisure time in the church. We gave them the keys to the church. They feel trust.

That is, they get together and play musical instruments. However, I still cannot say that this is a mass revival. First of all, this is a small stratum of young people. It is necessary that young people rise up at the local level, and then they will begin to attract other people like a magnet.

During the 10 years of your ministry, have you thought of leaving Norilsk?

In 2016 we were offered to move to Novorossiysk. There was even someone to leave the church to. But I didn’t have a revelation, so we didn’t go anywhere. Moreover, then we had a small child, and in the church something began to work out. And then … to move, even to a warmer region, and start everything from scratch … We talked with my wife and decided to stay. Of course, we try to go on a vacation to warm regions in January. However, this year it did not work out. Even if I would receive an offer to move somewhere, then, most likely, I would have refused. We are accompanied by people who say that if we leave, the whole crowd, like gypsies, will follow us. I don’t want the whole church to migrate with us.

Alexey Kovalenok specially for GOD.NEWS

Photo by Alexander Lebedev.