Victor Akhterov is bursting with wonderful stories of how people have become Christians from listening to broadcasts by Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) in Russia and the Ukraine.
There was the stubborn husband who broke his legs in a car accident and had to listen to three weeks of FEBC broadcasts because his newly converted wife placed the radio out of his reach on the couch.
There was the young couple who came into the studio with their little daughter after defying family advice to have an abortion because they listened to an FEBC testimony from a woman who kept her baby.
Then there was the woman who stunned him into silence while he was preaching about the philosophical reasons for believing in God.
“This woman calls me and says: ‘You keep talking about this wonderful God who loves us, who is there for us, who knows all about our needs’,” Victor, FEBC’s Russian director, recalls during a visit to Sydney last week.
“ ‘It sounds so great but – you know what? – my husband left me three weeks ago and I cannot go out of the apartment because I have a little daughter who has Down syndrome, and I cannot leave her. I lost my job because of this. And you’re telling me that there’s a loving God. Why doesn’t he come to my little apartment and see how real it is?’ – and she just hung up.
“What do you say to that, you know? So I was just silent for a second, which is not a good thing for radio, but people started to call in and offer help. They offered to babysit and take care of her daughter and to enrol her in a programme in a church and to pick them up if necessary. It was such an outpouring of Christian love, such a great example of where God is – he’s right there, he’s in us and is working through us.”
The caller is now in church and her daughter is enrolled in a programme for disabled kids.
“It’s so wonderful to see how we can connect people and show the world that the church is alive,” he says. “It’s not enough just to be there; we’re there to help people in practical and real ways.”
FEBC Russian Ministries is part of FEBC International, which takes the gospel by radio to places where listeners are unlikely to hear the message of Jesus in any other way. With stations in Moscow, St Petersburg, several other cities in Russia and one in Ukraine, it reaches an estimated weekly audience of three million by radio and one million online.
“We have all kinds of people from all walks of life and we are trying to preach the gospel but in a way that’s relatable to the people, to reach them where they are,” he says.
One of the big social problems the station has been tackling is the phenomenon of social orphans – there are an estimated one million children in Russia whose parents are too addicted to drugs or alcohol to take care of them. Many of them wind up living rough on the streets.
“So we are encouraging people to adopt them. It’s not very popular in Russia at all to adopt, so we decided to change the mindset of the country and talk about how as Christians we are God’s family. And people began to adopt – about 50,000 children have been adopted because of this church-wide effort.”
The new Christians mentioned in the first anecdote (with the husband with the broken legs) were among those who responded to the repeated appeals to adopt or become a foster parent.
“They said ‘We’re too old for that but we are happy to go and help with the orphans’, and they came and saw Roksana. She was 14, and not adoptable by Russian standards, but they knew that she was their daughter so they adopted her.
“Then their daughter comes in and they say ‘This is Victor from FEBC’ and I see she considers for a second then she gives me a hug and says ‘Thank you so much for what you do’ … I hear stories like that all over Russia.”
Growing up in a Christian family in the Soviet Union, Victor had few Christian friends and the family faced constant government persecution.
“When I was 10 years old I had to make a decision ‘Do I become a youth communist member where I wear the red tie?’ I decided not to and that was character-forming for me. That was truly a public confession of my faith.
“Then when I was 15 my dad was imprisoned for his faith so that was another type of trial. That was his second term in prison.”
On a visit to see his father in a highly secure political prison in Ukraine, Victor was amazed as his father told story after story after story of inmates who had become Christian.
“Of course, it’s not just preaching to people in prison; people see how you live in prison and care for them, help people, and encourage people.
“That’s the principle we try to use at FEBC, just be real with people, be honest with people and help them where they are, not just preach at them. That’s important for us.”
Over the 26 years of his involvement in FEBC Victor has witnessed many shifts in the political climate.
“In early days it became more open but now the country is becoming more and more closed,” he says. “Russia is becoming more and more anti-Western, and evangelical Christianity is portrayed as not our religion because our religion is the Orthodox Church and evangelicals are like Americans. Unfortunately, it is becoming a little more difficult to be a Christian now. Of course, no comparison to what it was before but it’s by the grace of God that we are still able to broadcast in Moscow and St Petersburg, which are the two capitals of Russia. So we seek prayer support as much as possible.”
A year ago, amid the outcry over the shooting down of MH17, the Russian army closed down the FEBC station in the Ukraine for four months.
“They came to a church and took four volunteers away, our best broadcasters. They beat them to death and four of them died. We did not know for eight months. Everyone was hoping and they were killed the first night. I came to the building where they were taken; it was the same building where my dad was held so I had lots of emotions.”
After the loss of her husband, one of the widows felt God opening her heart to serve the Russian soldiers stationed in Kiev and share her table with the 30,000 refugees in that city.
“She opens her house and gives them radios, Bibles, some help and some food and people hear her stories and are amazed that she is able to show that much love. She is sharing her story and many soldiers have become Christian. They are so young and they have to fight their countrymen and it’s very difficult. God provided for us, opening the station, so we are broadcasting again and reaching many people for Christ.”More