By Charles Kelley and Kristen Zetzsche
RIGA, Latvia – We arrived back in Riga in May of 1991 to a people living on the threshold of revolution. The atmosphere was electric with expectation. We had come with a team of evangelists, musicians, and teachers to present the long-planned Hope ‘91, a week-long evangelistic crusade with a mini-school for Christian workers. Representatives of European, Baltic, and Soviet news services were intensely interested in the events and participants of Hope ‘91, and we immediately became the center of a swirl of media attention.
We soon realized that we were perceived as part of an inswell of Western influence riding into Latvia on the swift tide of revolution. Many Latvians caught up in the revolutionary fever were reaching out indiscriminately to all things Western, ready to adopt all of our cultural trappings and paraphernalia wholesale. We were interviewed daily, quoted widely, and heralded as representatives of the West. It was a heady time and a dangerous opening for demagogues and charlatans, and we soon realized how important the decades of prayer leading up to this event would be in keeping us grounded and focused.
Before our arrival in Riga, we had gathered together at the Solasen Training Center, an old villa on a steep fjord in Sweden dedicated to instilling missionary vision in emerging spiritual leaders from all over the Soviet Union. Here the entire team had spent hours in prayer, worship, communion, and cultural orientation before boarding the plane for Latvia.
At home in Corvallis, Mike Parker was leading our church in a round-the-clock prayer vigil for the success of Hope ‘91. And Almers welcomed us at the airport with the hopes of his father, who had prayed for five decades for this moment in Latvian history when the word of God could be publicly proclaimed. This history of prayer proved to be an essential and solid bedrock for us in the days of feverish activity and media scrutiny that lay ahead.
The Latvian executive committee had prepared long and hard for our arrival. At the large downtown post office, a sixty-foot golden banner announced the dates for “Ceriba ‘91.” They had rented the cavernous Sports Arena, a dark, dingy, dirty old building with hard wooden benches, filthy bathrooms, and hardly a functioning light bulb in the hallways. Our counselor training would take place in the giant cloak closet with barely three lights burning. But the committee had filled the main hall with flowers and hung another gigantic golden banner across the stage, a Christian fish symbol with an adjoining American and Latvian flag to symbolize our cooperation. Ten thousand copies of the Hope ‘91 songbook lay stacked and ready, a compilation of fifty hymns and contemporary songs that was the product of a core of highly committed musicians who had dedicated themselves to translating the Western songs into Latvian.
In the country at large the Black Berets stepped up their harassment, attacking customs outposts throughout the Baltics and swooping indiscriminately to kill and kidnap. But the ponderous pendulum of the Soviet Union’s history had already turned against them, and there was a prevailing sense that their time was near its end.
On the evening of Sunday, May 19, the participating churches and ministries gathered together at Golgotha Baptist Church in Riga for a celebratory service of prayer and dedication. And on the morning of Monday, May 20, Hope ‘91 officially began.
During the half century of Soviet occupation in Latvia, church activities had been officially restricted to Sunday morning church services and choir practices. These they had pursued with a diligence that often left Western visitors breathless: their choirs and musicians were spectacularly talented and well trained, and their church services were long and focused. But other traditional areas of church life had been forcibly neglected: evangelism, outreach, children’s and youth ministries, and pastoral training. Now that new freedoms were in reach, the church leaders felt inadequately prepared for the challenges and opportunities, and they had put together a list of topics in which they wanted further training.
These became the blueprint for the Hope ‘91 mini-school, held each day of that week in May from 10:30 until 3:30. On each of these days, more than 400 pastors and lay leaders from around Latvia gathered at the three Baptist churches for practical teaching in pastoral counseling, preaching, women’s ministries, personal evangelism, current theological issues, youth ministry, Christian education, and prison ministry. The instructors represented churches, seminaries, and twelve ministries from North America and Europe, and they were amazed at the students’ eagerness and aptitude.
But the central purpose of this week in May was still the nightly meetings at the dark and derelict Sports Arena. The deluge of publicity had done its work, and night after night the 4,500-seat hall was filled to capacity. Our young masters of ceremonies began each program with a welcome and a roof-raising Latvian rendition of “Majesty,” our theme song for the week.
The Latvian pastors had chosen the unifying topic of hope as our focus, and each evening was directed toward a different segment of the population: hope for the family, hope for the elderly and handicapped, hope for the intellectual skeptic, hope for the future, hope for youth, and Christ our hope. It proved to be a rousing and highly relevant theme for this week perched on the brink of independence.
The Hope ‘91 evangelist was Steve Russo, a professional drummer from the United States with a dynamic message expertly suited to the theme of hope. During Friday evening’s session geared toward youth, Steve quoted Psalm 100’s “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands,” then sat down at his drum set and played a spectacular drum solo that brought all 4,500 audience members to their feet in an overpowering standing ovation. This was an invigorating new form of sacred music that seemed to capture the excitement of the times and of the Christian message that many in the young crowd were hearing for the first time.
Each night, after the testimonies and the music, the message and the invitation, hundreds came to the front of the hall to pray with counselors and commit their lives to following Jesus Christ. Those who came forward in response to this once shunned and dangerous message represented a remarkable cross-section of Latvian culture, including students, firebrand reformers, middle-aged bureaucrats, and members of parliament.
As the week progressed and the crowds remained standing room only, we began to realize that the children’s program we had prepared would probably not be adequate. During the course of inviting people in the streets to the Hope meetings, members of our team had encountered a children’s drama troupe from North Carolina performing on a street corner in Riga. They were impressed with the quality of the presentation and the soundness of the message, and we agreed to ask them to perform for Saturday’s children’s program. They were able to provide us with a script of the performance one day in advance, and Estere and Bill, two of our amazing interpreters, worked through the night to translate the American slang production into a Latvian script for simultaneous translation on the day of the performance.
On Saturday morning, more than two thousand squealing, wound-up children crowded into the Sports Arena, wriggling and wrestling on the hard wooden benches. As I looked at the rows of bodies from the front of the arena it seemed that the very wood had hatched and sprouted wings into thousands of vibrant, vibrating butterflies. But when the program began they settled quickly, delighted at the well-trained Latvian children’s choir and the young soloist singing “Jesus Loves Me” in Latvian. And when the drama troupe came on stage, all two thousand were spellbound by the powerful story of Jesus’ love and sacrifice.
At the end of Steve Russo’s invitation the hall was amazingly quiet. And then the children began coming forward, children raised from birth to know no God, indoctrinated through every medium that touched their lives to serve the state and reject all superstition, streaming toward the front to respond to the gift of Jesus’ love. More than seven hundred of the children came to the front of the hall that morning to give their lives to Jesus. We wept as we met them.
Three months later, on August 19, 1991, the KGB and the vice president of the Soviet Union staged a coup in Moscow, kidnapping Gorbachev in the process. Although it ultimately failed against the compelling image of Boris Yeltsin towering above the tanks that surrounded the Kremlin and exhorting the Russian soldiers and citizens to resist, its effects were dramatic. Latvia declared its total and immediate independence on August 21, ending the transitional period of independence and catapulting the country into the little-charted waters of democracy and—for a time—near-chaos. And it signaled the eventual death knoll of the once all-powerful Soviet Union.
In many ways, Hope ‘91 was a cross-tie on this track to freedom. It occurred in the center of a firestorm of obsession in Latvia for all things Western, and much of its initial pull may truly have been an undiscriminating embrace of anything American-made. And to be sure, we made many mistakes along the way. We later learned that representatives of the cults—the Hare Krishnas and Moonies and others who were expertly taking advantage of this obvious openness—were circulating among the legitimate counselors after the Hope sessions to convert and claim those who came forward to accept Christ.
But through it all, the solid bulwark of generations of prayer for this week in May of 1991 protected us—and those who came to hear our message—from our own inadequacies and mistakes. A formal evaluation in the late 1990s commissioned by the Latvian Baptist Union pointed to Hope ‘91 and the Hope campaigns that would follow in 1992 and 1994 as the most important factors in Latvian church growth in that first decade of freedom. Eighty-five percent of the students enrolled in the Latvian Baptist seminaries in 1994 and 1995 gave their lives to Christ during the Hope campaigns of 1991 and 1992. Others who are now leaders of ministries with nationwide influence also publicly professed Christ for the first time at these outreaches. The mini-school equipped the Christian pastors and leaders who attended to reach out beyond their walls in the new era of religious freedom. And many ordinary citizens of Latvia entered the difficult years of chaos and crisis that would follow independence with a true hope that could not be shattered by the disillusionment associated with unrealistic expectations of democracy and capitalism that would crush many of their neighbors and friends.
I also returned to Corvallis with a changed heart, challenged by the changed lives and the turbulent times we had experienced. And as I saw the impact of the message we had brought on members of parliament as well as children, I began to formulate aloud a question that had been bouncing around in my brain for some time now: Does God want our church to influence a nation?
This article is an excerpt from Surprised by the Father’s Plan by Charles David Kelley and Kristen Zetzsche. It is available in hardback and audio formats, as well as in the Latvian language. You can order it from Amazon or from the BBI office or Chuck.