Andre Murzin was an atheist. That's what he had been brought up to believe in his native Ukraine, which at the time was still a republic of the Soviet Union. But in 1990, with the Iron Curtain rusting away all across Eastern Europe, conditions were ripe for change not only in Andre's spiritual perspective, but also in Ukraine itself.
Those who have helped influence Ukrainian society for Christ have been blessed to see how God has produced fruit from their labors, a prime example being Andre. It's a slow, challenging process; after all, the missionaries who go there - and the national believers - must undo seven-plus decades of government-induced atheism and carefully work through more than a thousand years of Eastern Orthodox tradition. But RTS, in partnership with other seminaries and missionary agencies, helps equip Andre and other Ukrainian church leaders to make Christ understood to a people whose view of Him has been distorted for centuries.
Andre's journey from atheism to RTS began with a band of tourists from England and the United States who visited his campus in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where the then-20-year-old was a student. Some of them were Christians who sought to explain the Gospel to him. "Such conversations were unfamiliar to me, but I was very interested," Andre says in his typically crisp English. Consistent with the manner of a well-trained skeptic, Andre spent several months investigating the claims of Christ and the various arguments presented by the Western Christians. His conclusion in 1991: He placed his trust in Christ as His Lord and Savior.
As the young student grew in his relationship with Jesus, he got involved with various ministries in his homeland, helping start a church. That's when Andre learned about RTS.
A SEMINARY IS BORN
In 1996 the seminary received an invitation to launch a program in partnership with Mission to the World, the international mission arm of the Presbyterian Church of America. A second denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, also participates in the partnership. In cooperation with Covenant and Westminster seminaries, RTS agreed to send professors to Ukraine for two weeks at a time to teach intensive versions of RTS classes to pastors and church leaders there.
In response to MTW's invitation, Dr. Richard Watson, Academic Dean for RTS-Jackson at the time, was responsible for arranging for the first group of professors to go to Ukraine. Now retired from RTS, Dr. Watson continues to work in Ukraine as Executive Director of the Mission to the World partnership and administrates what is known as Ukraine Biblical Seminary, which serves as an umbrella organization for the project.
The Ukraine Biblical Seminary is actually just one of four facets of Mission to the World's outreach in Ukraine. MTW operates an evangelistic ministry, crisis-pregnancy center, a medical ministry and an educational ministry (the seminary constitutes the educational component).
The current RTS presence in Ukraine involves professors making three two-week trips to Ukraine each year. One team went there in March 2003, and other teams plan to return in July and October 2003. The professors who have participated include Drs. Richard Pratt and Al Mawhinney from RTS-Orlando, and Drs. Robert Cara and Douglas Kelly from RTS-Charlotte. Professors traveling halfway around the world to teach the classes - conducted with the aid of translators - certainly make a sacrifice to be there. But the Ukrainian students make a long-term commitment of their own. First of all, it takes five years to graduate from the program. Each student attends each of the three annual two-week sessions with the visiting professors. Between sessions, they write papers, do assigned readings and carry out other assignments. The result: a Master of Divinity degree from the Ukraine Biblical Seminary.
The first graduating class finished their program in 2001, and 54 students have completed the program to date. The program currently accommodates roughly 120 students. Andre was part of that first class in 2001 and became one of the first two students to pursue a stateside RTS Degree.
Andre is currently finishing a degree in Missions from RTS-Jackson; he expects to graduate in May 2003. He and his family plan to return to Ukraine after spending another year here pursuing a Certificate in Biblical Studies. "I need to build up my Bible knowledge a little more," he explains.
Other Ukrainians have already returned home after studying at RTS stateside. Sergiy Orzhynskyy finished a Biblical Studies degree at RTS-Orlando this past December, and Olena Droshchenko graduated from the Counseling program at RTS-Orlando in 2001. Like his fellow Ukrainians, Andre sees his RTS experience as having equipped him well to return to his homeland. His time in the U.S. has served as a living lesson in the training he's receiving in cross-cultural ministry through the classes in his Missions program. "In my classes I'm taught to contextualize the Gospel, to put it in terms relevant to the audience you're trying to reach," Andre says. "Here I am, in another culture, so every day I'm getting a practical education, as well as a theological one."
That education will serve him well when he returns to his native culture. The spiritual condition of Ukraine is a blend of secular humanism left over from the Communist era and religious ritualism that was revived upon the breakup of the Soviet Union. "Most Ukrainians consider themselves Orthodox, whether it be Russian Orthodox or Ukrainian Orthodox," Andre explains. "There are some true Christians in the Orthodox Church there, but for the most part it's more a cultural identification than a real relationship with Christ. "
Evangelical Christians struggle for credibility in the face of more than 1,000 years of institutionalized religion. "In Ukraine, if you're an evangelical believer, then you're considered somewhat of an oddball," Andre says. To most Ukrainian minds, an evangelical is no different from a cultist.
The spiritual conflict in Ukraine is not limited to the non-believing public. The RTS-influenced seminary partnership has helped Ukrainian Christians address their own differences, as well as their theological misconceptions. "The Ukrainians would say that we have made Reformed theology palatable to Ukrainians," Dr. Watson explains. "The only denominations that were allowed to exist under Communism had taken strong stands against Calvinism in any form. Teaching the Bible the way we do has helped many people there understand the Reformed faith, and many have said, "'I was Reformed all the time.'"
LET'S WORK TOGETHER
A greater legacy of the partnership there, involves helping the disparate denominational and theological camps in the Ukrainian church to cooperate with one other. In the seminary classes, Charismatics rub shoulders with Baptists, and Baptists of various stripes learn biblical truths together. "These people have never done anything together," Dr. Watson says, "and when they come to our classes, they come together, and they like it. We have a great mix."
According to Dr. Pratt, Andre's future leadership potential in Ukraine hinges in part on his passion for Christian unity. "Andre has a great heart for uniting the efforts of the various Protestant denominations," Dr. Pratt says. "Ukraine has huge needs, and we need people like Andre to go back there with advanced degrees to help set up programs." The RTS-Orlando professor cites one potential program: The Ukrainian public- school system allows teachers with advanced degrees in religion to come into the schools to teach ethics and moral values. Leaders like Andre could help Ukrainian Christians make the most of the window of opportunity for ministry in that context.
Andre appreciates the support and encouragement he has received from the RTS faculty. He specifically refers to Dr. Pratt as the "greatest teacher I've ever had."
Quite a statement from a former atheist.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 22, Number 1-2