During our first CMO project in 2006, we showed The Light of the World in a very small village called Khashchovanya. By the time of that showing, we had already experienced a fair amount of resistance from Catholic priests in other villages. Thus I was quite surprised when we saw the priest from Khashchovanya present at our showing along with his children! He viewed the entire film, and listened without objection to my Gospel presentation at the end.
That day, as we packed our gear and prepared to leave, he came over to chat with me. He introduced himself as Father Stepan, and said, "You guys are protestants, right?" I gave him some type of diplomatic answer, the result of previous experience speaking with other priests, and then explained that we simply believe the Bible and preach salvation by grace through faith. He then surprised me further by saying, "That is the message I have been preaching to these people every Sunday." I was shocked. Far from rejecting the Gospel of grace, here was a priest who actually seemed to be telling me that he was in agreement with it!
Our conversation that day was brief, and after we left I related what had happened to the rest of the team. We didn't have any further contact with Father Stepan after that, but we wondered if perhaps he might know the Lord. His words certainly seemed to confirm that.
Last month, a full three years after our first visit to Khashchovanya, we again rolled into the village in Jessie's yellow van. This year, we planned to show a new film in Khashchovanya: Fireproof. We asked around and soon found Father Stepan. I introduced myself again, and asked if he remembered me. "How could I forget a name like Joshua?" he asked warmly. (There is no equivalent for the name "Joshua" in Ukrainian.) We explained our desire to show Fireproof, and again were pleased to see that he was very open to the idea. We told him that we would be back in a couple of weeks to hang some posters. Then we wrote down his cell number, and headed to the next village on our list.
Once I again I found myself wondering if this man might be saved. I've always known that there are born-again Christians in the Catholic Church - maybe even priests - but I couldn't say for certain that I had ever met one. Furthermore, I have seen over and over again how the Catholic system blinds people to the Gospel. Most of my interaction with Catholic priests in the Carpathians reminds me of Jesus' sobering rebuke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13: "But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in." And yet, Father Stepan seemed to be cut from a different cloth. Still, I was hesitant to hope for too much since we had only chatted briefly on a couple of occasions.
Soon the time came for our team to return to Khashchovanya and advertise the film. Jessie happened to be in Poland that day, so the rest of us went to the mountains by train. When we reached a city called Striy, only 30 minutes from the mountains, we got on a bus which would take us the rest of the way to Khashchovanya. To my surprise, after only a few stops, Father Stepan got on the bus also! He immediately recognized us, and took a seat next to me. At first I was a bit nervous, knowing that we still had at least two hours of travel time ahead of us. A lot can happen during a two-hour conversation. Little did I know that this conversation would turn out to be one of the most exciting I have ever had in the mountains of Western Ukraine.
We started off with simple questions. He asked about our work, how we are supported, what kinds of things we do in L'viv, etc. I asked about his family, and how long he had served in Khashchovanya. He showed me some family pictures on his cell phone, and I showed him pictures of Kelsie and the kids on my iPod. So far so good. Cautiously, I dropped a comment about how our ministry respects the Bible as God's Word and the final authority in every area of life. To my delight, he picked up on this, and began recounting his own studies. "Of course the Bible must be our final authority," he told me. "I studied in Catholic Seminary for five years, and I didn't learn that. I started reading the Bible on my own, and they almost kicked me out." I picked my jaw up off the floor and tried to organize my thoughts. Here was a priest who was telling me that he was nearly expelled from seminary because he studied the Bible! I was not shocked that the seminary would do such a thing, but rather that I was actually talking to a person from within the Catholic system who understood and openly acknowledged the foundational nature of Scripture!
It gets better. "You know," he continued, "the problem with people is that they all want to trust in their own works for salvation. But a man can only be justified by faith. I've been screaming that to my people for eight years now. Only the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ can save." That did it. My initial skepticism vanished, and the two of us started swapping favorite Scripture verses like old pals from Bible college. Until that day, I had NEVER talked to a priest who told me about man's need for imputed righteousness. "You know, Father Stepan, I think you have a very unique position." I said. "There are people who will listen to you that would never pay any attention to me. It's like Paul said in that verse about trying to be all things to all men… ummm…" I couldn't think of how it went in Ukrainian. Father Stepan finished the verse for me from memory: "And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;"
Then we came to the subject of witnessing techniques. Father Stepan has a favorite approach. "The best way to witness to someone is to start out with a simple question," he explained. "When you die, are you going to heaven or hell? There are only two options." He went on to recount how most people think/hope they're going to heaven, but that they base this on their own good works instead of on the finished work of Christ. By now I was starting to suspect that Father Stepan had been listening to Ray Comfort! "The Catholic Church doesn't teach this message," he said sadly. "It's present in their doctrines, but they don't believe it. You think I learned these things in seminary? No. I learned them from protestant brothers and from reading the Bible." I would later learn that Father Stepan has been listening to radio broadcasts from preachers like Dr. J. Vernon McGee since the early 90's.
I wish I had a recording of our fellowship on that bus. I have given the highlights as best I remember them, but much more was said. In four years of ministering the Gospel in Carpathian mountain villages, I have never met anyone who knew the Gospel message like Father Stepan. A week later, our team returned to Khashchovanya. We showed the film, and afterward I preached a short Gospel message. Once again, Father Stepan was there for the whole thing, and afterward, he invited us to his house. At one point during our conversation, he asked a favor of me: "Do you have access to the internet?" I acknowledged that I do. "If you could somehow get me recordings of J. Vernon McGee's sermons in Russian, that would be a great help to me." He then proceeded to show me a shelf in his living room, about three feet wide, which was crammed from one end to the other with small paperback notebooks. He opened one of these and I saw that it was completely filled with handwritten notes. "You see all these? These are my studies of the Bible and notes I have taken from listening to preachers on the radio."
Before we left Father Stepan's home that day, our whole team gathered with him and prayed for the village of Khashchovanya. We prayed for God's blessing on him and his ministry, and that God would open the hearts of the people to the message of Christ. I would like to ask you to pray for Father Stepan as well. I am as certain of his salvation in Christ as I have ever been about anyone. There are times on the mission field when one begins to experience the Elijah syndrome: "I'm alone and no one else is following Christ." But that day on our bus ride to the Carpathian mountains, God showed me one of His own: a shining light in a remote village, a man of God, faithfully proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ alone. And you can be certain that his job is not an easy one. At least our team has the means to travel to many villages, to print large amounts of literature, and to maintain direct contact with believers whom we know and love. Father Stepan is holding the line in a very dark place. For eight years he has preached the Gospel to the people of that village, and he is preaching still. Please pray for him. Men like that are few and far between.
In closing, I want to say that my story above is not intended as a call to ecumenicism. This is not a story of an Evangelical and a Catholic who decided to shelve their doctrine so they could have a praise service in the same room. This is the story of a modern-day Martin Luther: a man to whom God has revealed Himself through the Scriptures. Yes, I'm sure that if I sat down with Father Stepan and compared doctrinal statements there would be differences - maybe big ones. But when I think of Father Stepan and his little church in the mountains, I am reminded of Jesus' dialogue with His disciples in Mark 9:38-40: "And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part."
I rejoice that I have an ally in the Carpathians: a man who knows my Lord and preaches His Gospel. And I ask you again: when you pray for missionaries in Ukraine, remember to add one more to your list: pray for Brother Stepan.