[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 22, 2014.]
Faith Conversations: Pastor from Russia shares his journey to faith
By Roxane B. Salonen
Alexander Scheiermann was 10 or 11, as he recalls, in class with 44 of his peers, when his teacher, a Communist and atheist, asked him to join the rest of his classmates and accept the red bandana to embrace the Community party.
When the young Scheiermann refused, his instructor questioned him in front of the others. “Aha, you believe in God, don’t you?” she asked.
“She was pointing her finger at him, ridiculing him, and all of the students were looking at him,” said his translator, the Reverend Don Richman, formerly of Tower City, N.D. “He said he can still remember that he got hot and was red in his face and sweating, and out of fear and intimidation, he said ‘No.’ ”
Scheiermann was haunted for years by his answer, Richman said, noting that “he wept bitterly” in private later on. Though his parents were nominal Christians, the boy sensed deep down that it was wrong to denounce God.
“Eventually, he accepted Jesus and became a real believer,” Richman said, “and he was able to move beyond that moment by realizing that, like Peter (who had denied Christ), he could be forgiven, too.”
These and other life stories of Scheiermann, a German from Russia, have been told locally in recent days as the two pastors – one from Eastern Europe, the other, Minnesota – travel the region to garner support for a Lutheran church Scheiermann is building in his current residence of Saratov.
The trek, which began in Kirkland, Wash., and involved stops in five North Dakota cities, including Dickinson, Beulah, New Leipzig, Bismarck and Jamestown, will end soon in Plymouth, Minn.
Throughout the journey, Scheiermann has told locals of growing up in Siberia as a deportee, and how, even in the midst of adversity, he found Jesus Christ.
Richman has been with Scheiermann as founding director of the East European Mission Network, which helps rebuild churches of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Scheiermann’s story recounts what it was like living in Communist lands in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the privilege now of serving Christians there.
Richman said it was hard enough being a Christian in Communist Russia then, but “probably even more so as a Lutheran Christian, because so many Lutherans were German and the Russians were not at all happy about the Germans because of the invasion by Hitler.”
“In the earlier years,” he continued, “if you had a Bible, you were considered a criminal, subject to prison or sometimes even worse.”
Scheiermann’s family originally came to Saratov from Germany at an invitation to help develop the agricultural base along the Volga River.
But in 1941, during World War II, they were deported to Siberia. “His family was basically unloaded from the train to the region of Omsk,” Richman said. “Pastor Alexander was born and grew up in that area.”
Scheiermann’s parents were very young at that time of the deportation, around 3 or 4. “I suspect they were deported from Saratov because they were German, and the Russians were afraid they’d sympathize with and help the German army,” Richman said.
Around 1972, when Scheiermann was only 1, he started school. “They would go from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening, with the idea that (the little ones) could be brought up as Communists,” Richman said. “They had complete control over the children.”
As they progressed in age, the children were expected to join various Communist groups, but Scheiermann went instead on a quest for a Bible, a scarcity still, despite some relaxing of religious oppression after Joseph Stalin’s 1953 death.
“Eventually he found one, and it cost him about a month’s wages,” Richman said, adding that a combination of Scripture reading and catching late-night Christian radio stations on the AM dial helped Scheiermann grow in his Christian yearnings.
At 16, Scheiermann “gave his life to Jesus. He knew then that if he died, he would have life eternal.”
Scheiermann was drafted into the Russian army at age 18, and living among the soldiers then, began to see how “depressed and broken many young men were,” as he noted in a written account.
His family immigrated to West Germany in 1988, and while there, he married Irene. Two years later, he began studying theology in Switzerland.
“In 1995, God called us to return to Russia as missionaries,” Scheiermann wrote.
The couple has three children: Rachel, 17; Andreas, 14; and Daniel, 6.
“Our hearts’ desire is to bear witness to Jesus Christ to the people of Russia,” he said. “My goal is to see my people come to a living faith in Jesus Christ and to help build His church there.”
“He’s in the process of building a church in Saratov, and we’re welcoming contributions for that church building, which will be quite a nice place, a very useful place with meeting rooms, classrooms and they even have some small apartments for workers,” Richman said.
Richman, now of Bloomington, Minn., has visited Russia many times in recent years to teach and counsel, and said both Communism and atheism have been incredibly damaging to the Russian people, many of whom “lack any residual moral foundation.”
The culture has been fraught with such ills as alcoholism, the abandonment of children, molestation and rampant abortion, he added. “We have to build from the ground up what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”