Monday, August 12, 2013

Chapter 4: The Lord's Song in a Strange Land

Continued from Chapter 3: Discord.

IBLP distributed a letter, supposedly signed by Peter Peters, pleading with American churches not to export Christian rock music. Below are some excerpts from the letter:
For thirty years we have suffered intense persecution. Now freedom is bringing another great harm to our churches. This damage is coming from Christians in America who are sending rock music and evangelists accompanied by rock bands. 
We abhor all Christian rock music coming to our country. Rock music has nothing in common with ministry or the service to God.

We were in prison for fifteen years for Christ’s sake. We were not allowed to have Christian music, but ROCK MUSIC was used as a weapon against us day and night to destroy our souls.

Now it is Christians from America who damage our souls. We do not allow this music in our church, but these “evangelists” rent big stadiums and infect teenagers and adults with their rock music. We, the leadership and congregations of the Unregistered churches urge you to join with us, and we advise you to remove rock music from America.

We call this music, “music from hell.” We urge all Americans to stop giving money for the organizations of such concerts in Russia. We only want traditional Christian music in our churches. This is the unanimous decision of all our leaders.

Peter Peters and Vasilij Ryzhuk, Unregistered Union of Churches, Moscow, Russia, April 15, 1992

I had grown up on Iron Curtain stories. Nothing motivated me like a martyr! In solidarity with the suffering of the unregistered church of the former Soviet Union, I was determined to stand against this soul-destroying music, alone if necessary.

And it was necessary, at Drivers' Ed. My parents sent me to the public high school for driver training and I was immediately on guard. I hadn't been inside a state school since second grade and I was uncomfortable in a group of my worldly peers. On campus in my long skirts and prairie dresses, I definitely stood out. Since this was my first encounter with the "unsaved" in a long while, I brought a few tracts to distribute to my classmates. And I tried to control my laughter at the jokes that seemed risque but still struck me as funny.

I had no trouble learning the highway signs and proper following distance, but a problem arose when the instructor popped in a videotape. The overhead lights were switched off and the intro music swirled through the room. In no time, my heart was racing and I was suffocating. I left my seat and walked out to the hall, warm, still, and empty on a summer morning. During the next break, I explained to the instructor that my faith in Jesus Christ did not allow me to sit through the training videos. Whenever he played one after that, I would wander the campus outside or diligently study my book. My parents were proud when I reported back on my time out in "the world". Heck, I was proud! My convictions had been tested, and I had stood firm.

A few weeks after my driver's license arrived, I boarded an Aeroflot jet to Moscow with a group of bright-faced, homeschooled kids dressed neatly in matching white and navy blue. Our parents were followers of Bill Gothard and we shared a common coded vocabulary from his seminars: "motivational gifts", "birth order", Wisdom Booklets, "clear conscience", "umbrella of authority", Wisdom Search, "courtship", and "Godly music".

Rock music was very much in vogue in the post-Soviet era of glasnost and perestroika. Eurodisco and technopop blared from kiosks everywhere, as ubiquitous as stumbling drunks and softcore porn posters, as we traversed the city making presentations in the schools. Often the schoolchildren would have cultural presentations prepared for us, as well, and we would thank them graciously. We were there to teach them good character: truthfulness and attentiveness and obedience and gratefulness, with a smattering of American history and Bible stories thrown in by way of illustration.

During my 10-week stay, I was taken to several different Russian evangelical churches. The ones our group attended used fairly traditional hymns, but one Sunday there was another American group visiting the same service. They presented a special musical performance that I found rather appalling--"Listen to the Hammer Ring!", in English. Disturbing lyrics aside, I felt uncomfortable. Was not this the sound Pastor Peters had denounced, the beat we had been trained to resist? My instinct was to flee, yet as a foreign female minor representing "the Institute" in a school building I didn't know, it hardly seemed appropriate to leave. Feeling like a caged animal, I tried to distract myself by focusing on the interpreter signing the lyrics for the deaf (pause here to savor the irony!).

Back at the ship, our floating hotel, leadership piped soothing or inspirational instrumental albums from Majesty Music over the sound system into our rooms and we felt cleansed. The closest any of the approved recordings came to syncopation was an Easter album with a choral cover of Annie Herring's "Easter Song". This very slight variation of timing lifted our spirits in the same way that Bill Gothard's arrival with a Snickers bar for each of us cheered us like Christmas. We prayed, we fasted, we had hymnsings on the upper deck, we learned to sing hymns in Russian, we rehearsed testimonies and prepared evangelistic skits and practiced Gospel piano duets, we invited teachers and students to our weekly evangelistic meetings. We were there to do spiritual battle in a formerly atheistic communist nation, after all.

We were not there to find spouses, as the leadership reminded us often. Though most of us were high school age, and we lived and worked in very close proximity to one another, dating was strictly forbidden. Dress was professional, never less than semi-casual, and girls and boys maintained a physical and emotional buffer at all times. If a boy asked us to as much as sew a button on his shirt, we were instructed to refuse and direct him to one of the married chaperones instead.

IBLP Russia Team, 1993

IBLP was officially working under the Russian Department of Education, so we were sometimes asked to participate in special events. That spring our group was "invited" to attend an inter-school performance in a crowded arts center auditorium. Even the Patriarch of Moscow was in attendance. The lights beyond the stage were dimmed and the show began. Children in colorful costumes and bright hair ribbons danced and sang and performed puppet shows. Then a teenage couple took the stage. A rock song began to throb through the auditorium and they danced--a beautiful but intense and [to me] sensual dance.

I was agitated. I looked around to see how the others in my group were responding. Some seemed as uncomfortable as I was. I thought about Pastor Peters' letter and I felt terribly, terribly guilty. I leaned over to the Russian interpreter beside me, "We did this to your country, Sveta," I whispered. "I'm so sorry." Then I began shaking in my seat, my heart was racing, a full fight-or-flight response. I felt sure I was feeling demonic oppression. How long could I resist? I left my seat and fled for the outer concourse where I found the matrons of our group trying to calm several other girls who were in similar states. Twenty years later, I realize I was simply having my first real panic attack.

I had been conditioned to fear a certain beat, and I developed a fear response. It was as simple as that.

My experience with the outside world was fraught with unseen dangers. By now, I only really felt safe within the safe bounds of ATI and those who shared my beliefs about music. It would take years, rejection by Bill Gothard, and another missionary venture to free me from the legalistic bondage.

Continued at Part 5: Cognitive Dissonance


  1. Oh, the youthful, ignorant hubris and condescension in those few, sincere words: "We did this to your country, Sveta," I whispered. "I'm so sorry."

    I'm sorry that your upbringing deprived you of any normal understanding of music. =(

    As far as the unregistered baptists go, at least today, you'll find few more exacting with laws and regulations of all sorts and less ignorant of grace as a christian doctrine.
    (Living in Russia with a 'registered baptist' church in the early 2000s, we were invited to evangelistic services by the local 'unregistered church' - not to take part - but to get 'saved.' ;) )

    1. Oh, I know, Will! I comfort myself with the thought I was only 17 and had never even been part of an *American* youth group.

      Millstones for the necks of those who would make naive homeschooled kids the international morals police! :P

  2. I caught myself holding my breath as I read this, mostly because I was there with you on that trip and your words brought it all back, memories I'd stuffed down and blocked. Phew. Deep breath. You are so right, my friend. We were conditioned to many things...and the fear response was a natural reaction to that, not evidence of demonic influence or a rebellious nature or any other such rot. We were conditioned. Plain and simple. Thank you. xo

    1. And we're safe now.

      And we will unlearn all the nastiness and just keep the beautiful parts, like the friendships and the adventures, the soft snowflakes landing on our shoulders, the sweet hot tea, the warm sunshine on the birch trees and the country homes all trimmed like gingerbread houses. :)


    2. This response just brought tears to my eyes! I was there too! I've been reading your blog all evening. :-)

  3. So fascinating to read about your experiences. As a teen attending Basic Seminars at the time myself, I watched videos of these IBLP teams in Russia with much yearning to be a part of them. They were such a contrast to the chaos of our home life and my mini-mom duties. Of course it's a mercy that I never got to inflict my youthful sanctimonious uptightness in other parts of the world as I surely would have done given the chance!

  4. Oh so familiar – all the elements, except that my parents were too strict to even allow participating in ATI ministries (in this case family trumped Gothardism). The conditioned guilt, stomach knots, regarding anything with a backbeat... thankfully I developed ways to circumvent the structure (the oh-so-horrible invention of the internet was invaluable) and am still working through tearing off the layers of legalism that these ministries submerge children in. Thanks for your story, it's encouraging to read similar experiences of others and realize I'm not alone.