In the warmth of our missions center in mid-February, we had the privilege of visiting with Slava and Olya Selivanov, their five year old son, Daniel, and their friend and interpreter, Andre’ Anokhin. Slava had just been named National Campus Ministry Director for Campus Crusade for Christ, which meant we were about to visit with someone who would be responsible for every Campus Ministry team active in the universities across the entire country of Russia. We gathered to hear his story, curious to know what it was like to minister there, what kind of support he and his family were needing, and what brought them to central Texas.
Born in a small town near the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Slava said he was just like many other children growing up in Russian villages: no link to a church except to call yourself “Orthodox” and certainly no relationship with Christ. As he grew older, he had no regard for authority and became involved in gangs and began using drugs. He might still be living that way, or worse, dead, if it hadn’t been for an evangelistic pastor and a church of 25 believers in his town. He said the pastor tried to build a relationship with them, Slava and his friends who had run the streets together for drugs and crime. The young evangelist didn’t seem like a threat, besides, he gave them a laugh every now and then, so they didn’t mind him hanging around. Months passed, not much changed. Life was still very dark and hope for any future was non-existent. Then Slava said something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget about the young evangelist: “When we were all together during the day and he wasn’t around, we’d laugh at him. But when I would go home, at night, when I was alone, I wanted to be like him.” Like two pieces of flint being struck to produce a spark, one man’s hopeless world was colliding with the Kingdom of God brought by the peaceful feet of an evangelist living the gospel. God was starting a fire in the heart of a Siberian gangster.
God was beckoning to Slava and finally one night, he called the pastor and surrendered to hope in Christ. The future was not bleak, not hopeless; in a step of faith he would choose the hope that is Christ. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Slava and the evangelist prayed together that night and the next morning he realized more than just his spirit had been healed. He had no craving for the substances he had abused for years. The miracle was real and he was amazed at the completeness of his healing. Slava received a call from two Christian men who had been praying for him at the request of the pastor and they began discipling him. After being discipled, the Lord called Slava to spread the Good News, just like it was brought to him.
Being involved in a ministry to addicts and criminals, Slava was being pulled in an uncomfortable direction: students. He felt much more comfortable with criminals, but he could see the need for evangelism and discipleship and the fertile soil of the hearts of students. “I’m not asking you to teach them physics or mathematics,” Slava felt the Holy Spirit impressing on his heart. “Just tell them about Jesus.” God was giving him a vision for spreading the gospel among students. While attending church, he met Olya, a bright-eyed Christian from north of the arctic circle. In time, they formed a small evangelism team and began to concentrate on students. They were married, became acquainted with Campus Crusade missionaries, and in 2005, answered the challenge to work for New Life Russia (Campus Crusade) which moved them to Krasnoyarsk.
Fast forward to 2017… Five beautiful children, a vibrant student ministry in Krasnoyarsk training Christian students in six universities who have responded to the challenge to build spiritual movements, and Slava receives a call. For the last 25 years, since the beginnings of Campus Crusade in Russia, a foreigner has been the leader of this ministry. As the leadership in Campus Crusade considers all of the people who might be able to fill this vacancy of National Director of Student Ministry in Russia, two names continue to resonate with them: Slava and Olya Selivanov. Not only are they humble, willing to sacrifice, dedicated to and gifted in organizing movements of evangelism and discipleship, and on fire, they’re also Russian. Andre’, Slava’s interpreter and ministry team partner, tried to convey just how significant this is: “It is not illegal to be a Christian in Russia, but the government can make it exceedingly hard to organize and meet together. As restrictions tighten, the possibility for and instances of deportation of missionaries doing Christian work here in Russia increases.” Slava smiles, “They can’t deport me, I’m Russian.”
Todd Hickingbottom, our executive pastor and missions minister, asked about the difficulty in the conversion process. “As we partner and visit with our missionaries in Bulgaria, it seems that the conversion process is painfully slow, sometimes taking decades.” Slava nodded his head, seemingly understanding the plight of evangelizing in that culture. Raising a pointed finger, he responded, “This. This is why we concentrate on students. Students come from all over the country, from different people groups (there are more than 100 in Russia), to spend five years of their lives studying. They are open. They are searching. During this time, we can reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ. When they finish studying, most of them return to their hometowns where they continue to witness for Jesus Christ to their own people. This is a continuous process.” Because of the mobility of students, Slava said reaching one student is like reaching four residents.
Slava and Olya are passionate about reaching these students. “In 35 years time, today’s freshmen students will have replaced 70% of our country’s leadership – in business, politics, education, etc. In 40 years time, they will have replaced 100% of them. Today we have access to those freshmen; they can be reached with the Gospel!”
Accepting this call is a leap of faith. The Selivanovs will leave a very familiar place in Siberia and move four time zones west to a very unfamiliar St. Petersburg. They will learn to live in a bustling city with five children and make new arrangements for schooling that are significantly more complicated than what we have here in the states. They hope to find a flat that has three bedrooms to house their family of seven. Their influence and arms length will now reach across the expansive country of Russia. And while it’s daunting, God’s fire of evangelism and discipleship that burns in them propels them to meet the challenges with humility, faith and joy.
It is the fire that God set ablaze in Slava’s heart that brought him and Olya to Texas for a short time. Campus Crusade for Christ, like many other mission organizations, has no central funds for paying staff salaries. It is both the privilege and responsibility of each staff member to raise his own financial support. They depend on the consistent financial support of concerned individuals, just like the Perez and Slyker families in our own church. These people form the Selivanov Ministry team, impacting people’s lives in Russia for eternity. Because of the current economic situation and the very small percentage of evangelical believers in Russia, Mikhail Goz, head of all New Life Russia, urged Slava and Olya to look to the Christians in the West, share their story, and see what God does.
But how do you “look to Christians in the West” when you don’t know ANY Christians in the West and you barely speak their language? You look to a long time friend and ministry partner who has been to the United States and ask, “Do you know of anyone who will listen to my story?” And that’s just what Slava asked Andre’. Andre’ had come to the U.S. two years ago looking for prayer and financial ministry partners. A fellow student was from San Antonio and she suggested a few churches for him to visit. He came and stayed with her parents, shared his story in those churches, and while he was there, her parents suggested he share his story with a church and friends in Poteet, Texas. My parents were privileged to meet Andre’ and have kept in touch ever since.
So when Slava asked Andre’ if he knew anyone who might listen to his story, Andre’ directed him to his supporters here in Texas, because they had listened to his story. That’s how they do it, one referral, one connection at a time, sharing their story and waiting to see what God does. Slava is able to articulate their faith and perspective on this beautifully. “We believe that God has called us to this ministry. He has raised up a group of individuals who share this passion and who want to be a part of our ministry team. It is never my desire to have people give out of pressure, guilt or obligation, but rather because they want to – because they believe their giving will contribute significantly to the cause of Christ.”
As I reflect on our time with them, my heart wells up within me. Their story of faith, the bond we share in Christ, their sharing in our Wednesday night children’s ministry, little Daniel passing out Russian candy, prayers prayed for both our church and their mission endeavors and transition: I cherish it all and prompts me to pray. They desire our prayers. We can pray for their family as they make this difficult transition. For the children as they take entrance tests for new schools and for new friends. For the ministry they leave behind and the family stepping in to take the Selivanov’s place and students who will continue to carry the torch in Krasnoyarsk. For the softening of hearts and a Holy Spirit movement in Russia.
Has God raised you up to be a ministry partner with the Perezes, Slykers, or even the Selivanovs? While we work to kindle the fire of the Gospel here at home, have some of us been called to fan the flame in Honduras or Russia as well? Let’s pray, ask and respond.
Interested in learning more or supporting the Selivanovs? Visit give.cru.org/2799784 or contact them directly at Vyacheslav.Selivanov@promail.ru to get on their email newsletter list.