Stories from the Global Church

Here you will find stories from the global church by ELCA global missionaries, scholars, and churchwide staff, brought to you by the ELCA Global Church Sponsorship team.

Siberian summer church camp

Posted on October 8, 2013 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Bradn and Natasha Buerkle are ELCA missionaries in Russia. In a recent entry in his blog, “Russian Correspondent,” Bradn writes about the universal joy and enrichment that comes from summer church camp. To support the Buerkles, or another of the ELCA’s over 240 missionaries in the global church, go to

Cooling off with water games at the summer church camp.

Cooling off with water games at the summer church camp.

Summer? In Siberia? Despite this region’s legendary cold and in contrast to widely held stereotypes, Siberian summers (at least here in the south) tend to be warm and pleasant. As I saw this year, it’s just the kind of weather that is needed for church camp.

I hadn’t worked at a camp in Russia since 1997, when I came to the country for the first time (through Camp Counselors Russia). Then my Russian was primitive, but that seemed to fit the atmosphere of the place where I was working — a complex near Moscow left over from Soviet days and filled with children whose parents seemed to want to get rid of them for the summer.

Although that was a good learning experience, I felt much more at home (thanks to my experience in 1995 as a counselor at Red Willow Bible Camp in North Dakota) in the camps held north of Omsk, Siberia, for children of the Western Siberian Deanery this past August. Many of the church’s active young people grew up in these camps and have gone on to be experienced and caring counselors; I felt privileged to work together with them as a member of their team.

Although I was only able to visit the young-adult camp for one evening, I had the chance to fully participate in the week-long children’s camp as one of the camp chaplains. The days were long and intense; this gave me a good opportunity to note that I’m not as young as I used to be! On the other hand, diving into all the creativity surrounding games, skits, Bible studies, worship service, etc. not only benefitted the kids, but helped me break out of the rut of thought and action that can accompany “typical” congregational ministry, even in such a non-typical place as the Lutheran church in Russia.

Turning 21

Posted on October 23, 2012 by Hand In Hand

Bradn Buerkle is an ELCA missionary in Novosibirsk, Russia, working in parish ministry. He comments here on the synod assembly he recently attended. To support Bradn, or another of the ELCA’s over 200 missionaries, go to


The installation of Tatyana Serebrova as head of women's ministries.

The installation of Tatyana Serebrova as head of women’s ministries.

In the U.S. the number “21” is almost immediately associated with the age at which young people are no longer legally considered minors. By that time they should have reached a certain degree of maturity, society has determined. Attending the 21st synod assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia, and Far East on Oct. 12-14, I could see that the same can be said of our church. On its 21st birthday, there is already a lot of life experience to look back upon — miraculous developments, tragic mistakes. And all of it now can be seen in the light of moving toward spiritual maturity.

This synod assembly saw me “maturing” into my call by giving a sermon at the opening worship and being made acting dean (“probst”) of the Central and Eastern Siberian Deanery, but much more important was what I saw and heard from others there — the founding of new congregations in the Urals, the pursuit of theological education by people in the Far East, the ordination of a young man from Omsk, Vladimir Vinogradov, who grew up in their Sunday school, and the installation of a local leader for women’s ministries, Tatyana Serebrov, just to give a few examples.

As with any 21-year-old, there are probably even more challenges lying ahead than behind. This church will continue to grow into maturity as it strives to work on stewardship, questions of theology and liturgical practice (Holy Communion was noted as an area that the pastors will look at during their meeting in the spring), as well as congregational redevelopment in those places that have not been able to adapt to the changing situation here in the past two decades (most especially the emigration of large numbers of German Russians).

Russian paradoxes

Posted on June 19, 2012 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Bradn Buerkle is an ELCA missionary serving in parish ministry in Novosibirsk, Russia. To support Bradn, or another of the ELCA’s 225 missionaries, go to


The paradoxical nature of Russia was captured in the  recent art exhibit "Rodina" ("Motherland,") which opened at the end of May after twice being banned.The paradoxical nature of Russia was captured in the recent art exhibit "Rodina" ("Motherland,") which opened at the end of May after twice being banned.

The paradoxical nature of Russia was captured in the recent art exhibit "Rodina" ("Motherland,") which opened at the end of May after twice being banned.

It is appropriate that the holiday named “Russia Day” is one that provokes ambivalent or even paradoxical reactions among those who live in the nation for which the holiday was named. It couldn’t really be Russia Day otherwise.

While June 12 was never officially “Independence Day,” that is what many people called it for a number of years. And they asked themselves – “Independence? From what? From whom? Wasn’t it better to be together (even with tension) than to “enjoy” the kind of “independence” we have now?”

And now, more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, on a day that was intended to invoke national pride and be a signal of a new way of organizing society, some opposition leaders and ordinary citizens are being harassed just because they want to make their voices heard. On the other hand the country is working hard on many fronts to improve its image and the standard of living of its citizens. There are many, many ways in which Russians can now truly celebrate independence.

Paradox exists both on the level of society as a whole and on the level of interactions between individuals. I’ve frequently been surprised here both by the way upstanding people could be openly aggressive and offensive, while I’ve had some of my most interesting (and sometimes quite intellectually and spiritually challenging) conversations with those who are drunk or who live a life of crime.

The fact that this country is full of paradox is why I was attracted to it from the beginning. Russia provides no simple answers. In fact, it is much better at supplying no answers at all but instead dwelling on the “eternal questions” – “Who is to blame?” “What is to be done?”

Because of this, very little is settled and stable here. As a consequence, few people experience a true and deep happiness. Even as a guest in this country, I am not immune to this situation. And, of course, Russia’s complicated past and paradoxical present affect the life of the Lutheran church here as well. We as a church still do not “fit in” in so many ways, and it sometimes feels like Lutheranism could fall between the cracks of all of Russia’s contradictions.

Yet, maybe we don’t need to fit in exactly. Maybe it is enough to share a love for the questions and to avoid the easy answers. We might not be happy, but we are authentic. And true to life, with all its paradoxes.

That is what I will be celebrating as this “Russia Day” draws to a close here in Siberia.

Easter in eastern Russia

Posted on April 28, 2012 by Hand In Hand

Bradn and Natasha Buerkle are ELCA missionaries serving as pastors in Novosibirsk, Russia. To support the Buerkles, or another of the ELCA’s 230 missionaries, go to


Kulachy is a special Easter food in Russia.

Kulachy is a special Easter food in Russia.

The Orthodox Church celebrated Easter a week later than the Western Church this year. Nearly every year (insofar as the church calendars only rarely coincide) I mourn at the lack of a unified witness in the  celebration of Christ’s resurrection. At the same time, I try to make the best out of the situation, knowing that most of the people in our congregations will, in one way or another, celebrate Easter twice — and it’s hard to argue with that.

There are a number of unique characteristics of the Easter season in Russia. Special foods are prepared, like “kulachy.” They are blessed in front of churches or in supermarkets on Easter or in the days immediately before. The main service in the Orthodox church is a beautiful Easter vigil filled with lots of liturgical “special effects” — the clergy make two changes of their vestments, the church goes from dark to light, there is a special procession around the church filled with everyone singing “Christ is risen from the dead / trampling down death by death / and upon those in the tombs restoring life!”  The Easter night service is broadcast on national TV stations. This year, as usual, major politicians took a prominent place at these services, though this year many are criticizing the church for its obvious moves towards strengthening its financial and political position.

Yet for those who call the Orthodox Church their home, the whole week after Easter is special. During “Bright Week” (and only during this week throughout the entire year) the doors of the iconostasis, separating the sanctuary from the altar, are left open. This represents the stone rolled away from the tomb.  More than anything else the week after Easter is a time of joy — there’s no fasting, there is much singing and, as I’ve noticed this year, a whole lot of bell-ringing. During this week the Orthodox church opens up its bell towers for anyone who wants to try to be a bell ringer.

A recent news report said that as many as 35,000 people attended Easter services. That is wonderful! Yet, given that our city has just passed the 1.5 million mark in population, there is clearly still much to do in order to reach people with the good news of the resurrection.

‘Entering into the (cold) Jordan’

Posted on January 31, 2012 by Hand In Hand

The Rev. Bradn Buerkle is an ELCA missionary serving in parish ministry in Novosibirsk, Russia. To support Bradn, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to


Plunging into ice-cold water is how some Russians mark the Baptism of Christ.

Plunging into ice-cold water is how some Russians mark the Baptism of Christ.

This year for the extreme-sports-like celebration of the Baptism of Christ (Jan. 19 according to the Orthodox calendar) I joined the crowds that jump into various bodies of blessed ice-water, “entering into the Jordan” as they call it here. I must admit that any deep, spiritual meaning behind this event is still a bit foggy to me — I’ve learned in the last few days that many in the Orthodox church consider the tradition a bit suspect, too.

But what, after more than a decade in Russia, is pushing me to participate in this rather unusual practice? It was jumping out a window.

That’s right. I’ve started jumping out a window regularly in the past few months. It has been part of my weekly trip to the banya (the Russian version of a sauna) ever since winter started. There’s a window from the shower room that gives you direct access to a snow bank, and I’ve found that going out into the snow after sitting in the heat makes the banya even better. While there was no banya on Jan. 19 (there was, thankfully, a heated tent for changing your clothes — they even distributed hot tea inside), going “into the Jordan” was simply stepping it up to the next level.

The reason I write about these rather insignificant and personal experiences is that, for me, they are symbolic of what I want 2012 to be. The last few months have been a time of moderation: The situation in the congregation is stable. The ecumenical situation in Novosibirsk has also been generally positive. The church structure in which I am working shows positive signs, and even the situation in the country has improved, insofar as people have started to make their voices heard and to push for change.

I realize that it would be easy to be content in each of these areas — in some ways, it is already better than one could reasonably expect. Yet, thanks to the snow bank outside  the banya, I’ve been reminded not to start the year ready to settle for “good enough.” Instead, I’m going to try to start it by taking it to the next level, even if that means diving into the shocking cold.

Bradn Buerkle


Christmas in Russia

Posted on December 13, 2011 by Hand In Hand

Bradn Buerkle is an ELCA missionary in Novosibirsk, Russia. To support Buerkle, or another of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to

The First Sunday of Advent Christmas Bazaar.

The First Sunday of Advent Christmas Bazaar.

Despite the fact that at least 90 percent of those Russians who celebrate Christmas do so on Jan. 7 (due to using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar) that doesn’t mean that the country is far behind the West when it comes to preparing for the holiday season. Christmas decorations have been up in some stores since early November, and Christmas trees are starting to go up in squares and parks around the city. Here are just a few reasons why it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Snow:  After many years of freezing rain and slush in St. Petersburg at this time of year, it is a bit of relief that we know that the snow is here to stay until April or May. And shoveling snow from the church courtyard has been a good way to work off frustration, I’ve found — though I’ll admit that by spring I might be feeling differently.

Christmas bazaar:  This past weekend, the local German cultural center (together with the German consulate) hosted their annual First Sunday of Advent Christmas Bazaar. Our congregation always has a table there were we talk with the guests (there were over 1,000!) and sell crafts and baked goods. We had fun and raised a bit of money for the church, which the council intends to use toward repairing our building’s foundation next spring.

Midweek Advent services:  I decided that for Advent, I would start every Wednesday with morning prayer and end with evening prayer, inviting congregational members to come at any time to pray together or just to talk. It is still too early to say whether this will meet the spiritual needs of those in the congregation, many of whom live far from the church, but yesterday morning a few of us did pray together, followed by an almost hour-long hymn sing. Fellowship time is important, so I hope that people continue to come.

“Miracle”: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” “Wonder” in the sense of “miracle.” The news organizations here lately have reported on the astounding number of people who have made their way to the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow to visit the “the Belt of the Theotokos.” This Orthodox relic, supposedly woven from camel hair by the Virgin Mary so that she might wear it during her pregnancy, is usually found on the monastic mountain of Athos in Greece. In the past month, however, it has traveled through Russia so that the faithful could venerate it. When the belt was in the capital, lines stretched to incredible lengths, with reports that some people waited 15-20 hours and with more than 80 people needing hospitalization after standing out that long in the cold.

Missionaries reflecting on mission service – Bradn Burkle

Posted on November 5, 2011 by Franklin Ishida

Bradn Burkle and his spouse, Natasha, served parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States and its Novosaratovka Seminary in St. Petersburg from 2002-2011. Following his teaching ministry at the seminary, he begins a call with the Hermannsburg Mission (Germany) to serve in Siberia, with ELCA grant support.

To support any of the ELCA’s nearly 250 missionaries, go to