A pastor’s second home

May 12, 2008

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

For the Rev. Dr. Philip Geoffrion of Albion Evangelical Free Church, Belarus, formerly apart of the Soviet Union, has become his home away from home.

In 1996, Geoffrion (as his friends call him) not only answered a call to an advertisement to teach in Russia, but also what he feels was a call from God.

It was hard for him to explain exactly what led him to want to teach in Russia, other than it was a country formerly under communism and atheism and he felt it was a “worthwhile endeavor.”

“As a Christian, I felt God led me,” he said.

Teaching was also something he felt he was gifted to do.

“There are many kinds of spiritual gifts,” he said.

Geoffrion has taught in the local area as well, including ethics and comparative religion at North Hennepin Technical College and current issues in theology and Christian doctrine at Crown College.

For the past 12 years, Geoffrion has been teaching at the Minsk Theological Seminary, in the capitol city of Belarus.

“I have spent almost six months of my life there, ministering 11 times in the last 12 years,” he said.

Belarus, located in eastern Europe, is surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and has been under the presidency of Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, government restrictions on freedom of speech, press, peaceful assembly, and religion still continues.

Since the government of Belarus is an ally of Iraq, Geoffrion, an American, is considered an enemy.

Geoffrion describes the country as extremely poor with a “conspicuously absent” middle class and an elite few wealthy.

Many residents are still suffering from the medical fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Geoffrion said there are still “dead zones,” where people can’t live, drink the water, or eat food from the soil.

“It’s a dying country . . . it’s the leading country in number of abortion and suicides,” he said.

Hope is in short supply in many sectors of Belarus, he said. Hope is what Geoffrion attempts to bring on his visits.

This trip, for example, Geoffrion was able to leave more than $5,000 in Belarus, thanks to generaous donors back home.

He gave the seminary more than $2,000, alone.

“This was a real answer to prayer,” he said, explaining prior to his donation, the seminary was unable to meet the month’s payroll.

“After hearing that, it is hard not to break out in tears,” he said, grateful he was able to meet an immediate need.

For employees of the seminary, $200 would be a two-week salary which they are able to live comfortably on, he explained.

“It’s a great reward going back,” he said.

For Geoffrion, it’s fun for him to see how his former students are maturing in their home life and in their faith, as well as taking positions of leadership.

Geoffrion is particularly proud of one of his first students, Sergei Lukianov.

“[Sergei] is exceptionally intelligent and gifted,” he said, explaining his work as a church planter, pastor, and now, director of the Bible College.

“He shares my heart for encouraging and supporting pastors, especially those who are in small and struggling churches isolated from other colleagues,” said Geoffrion.

When he wasn’t teaching at the Bible college, Geoffrion was visiting his former students and their families. Many of whom live in small one bedroom “flats” or apartments.

“But their love for the Lord is so obvious and contagious as they model what it means to be ‘content with what you have,’” Geoffrion said.

Geoffrion told of one musically- gifted family he calls the “Von Trapp Family” because each of its members has an instrument except for one of the boys, who only had drum sticks and no drums to beat on.

Geoffrion was able to leave money so the parents, – the father, a former student of his – could buy their son a drum set.

During his 18-day stay, Geoffrion found little time to relax.

“It’s certainly not a vacation – I can come home and rest,” he said.

Two of the weekends, Geoffrionand his former student, Sergei, hosted a seminar for a group of 10 to 12 pastors and church leaders.

Here, they discussed issues relevant to their situations as well as, “fielding questions of a personal, theological, and practical nature.”

Geoffrion also presented prepared materials on what the Bible teaches about a husband’s relationship and responsibility to his wife and how to handle criticism from church members.

During his time in Belarus, Geoffrion was able to visit two small town churches.

One church was in a remote village of 200 people.

“It gives a new definition to the word ‘rural,’” he said.

About 24 people from five neighboring villages gathered in this small church with little heat and no plumbing.

“I was the first American any of them had ever seen,” he said.

With neither the congregation nor Geoffrion knowing each other’s native language, they communicated through the translator, Valera.

“We celebrated the common bond we have in Jesus Christ, and I felt I was leaving newfound friends,” he said.

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