Unto the Least of These
When British-born Katherine Porter was majoring in English Literature at Cambridge University in England, her plans for the future included a career and time to enjoy her passion for writing. God had other plans for her, though. One evening at Katherine’s church, Elisabeth Elliot, an American woman with a dynamic testimony, shared her story about God working through her experiences on the mission field. Katherine was both excited and confused!
Being a baby Christian and having no church background, Katherine’s impression of a missionary woman had always been someone “who went off to Africa or someplace very remote for 50 years or so, put her hair up in a bun, and wore a long skirt.” That certainly didn’t describe her. So why was she so intrigued?
To follow up on her curiosity, Katherine attended a missions evening organized by the university. “It was the most boring evening of my life,” she said. “They were talking about planting seedlings somewhere in West Africa on an agricultural program. It was absolutely dreadful!”
What Katherine was really being drawn to became clearer as she picked up a brochure for Operation Mobilization, an international missions organization. She saw human needs – where the seeds that mattered would be those planted through compassion and the Gospel message. The faces on the brochure photos showed devastation, loss, and pain. It was those hurting lives that pierced her heart. “I took the brochure home with me, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
That summer, Katherine participated in one of OM’s five-week European programs to Hungary. “It was an amazing experience, but I thought that would be the end of it.” Just a few months later the Berlin Wall came down and Katherine remembered thinking that Eastern Europe would finally be open to the Gospel. “It was as if God said, ‘Who’s going to go there?’ and I said, ‘NOT ME!’” A few words of wise counsel from her pastor turned, “Not me!” into “Why not me?”
Katherine began serving with Operation Mobilization as part of a multicultural team based in Vienna. She was in Croatia when war broke out and in Albania when it opened up to westerners; she also rode the trans-Siberian railway across Russia to eastern Siberia. She traveled throughout Eastern Europe visiting and encouraging the teams, helping them through problems and meeting their needs on the field. Additionally, Katherine was instrumental in directing missions-training conferences and taking on various writing responsibilities for OM. She spent five years based in Vienna and one year in Budapest.
Four years ago God’s call took Katherine to St. Petersburg, Russia. She and her husband, Lloyd, have been married for three of those years and are now expecting their first child. Katherine recalls their meeting: “He’s Australian, I’m British, and we met in Siberia. He asked me out in South Korea, and we had our first date in Holland. We were engaged in St. Petersburg, married in England, and then had a reception in Australia.” To keep the international flavor of things rolling, Katherine adds, “Our baby will most likely be born in Finland.”
After that they returned to Russia where Katherine and Lloyd are team field leaders with Operation Mobilization. Their territory encompasses the entire country, which covers eleven time zones. Katherine graciously shared from her heart recently with Just Between Us. Her story is rich because she has so willingly allowed God to take her life plans and redirect them for His extraordinary purposes.
Was there ever a time when you felt that you were not qualified for the work God has called you to?
With my degree in English literature I remember making my objections to the Lord about serving with OM. I said, “Really, what do I have to offer? I mean, ‘Hello little Albanian child, can I tell you about Shakespeare?’” It’s not one of the great missions lines of all times, is it? Amazingly, I have found my degree quite useful in speaking, teaching, and writing. God, in fact, will use whatever we give to Him, especially a willing heart.
What are some of the challenges of working in a country like Russia?
As foreigners, there’s the challenge of getting in and out of the country. We not only need permission to enter the country, but also to leave. The government doesn’t really take issue with the purpose of our work there because we’re legally registered to do what we are doing. The laws keep changing though, and with any change in government leadership there is always a possibility of a change in the laws. There is also always a certain segment of society that wishes we weren’t doing what we’re doing. Following a recent gathering of Russians for training in evangelism, several on the leadership team were called in by the police and interrogated. Even so, we sent 200 enthusiastic nationals out all over the country to evangelize in orphanages and in the streets.
Even in the evangelical churches in Russia, we have seen a real crackdown. There are very few church buildings, so if you get kicked out of your cinema, school, or wherever you have been meeting and get moved on and on and on, that hampers the work you are doing. That happens quite a bit. And then of course there’s the anti-Western sentiment that appears frequently. It’s quite a state of unpredictability, sometimes stable, other times not. Only God knows what’s going to happen next, and reminds us that we must always be reliant on Him.
What is life like for the people you minister to in Russia?
St. Petersburg is a relatively modern city of five million people. In the central part of the city you could walk down the street and think you were in Berlin or Amsterdam. It’s absolutely beautiful and very prosperous, with all of the designer-name shops. But in the outskirts of the city, where we live, there are about 130,000 people and our church of 15 people is the only church. It’s a city of gray concrete apartment buildings as far as you can see.
A “normal family” in Russia would be seen as a grandmother, daughter and her child. It’s the women who hold things together. It’s very sad because many men want to support their families, but feel so hopeless. They want to look after them, yet there are no jobs, or they’re not being paid for the jobs they’re doing. Alcoholism is at epidemic proportions, and abortions are the most common form of birth control. There are people literally starving to death on the streets in some areas.
I remember being out shopping one extremely cold day last winter. I saw an old woman crying and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She just sobbed on my shoulder and said, “I’m 91-years-old and haven’t eaten for a week, and I don’t know what to do.” She had been looking through the garbage bin for food. The average pension for an elderly woman is $14 dollars per month which must pay for her rent, clothes, food and any other expenses. Many feel that the food shops are like museums. All they can do is look. Before witnessing this, I remember not even knowing what being hungry meant.
To help meet these needs, we have for two winters, in cooperation with an Irish mission, operated a soup kitchen and food pantry. One young mother, Tanya, who came to the food pantry had been feeding her two young sons from the garbage bins. When we gave her groceries, she couldn’t believe it. She wasn’t a believer, but now she and her sons come to our church every week, and she was recently baptized. She even brings neighbors and friends. For her it was truly a rescue. Another time we met Svetlana, a 19-year-old whose husband was killed in Chechnya. She’s raising two children on her own while trying to deal with her grief. Her benefits amount to less than ten dollars a month.
We have another team working in Siberia. On a recent visit there we went into an orphanage. The children there were literally wearing rags. One little girl pulled a worker aside and said, “Have you got a shoe?” The OM worker replied, “What kind of shoe?” The little girl continued, “It doesn’t matter. It’s for my friend. Winter’s coming and she’s only got one shoe!” Sure enough we looked down and she had only one shoe. We said, “What size shoe do you need?” She replied, “It doesn’t matter, any shoe will do.” It’s heartbreaking!
Next door to the orphanage is an old people’s home which the team has been going to week after week. The conditions were dreadful. Some of the women were naked, lying in filth with just a sheet over them. It was unbelievable! There is a huge struggle for survival going on in many places across Russia.
Where do you even start under such conditions?
We sometimes get overwhelmed by the need. And then of course there are the 11 time zones to cover – it’s the biggest country in the world! But our goal is to give hope to people who feel hopeless. In addition to the soup kitchen and food pantry, we distribute aid, medicine, and clothing in the areas where we work. We’ve got to make it practical – the truth of the gospel. And of course we live there and are enduring with them.
I am often reminded of Moses and the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt. They looked back and said, “Ah, when we were in Egypt our bellies were full and we had good beds.” Some people are looking back at Communism and saying, “When I lived under communism I had my own apartment, my rent was paid, and I had a job. I wish we could go back.” At that point the challenge for Moses was to say, “God is with us, here and now, and He will lead us on our journey. And there is something better ahead.”
We must live that reality in the midst of their difficult situation. Moses couldn’t have told them from the comforts of the promised land. He couldn’t have yelled, “You’re heading the right way, keep coming!” It’s such a huge privilege to think that after all the years we prayed for Russia, God finally broke down those walls. Every moment is precious, not knowing how long the opportunities will be there.
It’s been more than 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. How has the receptiveness to the gospel changed during that time?
People all over were really quite open in the first few years, but after that it became more difficult because all of the cults came in, as well as Western materialism. It has been very confusing for people because they suddenly were exposed to this wealth of information and ideas. Also, because Communism was so corrupt, it left people with a lack of trust. They were so used to having things rammed down their throats, they weren’t used to trying to discern truth for themselves. I remember a school teacher once saying to me, “What is the truth, and who will stay and teach us?”
It really is an issue of “staying power,” isn’t it? Isn’t being there for the long haul what’s really going to have the greatest influence on the people?
We are really praying for that. I remember when Lloyd first took over as field leader in Russia. One of the first Russians who joined our team, Slava, said, “We’ve had so many people come in, tell us things, stay for a few weeks and leave. What we need is for you to show us how to live.” For Lloyd and I, that has been a real encouragement, building up people by living here with them. Every time someone says to us, “Why are you here?” we say we really believe this message and long for them to know it too!
The challenge is making the gospel real for their situation – not just theory, not just wonderful ideas. Our mission is to let them know that Jesus walks with them through their trials. They can be paralyzed by hopelessness or they can be hopeful, depending on their perspective. He offers hope and encouragement for the future, that things can be different. He offers something they can trust in!
Can you tell us about your team in Russia, and how you go about growing that team?
We believe that people need to be introduced to the gospel and God in their own language. We have several nationals working with us. Our goal is to have as many as possible. Obviously, they speak the language and know the culture so they are the most effective people to be working there.
Additionally, we have 30 team members from around the world. Lloyd and I visit them frequently, providing teaching and training. The goals we focus on are: church planting alongside Russian churches, making and training disciples, translating and producing quality Christian literature, and training and equipping nationals and internationals for short term and longer term missions opportunities, both inside and outside of Russia.
As far as adding to our team, we have to be realistic and honest, so we just present the scale of the need – three generations have been living under Communism without God. There is an opportunity in this generation to make the Gospel real. This opportunity involves showing the Russians how that message can transform lives. Russia is very attractive in its own right because of the culture and the history. It’s also a beautiful country. All of those things will bring the right people.
What would you say to parents who sense that their child is being called to the mission field, but who would like to protect that child by keeping him or her closer to home?
On the one hand, I think there are sometimes valid family concerns that could keep a child closer to home, but on the other hand, we can never totally protect our children. They can step out into the road in front of their house and get hit by a car. Or develop a fatal disease at home. The greatest joy and blessing in life is in being in the center of where God would have you be. That’s the most amazing thing to realize. Even if things are hard physically, or challenging spiritually, you’re never safer or more at peace than where God would have you be.
When I returned once to Cambridge, I met with my fellow graduates. Among that group there were several worldly success stories. It was a bit intimidating at first, especially when we talked about our salaries! But I recall several people coming up to me later in the day and saying, “What are you doing, Katherine? You just seem so happy!” What an analysis of someone making $30 a month – and I even have to raise my own support! That’s really when it hit home to me that there’s no better place, no safer place, and no more joyful place than to be in the Lord’s will.
To parents I say I understand the risks involved in this type of work. We do everything we sensibly can to take care of people, but then you have to leave the rest up to God, and He does take care of us.
Your work seems like such a modern-day illustration of the boy with the five fishes and five loaves. How have you seen God multiply the efforts of His servants in Russia?
We certainly can’t escape the need. It’s always there. And we can’t send it away. We can’t focus on what we don’t have in order to excuse ourselves from doing what we can. We do have resources – as inadequate as they seem – people willing to be there and willing to serve. It may not be enough by our standards, but it’s enough in God’s hands to use and multiply. He is not discouraged by our numbers or our inadequacies. He promises to use all that we give Him to meet the needs before us and ultimately to bring glory to His name.