About 100 people packed out the sanctuary of Moscow First Church of the Nazarene on 14 October to celebrate the church’s 20th anniversary.
The celebration didn’t just mark the church’s birth in 1992, but in many ways, the beginning of the Church of the Nazarene in Russia which is part of the CIS Field
(Commonwealth of Independent States).
The weekend celebration began with an open house at the church on Saturday, 13 October, with face painting for kids, a photo booth, and other activities for the community. About 30 people were on hand at any given time during the event, according to Davide Cantarella, missionary.
The Sunday worship service included the former missionaries Revs. Chuck and Carla Sunberg, who first planted the church and were the first CIS field strategy coordinators. Rev. Chuck preached. A DVD featured a slideshow of pictures from across the years, and another video outlined the Church of the Nazarene’s core beliefs. Gifts were presented. The entire service was translated into sign language for the hearing disabled attendees.
“It was really more looking forward than looking back,” Davide said.
A few people who had recently faded from the church reappeared and reconnected with the congregation. Some who had not previously professed a relationship with God took communion for the first time. Rev. Tatiana Cantarella, pastor of Moscow First, led two women to a relationship with Christ during the service.
“I am very pleased that, thanks to our church for so many years, so many people have learned about God, come to faith in Him and received Him as their personal Savior. This is great!” said Tatiana Gorbenko, a member who joined the church in the early years. “The highlight of the celebration was being in the service with the same people I used to stand with 10, or 15 years ago, some of the young people I shared my life with…. even if we are scattered geographically and don't see each other much, we are all with the Lord.”
The first Nazarene volunteers, Roy and Carolyn Campbell, arrived in Moscow in 1992 to work with the summer work and witness teams, as well as Mark Mann, volunteer, who arrived to coordinate the youth teams. The Sunbergs (Photo below: right) followed within a month to begin the work of planting the first church. That summer, a number of Youth in Mission
teams came to conduct outreach and evangelism to Moscow youth. When the summer ended, a core group of Christian young people had formed. The Sunbergs gathered the group to brainstorm what their new church would look like.
“They said we’ve never been to church in our lives we have no idea what church would look like,” Carla recalled.
The group rented an auditorium in an equestrian arena that had been built for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. For the next two years their Sunday worship services were permeated with the pungent odor of horse stalls, while cats and dogs ran across the platform.
The arena included a restaurant and bar. A young waitress served the Sunbergs, who struck up a relationship with her. Eventually she came to Christ, accepted a call from God to pastor, and studied at European Nazarene College.
Thirteen years ago Tatiana Cantarella (photo left: second from left) returned to pastor Moscow First Church and continues to lead the church today.
“I found Christ in this church 20 years ago and have been maturing just like the church was maturing,” Tatiana Cantarella said. “It is in this church that I first heard God calling me to ministry and it was this church that entrusted me pastoral ministry. I was shaped as a Christian and as a pastor in this Church.”
The church building is a miracle story itself. Two years before the work began in Russia, a woman donated money to buy a church building there. After the fledgling church had met for two years in the equestrian arena, the Sunbergs, the Campbells and Svetlana Michaelovna, the Nazarene Compassionate Ministries
director began to shop around for space they could purchase for the church. They found the current building in the same neighborhood where they were already meeting. When they asked about the price, they learned it was for the exact amount of money that the woman had donated four years before.
“What became our phrase was, ‘With God all things are possible.’ We just would say that over and over again,” Chuck said.
Those acts of God’s faithfulness encouraged faith in the members, too.
“These 20 years have been a mix of difficulties and joy. But in spite of the circumstances, they [pastors] all were relentlessly faithful to God and their faithfulness was rewarded by God's faithfulness for these 20 years,” said Darya Ershova, who has attended the church for 10 years, since she was 13. “These 20 years have been the work of God.”
Prior to the anniversary service, the Sunbergs went to visit an elderly widow who had been their neighbor for years. Her husband had become a Christian under the Sunbergs’ ministry. He had been a committed atheist and member of the Communist Party before he found Christ. This gentleman went home to be with the Lord just a few years ago but the woman showed them a photo album she had made of her husband’s life. The last 20 percent of the album was filled with pictures of his life after he knew Christ.
“It was pictures of us and the church, and his wife just said, ‘He became a different man,’” said Carla. “The work was so hard and it was so hard to even live there and …. Sometimes you wonder, did you ever make a difference? We came away and said, ‘It may not have been huge, but we touched this life.’”
Moscow First Church is focused on reaching out to the disenfranchised, Davide said. Since the early days, the church has incorporated a hair salon in its building, offering free hair cuts to low income people. They also offer English classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
In December 2010 they launched a ministry to the hearing impaired, and now all worship services are translated with sign language. Tatiana and two other women are studying sign language to better communicate with the hearing impaired attenders.
Moscow First is not just a church, but a family, as well as a place where God has been able to work in the members’ lives, said Darya Ershova, who has been attending for about 10 years.
“I'm not perfect, I have to grow and thank God for that, but he continues to work on my mistakes in my life through other people in our church, and because of my changes, I see changes in my family,” Ershova said. “
“We celebrate with Moscow First, our first church to organize in Russia. I remember the early days when services were held in a horse arena/barn,” said Lonnie Norris
, CIS field strategy coordinator and former missionary to Russia. “Today, Moscow First is alive. Multiple diverse ministries reach out to the community that say clearly, all are welcome and loved.