Part III Two Decades
ON TO LATGALE
I returned to Latvia in August of 1926. Ink still wet on my diploma, I
looked forward to the new beginning. As the train snaked its way through
Europe, I envisioned my native country as anxious to see me as I was to
return. Of course, there would be no family at the station. I was a bachelor,
my older brothers and my sister had their own responsibilities, and Peteris
and Mother had made a new home in Brazil. Still, when the train pulled
into the Riga station, I searched the crowds for a familiar face in the
sea of bobbing heads. Nobody. I have become a stranger in my own country.
Alone, I took a city bus to the old Jurka Maams cottage, my home for that
When I met up with Pastor Fetler the next morning, he offered a Fetler
apology—the London Mission Office had given him the wrong date for
my arrival in Riga, he told me. I hasten to add that my reception, or
lack of it, turned out to be the exception. The Riga Golgotha Baptist
Church invited me to deliver my first sermon in Latvia the following Sunday.
This marked the beginning of a long relationship with that church. Ten
years later I would become its minister, and would hold that post until
forced to flee from Stalinist terror in August of 1944. I also delivered
a sermon at the Bethany Church in Liepaja, a major port on the Baltic
coast. They promptly invited me to become their pastor. I longed to accept,
but a golden string tied me to the Mission. Fetler demanded full repayment
of my scholarship in order to release me. He might as well have demanded
I was assigned to Latgale, the eastern province of Latvia, where the Mission
wanted to establish a presence. When I left Riga in October, a number
of the Golgotha congregation came to the station to bid me Godspeed. Civilization
receded as the train chugged on eastward. Latgale was deep in the countryside,
close to the border with Russia, a hardship post in ways I had not imagined.
For centuries it had been separated from the rest of the country and divided
into two Russian governorships, Vitebsk and Pleskov. The 1920 peace treaty
with the Soviet Union restored to Latvia this land of ancient Lettish
tribes. Thus, in 1926 the area was in need not only of the Word of God,
but also of reacculturation into Latvia.
Five of us were sent out to spread the Gospel and, specifically, to establish
regular preaching stations. We would be ministering in the Russian language.
Latgale was populated primarily by Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox.
The two preaching stations were the country town of Ludza and the border
town Zilupe, just three km from the Russian border.
Our group consisted of three women and two men, myself included. The three
women were Anna Glumm and two sisters. The other man in the group was
called Jekabs Vagars, a school teacher turned minister. During the 1917
Bolshevik Revolution he had served in the Revolutionary Red Army, and
at that time he looked like a typical unshaven bum. Then he converted
to Christianity, trained at the Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College
in London, and changed his entire outlook on life, including his physical
appearance. He had pictures of himself as a godless bum and as a clean
shaven Christian, and wherever he was invited to speak he distributed
the two pictures side by side as evidence of the work of the Lord.
Our adventures began when the train pulled into the country town of Ludza,
sixty km from the Russian border. Away from the Baltic coast, we found
ourselves suddenly in winter, with fresh snow on the ground. Rather than
hauling the baggage through wet snow into town, two kilometers away, we
thought it best to stay near the station. We found lodging in a typical
Latvian barn. It consisted of a lower story made of brick and an upper
story, which we occupied, made of wood planks—in other words, not
a luxury hotel. All we had was a floor without cots or mattresses, but
we were grateful to have a place to stay, tired as we were. We were less
grateful for the stench which wafted through the plank floor from the
story below. The lower story served as pen for the farmer’s pigs.
In the morning we set out to find less aromatic quarters.
Word of mouth, the usual means of communication in those days, found us
a decent house for rent on a cobblestone street right in town. This was
luxury itself compared to the barn. We spread out into several dormitory
rooms and even had a kitchen. A cook from Riga, a young pumpkin-shaped
woman, accompanied our group. She was in charge of feeding the “missionaries,”
as we called ourselves.
Now we needed a place to hold Gospel meetings. Eventually we found a primitive
motion picture hall, locally called “The Cinema,” owned by
a Jew. He was a bit reluctant to rent to us. He had no idea what a Gospel
meeting was, and besides we were city folk, rare in those parts. When
he saw that we were harmless, he let us use the hall as long as we didn’t
interfere with the movie schedule. When he was finished with his show,
we started ours.
The movie house was unheated and windowless. Darkness devoured the anemic
light from a single electric bulb hanging from the ceiling—it was
a movie theater, after all, and bright lighting was the least of considerations.
The women in our group, every one a nurse, wore white headdresses to reflect
the little available light. They played guitars and mandolins and sang
Gospel songs. Our “show” soon became more popular than the
Jew’s films, and not only from spiritual thirst. The locals were
curious about us, strange birds that we were.
The Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic authorities gave us free,
if negative, publicity. “In our midst have arrived devils, heretics,
and Antichrists,” they warned from their respective pulpits. But
entertainment was scarce in that remote area, so how could anyone pass
up the chance to meet the Antichrist in person? They poured into our meeting
hall, a few yearning for God, others seeking entertainment, many looking
for a brawl. Music and song quieted them right down, and then we could
sneak in a brief sermon and a reading from the Bible. On more than one
occasion the crowd went dangerously out of control, especially when we
had a power failure and the hall went totally dark. The back door came
in handy then. We snuck out in order to live another day, leaving the
crowd to cool off on their own.
Obviously, in order to do serious Gospel work, we must have a place of
our own. Our second place of worship was a house, again owned by a Jew,
on the main street close to the market place. One room, large enough for
one hundred people, faced the street. We no longer had to work around
the movie schedule, and the crowds respected us more now that we had a
place of our own.
Our other center was in Zilupe, a small town strung like a necklace around
the rail station, the last railroad stop before the border with Russia.
Small Jewish businesses lined the cobblestone main street. The other highlight
of Zilupe was a farmers’ market, where peasants gathered to sell
their pigs, sheep and chickens. Again, for lack of a better choice, we
rented a dilapidated movie house. Snow blew in through the cracks in winter.
In summer, we preached outdoors in the farmers’ market, climbing
on empty carts left after the peasants had sold their potatoes. We usually
spoke briefly and then entertained the crowd with songs and guitar music.
Bibles, sent to us free by the Mission in Riga, we sold for the equivalent
of a dime. We reasoned that the people would value their Bibles more highly
if they had to pay something. In all, we distributed thousands of Bibles
during those years.
The old movie house burned to the ground not long after we began our Gospel
work in Zilupe, possibly at the behest of the Catholics. We found new
quarters in a newer, less flammable log house whose owner needed extra
income. He allowed us to remodel it into a real chapel. We tore down one
wall and made alterations to the other rooms. We also bought a good harmonium
because our group now included a competent musician, a self-supporting
The log house-turned-chapel served as our headquarters in Zilupe for several
years. Eventually membership grew to where the congregation elected to
build a formal temple on the main highway near the railroad station, next
to the Russian Orthodox church. From our humble beginnings in the ramshackle
movie house, Zilupe now had a temple for a hundred and fifty people, with
a guest room in the back for itinerant preachers.
Four kilometers to the south was a town called Pasiena, where a man from
Daugavpils days resurfaced in my life to repay a favor. The road between
Zilupe and Pasiena was paved, a rarity back then. It had supposedly been
paved by the Russian baron for his carriages during the heyday of the
Russian Empire. Now it was the freeway for thousands of Catholics who
converged on Pasiena for a festival of confessions and absolutions. The
festival was held in September, on three consecutive Sundays. The influx
of all those religiously inclined people offered us a delicious opportunity
to spread the Word of God. In order to preach at Pasiena during the festival,
we needed a police permit, and I marched over to the Zilupe police station
in August to secure one. Much to my surprise, the police chief who emerged
from a back office, a piece of paper in hand, was Adolfs Vilcans.
I had first met Vilcans in the Daugavpils fortress, where I was sentenced
to a year of extra military duty in 1921. He was master-sergeant of our
company, I was company clerk despite my deserter status. We shared living
quarters, his cot next to mine in my office at the fortress. On one occasion
Vilcans got into a drunken brawl in town for which he received three days
in the brig. Fulfilling my duty as clerk, I wrote him up in the black
book. A few months later, wanting out of military service, Vilcans applied
for the position of lieutenant with the Daugavpils city police. However,
one requirement of the job was a clean record, which he no longer had.
He asked me a big favor: would I send the city chief of police a clean
report? This was no small matter. I could incur time in the brig myself
for erasing his infraction. I took the chance—I knew him well and
I trusted him not to get in trouble again. Nobody found us out, and thanks
to my report, Vilcans was honorably discharged and served as police lieutenant
in Daugavpils for several years.
We reminisced together in the Zilupe station for a good hour, catching
up on the events of a decade. He had volunteered in the campaign to elect
a candidate to the Seim, the Latvian Parliament. As reward for his efforts
he was appointed chief of police in Zilupe, where the worst offenses were
stealing chickens and public drunkenness. It was a job requiring at most
twenty hours’ work per week, which suited Vilcans to a tee.
I then explained our situation and needs. We Baptist missionaries wanted
to offer an alternative to the Catholic festival, but no doubt the monks
would be irate. They might throw us out or, worse, incite the crowds to
throw bricks at us. I wanted to live to preach another day, so I needed
Vilcans’ help to keep order during the festival. To my relief, he
agreed, provided we found a meeting place off the streets.
The village of Pasiena was built on monastery land. We now needed to find
a cooperative homeowner willing to loan us his front porch as grandstand.
Several doors were slammed in our faces. We walked up and down the village
looking for inspiration. We soon spotted the apothecary’s establishment,
with a porch facing the main street. Perfect! I asked to talk to the owner,
and to my delight he turned out to be a bearded son of Moses. We had to
do some convincing, but when he learned that we were not about politics
but only sought to spread the Gospel, we had our place.
On the first day of the festival, three of us, including a visiting cornet
player from England, rode the four km from Zilupe to Pasiena on our bikes,
four dozen Bibles tied precariously to the handlebars. The day was warm
and sunny, and the street teemed with people lined up for their turn at
the confessional. In the gloom of the church they beat themselves up for
their transgressions. Outside in the sunshine, we broke out into song,
with cornet accompaniment.
Our competing service caused quite a commotion. Several monks came running
out of the monastery gates, black skirts flying, faces flushed. When they
saw that our group was guarded by three constables as well as the chief
of police, they screeched to a halt. As the day wore on, we sold all our
Bibles, addressed the Catholic crowd, and made music with no further interference.
So it happened that I “cast my bread upon the waters” by helping
Vilcans in his time of need, and after many days my bread was returned
In Zilupe we had worked with a population fairly open to the Gospel message,
the Russian Orthodox. The work in Ludza, however, turned out to be very
tough, and our Anglo-American supporters in London did not help morale.
The Americans especially had a saying that a soul should be saved for
every dollar spent. But in Latgale people were superstitious and largely
illiterate, kept ignorant by the Catholic Church. Ludza was clearly our
boot camp in the service of the Lord.
Two events stick in my mind from Daugavpils. A wonderful example of the
works of the Lord happened in Rezekne, in the life of a member of our
church, a former Roman Catholic who lived alone with her unmarried son.
They owned a small piece of land outside of town, which they cultivated
for a living. The son kept by his bedside an old Latvian Bible printed
in Gothic script. One day, as the mother dusted his room, she reverently
picked up the sacred book to caress it—how wonderful it must be
to read it! She then clearly heard a voice: “Why don’t you
open it and read it.” Surely she was imagining things! But, with
nothing to lose, she opened the Bible, and lo and behold, she was able
to read anywhere in the book. She never lost that ability, but she could
read nothing else, only the Bible.
Another evidence of the Lord’s Hand at work took place one Sunday
evening at the Daugavpils Baptist church. Two men were seated after the
service had already begun, a bearded elderly Russian and a younger, clean
shaven man. For some reason, they caught my attention during the service,
and I had a strong urge to meet them. I had a deacon stop them at the
door after the service so we could meet in the church office. The older
man told me a bit of their life history. They were father and son. He,
the father, had been converted years back but had since gone astray. Guilt
over his sinful life had kept him from coming back to God, but now his
grown son seemed to be following in his footsteps of sin. His guilt and
remorse were overwhelming for me to hear, and I would guess more so to
The three of us sat and talked for a long time. To end our meeting, I
offered to read from the Bible. Father and son listened eagerly and knelt
down to pray with me. Both men were in tears during the prayer. When we
finished, the younger man seemed transported to another dimension. He
exclaimed, “I give up all my worldly idols and I take Jesus Christ
as my Savior and Lord.” It was a very moving moment for the three
of us, and as it later happened, a turning point in his life. Before parting
ways, holding the knob on the door, the son turned and said, almost as
an afterthought, “My wife is in a hospital in Riga, very ill. She
is bleeding and the doctors cannot stop it. I’m afraid she will
die soon and only a miracle can save her.” He continued,
“Do you know someone in Riga who can visit my wife? She does not
speak Latvian, though.”
I replied, “I see the hand of the Lord in this. It so happens that
one of our mission workers, Sister Lielmezh, speaks fluent Russian and
is on furlough in Riga right now. I will write her. She will be glad to
visit your wife and give her a Russian Bible.”
The younger man then made a touching request: “Please tell Sister
Lielmezh that I have abandoned and forsaken all my idols, and I beseech
my wife to do likewise.”
Our daily passenger trains to Riga had an evening mail car. A letter dropped
in the mail chute in the evening was in Riga by morning, unheard-of speed
for those days. It was close to midnight when I finished my note and placed
it in the mail slot at the station. I went home tired but full of Spirit.
Sister Lielmezh made a bedside visit to the sick woman. She told me later
that, as they prayed together, the healing power of God visibly surged
through the sick woman’s entire body. The bleeding stopped right
away. She stayed in the hospital for a few more days before being discharged,
still weak but entirely at peace. The doctors warned her to keep warm
and observe strict bed rest.
Now that she had been converted, the next logical step was baptism. We
had scheduled an open air ceremony in the Rezekne River on Pentecost day,
which fell on a bright, chilly Sunday in May. The woman was brought to
the baptism covered with blankets, stretched out in a wagon. A nearby
farm family loaned us their cottage, some fifty yards away, as a changing
room. We walked down to the river, myself in a black suit, the baptismal
candidates dressed in white cotton robes. Lured by the novel sight, a
crowd followed us to the river. We had selected an open spot where the
water flowed slowly.
I was in a quandary. I could feel the chill of the river water through
my fishermen’s boots. It was my duty to baptize all new converts,
but the last thing we needed was for the woman to die of exposure. I could
hear onlookers murmuring: this baptism business will surely be her grave.
But, after a brief prayer for guidance, I set my misgivings aside and
went ahead with the baptism.
The woman was tall and heavyset, so I took her deeper into the river,
because it is easier to immerse in deep water. After being immersed with
some difficulty—I am small and she stood a full head above me—she
almost levitated out of the water, shouting, “Hallelujah! Praise
the Lord!” She then ran through the field, to the changing cottage,
in her wet baptismal gown, forgetting all about being too weak and sickly
to stand up. The crowd stood agape at the sight. From that moment on,
she healed completely. She went on to manage the household and help work
the six-acre farm she and her husband owned. The old, sick woman was buried
and in her place rose a new, vital life in Jesus Christ.
It must have been in 1932 that I happened to take the evening train to
Zilupe, the “Kaksim Gorky” [probably a pun on the name
of Russian novelist Maksim Gorky--MT]. The Kaksim consisted mostly
of dilapidated empty freight cars and one passenger car. From here the
train was towed to the border, Zilupe being the last station before the
boundary with Soviet Russia. My train was slow on that day. It took almost
two hours to cover the 64 kilometers (40 miles) from Rezekne to Zilupe,
and I fell into a deep sleep. The train finally ground to a halt in Zilupe
well after midnight. Still half asleep, I heard eerie singing: “Seele,
die vom Angst umnachted, Trau nur fest auf deinem Gott.” Surely
I must be dreaming—a choir stashed away in the freight cars? I disembarked,
feeling less than sane, and spent the rest of the night in the chapel
near the station.
Next morning I discovered the source of the singing. Streams of people
poured out of the freight cars, dressed in rags, their coats in tatters,
seams torn loose, like a vision out of Purgatory. They gathered around
an elderly beardeed man, who read from Psalm 124: If it had not been
the Lord who was on our side. . . then they had swallowed us up alive,
when their wrath was kindled against us. . . our soul is escaped like
a bird out of the snare of the fowlers. . . After quietly listening
to the Bible reading, they headed for the platform, where the Red Cross
had set up a field kitchen. There they enjoyed what was no doubt their
first hot meal in many days.
That ragged multitude, I found out, were Mennonites from the German colony
Volga, in the southeast side of Moscow. They had been released from Stalin’s
grip after negotiations with the Weimar Government of Germany. Forbidden
to take anything out of Russia, even their coats were torn to pieces by
Communist soldiers looking for money and jewelry hidden in the folds of
cloth. After the meal, they were transferred to passenger cars for the
trip to Riga and from there to Germany. As far as I know, most did not
stay in Germany but emigrated to Canada.
Those were good years in Latgalia, before I was called to the pastorate
of the Golgotha Baptist Church in Riga. We had rented a hall for our services,
in the center of town, to worship in Latvian and Russian. Our best-attended
meetings were the Russian language meetings on Sunday evenings, when our
twenty-five voice choir sang.
choir would make the trip to Zilupe and once to Daugavpils, ninety km
to the south, for the dedication of the new White Church. We organized,
a couple of times a year, week-long Bible study seminars and preaching
missions. We also distributed thousands of Bibles in Latgalia. The faithful
came from all parts of the province. The presence of those simple people
always filled my heart with joy. I even obtained special permission from
military headquarters to hold religious services within the military zone,
a three kilometer-wide strip of land between Latvia and Russia.
Our successes did not sit well with Fetler’s group, our friends
and sponsors in Riga. They accused us of trying to organize a Baptist
Union of Latgalia. We had no such idea. All we wanted to do was to support
the faithful, as Jude 3 says, “. . . that ye should earnestly contend
for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” People
came spiritually worn out and discouraged to our services, but left with
renewed strength and joy in the Lord. That was the only reward we needed.
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