Tarzier Memoirs

Part III Two Decades of Freedom



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 first night.

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 the moon.

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 missionary Englishwoman.

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 a hundredfold.

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 his son.

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.

Occasionally the 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.

Building a Family

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