I first traveled to Estonia in the summer of 1996 with a group of fellow student missionaries. We spent our first two weeks in the country in Tartu studying culture, history, and very elementary aspects of the difficult language at the Baptist seminary in Estonia’s “Second City.” Over the course of those two weeks we worshipped with different local congregations. One of these was Salem, one of two Estonian speaking Baptist churches. (Another small congregation was a Russian speaking church.) At the end of these two weeks, most of the rest of our team dispersed to towns and villages around the country, but I remained in Tartu for the rest of the summer to work with Salem church.
At that time the congregation was still worshipping in the small old prayer house on Võru street, but was in the early stages of building a more modern building near the Emajõgi (Mother River) in the Karlova neighborhood of town. I spent mornings helping on the construction of this new building. Which is another way of saying that I got in the way. (Once they realized I had no actual skills, they gave me a menial task of scraping rust off a huge steal beam. It was a rainy, wet summer, which meant I ended up scraping a thin layer of rust off the beam just about every day in what was certainly a ploy to keep me distracted.) In the afternoons I taught English at the prayer house.
The work I did that summer was incidental to the real power of that time, which was in worshipping with and getting to know the people of Salem. In the congregation were old people who, when they prayed, closed their eyes tight, like they had seen things. Many of them were old enough to remember the mass Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1949. Most of them had known anxiety and fear of being watched. But there were young people as well, many discovering faith for the first time during the period of post-Soviet interest in spiritual matters. These people were quiet, but kind and generous. They had dry senses of humor, which was both forged in and formed by extremes– Extreme cold. Extreme politics. Extreme dark and extreme light.
I was hooked.
I returned in 1998, but didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with the people of Salem as I had hoped.
Then in 2015, when my life had come to a crossroads, I had the opportunity to return again, this time to spend another entire summer with the church. The new building had been finished and moved into years ago at that point, complete with a guest room for visitors like myself to stay for extended periods of time. I spent the summer in silence. I wrote and I did a lot of walking. And I worshipped occasionally with the people of Salem again, and my love for its people was rekindled.
When you walk into the sanctuary from the main entrance foyer, you have to first pass through a lounge area where coffee, tea, and snacks are often served after the service. This is a place of greeting each other before entering into worship, and then again before exiting back into the street, and I think there is something very intentional and Priesthood of ALL Believers-ish about this. We get to God by going through each other. We go back into the world through each other as well.
You may can tell that I have a high ecclesiology, even when theology is difficult for me.
On New Year’s Day this year, I found myself at a prayer meeting at Salem. Once again the saints had gathered to be together, to reflect on the year that had passed and to pray for the year ahead.
I confess, I often don’t know what to do with prayer. All the variables. All the certainty that many of those who are passionate about it bring to the task. I often give it the side eye. Maybe it’s the distance, or the cold, or the novelty of being in a different culture, but when I’m with the people of Salem when they pray, I believe it again. I close my eyes tight like I’ve seen things, and slowly I begin to.
This weekend the people of Salem are celebrating the congregation’s 100th anniversary. They are gathering, standing shoulder to shoulder, singing, and praying. And I’m closing my eyes tight and imagining I am in that building I love so well, with a people who are as faithful as they are mysterious, celebrating the work of God in their midst.