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The Heartbeat of Tallinn

Estonian staff members trust God for spiritual revolution.

  • Author: By Katie Croft
  • Credits: Photographs by Greg Schneider
  • Published: January 21, 2013
  • Location: Estonia

Euro coins clatter as they drop into the parking meter, ensuring Nikolai Voltsihhin another hour at the community park. He gathers his thoughts. Nikolai’s second trip to the meter is not on account of the unseasonably warm weather for Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. Rather, an unexpected spiritual conversation with a stranger from the Netherlands is stirring up deep questions he thought he had answered.

Two hours ago, Nikolai had been sitting on a green park bench, his arm stretched along the back as he watched his 6-year-old son work his way up a large rope jungle gym. That’s when the Dutchman first approached him: he, too, was a young father.

Their conversation soon transitioned to deeper themes about spirituality. Nikolai thinks of himself as a Hindu; the Dutchman, a staff member with Agape (as Cru is known in Europe) knows Jesus and is motivated to proclaim the gospel’s power to the people around him.

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That’s why the Dutchman is here in this small Baltic country. Joined by 1,500 others from 30 countries, he has come to Tallinn for the Western European Agape staff member and volunteer conference. In addition to ministry-wide announcements and training, the attendees have been asked to purposefully interact with local residents about Christ during their afternoons and evenings. Various opportunities like concerts, community events and service projects were scheduled in partnership with churches to provide natural connections with the people and to serve the city. Conference attendees went everywhere, from the medieval chapels and cobbled streets of “Old Town” to the urban cityscape of modern, mirrored high-rise buildings and Soviet-era block apartments.

Though Nikolai can’t remember the Dutchman’s name, he is intrigued by the friendly stranger. “Spiritual conversation, for me, is the best talk I can have,” says the Estonian. “Is there any other topic that is more interesting?”

Nikolai recounts his spiritual quest for his new acquaintance. “I started to search to fill the hole inside,” he begins. “I am Orthodox from my parents. But in Orthodox and Christianity, I could not find all the answers I was searching for.” Nikolai stops abruptly as a little boy tugs at the playground gate nearby, causing it to make an offensive screeching noise. Finally, the gate opens, restoring peace, and the fathers give a parental smirk before continuing their conversation.

“So, I went to esoteric thought and was searching for a few years,” Nikolai begins again. “Then, I went out to Eastern philosophy and then Hinduism. There I got the answers I was looking for.”

“What was the question?” his listener prompts.

“Why are we living? Why do we have bad situations?” Nikolai answers. “When I was young, I read a children’s Bible, but it was just beautiful pictures and nice stories. No philosophy,” he says. “When these questions started to come, and I read from Matthew in the Bible, I couldn’t understand what was there. I decided that is not for me.” The Dutchman thoughtfully listens as Nikolai continues.

A man reads a prayer book in a church bookstore.

These types of conversations are precisely the reason why the Estonian staff team worked for two years to plan the Heartbeat Tallinn conference.

Herman and Kristel Jürgens, both 34, direct Agape in Estonia. They are the second and third Estonian citizens to become staff members with Agape. “We thought if we get all these Christians here who want to make a difference for the Lord, it would be a waste of human resources if they just sit in a building,” explains Kristel. “We need them more on the streets than in a lecture hall. There are people on the other side of the wall who desperately need the message.”

The director of the conference, Lehari Kaustel, agrees. “Non-Christians in Estonia think Christians are not relevant, and we do not know how to live in reality,” states the Estonian staff member. “So, Heartbeat Tallinn focuses on building relationships with people and sharing the gospel in the context of a relationship.”

Rita, a young woman in a brown tanktop, was walking through the same city park as Nikolai when she met two British Christian students involved with Agape in the United Kingdom. The Brits came to the park with the Dutchman, hoping to meet Estonians and to learn more about their cultural and spiritual thoughts. The students quickly befriend Rita and discover she speaks five languages and is currently learning two more.

Like most Estonians, Rita is skeptical and untrained in thoughts about God. “I’m 50/50 on whether or not I even believe God exists,” she declares. Only 16 percent of Estonians believe God exists. The remainder of the population often put their Creator in the same category as fairies and trolls.

Fifty years of mandated atheism by Soviet occupying forces left a spiritual void in the nation. Estonia regained its independence 21 years ago, but spiritual freedom does not come through politics. Today, Estonia remains one of the most irreligious nations in the world. Herman Jürgens sees reason for hope with the Heartbeat Tallinn conference.

“My experience is that people are always interested in Jesus; they just don’t know,” he says. “I think Christians have a problem in their head: They assume people won’t listen. But many Christians think that without ever asking or giving others an opportunity to respond.”

On the far end of the same city park, two more conference attendees are deep in conversation with Mariliis, a fashion design student at Tallinn University. The young woman stiffens when the two Christian women ask her about God. “God equals religion,” she says, “and religion is something that stifles. It takes away your breath, strangling you.”

Even though Mariliis cannot see the true freedom Christ offers, she is willing to fight for freedom itself. In fact, during the final years of Soviet control of Estonia in the late 1980s, she was in the crowd of people who regained their freedom with song.

For decades, singing festivals have been a cultural unifier for Estonians. Soviet forces allowed Estonians to continue their cultural song celebrations, but stipulated that patriotic songs were to be banned. The people complied at first. Then these songs became the backbone for resistance and national identity.

Herman and Kristel Jürgens walk with their children in Tallinn's Old Town.

On one occasion in 1988 in Tallinn, about 100,000 people joined their voices to sing all night, every night for a week. It was an emotional moment of patriotism and a tipping point for Estonians’ progression toward independence. Independence was granted in 1991 and, unlike surrounding nations who had gained their freedom through battle, not a single Estonian life was taken. Today it is known as the “Singing Revolution.”

“It doesn’t make sense that that would work,” states Herman. “I can only explain it by saying, ‘God answers prayer. He can change history.’”

Herman and Kristel now trust God for another radical revolution in their homeland: “We believe that in 10 years we will be a country where at least 80 percent of the people will be followers of Jesus. There is no way we can do it,” Herman states, “but God can.”

Meanwhile, back by the park bench, spiritual revolution is stirring in Nikolai’s heart as he continues to speak about Jesus with the Dutchman. The topics have turned to the effects of sin and the possibility of a Savior sent from God.

Nikolai marvels at the man’s explanation of Christianity. “I think you have read more than one Bible,” he says with a smile of appreciation and respect. “Maybe I will pick up the Bible again. Maybe it is not as secretive as I once thought. I understand more after talking with you.” Pausing and looking out at his son, he thoughtfully states, “Maybe I wanted to get all the answers too fast.”

Before Nikolai leaves the park, his new Dutch friend gives him a small card offering information about a church course for people wanting to discover answers about the Christian faith. “Keep searching. Life is worth discovering,” reads Nikolai off the card.

“It will be very interesting,” Nikolai says, slowly nodding. “When I went to a church, I still could not get answers from them. But maybe if I check this out . . .”

Herman and Kristel are once again praying for revolution in Estonia. If national change can start with a song, they feel confident that something greater could begin with a conversation in the park.

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