Out of the blue, 18 months ago, the Rev. Rob Bromhead of Centreville Presbyterian Church received a phone call asking if he'd be interested in teaching a two-week theology course — somewhere in the world. By this spring, he was in Russia.
The caller was affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ which sponsors five international leadership academies. He'd seen Centreville Presbyterian's Web site and was looking for someone of that denomination to teach.
"I told him I'd give it some thought and prayer," said Bromhead. "I wanted to teach at an academy where people were studying to become pastors. He said the school in Moscow tended to have the highest percentage of those."
So Bromhead selected that school and a course called Bible Doctrine Survey, about the person of Christ, the Holy Spirit, angels and anthropology. Next came some six months of preparation to teach it, while obtaining the necessary visa and other documents needed for the trip.
Finally, he left April 29 and returned May 17. Also teaching there at the same time as Bromhead were two pastors from Texas. He lectured four hours a day for nine days and was delighted to have the opportunity.
"I wanted to be able to share a little of my experience and knowledge of ministry with those who hadn't had much opportunity to preach in a church setting," he said. He also wanted to teach the Bible in Russia because, outside of a formal university classroom, there aren't many theology courses available in that country.
Bromhead said the timimg was just right because, "at that point, there was a window of time to teach Biblical theology freely there." He taught in the New Life Bible College within the Moscow city limits.
He had 14 students — 2/3 male and 1/3 female, mainly in their mid-20s to late 30s and from a variety of backgrounds. They included a retired tank officer, a woman who'd been part of the Russian government's agriculture department, a former professional boxer from the Ukraine and a single mother who traveled three hours each way — by public transportation — to attend his class.
"It went very well," said Bromhead. "I had to teach all the courses through an interpreter, which was a new experience for me, and she was very good. When I used analogies that were typically American — or when I cracked a joke that they didn't understand — she'd get a funny look on her face and say, 'I don't think that crosses over.'"
The economic level of the average student was very low. "The average worker in Moscow today earns the equivalent of $100-$150/month, and students earn considerably less," said Bromhead. The school supplied them with housing."
Therefore, he said, his students often brought lunches of only buckwheat mixed with water. "On the last day, the teachers threw a pizza party for them," said Bromhead. "You would have thought we were serving up filet mignon."
He taught students in the first year of a two-year study program. The information wasn't brand new to them, but was an expansion and an elaboration of the basic Christian theology that they'd been exposed to — so they discussed topics such as, Who is Christ? and God's Design for Humanity. And his teachings truly resonated with them.
"I'd ask if they wanted to take a break, and they'd say 'no' because they were enjoying and getting so much out of my lecture," said Bromhead. "That was one of the highlights of the trip for me — being able to teach those who were so hungry to learn."
It also meant some real sacrifice, on many levels, for his students to come to class. They'd had to give up the income from a full-time job so they could attend. It also took courage on their part.
"For many of them, as they were growing up, if they identified with a Christian faith, they'd experience various forms of discrimination," explained Bromhead. "For example, one man described in his elementary-school records as 'religious' was discriminated against by his teachers and the other students. He claimed that's one of the reasons he went into boxing."
At the end of the course, the school president gave Bromhead a letter and also sent one to the ruling board of the Presbyterian church here, stating how much his efforts were appreciated. On the last day, the students — who'd scraped together what limited funds they had — gave him a gift of a decanter set for vodka.
"I was really moved by that," he said. "And the interpreter told me, 'They have a great fondness for you.'" He also gave out presents. Before leaving America, his own church had supplied him with Sony Walkman headsets. "The students thought I'd gotten just one for them all to share," he said. "They were thrilled to discover there was one for each of them, including the interpreter."
Bromhead said one of his students, a dentist who had his own CD collection, had been saving for a year to buy a Walkman "so he considered it a gift from God." He said the students probably made $50-75/month from part-time jobs, and Walkmans there cost an estimated $300.
He said the whole experience was sobering. Four times a week, he'd go on tours of Moscow — operas, museums, the circus — and very rarely did he see anyone smile or laugh. "My sponsor had told me not to whistle in public because that means you're happy," said Bromhead. "And if you're happy, you're rich. So if you're rich and whistling, then you're flaunting it."
The hardest thing, he said, was "seeing how little people have materially in Russia and [realizing] how rich I am as an American. It's a developing country with a high-tech veneer. Moscow seemed like a western city but, outside of it, you could see how economically depressed the rest of the country is."
However, Bromhead did enjoy visiting Red Square and going to the world's largest McDonald's, in Moscow: "There were 50-60 people behind the counter, and you could get a full-value meal for under $2."
What gave him the most satisfaction was knowing that God used him to make a small contribution toward the education of future pastors. The experience also made him appreciate "the sacrifices that others have to make for their faith that I don't. It was very worthwhile; I'm glad I did it. It was eye-opening for me on many levels and, spiritually, it really strengthened my faith."