Strong impressions, constant challenges and many encounters with people who have had their lives changed through the ministry of The Salvation Army. Jostein and Magna Nielsen experienced a lot during their five years as leaders of The Salvation Army in Eastern Europe.
- I thrive in the eye of the storm! And I do not know exactly what could top the experiences we had in Eastern Europe in terms of excitement and challenges,
says Colonel Jostein Nielsen.
He and his wife, Colonel Magna Våje Nielsen, are back in Norway after five years as leaders of the Salvation Army in Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Moldova and the breakaway region Transnistria. There has been no shortage of challenges. Like dealing with a dozen different currencies and several languages through a normal working day, and complicated regulations that differ from country to country. It is also demanding to do ministry in areas with great poverty and extensive emigration, and also several areas with occupation and war, in addition there is widespread corruption. Things often happen fast in these countries and the two officers and other employees of the Salvation Army constantly had to take on new and unexpected challenges head on. You sometimes need good nerves to handle these situations!
- Jostein smiles.
But none of them doubt that it was worth it. They regard it as a calling to be part of The Salvation Army’s mission in this very area, and they enjoyed their ministry and the people there. And not least, they bring back so many strong stories that it is difficult to choose someone to highlight.
It may seem like a small matter, but a testimony from a person in a corps in Georgia moved us. He did not have a permanent residence and took whatever small job he could find to live from hand to mouth, says Magna. The Salvation Army has an annual, international self-denial appeal, and although he had little, the man decided to set aside some money and contribute.
The incredible thing was that every time he had set aside a small amount he wanted to give, something happened that made him get the same amount back. For example, he could be offered a job the next day, which meant that he earned the same amount over again. He was so proud! He testified during the offering and said: “I thought I always was going to be the person who needed to accept help from others, I never imagined that I could be part of helping poor people in other countries!”
The Salvation Army in Eastern Europe conducts prison ministry in all the countries in the territory. The conditions are often very harsh. After serving a sentence it is often a challenge for many to be able to resettle in society. However, some have life-changing experiences as convicts in prison.
In a women's prison in Moldova, The Salvation Army has a ministry that has become very much like a church. One of the inmates who was part of that, was recently released. She immediately linked up with a corps and has become a soldier and actively engaged in the ministry, Magna smiles.
Now she is one of the leaders in children’s ministry and in ‘See me!’, which is a project where children come after school and get a meal, food and help with school work, Magna smiles.
The Salvation Army also has ministry in a prison where life-sentenced convicts serve their sentence . The inmates there know that they probably never will be released to freedom. But even though they live under very harsh conditions and with little hope of ever having another life, Vlad, one of the inmates, found Christ and chose to belong to the Salvation Army. Actually, he went through the soldiers-classes and made the soldier's covenant, but it is not so easy to wear a uniform in prison, so officially is an adherent. He was very proud, says Jostein.
When Jostein came to the prison to attend the service where Vlad was to be admitted as a member, Vlad greeted him as he arrived. He said that he very much liked an article Jostein had written in the Russian War Cry. Jostein's first thought was that Vlad was trying to impress a little by telling that he had read the War Cry and his article.
The article he mentioned was about a Norwegian Christmas song: ‘I crossed both land and sea’. It is perhaps the shallowest Christmas song there is. But the song asks a very important question: ‘Where is your home?’ My point in the article is that it does not matter where you are, as you are at home in God. It's Magna’s and my testimony too, we're always at home in Him, no matter where in the world we live. Vlad said that he liked what I wrote and continued: “I hope they change the laws so I can get out of here one day. But whatever happens, I know where I live, I am at home in God and I am God's representative here in this prison.” It was so moving, and I felt small and ashamed because I had thought that he was just talking about the article to impress me!
This man was far from the only one becoming a Christian in the prison where he is. There are many strong testimonies around all of Eastern Europe coming from the great variety of ministries in The Salvation Army, the two can tell. Not least among those who have chosen to become a soldier or an officer, usually as the first in their family.
- Here in Norway, many officers and soldiers come from Christian families, many are also from families who have been in the Salvation Army for several generations. This is not the case in Eastern Europe, here the Salvation Army is a young movement. The Orthodox Church is strong, and many have some knowledge about Christianity, but often they do not have a personal faith or experience because of this knowledge. Some may have a grandmother who was an Orthodox Christian, but they themselves have not had a Christian upbringing. Therefore, it is transforming for many to experience answers to prayer and come into a personal relationship with Jesus, says Jostein.
Challenges in Transnistria
Sometimes they were in situations that looked quite hopeless, it was difficult to see how it could be solved. But they experienced repeatedly that things were resolved or settled in a rather miraculous way, something they both experienced this as clear answers to prayers. Like when the Salvation Army was about to be expelled from Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, which has its own government and currency. The Salvation Army has been present here for 25 years, but suddenly it turned out that the regulations had changed and that the Salvation Army had not been registered correctly. In a short time, they had to meet many requirements in order not to be thrown out of the area.
Until then, the Salvation Army had, among other things, been registered on a private address in Transnistria. This was no longer allowed, so it was very urgent to buy a building registered for public use to be able to meet the conditions of the law.
Jostein and Magna had not even received their new appointment back to EET at that time; but started an appeal on FB among their Norwegian friends. In just a few weeks they received 700.000 NOK to buy a house in Transnistria. During those weeks, they had received the phone-call and their appointment, and after returning to EET they looked at several properties; however, every time they found something interesting, the seller withdrew. Eventually, the broker they used did not want anything more to do with The Salvation Army either. It turned out that they had all received threats and did not want to sell to The Salvation Army.
- There was very hectic activity and a lot of prayer during this period. And suddenly a man appeared who owned a building he could sell to us, and he also had a contact with legal expertise who could help us with the registration.
However, this time it was the international regulations of The Salvation Army that became an obstacle. They could not buy the house they were offered with the registration they received in Transnistria, because this is a breakaway republic that is not approved by the UN.
Finally, we asked whether the Transnistrian authorities would allow us to buy the property with the registration held by The Salvation Army's headquarters for Eastern Europe, instead of buying it with the registration we had received in Transnistria. Bearing in mind the unsolved political situation between Moldova and Transnistria, there was nothing in the information we had collected indicating that they would accept our head office is in Moldova as a buyer. But it was approved! We really experienced that as an answer to prayer. One of our officers said that if he ever in the future should doubt his faith in God, he could only think about what about what happened in Transnistria, it was really an amazing miracle. Now everything is in order, and we have a nice property on the corner of Lenin-street and Karl Marx-street, Jostein laughs.
Countries drained for people
One of the biggest challenges the Salvation Army is struggling with in all the countries of Eastern Europe is the large-scale emigration. Most people who have the opportunity try to get to other countries to seek a better future. Many also leave their children at home while traveling to work in other countries. It creates great challenges. The children often have a relative or neighbour who looks after them, but many do not receive adequate care, and some are more or less overlooked by the people who have promised to look after them. The Salvation Army therefore works hard to help children and young people with food, schooling and activities. This work has yielded good results, and many of the children receive an education. As these children grow up, they could be important resources for The Salvation Army and their country. But even they use the first opportunity to emigrate and seek a better future elsewhere in Europe, the United States or Canada. It creates great challenges for the countries they travel from, something which also influences the ministry of The Salvation Army.
Many new people come into the corps, but because the emigration is so extensive, there are always just as many who disappear because they leave the countries. We are barely able to keep up with people moving away. Moldova, for example, had a population of around 5 million in 2004, now the official figure is 3.8 million. They who leave have not necessarily left the country permanently. Many of them invest in real estate in their home country and plan to return, but only when they retire. There is going to be a very aging of the population. We already experience that it is the young, strong and healthy who travel. Children, disabled and elderly remain.
Financing the work is also demanding, in the poorest countries in Europe. Many soldiers in these countries give tithe to their corps. But very many of them are on basic and insufficient pension, unemployed or low-paid, and thus it amounts to marginal sums, and the work remains dependent on external financing. Romania is the most economically prosperous country, it is the 10th poorest country in Europe. They have greater access to natural resources than the other countries and a larger middle class. But here, too, the poverty is great and very visible.
In a way we see two worlds, one for those who live in the official economy and another for those who live outside. In Moldova, for example, unemployment is officially at 70 percent. But that number is far from correct, because most farmers do not register. They do not pay taxes, there is a lot of corruption in the country so there are few who want to pay taxes. Thus, they also do not have access to social services or health care. They cultivate their soil and manage to survive. But since they do not pay taxes, municipalities with many farmers have little income. Then it is not exactly the dream job to be a teacher there. The municipalities are responsible for salaries, but do not have the means to do it, Magna explains.
Although Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, there were clear signs of development in the country. More people received a salary that is higher than the minimum wage for survival, and new shops and companies were opened and went well. And then came corona.
- At the beginning of the epidemic, everything was shut down, like schools and all shops except grocery stores and pharmacies. After a month without income, many shop owners were unable to pay the rent, and very many went bankrupt. It had dramatic effects on the economy, because there are no public crisis packages to help business owners and others affected by the corona in Moldova, says Magna.
After a while, the government had to reopen, otherwise people would make a riot and the government would be ousted, the consequences were very bad for most people.
The Salvation Army continues its work in all the countries of the territory during the epidemic, although things has to be done differently due to infection regulations.
- Many corps have, among other things, held services on Facebook, since people could not gather physically. It has worked well, says Jostein.
This was the officer-couple's second period in Eastern Europe. After the end of their first three year term in 2007, they had to return home due to health challenges. When they were asked to return in 2015, it felt just right. And they knew exactly how long they were meant to stay.
When we arrived, we were one of six married couples applying for a residence permit to work for the Salvation Army in Eastern Europe. The other couples all received a residence permit for one year. We were given five years permits. So, then we knew how long we would be there, and just as we felt that it right for us to go, we know that it is right that we are back in Norway now. We are very grateful to God and The Salvation Army for the opportunity we have to serve for five more years in Eastern Europe, says Magna.