Showalter: Ambassador in Russia

Oct 8, 2018 by

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Russia is in the Western news often. War in Ukraine, interference with elections, Trump/Putin jockeying, poisoning of an intelligence agent, sanctions. Is a new Cold War emerging? It’s actually an East/West drama that’s more than 100 years old, beginning perhaps with the Bolshevik Revolution.

Meanwhile, there’s the more important but less noticed kingdom of God. There are the churches and their leaders and the ordinary millions whose lives and deaths were shaped by the decisions of the great powers of Russia and the West.

Richard Showalter


Few are in a better position to interpret this than Harley Wagler. A son of the Kansas plains, he went to Yugoslavia in 1970, Bulgaria in 1980 and then Russia, where he resides and teaches philosophy and literature — in Russian to Russian students — in a state university 300 miles east of Moscow. He has modeled quiet, persistent, hands-on Anabaptist witness for 50 years.

This summer I met him unexpectedly on a visit to Kansas, where Wagler was finishing a two-month university leave. What followed was a brief, evocative plunge into a major world civilization largely misunderstood in the West.

After a lifetime in the Slavic world, Wagler is a blend of Amish, Mennonite, Russian Baptist and Orthodox cultural and spiritual streams. Never defined by a single organization, he has nevertheless served quietly and effectively with Rosedale Mennonite Missions, Eastern Mennonite Missions, Mennonite Central Committee and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, always with a single focus.

“Sure, we Anabaptists have something to teach the Orthodox,” he said. “They can learn from our historic focus on everyday discipleship. But we have a lot to learn from them, too. For example, their worship and prayer. Here in the West, we’re so rational in our approach to God. Orthodox believers go to church with a singular focus to meet God, not by rational analysis but by adoration. They understand that God is beyond human comprehension. They accept the Mystery.”
He has many deep friendships with Russian Orthodox believers.

Wagler comes back each summer to Kansas, where he helps his sister with her farm and vegetable market. “I could live here, too,” he said, “but my home is Russia.”

In the U.S. he is a member of Plainview Mennonite Church near Hutchinson. In Russia, he’s a member of a local Baptist church.

“Among the three major historical roots of the Russian Baptists, the strongest is that from the Mennonites of Ukraine,” he said. “In the 19th century revival that produced what later became the Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite young people began reaching out to their Slavic neighbors, and many met Jesus. They became Baptists.”

“In the West we know about the suffering of the evangelical believers during the Soviet era,” he said. “But for every evangelical pastor who was killed or imprisoned during those times, there were scores of Orthodox leaders who suffered the same. Now Russian Christians have been restored to a position of dignity. But they are not controlled by, nor do they control, the government. Each is independent. The vision is for harmony.”

“Why do so many Western evangelicals become Orthodox?” I asked.

Wagler replied: “In every worship service the people together say clearly, ‘I believe . . . ’ What if Anabaptists said it that clearly, then lived it?”

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

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