What can be done when “can’t” isn’t an option
Who would have guessed it would be this rather modest country, Lithuania, who would be the first to push out from under the crumbling Soviet Union to declare independence? But that they did, even though the not-yet-fallen Soviet system sent in troops to try and intimidate the bold and brash who determined enough was enough.
In my visits, I’m often surprised as I discover rich and varied cultures, where histories of greatness, tragedy, sorrow and unvarnished beauty mingle. For many Evangelicals – our history begins in the 1700s – we may not take into account places where Christian faith had early beginnings. And the further one gets into the eastern regions of Europe and especially Central Asia and the Middle East, the more obscure names become and our knowledge of their Christian witness is thin at best. My interest is to awaken understanding and interest in countries and with people we may either hear nothing about, or such a myriad of ideas as to be confused. My hope in this Dispatch, as with others, is to see remarkable works of the Spirit in sparking faith, igniting the lives of people in service.
What is striking is the large role Lithuania has played in European history and development of its northeast region. During the 14th Century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest in Europe including what today are sections of Poland and Russia including Ukraine and Belarus. While linked to Poland for two hundred years, in the later 1700s Russia claimed most of its land. Independent after WWI both the Nazis and Soviets took turns in occupation. As WWII ended, the Soviets took over. Finally, March 11, 1990 she declared herself the State of Lithuania.
Three quarters of the people claim Roman Catholic faith, a history that began in the 1300s. Evangelicals make up less than one percent. During the Soviet occupation Christians of all communities suffered as many were imprisoned, tortured and sent to Siberia.
Out of the burgeoning hope released as the Soviet system fell apart, an idea was born. Of course a seed at first, but today there stands a Christian university, constructed by visionaries who defied the odds and created what is remarkable, linking together people, skills and opportunities. This story symbolizes what can be done when people take hold of moments, risking, pushing beyond what most believed to be credible. Such happened with the Lithuanian Christian College, now called LCC International University.
Even though the Soviets were trying to clamp down on this young upstart of a country – Lithuania – the brash go-getters of the young government began quickly to move. 27 year old Minister of Culture and Education Aurimas Juozaitis met with a young German evangelist Johannes Reimer, who at the time was ministering in Lithuania under LOGOS, a German based ministry doing theological education in the Soviet Union. The young educational minister said to Johannes, “Our country needs a window to Europe, to the world, if democracy is to be given a chance. The external freedom from the Soviets is only the first step; the true freedom will have to happen in the heads of the people. We need a Protestant Christian university.”
Johannes returned to Germany, but could find no one who had interest in his idea. His next conversation was in Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada with Art DeFehr, president of Palliser Furniture. Art, a grad of Harvard and interested in Christian education listened. He promised no money but said he was interested.
Back in Lithuania, in the 1970s and 80s, Mennonites had settled, a midway point in their attempt to immigrate to Germany. Otonas Balciunas was a musician and teacher, and while struggling under the oppressive eye of the police he and his wife Raimonda founded the Lithuania Christian Fund. They too had a vision for university level education.
It didn’t take long for it to take shape. October 31, 1990, the minister Juozaitis along with DeFehr, Reimer and Balciunas met in Vilnius, the capital and signed an agreement with the newly formed republic to develop and build a Christian university.
It was just the beginning, but what a start. Within months of having the banner of the hammer and sickle lifted, three Christians linked with the government to set in motion the building of the first Christian university of its kind, located in a former territory of the “old” Soviet Union.
It began the next summer with 100 students, offering an English language program. The government explicitly wanted it to be English, and to build within it the values of what they saw as from the “West.” However he had to be reminded it wasn’t “western” values but Christian values which would bring the kind of education he, as minister, saw his country needing.
Winter school followed. Surprisingly in the city it was first held, there was fear that a Protestant, especially what some saw as a “Mennonite” school, would upset this heartland of Catholic conservatism. So the site of this prospective Christian university was moved to Klaipeda, a beautiful city on the Baltic coast.
Today some 40% of the 600 students are Lithuanians, with many from other European and Central Asian countries. North America students also are able to use credits towards their North American degree, as the LCC is member of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities in North America (CCCU).
I had an hour with some 90 students. The professor thought half would not be of Christian faith, the other half of mixed Christian denominations. Their questions on faith and interest in knowing how one discovers the leading of the Spirit helped me understand the critical nature of the school. I saw its vital role in building faith into the lives of young people in a region where atheism has tried so hard for decades to rule.
This university of course didn’t just happen. It never does. The Spirit works hand in hand with those who are already there, those who have experience, and those willing to risk. It also took enormous giving of talent, time and finances to make it work. Hundreds, at their own cost, travelled to teach, to cook, to build, to manage and to love it into reality.
Today, a handsome campus, the finest of facilities, qualified faculty and able administrators are all making it work.
Take this as an inspiration to pray when it seems there is no future. And believe that God is already preparing his people to be ready to step in as the moment appears. Also, ask what you or I might do, resisting the skeptical, helping do what most think impossible.
Brian C. Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance