Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin passed away yesterday. This morning the BJC emailed out a remarkable story about an exchange between Yeltsin and Bill Clinton, during which Clinton shared his faith with Yeltsin and encouraged Yeltsin to keep the country open to Christian missionaries. It's interesting to think what might have happened had that exchange not happened; Yeltsin was apparently quite close to cutting off missionary access to the country because of the threat new Christian churches were posing to the Russian Orthodox Church.
I can't find the story on the BJC website, so I'm posting it here. Bill Clinton is so reviled in many Christian circles; I wonder if this story might cause some people to think again:
April 24, 2007
A reflection on Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and religious liberty
By Carolyn Staley
I have just read the news about the death today of Boris Yeltsin. It brought to mind a conversation that Bill Clinton related to me about a meeting he had with Yeltsin in 1994 -- a meeting during which he shared his faith with Yeltsin.
I was in Russia in January 1994 when President Clinton's mother, Virgina Clinton Kelley, died. Sarah Caldwell, director of the Boston Opera, and guest conductor the Sverdlovsk Symphony in Yeltsin's hometown of Ekatirnberg, Russia, had invited me to join her for a trip to Russia where I was soprano soloist for the Verdi "Requiem Mass." It was in Ekatirnberg that I received a faxed letter from President and Mrs. Clinton telling me of Virginia's death just after CNN had carried the story. I called the president from Russia the minute I heard the news, and we planned the music for the funeral together.
About a week later, the president traveled to Russia, keeping his long-standing commitment to President Yeltsin.
Sarah Caldwell took a chamber orchestra to Moscow to perform for Clinton at Spaso House, the home of the American attaché (then Thomas Pickerington), and I sang a group of American hymns with them to honor Clinton's visit and his mother's memory.
After the concert, Clinton asked me to please come by the hotel where his staff was staying in Moscow, so that we might visit for a while about his mother's funeral after an official trip to Yeltsin's dacha for dinner earlier that evening.
Clinton's trip to Russia came after the beginnings of efforts at democracy in Russia. Yeltsin had embraced the idea of helping the Russian people live in a free and democratic society, and wanted to learn all he could from Clinton about how democracy works. Clinton had traveled to Russia to continue the important gains in this new relationship of freedom.
Clinton told me that Yeltsin asked him many questions about how a democratic society worked. Clinton even offered to have Yeltsin come to the United States and visit him for several days in the White House, so that Clinton could serve as a mentor to Yeltsin as he learned how to govern in a democratic way.
When I met with Clinton, he shared with me an account from dinner that evening as he and Yeltsin continued to explore democracy and what it meant to live in freedom. Clinton told me the amazing story of sharing his faith with Yeltsin that night. He said that during dinner, Yeltsin leaned over to him and asked, "You're a Christian, aren't you?"
"Yes," President Clinton answered. "My faith is the most important thing in my life."
"Well, I have to do something about all these Christians coming to Russia. They are ruining our country. Everyone is becoming a new Christian, a born-again Christian, and they are being rebaptized and putting crosses around their necks. It is ruining our country's culture."
President Clinton told me he looked at Yeltsin and said, "Democracy doesn't work that way. Either you're free or you're not. You can't have it both ways. You need to allow Christians the freedom to come into your country and preach and teach, and you have to allow the Russian people the freedom to choose their faith."
I thought to myself, "what a remarkable exchange. In sharing his faith and his encouragement with Yeltsin that Christian workers be allowed to come into Russia as missionaries, Clinton may very well have helped keep the doors to Russia open for Christians and the spread of Christianity beyond Russian Orthodoxy. President and also advocate for religious liberty."
Just months before this exchange, Yeltsin had come very close to closing the country to Christian missionaries. The ban was not implemented, as it turned out.
The concern had been that the Russian Orthodox faith, the national church of the country, was being threatened with demise, as born-again converts began to affiliate with smaller Protestant churches spawning across Russia. Instead of being born into their cultural and historical/political Russian Orthodox church faith, people were now choosing to follow Christ in a personal faith.
I have often wondered what might have been if Clinton and Yeltsin hadn't formed a warm friendship that allowed Yeltsin to ask such questions of Clinton as he did about his faith.
Now, on learning of his death, I can't help but wonder how Clinton's sharing of his personal faith and encouraging Yeltsin to allow the Christian faith to grow unhindered in Russia, may have impacted the country. I am thankful that my friend took that opportunity to share his faith with Yeltsin. Somehow I think and hope it made a personal difference for him as well.
The Rev. Carolyn Staley is an advocate of religious liberty, a longtime Baptist Joint Committee supporter and the minister of education at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark.