Siberian summer

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When junior Ben Colbenson heard about a mission trip to Russia, there was very little he knew of the country. But he never expected that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would help him connect with Russian students.

“If peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ever make it big in Russia, I hope we can claim responsibility for that,” Colbenson said.

It was a way for Colbenson and the other missionaries with him to connect with another culture and a way for them to share the gospel.

Colbenson is part of Navigators, a Christian ministry group on campus, who originally went on a mission trip to Russia in 1992. The group returned again this past summer.

“We had a training back in March just to figure out a little about Russian culture and different things like that, by our trip leader Doug,” Colbenson said.

The group left June 20 from St. Paul on a direct flight to Moscow.

From there, it was another four-hour trip to the town they were staying in, Novosibirsk, near the center of Russia.

“I think we spent like 16, 17 hours in the air,” he said. “It was quite a trip. You definitely feel like you’re on the other side of the world.”

Colbenson and two other students spent a week training with a woman from Washington, D.C., followed by a discussion in the afternoon with four or five Russian students about a particular topic.

“That ranged from anything from American history to a little bit of world history,” Colbenson said. “We did stuff like death and sin and morality, and a lot of those topics were very taboo in Russia. They don’t want to talk about death and they don’t want to talk about sex.”

“Church-free Russia”

The Russian students were forced to think about topics outside of the material world, and Colbenson found their responses very interesting since none of them grew up in the church.

The area Colbenson was in was very “un-churched” because of Soviet rule.

A lot of the churches were shut down during that 70-year period, Colbenson said, and Russia continues to shut down any Western-type of religion and tries to implement more Russian orthodox churches. This was one of the major reasons why Russia was the desired destination to share the gospel.

Colbenson said it took time for the students to warm up to them because they’re weary of Americans and religion, since Russian culture has taught them not to be close with others.

“We broke many barriers of Russians down in our own minds,” Colbenson said. “Russians are not these people that you see in the movies that carry a lot of guns and speak in this heavy accent, and actually the accent over there is totally off than the way it’s portrayed in the movies.”

The Russian students did eventually open up with Colbenson and they didn’t have to feel condemned.

“It was a really good learning experience, not only for them but for us as well.”

He still receives e-mails from students occasionally, which tells him his short four months over there did have a lasting effect on people.

Jeff Wiegel, of the internship program Edgecore, said Colbenson contributed a lot to the trip and the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were just one of his many ways of opening up to Russians.

“That’s how we got to know about these students, really informally; just over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Wiegel said. “He’s not afraid to try to new things and interacting with people and he’s very open. He did it with a great attitude. It was really great that Ben was on the trip.”

Wiegel also noticed that it took time for the Russians to eventually open up.

“They didn’t have a lot of reasons to trust us . they were a little suspicious of us, especially when they found out we were religious and especially Christian,” Wiegel said.

“Wanna play ball?”

During their afternoons spent in Novosibirsk, the American students would take the Russian students on hikes, bike rides, field trips and even taught them to play baseball. Bible studies were also included twice a week, Colbenson said.

“Just to hear the gospel for the first time and what they thought of it and have them think about it was really interesting because they’ve never heard it before,” he said.

Colbenson was surprised by the way he said God brought others to learn more about the gospel.

One day while the students were playing baseball, someone was taking pictures of them and looking at them funny, which Colbenson thought was probably because they were Americans. The photographer eventually introduced himself to the group and came to a Bible study two nights later.

Colbenson experienced this many times and estimated that he shared the gospel with at least 25 people.

“You don’t want to measure the success of a trip necessarily by how many people you share the gospel with, but it’s always encouraging,” he said.

Another experience Colbenson had with a Russian changed his whole outlook, even when he came back to Eau Claire. There was a very physically unattractive person who came to one of their Bible studies who Colbenson was wary about talking to.

“If he was here in America, to be completely honest, I don’t think I would’ve talked to him,” Colbenson said. “But since we were over there, I thought I could talk to this guy . and he was probably one of the most interesting, smart, intelligent guys I met in Russia even though he was so physically repulsive and he was another one we got to share the gospel with.”

This experience taught him not to judge others on their physical experience and this knowledge carried over into his responsibilities of being a Resident Assistant in Towers. Sometimes, Colbenson will meet a resident and think they’ll get into trouble and be difficult to live, with but he just reminds himself of the man in Russia.

“You never know what’s underneath the skin or who that person is until you’ve actually talked to them,” Colbenson said. “It’s so easy in our culture to just judge by physical appearance or by status in society. That was very convicting and very life-changing to just not be as judging towards others.”

“Religious experiences”

While Colbenson did go to church on occasion growing up, he considers himself to have been a believer for about seven years now.

Attending youth groups in his hometown of Spring Valley sparked his interest in religion. He liked how youth group made him think about deeper things than the church service he was used to.

“At this youth group I felt very convicted that I was a sinner and that there was definitely sin in my life and I started reading the Bible a lot more,” Colbenson said. “That’s what started this whole process for me.”

Colbenson said he finds it very reassuring that the prophecies in the Bible start to come true.

Colbenson kept a diary of all his experiences and had some of the Russian students write him letters in the diary. It was through these and the numerous discussions he had that Colbenson learned how similar he was to the Russians.

“I must have had this sub-conscious thought that we’re different, but we’re not,” Colbenson said. “I thought they’d be different than us but I started talking to them, and we found out just how much alike we are in our hopes, dreams, goals in life, wants and desires and everyone wants peace and happiness; everyone wants purpose in life.”

“Warm Welcome”

The Americans stayed with people who didn’t even speak English but welcomed them into their home, which is something Wiegel really appreciated.

“They made the effort to get to know us, and I don’t always do that,” he said. “These people who showed me love and friendship and kindness, even when I first met them, and that made a big impact on me.”

Both Wiegel and Colbenson learned a lot while halfway across the world and think its something every student should experience.

“It’s worth the experience to go over seas,” Wiegel said, “no matter who you are or what you believe in because there’s value in experiencing a culture other than your own.”