“When we were freed, it was like an explosion in the church,” recounted Meego, who was 25 at the time. “People brought their children to the church. They told us, ‘We don’t know anything about God. Please teach them.’”
For 50 years, Christians had been persecuted under Communist rule. Pastors preached from the pulpits knowing that every word they said would fall on the ears of Russian spies. Children and youth activities were prohibited. Anyone caught saying something that could be misconstrued as antagonistic toward the Communist regime could be deported to Siberia and killed. Church leaders were particularly targeted.
“We grew up with the KGB following our family and tapping into our telephone lines,” said Meego, whose father was a pastor. “One day, our neighbors across the street came to our door. They told us, ‘We’ve been in our home listening to our radio and we can hear your telephone conversations on our radio.’”
Meego’s parents called the telephone company and it wasn’t long before four men in suits and ties showed up at their door.
“We did not take these men to be technicians from the telephone company,” Meego said. “We understood them to be the KGB, and they checked our lines and checked our connections.”
These were not easy years. Through the centuries, the country of Estonia, situated in Northern Europe, on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, had fallen to Danish, Swedish, Russian and German rule, before enjoying a brief period of independence before World War II. After the war, in 1944, the country fell to the Soviet Union and was instantly shrouded in Communism. But Christian convictions were strong.
“When you know you’re on the right track, you’re strengthened by that,” Meego said. “You know if you give up, the hope of Christ would be taken out of this world. My father is 74, and he is still pastoring today.”
It was this hope and conviction that drew Christians from 350 churches in this sparsely populated country to work together to bring the Festival of Hope, or Lootuse Festival with Franklin Graham, to Saku Suurhall Arena in Tallinn. More than 30,000 people attended the three-day event May 29-31, and nearly 1,000 committed their lives to Christ. That is a significant increase in a country where only 16 percent of people say they believe in God, and the average church has a Sunday morning attendance of 34.
“During the past 18 years, Estonians have worked hard to rebuild their personal lives and to build the economy of the nation,” said Ago Lilleorg, Festival committee chair and pastor of Estonian Christian Pentecostal Church. “Thanks to God, we have been quite successful. But when life became easier and things became better, people lost the interest in spiritual values. They don’t feel that they need it anymore.”
In the Soviet era, Russian ships guarded the Baltic Sea, prohibiting citizens from legally deporting the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, when residents could travel without restraints, they were shocked to see how people in other countries lived. Mart Metsala, pastor of Valguse Tee Vabakogudus (Way of Light Free Church) in Tallinn, remembers his first trip to Stockholm.
“I felt like I had been robbed,” he said. “I thought, Where is my nice life? Where is my house? Where is my car? If you wanted those things, you had to start from scratch.”
And Estonians did, some working 16 hours a day–at the expense of their families, their faith and their values. Estonia is now considered the most secular country in Europe and No. 6 worldwide. Many of the same people who ran to the church in 1991 have left, and gradually the country opened up to drugs, widespread pornography and organized crime. And now, amidst the global economic crisis, many are losing their jobs, causing despair in a country where suicide rates are already high.
“At this moment we have more than 60,000 nonworking people, and every month we have 2,000 more,” said Lilleorg. “And we have one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Europe.”
The beautiful old churches in Tallinn’s Old Town district, built during the Protestant Reformation, testify that faith was once alive in this city, but now the topic of faith causes no more than a fleeting shrug.
“People don’t seem to care what you believe in,” said Johanna Veevo, 18, who lives on one of many islands in the Baltic. “That’s the worse thing. When people are critical, you might be able to convince them that they are wrong. It’s hard to make them care.”
Despite their independence in 1991, Estonians have still not experienced true freedom, Mart said. True freedom has nothing to do with politics, he added. It starts in the heart.
“If you want to have a different life in a country, you need to change the hearts of the people in the country,” he said. “And for that you need the Gospel. There is nothing else.”
Franklin echoed that message over and over at the Festival meetings.
“We’re searching for happiness, and we think material things can make us happy,” he said. “But we have a vacuum in our hearts that can only be filled by God.
“You see, God made you. God wants to give you peace. Our problem is sin. We have broken God’s law, and there is a penalty for breaking God’s law, and that penalty is death.”
But God sent Jesus Christ, His only Son, into the world, and Jesus paid the penalty for sin by dying on the cross. All a man or woman has to do to have their sins forgiven, to have eternal life and to have true freedom is to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, Franklin said.
Christians throughout Estonia had been praying for the past year that their friends would do just that. They had written down the names of their friends and had called their names in prayer every day, and had committed to invite them to the Festival.
Ester, a counselor from Tartu, went a step further. She had about 23 people on her Operation Andrew list and, prior to the Festival, she called them and prayed with them on the phone.
“I believe God through the Holy Spirit has been leading me to do this,” Ester said. “I have prayed the sinner’s prayer with about 17 people so far, and they have all said they felt peace and relief after praying the prayer.”
Elise Olt, 15, of Tallinn, readily stepped out of her seat to come forward at the Festival on Sunday.
“I became saved tonight, and I think it’s just an awesome experience,” she said. “I also brought a friend with me. And she doesn’t have anything to do with church, but she said this event is awesome. The worship and everything that happened tonight, it made my knees weak.”
The Festival helped Christians shed denominational labels and brought them together to build the Kingdom of God, leaders said. Within days of the meetings, churches reported increased numbers to Bible study groups and to church services.
“One Pentecostal pastor told me he has been having 17 people to show up for a Bible study, and at this last meeting he had seven new people,” said Lilleorg, the Festival chair. “We have had more than 900 people added to the church. This is significant for Estonia. We are an atheistic country.”
One of those coming to Christ was a shy, 12-year-old girl who came with her 11-year-old friend.
“She didn’t have the boldness to say anything except that she wanted Jesus to come into her heart,” said her counselor Pirett Kütt. “It was amazing. I was honored to be able to lead her to Christ. I do this because I want people to know that Jesus loves them–and because I love Jesus.”