In their own language, Mari means “person,” and the Mari are in fact the original people to occupy this region of the world. They are part of a family of “Finno-Ugric” nations which have lived for thousands of years as indigenous peoples, only to be engulfed by the growing power of a completely different ethnic group, the Russians. Since the 16th century, Russian domination brought a veneer of Orthodoxy to some Mari communities. But in their homes, deep in the all but impenetrable forest, their traditional animism remained a major force in their daily lives. In many Mari communities, the contact with Christianity is virtually non-existent, and the animistic religion of shamans, sacrifices and curses remain in a pure form all but untouched by the modern world.
“This trip put us on trial,” says one BMTS student. The culture shock for anyone from a modern culture was immense. Dirt roads where one had to watch ones step because of the animals and their droppings. Entire villages where the only means of washing was to walk into the lake with a bar of soap and wash clothes and all in one step. Employers who paid their workers in goods, not money. But it was the animistic beliefs that caused the biggest shock. “The people are afraid of everything, they are so tied up in witchcraft,” she continues. A fallen flower vase left even the Mari Christians terrified that the house was now under a curse. Certain trees in the village could not be cut down for fear of displeasing the spirits, but anyone who touched the tree would become terribly sick.
During their time among the Mari, the BMTS team went to 7 villages where the local people reported that they were the first Christians to ever visit. Their base during the trip was the home of a single mother with five sons, the father was in jail. Part of their time was spent doing farm work to help the villagers. In this remote area, the people subsist on what they can grow or gather in the forest. Gardening is not a hobby, but a means of survival.
Working among the Mari is not easy, the people are very closed and suspicious of foreigners. Centuries of often cruel domination have taught them to be cautious, and a strong awareness of their own cultural uniqueness keeps them aloof from outsiders. The missionary who helped the BMTS arrange the mission trip said, based on his experience with the Mari, “if someone from Sweden or America comes to the Mari to present the Gospel, the response is usually, ‘that may be alright for you, but we are Mari, we are Finno-Ugric, we have our own ways.’ But if a Russian comes, the response is even worse, the centuries of oppression and mistrust form a tremendous barrier.” But Estonians are also Finno-Ugric, they too belong to this family of the indigenous peoples of eastern Europe, and that means a door is open to them that is closed to almost everyone else on the planet.
The importance of the cultural tie was brought home to the team of BMTS students when they arrived in a village during an important celebration. The word quickly spread that visitors from Estonia had arrived. Soon they were approached with smiles, and the words, “You are our close relatives, come and speak to us, introduce yourselves!”
“We were the only sober people there, I did not want to speak to them,” one BMTS student recollects. “But I heard God say, ‘I sent you on this mission trip, don’t try to choose your company!’” She proceeded to introduce the team and to say why they had come. “It was like the Sermon on the Mount! There was dead silence! They would have listened forever!” she adds. She then took a guitar and started to sing a Christian song in the Estonian language. When she was finished they asked her to repeat the words slowly in Estonian. They had great fun listening for the similarities with their own language.
While the similar culture gives Estonians an open door into Mari villages, that does not mean that missionary work will be easy. Opposition to the Christian Gospel still remains. The team had been required by Russian law to register with the local police, and declaring yourself to be Christian missionaries can in itself cause problems since Russia is not at all friendly to missionary work. The day after the village party, officials from the post-communist equivalent of the KGB came to the Seminary team with a threat, “Don’t do that again, don’t speak publicly!” Obviously someone from the Mari village had reported to the Russian police in an attempt to stop the mission team.
The Seminary students however, did not give in. As one student remarked, “Russia is Russia, everything can happen … we tried to go step by step in God’s grace. I learned what it meant to pray continuously. We couldn’t do anything without prayer.” The team continued their work and tried to visit people in the different villages. “We were invited into some homes, and thrown out as well,” reports another team member. In one home the wife let them in, but when the husband returned, drunk, he slapped his wife and threw them out yelling, “go away, people are watching!” The local pastor (he is not Methodist, there is currently no full time Methodist work among the Mari people) “just hit people with memorized Scripture. We tried to talk and explain what Christianity is all about” says one BMTS student. Despite everything, the Mari are responding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and one of the highlights of the trip was being present as Mari men and women went through the sacrament of baptism.
The reason the Seminary organizes mission trips is provide students with the experiences which will help prepare them for ministry. While the largest number of our graduates go into pastoral ministry, we strive to prepare professional workers for the full range of Christian service, including cross-cultural missionary. The Mari population is 700,000 people, everyone one of them precious to God. But the number of active Christians among ethnic Mari is estimated at 0.04%! To our knowledge, the team of BMTS students who spent part of their summer with the Mari, represented the first Methodist work ever among this ethnic group. Next summer, God willing, another team will be going from the BMTS. Perhaps one day soon, the first Methodist missionary to the Mari, and the first Methodist church among these indigenous peoples, the Indians of eastern Europe, will be a reality. The future, like the Mari people themselves, are in the hand of God.
1. travelling to a Mari village, deep in the forests of central Russia.
2. BMTS students with a Mari family
3. the students did their best to help with the daily chores
4. BMTS student embraces a newly baptised believer
5. BMTS students in discussion with a local woman
For more information on the Mari, visit the Information Centre of Finno-Ugric Peoples :