by Daniel Henderson, Captain –
Narva, Estonia—a gray town filled with gray people, seemingly at a dead-end in its 700-year history—a town suffering from the ravages of HIV/AIDS—a perfect town to open a Salvation Army corps, allowing the healing touch of Jesus to transform peoples’ lives.
Like something out of George Orwell’s novel 1984, the gray brick blockhouses stand tall and dilapidated against the gray sky as you enter the town of Narva. Driving down the main street, you will see more gray, run-down buildings, and people walking with set faces, shoulders hunched against the cold autumn rain. You will see splashes of color, a new strip mall here, a new gas station there, and then more gray buildings and gray people.
That’s what I saw during my first fall season in Narva, two years ago. Indeed, that’s what many people who have lived here all of their lives see, every day—a rundown, dead-end town, gray as death. But, somewhere along the way, Jesus opened the eyes of my heart to see a different Narva, a Narva peopled with his beloved children, and filled with the potential for rebirth.
Narva—past and present
Narva has seen it all in its 700-year history, witnessing times of economic prosperity, and complete devastation. The most recent destruction occurred in 1944, when the Red Army recaptured Narva from the Germans after two weeks of continuous artillery bombardment. The Soviets won a town, but only two buildings were left standing. The outlook appeared bleak, but God had other plans, moving the Communist government to rebuild the town, and inspiring Soviet planners to open critical factories in Narva. People were brought in from all over the Soviet Union, but especially Russians, to rebuild the city and work in the factories. The city was reborn, and thrived, its people enjoying a lifestyle well above that of many Soviet citizens.
Then, God worked the unthinkable. In a matter of months, God dissolved the largest empire in world history, and Estonia found itself free from Soviet rule. Almost overnight, freedom was reborn in a land, and among a people, that had sought her for so long. That freedom was a miracle for the Estonians, who have run with it—with help from the U.S. and other European countries, they are modernizing their country with astonishing speed.
For the Russians living there, Estonian freedom has been a mixed blessing, with many difficult changes. Once on top economically and socially, the Russians now find themselves on the outside looking in, locked out of important jobs and business opportunities because of discrimination. Nowhere is this truer than in Narva, 96 percent Russian speaking, and the third largest city in Estonia, where government investment is low, and most factories stand idle. Many Russian young people in Narva face an uncertain future, wondering if they will have any hope of finding jobs when they leave school. They can walk by the McDonald’s restaurant on Main Street, but would have trouble buying even a cup of tea inside.
Economic depression and sweeping changes in cultural values have been a deadly combination in Narva. Free trade has made alcohol and illegal drugs easily available, unemployment has provided the incentive to get started, and the result is a widespread addiction problem among Narva’s youth. With heroin came the sharing of dirty needles, which brought HIV/AIDS into our community. HIV has spread with alarming speed in Narva, both through drug use and through sexual contact. Our small city of 70,000 people has been called “the Africa of Europe” by a Finnish news magazine, because we have the highest percentage of HIV positive people in the European Union. It’s not just a statistic: This past February, we performed the funeral for Natasha, the granddaughter of one of our adherents, who was born HIV positive and lived only eight months. Her death is just the beginning.
The Army comes to Narva
This is why the Army is here! Who will stand against the tide of addiction, sexual immorality, and depression that is pushing Narva’s people, young and old, towards an untimely death? Who will bring the love of God, the message of Salvation, and hope for a new life, to the addicted, jobless, and hopeless of Narva? Who will reach out to the modern-day lepers, those infected with HIV, to show them that God loves them, and that he still has a plan for their lives? This is the Army’s mission, our specialty, the reason for our creation. God is still using the Army to fulfill its mission, and he is going to bring rebirth and victory to Narva by redeeming its most hopeless souls!
Recognizing the need of Narva in 2002, and The Salvation Army’s unique ability to meet that need, Majors Wes and Ruth Sundin pushed for the opening of the Army’s work here. The Army opened fire in Narva in April of 2003, and we have seen steady growth in the corps since then. Recently, we began partnering with a local free clinic that serves HIVpositive women, offering counsel, material help, and practical assistance to these young ladies. With each passing week, it seems that we encounter yet another person whose life has been touched by the AIDS epidemic.
God is helping us to develop the work with HIV positive people here in Narva, bringing advice, resources, and helpers from around the world. We seek to connect these suffering people with Jesus, the one who will meet the need of their souls, and bring them into a loving fellowship of Christians. We ask for your prayers, to support us as we labor to bring lost people to salvation. We also ask that you pray for the corps people, that they would believe God for holiness of heart and mind, and grow in his grace. We stand with you, as we fight together against the evils of modern culture, against secular attitudes, drug use, abuse, hatred, and every other weapon that the devil uses to bind and destroy the lives of people.
Western officers Captains Daniel and Anya Henderson
are corps officers in Narva, Estonia.
Recently, the IHQ Medical Facilitation Team, led by Dr. Ian Campbell, visited Narva for one day, before traveling to Tallinn for the second and third days of an HIV conference. According to the IHQ team and others, the conference was very successful—a great move forward for the Army in Estonia, and a tribute to the hard work of Majors Derek and Helen Tyrrell, the regional officers.