When a group of Nazarene leaders visited Belarus in late 2015 to learn from local Christian leaders of other denominations regarding what it has taken to grow their churches in that former Soviet country, they heard a cautiously optimistic tale.
While established churches report expending enormous effort to plant even one church in a year, they sense God is doing something there, despite that 41 percent of the population report having no religious belief (U.S. State Department).
"One said, 'We’ve been praying and we sense that something new is happening in Belarus, and your coming is like evidence that God is starting something fresh here and we welcome you. We’ll work with you,'” recalls Scott Rainey, field strategy coordinator for the Commonwealth of Independent States Field, of which Belarus will be a part.
Davide and Tatiana “Tanya” Cantarella, who have been ministering in Moscow for the past decade (Davide for nine years as district superintendent and currently as district education coordinator; Tatiana was Moscow First Church of the Nazarene pastor for some time), will move to Belarus in early 2017 to establish the Church of the Nazarene’s presence there.
Davide said the idea began to form in his heart and mind a number of years ago.
“It was never a fully developed thought, it was just one of those things it would be a cool thing to do one day,” he said.
Then, he and Tanya began to sense they might move somewhere soon. They had become parents of Ilyana in early 2014, and Tanya had taken a one-year sabbatical, so they were already experiencing transition. They thought whatever came next would keep them in Moscow or somewhere in Russia, Tanya’s home country (Davide is from Sicily).
They began praying for direction. Several opportunities presented themselves to the family, but none seemed right. In May 2015, Rainey asked them to consider moving to Belarus. They and a few trusted friends prayed about the proposal for two months.
“Then we had a pretty good feeling this was something the Lord wanted us to do.”
Later that year, the Cantarellas went with Rainey to Belarus, accompanied by Hermann Gschwandtner, a retired regional missionary who helped open the work of the denomination in the former Soviet Union 30 years ago. They met with two established Christian groups to listen and learn.
“We had to come in with the attitude of learners," Davide said. "Share your knowledge and wisdom and recommendations.”
The two local leaders invited them warmly and expressed openness to cooperation.
The family made a second visit, visiting Christians in six main cities across the country. Again, they were received warmly, yet the leaders were honest about the challenges.
When the group got to Minsk, the capital, they met with a non-Christian woman who is an authority on sign language in the country. They were connected with her because Tanya has studied sign language and Moscow First Church had a longtime ministry with the deaf.
The woman was particularly impressed with how Tanya had trained Moscow couples in sign language so they could qualify to adopt 14 deaf children in an orphanage. Because of her efforts, 13 of the children were adopted.
“’When are you moving here? We want you here right now,’” Davide said the woman told them. “’Are you looking for an apartment? How about this area here? I want to help you.’ It was the most unbelievable meeting that we had.”
As fluent Russian speakers, the Cantarellas will have the advantage of moving to a country where everyone speaks Russian. Also, Tanya has a Russian passport, and Davide will soon have one. Although Belarus has somewhat restrictive religious freedom laws, the authorities favor churches that engage in social work.
“This is an avenue we will explore,” Davide said.
The move to Belarus is one of four new places where leaders in the CIS Field have chosen to establish a presence in the next 12 months. That bold plan is part of a larger that includes expanding from a presence in six CIS countries to 12 within the next 15 years.