GROVE, Oklahoma — More than 18 years ago, Dana Carbone found love in Russia in more than one way.
Sure, he met and fell in love with his wife, Tanya, as he served in her home church in Yoshkar-Ola, but he also fell in love with the Russian people — especially the children — during his time as a missionary in the former communist country.
The Carbones spent time in the last month in Russia visiting with and ministering to pastors and members of various evangelical churches.
They viewed the trip as a way to provide encouragement to the Russian pastors who have helped grow the various congregations in the past 20 years.
“Russians are very hard working, especially when they have God in their life,” Dana said. “All mankind is the same, with the same needs only in a different culture. Everyone has the same spiritual needs.”
How it began
Dana came to faith as a young adult living in Colorado. After becoming a Christian, he attended Christ for the Nation Institute in Texas. That led to opportunities to work in a Missouri-based Christian camp for inner city students and as a missionary in Costa Rica.
In 1990, then-Grove Christian Center pastor Leon Vernon invited Dana to serve as the church’s children’s pastor.
At the urging of Vernon, Dana left in 1993 to serve as a missionary in Russia. What began as a three-month visit soon blossomed into a 10-year adventure, as Dana helped start churches and children’s ministries throughout the former Communist country.
Dana met Tanya initially in 1994, when he visited Yoshkar-Olg Christian Center to help conduct a children’s outreach for 1,400-plus youngsters. Tanya had become a Christian a year earlier and was serving within the church’s children’s ministry. The pair would cross paths multiple times during the years as they attended various ministry conferences.
In 1999, Dana was asked to serve as the pastor of the Yoshkar-Olg church. Tanya jokes she knew Dana was unmarried because a lot of the single ladies in the church tried to catch his attention.
She, on the other hand, was not interested. “I was praying for the right person at the right time.”
In 2000, Dana’s parents visited their son. Before his parents left, Dana’s father asked his son “what about that Tanya girl?”
Dana took a new look at Tanya, who by then was in charge of the children’s ministry. The rest, as they say, is history. The couple married in March 2002 in a double ceremony with friends.
“It was the worst time of the year to get married,” Dana joked because of the weather and other conditions.
When Dana first went to Russia, missionaries set a goal to help establish 24 congregations.
It took two years to see the goal met. Many of the churches remain, under the leadership of Russian pastors.
In 2003, because of issues with Dana’s visa, the couple returned to the states. They now make trips once or twice a year to the country, offering support to those in the churches he helped establish, many of which exist along the Volga River.
On the last trip, Tanya joked, the couple took five extra suitcases — stuffed full of gifts for the pastors and their wives as well as for the various children they would meet. The gifts included clothes, multiple boxes of chocolates and supplies to make fudge.
The couple now works with World Mission Organization, a ministry based in Dallas. Dana is ordained through White Dove Fellowship, a church in Louisiana which supports pastors and missionaries, as well as Christ for the Nations.
Since returning stateside, Dana and Tanya spent several years helping with the children’s ministry in Kenwood. They also connected and traveled with Fred Smith, a Native American pastor, who ministers to those living on Native American reservations.
Locally, the couple minister at GAP Church in Miami, Oklahoma, helping with the various ministries including the children’s programs.
But their hearts, along with some of Tanya’s family members, remain in Russia.
Tanya said life was different in Russia before the 1990.
As a student, she was encouraged to believe in Grandpa Lenin rather than a God. Attending church — especially an evangelical congregation — was looked down upon. Tanya said her mother and grandmother would often secretly take her to church.
In the early 1990s, the country began to allow missionaries to visit. That led to an increase of evangelical churches and chances to attend church publicly.
Many of those churches, Tanya said, are still growing and blossoming, even as members often face persecution. Changing rules and regulations make it more difficult for believers to spread the Gospel.
Russians are learning to read the Bible themselves rather than relying on the past belief that a priest was the only person who could read and understand the Bible’s’ message.
Tanya believes Russians are open to faith because many struggled to remain hopeful under communism. She believes the lack of hope is why many Russians struggle with alcohol addiction.
A series of rehabilitation facilities for the Russian people is one of the strength’s of the evangelical church community. Some Russians have become missionaries to those living outside of their country.
Tanya and Dana hope people around the world continue to pray for the Russian believers and pastors — especially as those pastors strive to take the message out into remote villages and locations within the country.
Dana said many churches in Russia use rented spaces for their congregations. This can be risky at times because it relies on the generosity of the building’s owner.
She recalls one time when Dana’s congregation was kicked out of their building for months. The members met in a forest for two months, before dividing to meet 40 to 50 at a time in various apartments.
“Most believers meet wherever they can meet,” Dana said. “Very few own their own buildings.”
Some congregations have saved for years, building their own facilities a little at a time. Dana said it took members of Ulyanovsk Christian Center more than 18 years to build their church.
Tanya’s home congregation in Yoshkar-Ola bought and renovated an old movie theater in order to have a permanent home.
Encouragement is what Dana and Tanya say the congregations need the most. Encouragement is also needed for non-Russians who travel to the country for the educational opportunities. Tanya said a growing number of students from Africa, Indonesia and India travel to Russia to study.
“Russian believers need prayer support,” Tanya said. “Jesus is the only hope and answer.”
While the couple do not have natural children, they know children of all ages have come to faith through their work.
“Our biggest reward is to see generations of kids know Jesus,” Dana said.