NIZHNIY NOVGOROD, Russia Sitting on a plane headed for Russia, missions volunteer Sally Hinzie leans back in her seat and begins to feel sick to her stomach.
On her first trip as the "virtual strategy coordinator" to Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia, Hinzie begins to wonder what she's gotten herself into. Hinzie, from Houston, leads a team of mission volunteers to the third-largest city in Russia. Most of the city's 1.3 million people have no access to the Gospel and little interest in religion or anything else from the West.
A virtual strategy coordinator is a volunteer position that accepts the responsibility of reaching a people group or city for Jesus Christ where Southern Baptists' International Mission Board has no personnel.
In this position, one that Hinzie accepted last year, she helps to start more evangelical Russian churches.
"It is a God-sized task," Hinzie later says of reaching Nizhniy Novgorod for Christ. "I signed up for it and then had a panic attack. I thought, 'Why do I think I can do this?' Bottom line, I can't. I can just be a vessel and let God do it through me."
The idea of Hinzie becoming a strategy coordinator in Nizhniy Novgorod popped up when she spotted the metropolis on a list of cities with no fulltime workers. But the city is not new to her. For more than 14 years, she has been going on mission trips there and other cities throughout Russia.
Hinzie and her husband Leonard have built relationships with many Russians in and around the area. They helped start an outreach group in addition to helping with various social projects in the city. But, as a strategy coordinator, Hinzie says she will have to expand her network of friends throughout the area.
Only two churches in the city have buildings; a couple of smaller church groups meet in homes or wherever they can find space for worship services. Hinzie says most Russians see Baptists as a cult and avoid working with them.
"[Churches] have difficulty finding places to rent," she says. "[Owners] keep raising the rent ... or they say, 'We won't renew your contract. You have to look somewhere else.'"
Looking past Russia's elaborate Orthodox churches, Hinzie sees sadness and a great need for Christ. But since the Soviet Union collapsed 15 years ago, there have not been enough fulltime mission workers to send to all areas where they are needed.
During a recent trip to Nizhniy Novgorod, Hinzie and the Houston team held a women's retreat at a local church. The event attracted about 50 women from around the city and neighboring communities.
A conference goal encouraged each woman to start a Bible study with 10 other women in her home. The women were taught to use crafts as a way to build relationships and spark interest. That weekend, one of the local women went home and started a Bible study group with six friends. The training is part of the team's plan to train Russians to reach their people for Christ.
Though interpreters were needed, relationships were formed, team member James Sheddrick said.
"Ladies from different backgrounds, different nationalities [were] communicating with each other with no interpreter through pictures, artwork, the craft they were doing," said Sheddrick, who was making his fifth trip. "[They bonded] through the lessons, crafts and Bible stories they were learning and just the love that Christians have in general. We're not so different."
Boris*, interim pastor of a Baptist church in Nizhniy Novgorod, works with Hinzie and her team. He says God will have His day among the people in Russia.
"We want revival in Russia," he says. "We need laborers, pastors, missionaries. We have enough work for everybody to do."
And Hinzie hopes more churches in the United States will step up to the challenge.
"I think America is going to have a lot to answer for," she said. "We are very definitely responsible for the rest of the world. If every believer in America would just find their one little spot and do what they need to do to make sure that one little spot got to hear the Gospel ... our world would be blanketed with the knowledge of Jesus Christ."
*Not his real name