By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
As soon as he got off the plane, he knew he was in the right place.
'I felt like I was coming home,' said Roger Russell, a career missionary with the Southern Baptist International Board. 'It's like I was being called there. I'm supposed to do this; we're supposed to do this.'
It was the June of 1998, and it was Russell's first mission trip to Bucharest, Romania. By February of 1999, his wife Melinda, also a career missionary, and their three sons had joined him.
Their first task was to build chapels for the area's evangelical Christians. It was manual labor, but it never grew tiring or bothersome.
'Each finished chapel was a success,' Russell said. 'People had a place to go worship when we finished. They didn't before. You could see the results, and that kept us going.'
Having returned home to Central Texas this summer, the Russells worked on chapels for about half of the 10 years they were in Bucharest.
'These last years have been about nurturing their individual relationships with Christ,' Russell said. 'We hosted Bible studies and tried to lead by example. We wanted to show that you could live a life of Christ.'
And that proved to be their biggest challenge. 'They're not about having a personal relationship with the Lord,' Mrs. Russell said. 'Their religion has no substance.'
She was talking about the Eastern Orthodox Christians of Bucharest.
'Their churches are very elaborate with decorations of gold and silver,' Mrs. Russell said. 'And to worship, they pray in front of icons and kiss them.'
Icons, in this reference, are symbols of religious importance. They are images or statues of the saints, Jesus and Mary.
'People there, they don't pray directly to God,' Russell explained. 'They need a medium. They pray to the icons or through a priest. He wears a long robe, and the people pray at his feet.'
Kissing the bones of saints, Russell said, is another common form of worship in Bucharest.
'The saints are thought to have the essence and energies of God,' Russell explained. 'So people get close to the fingers, hairs and bones of the saints. But nobody talks directly to God.'
His wife nodded her head.
'They don't think they can,' she said. 'They haven't died to self and let the Lord come into their heart. They haven't laid their will down before His.'
The reason for that, Russell said, is a matter of head knowledge versus heart knowledge.
'They know that Christ died, they know the Bible and they can quote it,' he said. 'But practicing it is difficult, so people argue and conversations grow lively.'
But arguing wouldn't help the Russells achieve their ultimate goal.
'We needed to forget the disagreement,' Russell said. 'We needed to show them what unmediated Christian worship was like. So we led by example. We had Bible studies, and we tried to show that Christ is in all aspects of life.'
But it was difficult.
'We were outsiders,' Russell said.
Despite their fluency in the local language, relationships were difficult to form and maintain.
'We focused on working with the church leaders,' Russell said. 'That was where the greatest chance of success was - in getting the message presented to Romanians by Romanians.'
So the results of this part of the mission aren't clear.
'We got to see other people embrace a vision,' Russell said. 'But the implementation of that vision we have not seen. It'll take time to see what happens.'
The Russells are currently staying at a Belton home owned by the First Baptist Church of Belton. It's the residence the church keeps for missionaries on furlough.
The couple's plans are to relocate to Nolanville next spring. Until then, they will be visiting Baptist churches and talking about their experiences in Bucharest.
Once in Nolanville, Mr. and Mrs. Russell want to renew the work they started in Bucharest.
'Religion lacks substance here in the United States too,' Mrs. Russell said. 'People are just going through the motions.'
To combat that, her husband wants to 'plant the unchurch.'
'We want to show people you can do church right where you are, as you are,' Russell said. 'You don't have to be in a church. Church is about that relationship with Jesus, and it's about taking each other to the doctor, carpooling the kids to school - its real, holistic worship that involves us taking care of one another.'