An Act of Faith
How a World Services donation helped to start a battle school
He spent 11 years in Russia during a time when the country struggled economically, suffered from unrest due to the Chechnyan conflict, and was engaged in a critical presidential election. But his most vivid memory is of a seemingly insignificant contribution he made to Salvation Army World Services there in the late 1990s.
Major David Payton was faced with the familiar challenge of discipling new converts. To meet this need, he had been working with “Youth with a Mission,” a para–church organization in Rostov–on–Don, a port city in southern Russia.
Although Payton had sent people there, he and his colleagues realized that their plan was failing to produce people with a mindset for Army ministry. “It wasn’t working,” he recalls. “They weren’t coming back ‘Army.’ They had a ‘heart to God,’ but no ‘hand to man.’”
The concept of philanthropy does exist in Russia, “[but] certainly not to the extent to which it exists here in the United States of America,” said Payton. “The Russians have Rotary Clubs and there are numbers of people—men and women of conscience—who are financially able to contribute to causes and they are quite willing to do so.”
But for Payton, the predominant cultural and political climate there made it difficult if not impossible to conduct Christmas kettle campaigns on the streets of Moscow. “In fact, people would actually be offended if they knew that the monies were going toward helping homeless people and other people who might be addicted to drugs or alcohol,” said Payton. Their thought was, I’m a law–abiding citizen, why shouldn’t the money come to me? I’m hard–working and contributing to society. Why should those homeless people receive assistance when I need it and could use it myself?
To address these perceptions and more, Payton and his staff determined that they would do the training themselves. “This was a challenging undertaking. It took two years to put it together,” he said. Their vision was to open a “battle school” and to teach personal, experienced–based discipleship. Quite different from an officer training school, which was designed to prepare pastors, the battle school would train soldiers in becoming effective disciples.
Payton needed $6,000. “We wrote a curriculum, translated it into Russian, and were prepared to teach it. But the money just wasn’t there,” he said. He had raised $600 through random donations, but further monies were needed to rent dormitory rooms and to make the school truly residential. Within two months of the scheduled opening, Payton and his staff grew anxious.
‘A school of faith’
Once a year in December, the Army sponsors a Self–Denial ingathering, a fundraising campaign for World Services. Against what Payton thought was his better judgment, he donated some of the battle school funds. “When the offering plate first came, I put nothing in it,” he remembers. “I was thinking, this is donated money, it’s not really mine.” Finally he thought, if this is going to be a school of faith, it’s going to have to start on an act of faith. He placed in the plate $100 of their meager funds.
A week later, something amazing happened. “I got an email from a corps officer in the USA Southern Territory indicating that he wanted to give $5,000 to the school.” Another week later, Payton received a note from General Paul A. Rader, then the international leader of The Salvation Army. From his discretionary account, Rader contributed $5,000 more to the school.
In February 1999, the school opened. And for the next two years, it completed four sessions, two in spring and two in fall. The Army soon reassigned Payton to the training school where he would later meet Cadet Marika Safarova, who would become his wife. Payton turned over leadership of the battle school to capable hands who carried on the work for another three sessions before it closed.
From Russia to USA
The school’s effect was widespread and continues today. “I kept hearing about it for years,” recalls Payton. In fact, one of the graduates, Captain Oxana O’Gara, is an officer serving in the Massachusetts Division (pictured).
Originally from the Chifinau Central Corps in Moldova, the–then Oxana Pismeniuk had been inspired to join the Army as a teenager. Her prior religious experience had been with the Russian Orthodox Church. “It was like a museum,” she remembers. “I saw the beautiful icons, elaborate pictures, and the majestic structures, but I had never read the Bible.”
It was through the Army that Oxana discovered Christ. “And after that, my life was never the same,” she said. Oxana vividly remembers the day when General Rader enrolled her and more than 100 other soldiers during a ceremony in Ukraine. At a youth gathering, she received an invitation to attend the battle school. For the next three months of her six–month training session, Oxana immersed herself in intensive courses led by Major Payton. For the latter part of her training, Payton sent her and another student to Romania to start a work for the Army. “It was exciting and scary at the same time!” said Oxana.
Oxana was pleasantly surprised by the wonderful reception she and her colleague received when they walked the streets of Bucharest in uniform. A woman, originally from England who had married a Romanian, stopped them and said, “I cannot believe The Salvation Army is here. I’ve been praying that you would come. You are so needed here!” For her first Bible study, Oxana had 15 people. And for the next three months, the Lord revealed to her what He can do through The Salvation Army. She said, “The battle school helped me grow to spiritual maturity.”
In 2000, Oxana came to the U.S. as a youth worker, took on varied assignments from Brooklyn to Middletown, N.Y., and was accepted to the College for Officer Training where she met Patrick J. O’Gara, her husband–to–be. Today, the Captains O’Gara serve at the Adult Rehabilitation Center in Worcester, Mass., where Captain Oxana is the director of program and residential services.
by Warren L. Maye