November 2022 – My Thanksgiving In Moscow

Dear Friend in Christ:
In my September 2022 Pastoral Letter, I shared with you a miracle that happened when I visited Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in the former Soviet Union in late 1991. On that mission journey, the Holy Spirit profoundly wrote these words of Jesus upon my heart: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest’” (Matthew 9:35-38).

When I said “yes” to the Lord’s call on my life in 1981, He encouraged my heart to understand that if I was called to pray for laborers in the Lord’s harvest, I should also be a laborer in His harvest. The more I served Him, the more I stepped out into His field, the more I understood both the greatness of the harvest and the greatness of the need for laborers…to be His disciple and to make disciples. This month, as we prepare for a season of Thanksgiving, I would like to tell you more about that journey. Our story will involve my Grandma Simpson, George Harrison, trains, and McDonalds.

In 1991, my wife, Susanne, and I were raising our young baby daughter, miraculously born in 1990. As was our practice, every Sunday our family would gather at Grandpa and Grandma Simpson’s house for lunch after church. Grandma was born among the bayous of south Louisiana to a French-speaking German family in “Cajun Country.” Her whole family–parents and her eleven siblings–came to faith in Jesus through the mission ministry of my Grandpa Simpson. Her story is remarkable, and she was a strong, faithful woman of God.

She was very loving and deeply committed to her family, and honestly one of the best friends I’ve ever had in this world. She loved the Lord and served His people along with Grandpa for 56 years. Like so many Louisiana folks, Grandma was also an amazing cook. Her home was always a place of joy, fellowship, laughter, love, and the best food ever.

On Sundays, my wife and I would join our family there at Grandma’s house. When we’d walk into the door, the smell of fried chicken and rutabagas coming from the kitchen was heavenly. She would greet us all with kisses and sit us all down, crowded around her table. But she wouldn’t eat just yet. Grandma insisted that we eat first while Grandma held baby Grace in a nearby rocking chair, singing to her, holding her, and speaking blessings over her. They were such good buddies! We were so grateful for her selfless kindness. But we soon realized there was more happening.

Grandma was very sick, much sicker than she or any of us realized. Soon, she had to be hospitalized and was in and out of treatment there for months. Grandma was very frustrated by the sickness. Her “love language” was doing things to bless people and she was now unable to do what she loved. One day in the hospital, she told me with sadness, “I just feel so helpless and useless.” Suddenly, the Spirit of God reminded me of this Word, which I shared with her: “The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (James 5:16 Christian Standard Bible).

Grandma Simpson already knew this verse by heart, and she was most definitely a praying woman. But in that moment, the Word was refreshed in her. I said, “Grandma, you can do more right here in this hospital room through prayer than any healthy person out there can do who isn’t praying.” She smiled and said firmly, “I CAN do that!” And we prayed together right then and there. She prayed for me, my wife, and our baby girl, and she prayed we would always know God’s will and do it.

Not long afterwards, I was watching a television special produced by musician and humanitarian George Harrison and his wife, Olivia. Their focus was on helping babies who were born with AIDS in Romania, and the desperate conditions they were experiencing. Many had been abandoned and they lived in squalid orphanages, suffering unimaginably. I found myself weeping and wondering what I could do to help. As I watched, I knew the Lord was telling me, “I am sending you to Eastern Europe.”

I had never been to Eastern Europe. I had studied Soviet history in college and had some familiarity with the region from books, but I had no idea how the Lord would send me to that part of the world. I was assuming, since I was watching a documentary about Romanian children, that I was to go to Romania. My answer came soon.

I quickly told my Dad what I was hearing from the Holy Spirit. He said, “A missionary is coming to our Global Roundtable Conference and he will be going to Russia soon with our friend Keith Curlee.” I was eager to meet this missionary. Global Roundtable was a missional gathering that CSM and International Outreach Ministries sponsored annually for many years with Covenant Church of Mobile. It was a seedbed and catalyst for amazing mission ministry worldwide. This missionary I was to meet was Jose Pascua, who was from the Philippines and resided in Florida. We had a wonderful conversation together with Keith, and Jose invited me to come on their mission trip to the (then) Soviet Union. I immediately said yes and started my preparations for the upcoming journey. At the same time, Grandma Simpson’s health was continuing to decline. I wanted to talk with her about that trip and seek her wisdom and prayer. She was very enthusiastic about me going, and she knew the Lord was in it. But we both knew that she may not live much longer. She told me, “Whatever happens with me while you’re gone, know that the Lord is with you, I love you, and I am praying for you.” I went with her blessing, but part of my heart was very heavy.

It would take a book to describe what happened on that journey. We saw many people come to faith in Jesus; we saw miraculous healings, deliverance from demonic oppression, infilling of the Holy Spirit, words of knowledge, and wonderful friendships forged across Russia, Ukraine, and beyond. I learned many hard lessons on the trip. It was frequently exhausting, always confusing, at points dangerous. Sleeping accommodations were usually challenging and food was sometimes scarce. The Soviet Union was undergoing great tumult following the coup attempt against USSR leader Mikhail Gorbechev; though he would survive the coup, he ultimately dissolved the USSR while I was there, which was very disorienting to everyone. As an American, I was always trying to fit into this very foreign environment. I wanted to “look Russian” in the way I dressed and presented myself. One of our Russian team members, Mark, had a running joke with me. Despite my best efforts, Mark would always smile and say, “No, you still look American!”

Due to visa issues, Keith had not been able to travel with me to Russia … he was to come a couple of weeks later. Meanwhile, I traveled with Jose and his small team to Kyiv, Ukraine, and then to Minsk, Belarus. We spent many hours on trains and in meetings. Again, we saw miracles and God was at work in many ways. I came to love our team and the people to whom we ministered. But my thoughts were often about my wife and baby girl (who took her first steps while I was away). And, of course, I was praying for Grandma, and I knew she was praying for me.

The night I was to leave Minsk to return to Moscow on an overnight train, I received a phone call from Keith, who had arrived in Moscow. In those days, international calls out of the USSR were almost impossible to make, and no one had been able reach me from America. “Stephen, your grandma is with the Lord,” Keith told me.

I boarded the train with tears in my eyes and discovered that I would have to travel in a third-class compartment far away from our team, cramped together with seven strangers and a busy open
passageway cutting through our sleeping space. Somehow, even in those hours, I had opportunity to share the love of Jesus with one of the families there. But sleep was scarce. Before dawn, I decided to seek out some of our other team members and worked my way up through ten train cars before I found them. My eyes were red, my clothes were rumpled, and my hair was sticking up. I had cracker crumbs in my sweater. Mark looked at me sympathetically and said, “Ah, NOW you look Russian!”

The time came soon after when our team had to break up; Keith was to travel to Ukraine and Jose to Latvia. I would be on my own with four university students in Moscow, including Mark and a young Lebanese student named Ziad Kazan. Before our team separated, Thanksgiving Day arrived in America … my absolute favorite holiday. Though I was grieving and homesick, I told the team in Moscow, “Today, we are going to celebrate!” More than 10 of us trekked to the sprawling McDonalds on Pushkin Square for burgers, fries, and milkshakes. I was in a strange country, far from home and family, with many people I had only recently met. But there is something amazing about being with brothers and sisters in Jesus, gratefully giving thanks to God for His blessings and provision. His presence was with us! He does “inhabit the praises of His people” (see Psalm 22:3). As Paul wrote, “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). In a time of grief and uncertainty, this became one of the most joyous and significant Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve ever had.

Life in 2022 is challenging for many people, especially in that part of the world where I shared that joyful Thanksgiving Day so long ago. Let me encourage all who read that no matter our circumstances, we have so much for which we can be thankful. As we lift our eyes to God and off our circumstances, He renews our vision and hope. He restores our souls. Here at CSM, we are so thankful for you … your friendship, faith, support, and prayer. Please continue to remember us this month in your giving and in your times of intercession. Also, mark your calendar now for the May 9-11, 2023 CSM Gatlinburg Conference. More information coming soon!


In Jesus,

Stephen Simpson



About the Author:

Stephen Simpson

STEPHEN SIMPSON is the Editor of One-to-One Magazine and the Director of CSM Publishing. In addition to publishing ministry, Stephen has served in leadership for churches and ministries in Costa Rica, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Michigan, as well as being the Senior Pastor of Covenant Church of Mobile (2004-2013). He continues to travel in ministry across North America and in other nations.