Hill of Crosses
Oh, Lord, you know I’ve seen a lot of the world, but I have never seen a place more touching than this hill of crosses. I look at them and weep. They are such a declaration of people’s love for you.What an affirmation of their belief in God, in the face of atheistic, oppressive communism. I feel I can identify with their commitment, these precious people, their fearless passion to be identified with the cross. I am their champion in the struggle to lift up the cross for Jesus.
It will forever remain in my mind the image of all those crosses reflecting the brilliant moonlight. I pray that I, too, may reflect the true meaning of the cross. Oh, merciful Jesus, thank you for calling me to carry the cross into all the world. I am not worthy but I am blessed to be chosen for this mission to every nation. Today Denise and I walked among thousands of crosses, as we continue may we truly live in the way of the cross. Oh, thank you, Jesus for what you did on the cross. We glory in the cross.
I love you, Jesus.
Denise and I were sitting in a church meeting in Cape Coral, Florida, in the fall of 1991. As the preacher was speaking, I suddenly saw a vision of a map of what was then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the vision I saw a line going through the nations. The line represented the roads we were to take as we drove and carried the cross. The way is open, Jesus told me – adding that we were to travel that coming winter. Later I bought a map of the USSR and marked the roads I had seen in my vision. Pilgrims are people who travel for spiritual reasons rather than for recreation. A pilgrimage is a journey with a spiritual purpose. Life is a pilgrimage, in a sense, if you’re seeking to live for God. And like life, every pilgrimage has a destination, whether it’s the next place on a map or heaven.
Millions of people make pilgrimages every year. Christians and Jews go to Jerusalem to see the lands they read about in the Bible. A pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam. Hindus see the Ganges River as a sacred place and a pilgrimage destination. But our pilgrimage to the former Soviet Union was different. It was a pilgrimage to carry the message of Jesus’ love and salvation to an area of the world where faith had been greatly suppressed. For decades, atheistic communism had gripped this region. Bibles had been banned. Preaching and evangelism had not been permitted in public. Spiritually speaking, the many people of this land experienced great darkness.
The former USSR was in turmoil. The member states formed independent countries and only a couple of months before our arrival, the Soviet Union officially ceased. However, communist rulers remained in power in the member states and there was great conflict, including demonstrations to determine who would lead these newly independent nations. Russian troops were still stationed in most of the countries. In many places one group after another put up armed roadblocks in an attempt to control territory. There was fighting in a number of areas as portions of countries tried to break away. In the immediate aftermath of these incredible events, the economies of the nations and standard of living of the people were in crisis.
As Denise and I prepared for our pilgrimage to the former USSR, we knew we would be forced to endure tough conditions. In addition, we knew that much of what we were about to do would be controversial, if not illegal. But we knew that everything would be okay because Jesus had called us and he would be with us every step of the way.
From West to East
As we loaded onto the auto ferry leaving Helsinki, Finland, for Tallinn, the capital of the Baltic nation of Estonia, we watched the western world vanish into the cold northern waters. It was March 1992, and we were traveling in the Land Rover with the cross mounted on the side and some food and ten gas cans strapped to the top. We pulled a small trailer loaded with thousands of Bibles and gospel materials. We had a tourist visa for two weeks in Russia, but we had no permit for the Land Rover and no visa for any of the other countries we hoped to visit.
As we headed toward a turbulent, struggling land, nothing was certain except the presence of God. This was our prayer: “Oh, Lord, thy will be done. Cover us with the holy blood of Jesus that defeats all the work of Satan. Thy will be done in us, on earth as it is in heaven!”
It was dark when we arrived in Tallinn and drove off the ship into the cold wind. We parked in a market area of the old city and raised the pop-up tent that sat on top of the Land Rover. The tent was made of thin cloth, so it was almost like sleeping outside. The wind howled as we climbed the ladder and settled into the tent for the night. We slept with our clothes on – including coats, hats and face masks – even as sleet, rain and then snow covered our flimsy shelter.
At dawn we awakened to the cold, our water bottle frozen beside us. Snow was everywhere and a strong wind was blowing. I removed the cross from the rack on the side of the Land Rover, prayed and began walking. Denise and I got separated from each other in the city, but each of us returned to our starting point and began again.
The weather seemed to change constantly; first snow, then pouring rain, then a blizzard so strong you can see only a few yards ahead, then sun and cold, and then snow again. The sidewalks and roadsides were packed with snow and ice and were slick.
During those first few nights it was so cold that the moisture from our breath and body heat froze. In the morning our bed was wet from the frozen moisture that had melted. As we continued our pilgrimage, wonderful folks sometimes invited us into their humble homes. But whether we slept in the tent or in warm rooms with dry beds, we rejoiced in our journey. No matter the conditions, Jesus was with us every minute.
The Hill of Crosses
After traveling through Estonia and Latvia, we arrived in Lithuania at a place called the Hill of Crosses. This hill, a popular pilgrimage site for people in the region, is covered with tens of thousands of crosses of every size and material. The soviets tried repeatedly to remove the crosses, including bulldozing the site at least three times, yet this expression of people’s faith in God rose again and again, overcoming the forces of atheism and suppression.
When we arrived just before dark, carrying the cross, an elderly woman who tended the grounds rushed up with a shovel for me to plant my cross among the others. I showed her photos to convey that I as carrying my cross around the world. She was so happy we had come.
That night we slept by the Hill of Crosses. As we opened the zipper of our tent and looked out, we saw a full moon just over the hill of standing crosses. We could only weep and marvel. How glorious that the cross, once a symbol of death and rejection has become – through Jesus – the symbol of life, hope and acceptance.
As we looked at the hill, we prayed: “Thank you, Lord, for calling us to be your pilgrim followers.” So thankful to be where we were right then, we wouldn’t have traded places with anyone in the world. Many famous people have been identified with many things. How thrilled we are that our lives will be identified with the cross.
Over the next few days as I walked and preached across this cold land, I encountered many thousands of warm-hearted people, in churches and along the roads. People flocked to see the cross. They drove from miles away and brought us more gifts than we could fit in the Land Rover.
As we approached Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, we could see a huge crowd gathered around the Catholic cathedral in the center of the city. They were waiting for the cross. The news had been on television and in the papers and this crowd of Jesus-loving people came to greet us and hear our words. Denise was given beautiful flowers.
A hush of silence settled over the crowd as I began to speak. Having no interpreter, I decided to pray first. I simply prayed face down on the stone courtyard. The crowd knelt in prayer as well. The only noise you could hear was my voice and the sound of people weeping.
When I stood, they stood also. I began to speak. Because I was crying, I could speak only a few words slowly. A man in the back of the crowd tried to interpret my words. “W have come with the cross that you love – to stand with you, to pray with you and to proclaim that Jesus is alive and his presence is here,” I said to the crowd. “Jesus loves you!”
Soon another voice joined in, interpreting the words with which the first man had difficulty. I concluded speaking and knelt. The people knelt also and I led them in a prayer to repent, to believe in Jesus and to commit their lives to follow him.
Then two men stepped to the front of the crowd. An elderly man with white hair and a white beard read from notes as a distinguished looking man in his forties interpreted so Denise and I could understand. They welcomed us on behalf of those who fought against communism and led the revolt here a year ago that contributed to the crumbling of the USSR. The key leaders of the anti-Soviet independence movement were welcoming us! Later that day, the Catholic bishop greeted us and insisted that our cross be taken into the beautiful Chapel of Martyrs inside the cathedral, which is a sacred place dedicated to the memory of those who have been killed for Christ in Lithuania.
Our visit to Lithuania connected us with many pilgrims who loved Jesus and had served him at great personal cost. I will never forget the elderly woman who brought Dense and me fresh milk straight from the cow. She returned in the rain to bring us eggs and black bread. The next morning she arrived on her bicycle and, though she spoke no English, made it clear that she wanted to carry the cross. I handed her the cross to hold for a moment, anticipating that she would give it right back. Instead, she grabbed it and headed down the road, leaving behind her bicycle and me.
I watched as this short, stocky, weather-beaten woman, dressed in black struggled to carry the cross mile after mile as the tears flowed down her face. Clearly, she was on her own pilgrimage. Finally she stopped, gave me the cross, kissed me and made the sign of the cross before getting on her bike and heading back to her house.
I loved that woman and today her photo hangs in my office. What a joy to encounter her and the other fellow pilgrims we met during our journey.
Peace in the Midst of Conflict
As we crossed many more miles, we found ourselves in one of the region’s war-torn areas. But not even war means that a pilgrimage must come to an end. In fact, we felt that God had prepared the way for us to pass through such situations.
One afternoon we were in Ukraine, approaching the border of Moldova. We saw troops near the border crossing. Denise drove ahead of me as I carried the cross; she would wait for me at the next roadblock. As I got closer, I could see that Denise had gotten out of the Land Rover and was talking to the soldiers. Around her were armored cars, troops in foxholes and huge concrete blocks in the road.
The soldiers were very friendly. We talked and prayed together. They said we could take the cross past the roadblock. Denise drove around the concrete blocks and across the bridge into the disputed region of Transnistria before disappearing from my sight. I carried the cross into the war zone, as I’ve done many times in my life. Troops guarding the bridge on both sides did not move from their defensive positions. Soon I was “in.” No one even asked for our travel documents.
Later we carried the cross through Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria. We arrived at a big bridge the warring factions had been fighting over and the troops all put Jesus stickers on their rifles. They wanted Bibles and gospel material, which Denise gladly supplied. She was going before me, so by the time I arrived everybody looked like a walking Christian supply center.
As we moved through the war zones, we found that God used whatever means necessary to keep our pilgrimage on the move.
After carrying the cross by the Black Sea, we headed toward Crimea. Everyone said there was no way to get there because the road to Crimea – a peninsula with just a small strip of land connecting it to the mainland – was closed because of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia. We arrived at a police roadblock. We were praying since our entire crosswalk to the east was in jeopardy. I got out of the Land Rover with our map and asked for directions to Yalta. We acted totally unaware of any problems. I opened the map on the hood of the Land Rover. The guards were impressed with the colored map and its detail.
As I talked with the men, God did it: he melted their hearts and turned the impossible into the possible! In order to get into Crimea, they showed me how to avoid the closed roads and take small roads not on the map. They didn’t ask us for travel papers but merely smiled as we continued on our journey.
Just as Jesus told us when he gave us the vision for this pilgrimage: The way is open.
God’s Grace in Muslim Lands
Next we headed east into Asia to walk with the cross in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Crossing the Caspian Sea, we entered five Muslim areas that, now independent nations, had been part of the USSR: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
One day driving in Azerbaijan, which is also populated almost entirely by Muslims, we heard a strange knocking in the engine of the Land Rover. Before I could stop, smoke boiled up from under the hood and the motor began to bang loudly. We pulled off the road where a couple of buildings stood in the vast stretch of desert. Oil covered the smoking engine. A huge cloud of black smoke came out the exhaust.
Disaster had struck! The engine had blown and we were certain there were no Land Rover parts for thousands of miles. What would we do now?
A man came over, shaking his head and looked at the motor. He spoke no English but indicated he was a mechanic and would try to fix the vehicle. We got it to his shop, a building with a ramp. He had only four wrenches and was amazed at the tools I had. While he and his helper took the motor apart, Denise and I prayed. They laid the parts on the sandy ground. A crowd of men soon gathered and I was sure they would never find the parts to put the engine back together.
Several of the rods were badly bent. They used a hammer to straighten them. And then they put the engine back together, often looking for a place to put an extra part. When all was done, I turned the key in the ignition and the Land Rover started like new!
The men didn’t want money for helping me, but I put one hundred, one-dollar bills in the mechanic’s pocket. He couldn’t believe his eyes. I had just given him about half a year’s wages. We gave all of the Muslim men Bibles and gospel materials.
A mechanical breakdown of the magnitude could have stopped our progress for a week or even a month. But God in his grace prepared strangers to help us on our way. We were on the road again after only five hours.
Passing Through Roadblocks and Barriers
When we reached the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the head official asked to see our travel documents. He began demanding a visa for Uzbekistan. All the police were waving for us to turn around and go back.
Just when it seemed our pilgrimage would proceed no further in this direction, Denise rushed to the Land Rover and got our photo album of places we had been. When the official saw me in a photo with Yasser Arafat, he smiled, shook my hand and waved us through the border! Within one mile we had to go through two more checkpoints with roadblocks, but Jesus got us through.
Every successful pilgrimage involves a series of roadblocks and barriers. But if Jesus has called you to follow him, He will make a way for your to progress. And just when things look difficult, Jesus brings a fresh breath of beauty and peace.
While walking with the cross toward Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, I experienced one of the loveliest walks ever. The high mountains we crossed were in the distance. The land was open and filled with flowers in full bloom. For miles the fields were covered in red poppies. Denise and I stopped to run and roll in the poppies, enjoying the beauty of God. But soon things got even better; as before us stretched miles and miles of flowers, first purple, then blue, then pink, then all colors mixed together. These flowers seemed to be trying to outdo each other. What a place to walk with the cross!
The local people told us that this area was covered with flowers for only a week or so each year. We thanked God for sharing this brilliant display with us.
Return to Red Square
Denise and I carried the cross in Siberia, a part of ‘Russian Asia,’ before reaching Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. I had been there in 1988, carrying the cross during the days of communist domination. There were a few signs of faith back then, but this time things were different. Many believers were in the streets singing and evangelizing. The cross didn’t seem to have the dramatic impact it had four years earlier, but the people were still interested. We prayed with many to receive and follow Jesus.
I felt elated that for the second time we had the cross in the place that once was the world’s seat of atheism. How futile is human effort to rise against the Creator of the universe.
We could see a cluster of perhaps a hundred or so people standing between the Kremlin wall and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. Denise walked by with the cross and soon reporters and television cameras surrounded her. She did interviews that were broadcast throughout the former Soviet Union and in parts of Europe. This was the crowning event in our epic pilgrimage through the former USSR with the cross.
Pilgrims on a Journey
When this pilgrimage was over, we reviewed what we had done. We drove about twelve thousand miles, which is equal to nearly half the distance around the earth. I carried the cross about 650 miles in three and a half months. Along the way we passed through 230 armed roadblocks. Truly Jesus opened the way for us.
At every step of our journey, the Lord showed us which road to take, when to start walking, when to stop walking, when to drive and where to park. He led us through wars and ethnic conflicts by giving us exact directions and his protective presence. Most of the time he even told us the best time to cross borders. Every time we needed gas, God provided a way to get it – and that was at times almost impossible.
Where Will You Go?
Where is God calling you to go? What is He calling you to do? And who is He calling you to reach? You may never go on a twelve-thousand mile journey to foreign lands, but if you are a pilgrim follower of Jesus, you must listen to his voice and follow where he leads.
No matter who we are or where we go, followers of Jesus are pilgrims on a journey. We are following in the footsteps of Jesus and as we walk, we share his love and joy and salvation throughout the world.