A Continuing Ten Year Commitment
The Story of Valdur Vesingi
by Johnnie Lambert, Sernior Pastor for the Baltics, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
February 23, 2016
LifeNets and the United Church of God extend life support to persons in need. This is the story of Valdur Vesingi, Chaplain Olavi Ilumets, and other prisoners who have been/will be released from the maximum security prison in Tartu, Estonia.
Justifiably sentenced to 21 years in prison, Valdur would serve 14 years before being paroled. During the fourteen years, his life completely changed in ways that he could not have anticipated.
Pere Raadio (Family Radio), along with founder Jim Carlson, conducted a prison ministry. In conjunction with Pere Raadio, All The World sponsored radio advertisements for United Church of God literature which was being translated into both the Estonian and the Russian languages. Early in 2005, Valdur requested the literature; strangely enough, he wanted his literature in English. Why was a prisoner in the Tartu Prison requesting literature in English? His English preference raised some questions.
Later in 2005, it became apparent that Valdur was “getting it” when he wrote a letter asking if he was correct in perceiving that the Bible emphatically contrasts with doctrines being taught by “other churches”. The starkness of that question intensified when we subsequently discovered that Valdur knew nothing about God or any churches when he was incarcerated.
In late December of 2005, Chaplain Olavi Ilumets arranged for us to conduct a Sabbath Bible Study inside the prison. About fifty men attended. Valdur was one of those men. It was at this Bible Study that we met Valdur in person for the first time.
For the 14 years Valdur was imprisoned, Chaplain Ilumets conducted weekly Bible studies. Valdur was a regular at those studies, usually presenting a different point of view about the Truth of the Bible. The consequences were frequent “lively discussions”. Olavi nevertheless patiently served his prisoners to the best of his ability.
Following the initial Bible Study, in 2006, we began personal visits with Valdur. Prisoners could have a maximum of one personal visit per month. Two persons could visit at a time. Being in Tartu for a month at a time four times per year, I visited Valdur on every trip. These visits continued for ten years. Often other persons also visited.
The years rolled by. In the beginning, Valdur expressed his feelings; he never wanted to leave the prison. Rooted in the belief that prison is where God changed his life, he perceived that he could best serve God for the rest of his life from that venue. In a unique way, he was ministering to his fellow prisoners. There were conflicts over his beliefs. First the prison authorities rejected his determination to observe the Sabbath and later the laws of clean and unclean meats. Valdur stood firm in the face of harassment and potential additional penalties. Eventually, the prison authorities relented.
As those years rolled by, a different motivation manifested itself in Valdur.With Olavi’s assistance, he began to translate United Church of God literature into Estonian. With some trepidation, we accepted his first translation, fearing quality and doctrinal correctness. In editing Why Does God Allow Suffering, our resident Estonian expert, Toomas Schavak posited the following evaluation, “I could not have done better myself”. Translation of several more booklets followed. The developing sense of purpose was therapeutic for Valdur.
Olavi had helped to make translation possible by arranging some few (4 to 5) hours time weekly on a prison computer. When a translation was completed, Olavi transmitted the Word File to us via e-mail. Valdur’s work would have been “bottled up” if Olavi had not done this.
Valdur was being spiritually transformed by doing this work. From being convinced that he was best able to serve God inside the prison, a new seed was germinating. Could it be possible that he might be a more effective servant on the outside? For a while Valdur struggled between these two ambitions. After twelve years in prison, Valdur was now thinking about the possibility of a parole.
Doubting that possibility, Valdur nevertheless decided to apply and let God make the decision. There were two requirements for making an application for parole. These were the two great barriers:
Fulfilling these parole requirements only allowed Valdur to make an application. Nothing could be guaranteed by making an application. The application would go before the court for a decision. There were a lot of concerns; Valdur could be considered a problem prisoner because of his Sabbath and dietary conflicts. “But OK, let it be in God’s hands” were Valdur’s words. Many people were praying for the outcome.
Truncating the account, Valdur was paroled in May of 2015 after 14 years in prison. Robert Schultz of the Smiltene Baptist Church, Monica (Valdur’s niece) plus Madli and Maria, Monica’s daughters, met Valdur and Olavi at the prison gate. From the prison, Valdur could only take those same clothes he was wearing when he entered prison. They had been in mothballs for 14 years. Unlike many of us, he could still wear them. The Church in Smiltene, out of their liberality, collected all the things necessary for Valdur to begin a new life on the outside, including all apartment furnishings, and all personal clothing and other items. Without this help, Valdur had nothing.
In Robert’s car, they followed Olavi to the prison house. Valdur only needed to live in that prison house one month before finding another accommodation. But, having that accommodation reserved was critical to his release.
Recognizing the value of what was being done by Chaplin Olavi Ilumets and his ministry, LifeNets was inspired to support Olavi’s efforts for the coming year with 100 euros(= $110) per month for twelve months. There is sizable work to be done in order to keep this “half way house” in operation.
Photos above are of Sabbath meetings in Tartu, Estonia. This was Valdur's first in freedom on August 8, 2015
Ten years before his parole, we first met Valdur. None of us could foresee the ultimate outcome to his circumstances. So we walk not by sight, but by faith, as God directs our paths. Olavi Ilumets and his halfway house were monumentally important to what God was doing in Valdur’s life. In recognition of those facts and in hopes of helping other prisoners find their way back into society as productive individuals, LifeNets contributes to Olavi’s efforts.
Priceless faith was built by all of those who participated in this continuing ten year commitment.