An office memo from Grant Salisbury and Warren K. Leffler, the writer-photographer team for “U.S. News & World Report” that accompanied Secretary of Agriculture Ezra T. Benson to Russia.
The night we left Moscow to fly down to Kiev, Secretary Benson literally took us to church.
Many of the reporters laughed about it on the way, because Mr. Benson, who is a leading Mormon, had arranged for us earlier to attend a service at the Latter-Day Saints Church in West Berlin, but all the newsmen found one excuse or another for not going. In Moscow, we had no choice because the cars picked us up at the hotel and stopped at the church on the way to the airport. It was around 7:30 o’clock on the chilly, rainy evening of October 1.
As the cavalcade of cars arrived at the Central Baptist Church, on a narrow side street not far from Red Square, somebody wisecracked, “Well, boys, you’re going to get to church whether you like it or not.”
It turned out to be one of the most moving experiences in the lifetime of many of us. One newsman, a former marine, ranked it with the sight of the American flag rising over the old American compound in Tientsin, China, at the end of World War II.The small church was packed, with people standing wherever they could find room.
Secretary Benson and his family were ushered to the rostrum. After a hymn, sung beautifully by the congregation, Mr. Benson began to talk, drawing on his experiences as one of the leaders of the Mormon Church in America. Watching the Russian congregation, you could see tears welling up in the eyes of people as the Secretary’s words were relayed to them through a translator.
“It was very kind of your minister to ask me to extend greetings to you,” Mr. Benson began. “I bring you greetings from the millions and millions of church people in America and around the world.”
A soft, fervent “amen” came from the congregation. The Secretary continued, “Our Heavenly father is not far away. He can be very close to us. I know that God lives. He is our Father. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, watches over this earth. He will direct all things. Be unafraid, keep His commandments, love one another, pray for peace and all will be well.”
By now there was scarcely a dry eye in the church. Even the few young people were weeping openly.
“This life is only a part of eternity,” Mr. Benson went on. “We lived before we came here as spiritual children of God. We will live again after we leave this life. Christ broke the bonds of death and was resurrected. We will all be resurrected.”
At the mention of the promise of life hereafter, muffled sobs could be heard in the small church. These people, after all, were sacrificing their chances of participating in the gains of the Communist society of Russia. Though worshiping God no longer is forbidden in the Soviet Union, those who do so usually find themselves cut off from advancement.
Communism in Russia remains avowedly atheistic. In Moscow there is one other Baptist church; there are 23 Greek Orthodox churches, two synagogues and one Moslem temple. In a city of 5.4 million people, it’s a comparatively tiny crack in the godless society. The dedicated Communists, when talking to visitors about religion, usually claim that those Russians who do go to the few churches in the city do so out of curiosity – much as they would visit a museum – and not because of their devotion.
“I leave you my witness as a church servant for many years that the truth will endure,” Mr. Benson concluded. “Time is always on our side. God bless you and keep you all the days of your life, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ.”
As the Secretary returned to his seat the congregation broke into the familiar hymn, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” They were still singing and waving their handkerchiefs as we followed Mr. Benson out of the church. All the way along the crowded aisle, hands were outstretched to shake our hands.
On the drive to the airport one of the interpreters – a young Russian girl who has never known any life save that under Communism – said, “I felt like crying.”
[“A Church Service in Soviet Russia,” U.S. News & World Report 47:17 (Oct. 26, 1959), p. 76-77]