Then: I stepped cautiously, timidly, onto the step of the yellow school bus and quietly found a seat. Would we survive the day? Would my family, my teachers, my schoolmates, would I be incinerated that day in a white-hot blast of a nuclear explosion? 

The night before, October 22, 1962, my mother, father, and I had soberly watched on black-and-white television as President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation. He told us:

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

As a “child of the Cold War,” the unfolding Cuban Missile Crisis could not have been more real, even for a 7th grader. I, like millions of other children, had practiced “duck and cover” under our school desks to protect us from a nuclear blast. 

And, just the autumn before, our favorite male teacher had suddenly disappeared — his Missouri National Guard unit activated and sent to Berlin as NATO and Warsaw Pact forces faced off against each other on opposite sides of the newly erected Berlin Wall.

In the short October days, life took on a new rhythm. Scan the morning papers for news of the crisis. Watch the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite for events of the day.

Then, with intense diplomatic negotiations backed by military posturing, the crisis abated. The Soviets removed missiles and nuclear weapons from Cuba, and we dismantled rockets in Turkey and Italy.

Now: With every visit to Moscow, I quietly walk the cobblestones of Red Square. In a way, it is a pilgrimage. Where menacing missiles and tanks once rolled, I stroll with families, tourists, and newlyweds — all of us taking in the sights. Where once hung giant placards declaring, “Forward to the Victory of Communism,” I now see the twinkle lights on the walls of the GUM department store/shopping mall announcing the holiday season ahead.

And, for me, with every visit I enter the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan to pray. If we Westerners can’t remember the name, we just refer to “the little pink church in the corner of Red Square.” 

Kazan Cathedral on Red Square, the first to be rebuilt in Moscow after the breakup of the Soviet Union

Kazan Cathedral on Red Square, the first to be rebuilt in Moscow after the breakup of the Soviet Union —Gary Payton

In its own way, this cathedral is a symbol of the change God has wrought across recent decades. In 1936 Joseph Stalin ordered the destruction of this cathedral to make way for military parades across Red Square. Then in the early 1990s it was the first Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow to be completely rebuilt.

In the Gospel of John (John 5:17), Jesus states, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” In our humanness, in our world of instant communications, we so often lose the long view of time and God’s work in the world. The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis grants me a longer view.

In the secular world, the work is dramatic: 15 independent nations where once there was the Soviet Union, multiple nuclear arms treaties significantly reducing the arsenals of both Russia and the U.S., tens of thousands of Americans visiting Russia each year, and tens of thousands of Russians able to travel abroad if they have resources and necessary visas from countries visited.

Where once communist placards hung, today holiday lights twinkle in the night sky of the walls of GUM

Where once communist placards hung, today holiday lights twinkle in the night sky of the walls of GUM —Gary Payton

In the world of faith, the work is dramatic: thousands of local churches restored or built anew by Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist or other believers. Bibles and Christian literature published and available through denominations or nonprofits. And social ministries expanding to reach the poor, orphans, children with special needs, the drug and alcohol addicted, and more.

As I move deeper into 13 years of ministry with church partners in former communist states, I know “My Father is still working…” And, in Jesus name, countless others labor on as well. I thank you for your prayers and your gifts of support. And, as winter cold soon wraps us all, may we pray for continuing renewal in places where the faithful were so recently persecuted or are still persecuted today.

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 285. Write to Gary Payton. Give to Gary Payton's sending and support.