People of Willmar – Helen Arends
Helen was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. Growing up, Russia’s borders were closed, and few people could travel out of the country. Her father was a radio operator for the one government run airline, Aeroflot, on international flights. As he traveled, he brought back photos and stories of a colorful world. They were a stark contrast to the gray, black and sad Russia surrounding her. She dreamed of growing up to be a flight attendant, so she could work with her dad and see those places too.
Helen attended and her grandmother worked at a school specialized in English. Helen felt God reach out to her as a child. Growing up, there was no access to faith. No Sunday School and no open discussion. In the Communist country, worship to the leader could not be shared with worship to a God. Since people of faith follow God and not a leader, they were shunned. Priests were often priests by day and KGB officers by night. True believers were reported by the priests and dealt with by the government as betrayers. Even after those days passed, people still remembered and felt they couldn’t be affiliated with faith. True faith had gone underground and been silenced. The churches were empty, dark, gray places that only felt mystical. There were no teachings of God and what He means to you. Yet, somehow, she was filled with the concept of God and the Holy Spirit.
As Helen became a teenager, she traveled down a dark path. Alcoholism was rampant in the gray city. Smoking, drinking, and a rough group of friends left her filled with shame. She asked her Grandma to take her to church. She was 15 at the time, and for a fee, the Orthodox Church Baptized her. Her grandmother had grown up in the midst of war, serving as a soldier in WWII, and carried a photo of Stalin in her wallet. Her grandmother had a peculiar mixture of faith in God and full devotion to the government as a result of mass brain washing.
In the beginning of the 1990’s, the Berlin wall was coming down and the truth about Soviet reality was starting to come out. With the Cold War ending, foreigners and tourists started to come in. An American delegation of missionaries had traveled to a school nearby, and there was a request for interpreters. Helen quickly offered to help. The young missionaries were there to spread God’s word to school children. Helen’s textbook British English did not fully prepare her for American slang spoken with an Arkansas accent. She jokes that she translated about 50 percent and filled in the rest. The missionaries spoke through Helen. She spent her days absorbing the message in English, and in turn, speaking the words in Russian to the students. Just one afternoon into sharing “God loves you” and “Jesus laid down his life for you,” she found the light she had so desperately been wanting. Not even knowing what praying was, she talked to God. She said she wanted more of that in her life. The next morning, the American’s called again and requested her services for another two-week trip. As she rode the Metro to their location, she told God “this is it, this is what I wanted.” She had one foot in the dark, and one in the light. Her evenings were spent in her usual life filled with darkness. Her days were spent letting God’s light flow through her as she spoke the words to student after student.
Helen found herself struggling with the weight of the darkness she had been living in. The only place she could turn was a Russian state church. A gruff priest was in the church and asked what she wanted. As she poured out that she needed to release the shame she felt, he abruptly asked if she had eaten today. She answered yes. Angrily, he shouted at her, “how dare you come to the house of God on a full stomach!” She left heartbroken. Then she received a ray of light in the mail. It was from one of the girls she had translated for. The letter explained that her sister was traveling to Russia on a mission trip. The letter had taken one month to reach Helen. In a city of roughly 12 million people, filled with very intense masses of people crowded in the streets and on public transportation, Helen set out determined to find her. Helen did find her, and followed her like a groupie, wanting to know more about the God she served.
Helen then received a call from the Department of Education. She had been recommended to travel to Chicago, IL, to spend more time with the missionaries and improve her language skills. She notes her English barrier was finally broken during that time. She returned to Russia, and a young man named Al was a part of the next group of missionaries. For three months, she worked with the group to share God in Moscow’s public schools. That spring, Helen was invited to come back to the US for one year. Not realizing that Helen was traveling to the US, Al volunteered to go back to Russia as a missionary. Their planes crossed in the air.
When Helen began noting TV coverage of a coup in Russia with rebellion going on. She was flooded with memories of coupons for small amounts of sugar and stores without any to sell. War would mean no food for her family. She asked those in charge if she could send some to them. She was sent to the kitchen to fill boxes and assured they would send them with their own supply shipments. When the boxes of food arrived in Russia, Al happened to be there. Her family home was about two hours travel time away, and they asked for a volunteer to deliver. Al was a hockey player and filled his big hockey bag with food. Then, carrying the huge bag, made his way through the crowded public transportation system to their home. As the boxes continued to arrive, Al kept filling his bag and taking them to her family. When she called home from half a globe away, her family felt very drawn to her American friend. Helen and Al would see each other again at a function in Knoxville, TN. Al said he had asked her father permission to write letters to her, and wondered if she would agree to write to him. She said she’d love to, and they spent the next year writing to each other. He came to Moscow in 1995 to surprise her, and asked her to marry him.
With a visa process about to unfold, they optimistically set a wedding date of December 2. She began the process with the US consulate to prove their relationship was authentic. In the meantime, she took a job with a couple who did prison ministry. It was a life altering experience. The conditions were horrendous, with teenage girls crowded in cells with no toiletries or feminine hygiene products. It was a heartbreaking time. She was told that the earliest they could get her in for an interview at the consulate was November 15. She told them she had a plane ticket to travel to the US that day, and wondered if it could be earlier. Her shy request for an earlier interview was denied. Her prison ministry friend, who was an older woman from America, put her foot down and told them with authority that they needed to find a sooner appointment. They did. Helen went to that appointment terrified. She sat in front of a huge cement wall with a small square opening. The lady behind that opening looked at her paperwork and exclaimed, “He is from Willmar, MN?” Helen felt confused as the woman told her enthusiastically that she would love it in Willmar and that it was a great place to raise a family. It turns out that the woman had a great aunt from Willmar. Helen was granted the visa. The very next day, the Government shut down the visa department at the embassy due to lack of funds and it was months before they offered visas again.
Helen arrived in Willmar in time to turn 20 years old, and spend two weeks planning a wedding. She adjusted easily to life in Willmar. About a year after their marriage, pregnant with their first child, Helen headed back to Russia to be with her family after hearing the news of her grandma’s passing. She intended to go back to Russia for two weeks. A problem with paperwork meant that Russia didn’t let her leave. It took two months to get everything in order and she was finally able to return to Willmar. Helen is now an American Citizen.
Al and Helen are the proud parents of eight children and make their home on Al’s family farm. They run an unconventional farming operation, and are enjoying it very much. People from the community buy shares at the beginning of the growing season, and receive boxes of food later in the year. Helen and her family also run a Micro-Bakery out of their home, specializing in homemade European style artisan and gourmet bread. They have also opened their home and hearts to a student from Ukraine.
On a trip home, Helen looked up some of the friends she had as a teenager. Some of them had died due to drug overdoses, and some were struggling with alcoholism. She feels that if she had continued down dark path, her fate would have been the same. Instead, God found a way to her, and she made her way into the light.
– Marn Steinwand