"Starting on December 1, 1936, I became the supervisor of the foreign mission in our church, the secretary of the Foreign Mission Council of Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. What should be done, I ask myself?.. Like pages of a thick book, one by one, these new tasks opened up...in our activity in foreign missions there was still a lot to do." So writes Roberts Feldmanis in his "Autobiography" about his first impressions as secretary of the Foreign Mission Council. He realized that he had serious work to do, and he plunged into it with heart and soul. At the time he could not know that precisely this position would create many questions for those in the Soviet occupation authority who a decade later would be examining him in the cellars of the headquarters of Soviet secret police, the NKVD.
Roberts Feldmanis spent half of his career as the faithful pastor of three parishes in Riga and vicinity and as the most influential of the instructors at the pastoral education program of the Latvian Lutheran Church in the 1970s and 1980s. Before that part of his career began, he had served as parish pastor after his completion of theological studies in Riga in 1935, and he had led the mission efforts of the young, maturing Latvian Church. It emerged in the early years of the first Latvian Republic, which declared its independence in 1918, after the fall of the Russian Empire. At the eve of the occupation, on May 13, 1940, the faculty of theology at the University of Riga conferred on him the degree of Licentiate in Theology, at the time a degree somewhat equal to the doctorate. Sent to Siberia on April 29, 1950, Feldmanis returned from hard labor imprisonment in November 1954 to serve his church as pastor and professor in Riga. He will be remembered most because of the profound impact he had on the development of the Latvian ministerium as instructor of church history, but his early dedication to overseas missions forms an important part of his story.
Feldmanis as Secretary of the Foreign Mission Council
The new Foreign Mission Council was established to promote foreign mission work in the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Until 1936 foreign missions had been the responsibility of one person, who reported on and supervised the church's work abroad. Once established, the Foreign Mission Council held sessions three times a year between December 13, 1935, and its final session, April 12, 1944. After the third session of the Council Feldmanis assumed duties as secretary, succeeding his father-confessor, Pastor Edgars Rumba. Feldmanis' work as secretary of the Council can be divided into two periods, before and after June 17, 1940, when Soviet troops invaded Latvia. The invasion and subsequent Soviet Occupation did not eradicate foreign mission work at once. It came to a halt by itself in 1975.
As the secretary of the Foreign Mission Council, Feldmanis became convinced that this work was his vocation. He felt his responsibility to God and the whole Church. His duties as secretary of the Council included all managerial and publicity activities. He maintained contacts with foreign mission organizations and with workers of the mission. At the same time, on his own initiative he was free, reporting only to his direct superior, the archbishop of the church. His was the only paid missions staff position in the Church. When Feldmanis became the secretary of the Council, it assigned him to the preparation of plans for future projects. At its very next session, January 29, 1937, he presented initial plans.
Feldmanis immediately established personal contacts with the Latvian church's mission work in India, including Latvian missionary Anna Irbe and her station workers. In 1937 the Council sent Feldmanis to Sweden, Estonia, Finland, and Denmark to become acquainted with foreign mission work in those countries. He visited the Mission Association of the Church of Sweden; the Latvian Church had had a mutual agreement with the Association since 1923. Feldmanis also met with Archbishop Erling and the director of the Church's Mission Council, Arvid Bäfverfeld. In Denmark he became acquainted with Foreign Mission secretary Axel Holt. Later Feldmanis met him in 1938 at the International Missionary Conference in India, at Tambaram (1938). In reporting on this trip Feldmanis wrote that it was useful because he got new practical insights for foreign mission work in the Latvian Church and because he could share information about the work of the Latvian Lutheran Church.
Feldmanis' first plans for future activities of the Foreign Mission Council defined the aims and actions which should be pursued, including the goal of independent mission activity by the Latvian church, with its own mission area, its own workers, and the necessary means to support this work. Up to this time its small missionary team had been able to work only in conjunction with other missions. In 1937 Feldmanis reported that the Council's activities were taking place in two venues: mission in the south of India (in the "Latvian" village Karunagarapuri) and in Latvia itself, in efforts to inform church members and raise support for the work in India. Feldmanis wrote that in Karunagarapuri a school and a dispensary were supporting both service and evangelization activities. The budget for 1937 was 13,500 Latvian lats, of which Latvian contributions could cover only half. The mission in the village needed workers and more financial support. To promote support for the work in India Feldmanis encouraged more intensive efforts to raise funds and to distribute information within Latvia.
Raising Funds for Mission.
The collection of financial support was one of the chief activities of the Latvian Foreign Mission Council. Funds were sent to the Swedish Church Mission Board in Uppsala, to be used for salaries for Latvian missionaries and for food in India, according to an agreement between the Swedish and Latvian churches in 1924. In 1936 total expenses in Karunagarapuri reached 15,000 Latvian lats, but Latvian congregations collected only 9,320 lats, 43 santims, less than one santim per congregation member in the church. The rest of the expenses were covered by the Swedish Church Mission Board. Feldmanis did not view this situation as hopeless but proceeded to meet the challenge of making the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church an independent mission church. To enhance the collection of financial support in congregations and to include more congregations, R. Feldmanis initiated new ways for collecting funds:
1. Saving-bank boxes for foreign mission
2. The foreign mission organizations dedicated to collecting funds
3. Carefully prepared mission activities in congregations
4. Appeals for individuals'donations.
One of the most interesting and effective way was "saving boxes" or "bast baskets." A large amount was raised. According to the records kept of "saving box" collections, donations exceeded 2,500 lats. To initiate the distribution of "the saving boxes" in congregations, Feldmanis put an announcement in the magazine Foreign Mission that addressed the readers: "To facilitate the participation of every friend of foreign mission in promoting foreign mission work, I am informing you that one can get saving boxes for foreign missions, in which everyday, or whenever possible, one can deposit a donation of love for the benefit of the Kingdom of heaven.... If you want one, they will be sent by postal service for 30 santims in stamps." In the next issue of Foreign Mission Feldmanis reported on the results of the first few months' collection. The article mentioned the larger donations without listing the names of individuals or the larger contributing congregations. It also contained new calls for support of the needs of foreign missions. Feldmanis wrote, "But can such a collection of donations help the mission work? We have to answer—definitely yes! At Christmas and Pentecost special collections cannot reach all who would like to donate; there are few people who on a special day will be able to donate as much as their hearts feel necessary. The small cardboard baskets allow for a small amount to become a big amount and allow them to bring this gift every time when the heart wishes and the hand can do it." In these articles in Foreign Mission can be seen how Feldmanis motivated congregations to donate funds. He indicated to the readers how with their donations they can express gratitude to God for His great grace. After a long passage expressing gratitude to readers for their responsiveness in the saving boxes activity, at the very end of his article, he made a modest appeal for donations: "Finally one more important reminder: We are debtors before God. Because of His mercy we can be His congregation. The small saving boxes can be a place to bring a sacrifice of gratitude for each of us to Him who loved us first. Only such mission sacrifices are necessary for work that we bring from grateful debtors' hearts to God. Let God give to each of us such a heart!"
The savins boxes were used in large and small congregations and reached many members of different ages. One congregation took eighty saving boxes, others fewer. But most importantly, Feldmanis introduced this new procedure to collect funds and discovered that this was more effective than the collections previously held at Christmas and Pentecost services, mission holidays that came but twice a year.
The saving boxes reached many members—young and old, prosperous and less prosperous, active and less active. The boxes were sent to congregations until 1943. This mode of collection was the most likely cause of a steady increase in the total donations for foreign mission work in this period. Collections also continued on days set aside for them, and through contributions from congregational mission groups and individuals' donations.
Feldmanis put one other means of collecting funds into practice (although it produced less than the saving boxes), a "cooperative effort for postage stamps." This "effort" began with an announcement in the magazine Foreign Mission in January 1940, which invited every "Friend of Foreign Mission" to collect all envelopes with postmarked stamps and send them to the Foreign Mission Council Secretary for mission needs. Feldmanis had learned that postmarked stamps had a real though small value. In the next issue of Foreign Mission Feldmanis informed readers about the results of the "cooperative effort for postage stamps," sale of stamps worth 35.23 lats. Another means of supporting missions had been found.
Promoting Mission Through Information
Upon assumption of the office of secretary of the Foreign Mission Council, Feldmanis immediately set his goal to transform the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church into a missionizing church with its own mission area, its own workers, and the necessary funds to support this work. That required spreading information regarding the mission in the church. To accomplish his goal Feldmanis introduced a number of innovations. He believed that widespread misimpressions and ignorance about overseas missions existed in the congregations, and so he sought ways to spread the necessary information. These included
1. publishing brochures about the foreign mission work,
2. organizing groups in congregations to popularize support for mission work,
3. organizing "Foreign Mission Days" in congregations or in deaneries,
4. opening and enlarging the foreign mission library.
In the Foreign Mission Council session on June 18, 1937, R. Feldmanis suggested publishing a monthly magazine for youth called The Youth Way as a separate appendix to Foreign Mission. This suggestion was postponed, but after January 1, 1940, Foreign Mission was published as independent monthly magazine.
Feldmanis had become editor of Foreign Mission. The content of the magazine changed under his leadership. Bible lessons and prayers, especially for foreign mission work, appeared more prominently. Increasingly, Feldmanis wrote articles himself, expressing gratitude for donations through saving boxes and stamps, for example. He also wrote commentary on the work in India (in addition to reports from Missionary Irbe). In his articles he motivated, taught, and invited readers to join the work and explained the significance of foreign mission work and the needs and aims of Latvian mission outreach. This informational work forged closer contacts or links between the Foreign Mission Council and the members of congregations, whom Feldmanis strove to reach in different ways. Thus, it is no surprise that the circulation of the magazine grew.
Among other innovative programs of this period was the development of slides and other visual aids to popularize missions in mission interest groups in schools and congregations. In 1936 Feldmanis mentioned that only in some congregations (Martin and Christ congregations in Riga, and in Tukums and Ainazi) did groups exist that focused on foreign missions. Therefore, he composed "The foreign mission cell instruction," in which he explained how to form such groups and described leaders and their tasks. The brochure had appendices containing "Foreign Mission Prayers" and Bible passages for meditation on foreign mission. Feldmanis also organized "Foreign Mission Days" in each deanery. They lasted as long as four days. Pastors and foreign missionaries offered lectures during these events.
On January 29, 1937, during the session of the Foreign Mission Council R. Feldmanis was commissioned to prepare and publish a brochure to popularize foreign mission work. It was to answer the following questions: "What is foreign mission? Why is foreign mission work done? Where does Latvia do foreign mission work? How can everyone participate to promote foreign missions?" In 1939 the Central Board of Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church published a small brochure "What is a Christian foreign mission?" by Pastor Vilis Augstkalns. In his autobiography Feldmanis labeled it "a great blessing."
Finally, Feldmanis took care of the foreign mission library. In 1944 he expended 1978.95 rubles for the library. In these ways Feldmanis pursued the informational work of the Foreign Mission Council. World War II ended the Foreign Mission Council and Feldmanis' successful work as its secretary, which had extended from December 7, 1936, to June 17, 1940. The war essentially changed the ability of the church to carry out mission and thus altered its aims in mission.
The Foreign Mission work of the
Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church after June 17,1940
The Soviet invasion, the German counter-invasion, and subsequent events profoundly influenced Latvian church life and foreign mission activities, restricting foreign mission work. Contacts with India were broken because Soviet officials looked with suspicion on every contact outside the Soviet Union. Direct communication with missionary Anna Irbe was no longer possible. Like other religions publications, Foreign Mission was forbidden. Up to 1940 the foreign mission work of the Latvian church and its congregations had become stable and was actually increasing. For instance, donations had been increasing up to this time, but beginning in 1941 they diminished."
World War II ended plans for establishing the Latvian place within missions in India. Feldmanis visited India to attend the third International Mission Conference in Tambaram and met the leaders of Swedish Church Mission to discuss further cooperation in mission work. As a result of this meeting the next step was taken to build on the earlier cooperative agreement of December 31, 1924, between the Swedish and Latvian churches regarding Karunagarapuri village. On February 19-21, 1939, a conference took place in Kodī and Madura, in India, between Arvids Bähverfeldts, the Swedish mission director, with Professor Karl Vestmans, for the Swedish side, and the Latvians Anna Irbe and Feldmanis. In the conference the agreement was reached, envisaging that the Latvian mission in India could take over the mission work in that district of Coimbatore that belonged to the Swedish Mission area. This agreement envisaged also that Swedish church hand over the mission place to Latvian church gradually because the Latvian mission was not able to take over at once. Therefore, the agreement prescribed Swedish support for the mission area assigned to Latvia until the time when Latvia could support it alone. The workers in the mission area were to be Latvians. The agreement was to be confirmed by the leadership of both churches. On June 2, 1939, during the session of the Foreign Mission Council, this new agreement was introduced; the Council decided to recommend confirmation to the Central Church Board. Its signing was postponed, however, and war and occupation totally derailed the plan. In his memoirs Feldmanis wrote, "Under the pressures of war already before the occupation of Latvia, the informational work in congregations was possible, but contacts with the outside world were almost completely broken. In the first Soviet Occupation period in 1940/1941 they broke completely. During German occupation there was total isolation, but the informational work could continue in congregations to a limited extent. In the second occupation period, which began in October 1944, this possibility almost totally disappeared." Foreign Mission was banned after August 1940. Congregational work was restricted, and with that, foreign mission workers as well. Sessions of the Foreign Mission Council could not take place. Although contacts with Missionary Irbe were broken, Feldmanis wrote that in July 1940 it appeared possible to inform her about the situation in Latvia. In November 1940 it was possible to contact the Swedish Church Mission director, asking him to undertake the further support of work in Karunagarapuri. During this difficult time for church, the Central Board of the church allowed use of the Christmas and Whitsuntide offerings for foreign mission work, as before. People continued to donate for this work. Feldmanis wrote that in this period new volunteers, including pastors, applied to enter foreign mission work. Feldmanis himself continued his work for the mission, collecting funds and promoting interest in the work. Since he could not publish Foreign Mission, he continued to write articles for the church's general publication, Church News, urging people to join the work and set new aims, adapted for the situation of occupation. He wrote, "Our current task is to get ready for the time when God will give again possibilities to communicate with a mission area and with those who wait for our help. This day will definitely come once again! And it will be a disgrace to us if we will be there with empty hands and hearts grown cold!"
Instructing people what to do for the foreign mission during the war, Feldmanis advocated the following measures:
1. First of all, praying for foreign mission work in the whole world.
2. Organizing congregational interest in the foreign mission work of the Latvian church through individuals and groups.
3. Cultivating cooperation among those who promote foreign mission work and their mutual encouragement through "Foreign Mission Days" events.
4. Calling and preparing new missionaries.
From June 17, 1940, until around 1945, foreign mission activities took place in Latvia, and Feldmanis continued to expect and hope that there would be possibilities to send funds collected and those men who had been prepared into the mission abroad and thus to renew the work. That day did not come as quickly as Feldmanis had expected. That is why only recently has interest in foreign mission begun to take shape once again in Latvia. It has not been restored to earlier forms at this time, although work in South India and in other places has been coordinated and supported by Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Exile members outside Latvia, who were refugees.
Roberts Feldmanis shaped the future of his church in many ways through his faithful service as parish pastor and through his education of students for the pastoral ministry. A vital part of his legacy to the Latvian Lutheran Church, and also to the whole household of faith, consisted in his passionate support for the spread of the Gospel, his imaginative and innovative vision for leadership in mission, and his tireless dedication to winning the interest and support of others for the proclamation of the Word of God throughout the world.