The Stockman family in 2006, Christmas: Mona, Gabriel,
Bjorn, Emilie and Ronja (the dog)In connection with the twenty years anniversary of the re-start of the Salvation Army work in Latvia after the occupation, a special edition of "Kara Sauciens" (War Cry) was published. Some of the interviews from that edition will be published here. This is the second article. It is Björn and Mona Stockman who are being interviewed by Olesja Voznaja.
Majors Mona and Bjorn Stockman are the first Regional Commanders of the renewed Salvation Army in Latvia (1990-1993). They themselves recall this time as the time when God taught them to trust Him and to love people with His love..
How did God speak to you about coming to Latvia? When and what was the first whisper?
M. Bjorn and I have different ways how God spoke of course. But for me it was, that when I saw on television the fight for freedom in Lithuania and Estonia, it was like God said- you will have something to do with it. After a while we got a tape from a soldier in our present Corps. She had this tape from a radio program on Swedish Radio, and she said it was about some Church and she said- I don’t know what it is really, but it was from some country. When I was listening to it, I suddenly heard this song coming in a language that we did not know. It was a wonderful song- Teach me to go to your spring, oh God. So we had this tape and the Spirit was in this music. Every day, when we were doing things in the kitchen, I had this music on. And suddenly we realised it was from the Baptist Church in Riga, so it was in Latvian. We did not know the Latvian language. So these were the two things- how God prepared my heart, that something was going to happen- first through what I saw on the television and then through this song. We had applied earlier for going abroad as missionaries. Then the Commissioner phoned us and asked: “Are you willing to go to Latvia to reopen the work there?”
B. I must say our wish was to go to Asia or somewhere there.
M. We came East anyway. But then she said we only had a week to decide if we can go and leave our present appointment. We felt that God was in this. And also for the children, He said He will take care of them. There were not many foreign children in Riga at that time. When we had decided this, there was a conference in Stockholm, visited by Maria Gorska and Arija Bergmane. The same day they met us, we got a Word from God from Ezekiel 36:36, which was like a confirmation that this was right for us. It speaks about rebuilding the ruins and people around you. God really showed us that He was in this. Many people in the little town where we currently lived in Sweden, asked us if it really was wise to go with two little children, they were 2 and 5 years. We just felt that God was with us. So, that is how it started for me.
How was it for you, Bjorn?
B. When they said the name of Latvia, I did not know anything about that country. I found out about Latvia in the library. I started learning Latvian language at the University. We lived in Kristinehamn, so I had to travel in my car every day back and forth to Stockholm. I learnt some vocabulary and they told me about a summer course at the University in Riga. So, Mona and I and our children went to Riga and we were students of the University in Riga. It was in 1989, so it was before the Independence time, which was a very interesting time. I heard that one of our teachers, who did not know what The Salvation Army was, thought we were spies or something.
M. It was very strange!
B. But during this time we also had to go to other places outside Riga, so it was very good for us to see the culture and to see how people lived, because you should know the country before coming. When we were here for the first time it was also the first Song Festival since the occupation, so it was very interesting to see thousands of people walking on the streets and singing. The Presidents from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia were standing in front of Daile Theatre and greeting all the singers. We stood there hour after hour. We also went to Mezaparks and saw the singers there. It was a very special event for Latvians, especially since they could not do it before. I got the feel of the culture. We knew that our gift to Latvia was not to come and sing some songs. We knew our task in Latvia was to come with the Gospel, and tell people about Jesus Christ. We were also taken to Subate and Ogre, before TSA worked in Latvia.
M. When we came the first time with the children, it was not easy for them to come to a foreign country, because they looked different- they had this Daddy Long Leg on their raincoats, and children were not so nice about it, which I found difficult as their mother. So I said to God when we were at the summer University- if I’m going to serve here I have to have love for these people. When we were in Ogre in some church in our uniforms, a little girl came up to me and said “I want to give you this little flag from Latvia, because it shows that you love the Latvian people”. At that moment God baptised me with His love. I still have this little flag at home. The whole situation with the children- we knew we were going to work very hard, so we could do with someone to look after them. In our mind we had the name of the girl, she was taking her last exam and we thought- may be she can come with us, but we did not tell her anything. But one day as we were sitting in the car, she said- may be I will go with you to Latvia. She was a Sunday school teacher and it was Anna-Lena. She helped us very much with the children and with the Sunday school.
Anyway in the end I can say that our children had a very good time in Latvia, and they learnt much about the love of Jesus. They got saved there really. And they never forget Latvia- they love, they speak about it in different ways; they want to go back and see what it is like now.
B. But, you know, it was a very special beginning in Latvia. Usually we get an order to go to this and this place, but in Latvia it was different. Some people had gathered in Marija Gorksa`s flat and talked about TSA. They knew that they could choose a leader from another country. They chose me, and after that we had to present it to the government, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Mr.Kublinskis. He said it was ok, he wrote the papers, talked to people in other departments and also invited me to some meetings. In TSA, it is only the General who is chosen; other people go with orders, so I usually say- the General and I have been chosen, it is quite funny.
It was a very hard time in Latvia when the OMON troops came to Riga. It had to be closed. And I thought what will happen with my friends, with my people in Latvia, I would be in Sweden. I was in Riga, when the OMON troops came and killed some people outside in Bastejkalns. They showed TSA meeting that night at the Adventist Church.
M. There was very much of TSA on Latvian Television at that time.
B. And after the meeting we went to Arija`s home, and she looked at the television and said: “Oh, how terrible!” I didn’t understand what was going on. Right at that moment Mona called me from Sweden and said- they are shooting. Then Arija told me what was happening. I was staying at the Riga Hotel and said I would go back there. I looked outside my window- and saw that it was cold, there was fire and I saw the tanks coming into Riga. I did not know what would happen. But I knew that God would take care of me too. I went to the barricades with Arija. We walked around there, gave out some bread, coffee and told people “Jesus will not abandon us!”
M. In the International Congress that year or the year before, they heard that the work in Latvia was going to be re-opened, so they spoke to the people who sew flags and they made two flags in the Indian Territory. Bjorn told me, as I was not there, that they stood there with these flags and gave out to all the wondering people a leaflet saying “Not by the power of men, but by the power of the Holy Spirit you can get free”. So it was a really good testimony to the nation, and I think that we still must understand that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that people get free. But for me and the kids at home in Kristinehamn looking at the TV was quite dramatic. The reporter there said- “They are shooting over my head”, and Bjorn is always very curious. But it is good he was not there.
What were your first impressions when you came to Latvia?
M. At that time it was the practical things- the streets, driving from the airport- everything was so destroyed, and also there was this suspicion. When we were gathering, people would say, oh there is a car standing there, it is KGB. We tried to live the same way as all people were living- joining the queues and only then finding out what we were queuing for- for toilet paper, for milk. People were so poor. Everything took so much time! I was used to going out to a shop and buying something, but now it took nearly half a day to get something. This changed my way of thinking.
I also kept asking God what we can do for TSA. I felt Him telling me to take my flannel graph pictures with me. He said He would send lots of children to us, and He did.
But when it comes to spiritual things, when we were in the Song Festival, we had some Bibles in Latvian, which we gave out to people. I saw in the eyes of a woman how she longed to get this Bible, and all these little things for me were very powerful. Young people said that in the school they always talked about Lenin, but now he was not the real thing anymore, so we should introduce Jesus to them.
B. It was interesting to see all the places where TSA had worked before. Our first official meeting was held in Golgata Church on the 18th November, it was crowded with people. But before this meeting, we were at the Freedom Monument- we walked alone, wore our uniforms and could sing nothing else, but Hallelujah, Hallelujah. People looked at us. Then an old man in bad clothes approached us. He was from Liepaja and he said: “Oh, my dear Salvation Army!” He had been in TSA as a young boy, and now, when he saw us, he cried. We invited him to the Church, he came and also gave us some roubles to buy a drum.
M. He said that a SA must have a drum, so he offered money this poor man.
B. This meeting was very powerful- many people came. I was so glad to meet 5-6 old officers from the first time. Some woman had brought her son, who had leukaemia, and I could pray with them together with Alvine Balode (she had been a social officer before the war). And I felt in my heart, here we are together- she and I. I do not know what happened to these people, but God knows.
There was also a woman called Estere Didrihsone. She came to us and said “Oh, my father has a house, he was an architect and has made some buildings. I will give it to you and you can build your church there”. She was speaking about Betanija. At the time there was some office in there, but we went and looked inside and kept in touch with her. She told us that Betanija at the beginning was built as a Methodist Church.
Would you say that people accepted the Gospel easier at that time than nowadays?
Both. Yes, we think so.
B. Because it was so new for many of them. We had about a thousand children in our Sunday school.
M. When we were building the Mercy Seat and altar “Come to Jesus”, the man who was in charge of making it, said- just do it in these measures. But later when Lonija Gorksa came with the cloth “Come to Jesus”, it was the same size and fit perfectly. Many people coming in the hall saw “Come to Jesus”, and that was very powerful. It was not “Come to the Army”, but “Come to Jesus”.
I remember for myself when I was coming to that hall, that first thing I saw was “Come to Jesus”, nothing else, and it was always so special for me.
B. That is the only thing left from the first time of the Army. But it is also interesting with the flags, which Mona mentioned. We also had one Latvian missionary in the first army- Lonija Rudomina. She was born in 1907. In 1939 she went to India as a missionary from Latvia. She worked in Bombay and other places, and in Evangeline Booth`s hospital. First she went to England, then to India. She was the only officer, who went as a missionary.
M. Next time it will be you, Olesja!
B. Unfortunately we do not know what happened to her, we heard she left TSA in India, then as you know there was the World War. Perhaps she died in India or went to another country, who knows, but I’m trying to find out what happened. But I am wondering- how could those flags come from India? May be some Indian people had heard about Lonija from Latvia.
At the opening of TSA in Latvia we also noticed that there were lots of deaf people in Latvia. We saw them and talked about what we could do for them.
M. We had a feeling that we were going to work with them, the same feeling as we had before we came. I think it was a special challenge which God prepared for us.
B. We had to get out with the Gospel to the people and people had to get saved. We did not want to just work socially with deaf, blind and handicapped people. People had to know Jesus. One Sunday a woman came from the deaf school and said: “I am a teacher, can you do something with my class?” In Sweden we have special work with deaf people, so I said: “Yes, you are welcome!” She came with the children to our Sunday school. They had parents and siblings. So the work with the deaf began. Then they asked for something more, just for the deaf people, so Mona had a Bible class for them every Tuesday.
Would you say that starting the work with the deaf people was actually the main challenge?
M. The main challenge was to bring Gospel to the older people, of course. But this was a special thing to do. Children were our main group.
B. But also to show them the love of God. I remember one of the deaf girls they had found in the woods. She came, we gave her some clothes, and the teacher said it was the first time they saw her crying.
M. That was when our family came. When me and our children came down to the cellar where we have these clothes, and Bjorn and the girl were there, she said- pappa, mama, son and then.. she understood. She had not understood before what a family was.
What would you say was the challenge for the army at the beginning - spiritually and practically?
M. When we started helping people practically, all these lorries started coming with help. It was like a flood. We have pictures where we are sitting among clothes and things. Many people did not understand. We wanted them to understand that we are building a Corps, a Church, but some people thought, that it was just like a help organization. There were so many people- at 4.00am people were standing in the staircase. At the beginning there were not many of us to help, but then all these people came to volunteer, the soldiers. It was important for us to have a spiritually strong adviser! I did not know the language so well. I tried to, but people did not understand me. Even other churches did not consider us a church due to not having Sacraments. We preached a lot, it was our priority- at the same time we helped socially.
That was very needed at that time in Latvia. What would you say God taught you while you were in Latvia?
M. That He always has a solution where we cannot see it and He is faithful. I learned to believe.
B. I think I learnt to have the love of God to give to the people. I learnt about washing the feet and being a helping hand.
M. One of the challenges was that we had Sunday school in both Latvian and Russian. For me- if you are born again- you can love people, who have sometimes done wrong to you. We had to teach children that, when you are a Christian, stealing things from the market is not normal anymore. The Gospel of Jesus Christ became deeper in our own lives- what Jesus has done for me on the Cross.
What is your brightest memory?
B. For me it is the children. Also to see how people lived. There was this woman, who was in a really difficult situation. Then she came to Jesus and her life just changed like that. It is hard to mention just one or two. All these people will be in my heart. Every Sunday we stood at the door and shook people’s hands. I think it is necessary to shake hands and to look at the children.
I always thought you were the biggest man I have seen, because I was so small and tiny.
B. We have to show young girls and boys, that they are very, very special and very welcome to TSA. I hope it had a good effect on them. To many people being a leader is like being a special person, but not for us. I have to say I am also very glad to meet many of our Junior soldiers of that time now on Draugiem.lv site. I hope and I pray that they would not forget what they learnt during that time.
What would your wish or prayer be for Latvia today?
M. As I am in the education system I pray a lot about the new leaders, officers, candidates coming, because there is still a lot of work, so I give my heart to that prayer.
B. During our first time in Latvia many people were very poor. We had to give them food, clothes and so on. Now we can give people clothes and food, but the most necessary thing we need to give them is the Gospel.
M. It is also about training in holiness and discipleship. I can tell you another highlight- a practical thing. When people came and asked for something, one of the soldiers usually introduced them to the Gospel and told a bit about the Army. So, once a piano repairer came. He got some help. Then he saw this old piano, which was laying in pieces since the times of “Oktobris”. Rats had been eating it. He said- I am so happy with what you have done for me, so let me repair this piano. And I thought it will not work. But then, it was such a highlight when our pianist Zane sat down at it and for the first time played- hosanna, hosanna. It was such a good piano. God really was in this.
B. There was also a woman, who came and asked for some clothes. She said she was a carpenter. I asked her if she could maybe make the crest. She came to our big hall, lived there night and day. We still have pictures of her making it. It was fantastic how God sent her to us, because we really needed a crest.
B. I must also say that I am so glad to see Ilona Rasa Trūpa today, because she was one of our Sunday school teachers- together with Diāna and Tamāra, young girls, but they were so good! As our Sunday school grew so fast, we needed teachers. They wanted to help. Besides we were amazed that they were so young and so good with languages. Latvian people learn languages easily. We really saw the potential leaders in these girls.
That was our idea- first to establish a stable Corps in Riga and then send out soldiers from Riga to other places in Latvia and the world. Perhaps we have reached that place now that we start sending people to other parts of the world. During these years, since we left Latvia, I have been listening carefully to what was going on in Latvia. Sometimes I was very glad, other times I did not understand and was sad about people leaving etc. But it is the same here in Sweden.
Some people leave, some people stay and grow in faith.
M. I will never forget when we left Riga, there were all these people in the harbour. They stood there with gifts and ‘pīrāgi’, and they wanted us to take all those things on the boat. They were like our newborn children, we were like a mother and father.