It also inspired me to start the ASSIST News Service
By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
MOSCOW, RUSSIA (ANS – October 30, 2016) – Over the years, many people have asked me how I came to start the ASSIST News Service, so I would like to share with you how a “Miracle in Moscow” was the reason behind it.
It began with a meeting in Moscow, back in 1992, with Russian dissident, Alexander Ogorodnikov, which was one that I will never forget. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes, something that was quite unusual for a seasoned hack like myself.
It took place during a period of my life when I was rather ashamed of my tawdry tabloid career in London’s Fleet Street with the Sunday People and the Sunday Mirror, and my time as a correspondent for the National Enquirer, which had caused me to all but give up on my journalism.
Norma, my wife, and I had moved ten years earlier from the UK to Southern California, with our two sons, Andrew and Peter, and we had eventually launched ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times), as a ministry to help persecuted Christians around the world.
As ASSIST began to grow, I had decided to concentrate on running the ministry. After all, wasn’t that more spiritual than being a journalist? Norma and I made several trips to places like Cuba and Nicaragua, to further the ministry, but I never wrote about these experiences.
But it all changed when I received a surprise phone call from A. Larry Ross, Billy Graham’s then press officer, in which he said, “Dan, you know that Mr. Graham has been going to Russia for years now.”
“Yes, Larry, and we are running a pen-pal ministry with new believers there,” I cut in, thinking that he wanted to know more about our “Bridge of Friendship Russia” program in which we were linking by snail mail new Russian Christians with American believers, so they could help them grow in their new-found faith.
Larry said politely that he thought that was “very interesting” and then added, “Mr. Graham has been invited to Moscow to hold a crusade there. It will be the first time that he can openly invite people to receive Christ.”
He paused for a moment, and then stated, “We’d like you to come and join our media team and use your journalistic skills to report on this historic Mission to Moscow.”
I felt all the air being sucked out of my lungs when he then added, “We feel your tabloid skills could be used to portray what is going to happen there. When could you get on a plane to Moscow?”
I stammered out my thanks and said that I would be “honored to go” and so Larry told me that arrangements would be made for my air ticket and visa and he would like me there “as soon as possible.”
When I put the receiver down, Norma looked at me in a strange way.
“What’s up?” she asked. “Your face has gone as white as milk.”
“Larry Ross wants me to fly to Moscow to join his media team and use my journalistic skills,” I told my wife, trying to take in what was being asked of me. Why I was surprised to receive this invitation was that back in 1968, I had worked as Chief Reporter for The Christian, Mr. Graham’s UK newspaper, but then, after a year with the paper, it was suddenly closed and I lost my job, got two weeks’ severance pay, and I moved on to get a job with a West London weekly newspaper.
So, consequently, I never dreamed I would ever be able to work with him again.
However, not long afterwards, I received an invitation to cover a special late-night event in London’s theatreland, where Billy Graham was to address stars from West End shows. When I arrived, Mr. Graham went around the room, introducing himself and asking each of us what show we were appearing in. I told him that I wasn’t in a show, but added, “Mr. Graham, my name is Dan Wooding. I was Chief Reporter with The Christian, and you may remember that you recently fired me.” There was an embarrassed gasp from the evangelist, and he then said, “I am so sorry, Dan. It wasn’t my idea, but my American and British boards had recommended that we close the paper for financial reasons.” Before I could respond, he was off to meet some genuine stars, and I felt that my comments had meant that I would probably never do any further work for Billy Graham.
However, that wasn’t the real reason I had quit journalism. It came about after I had moved to America, and someone I had been working with, told me rather cruelly, that I really “couldn’t write” and that was I was a “lousy journalist” and I actually believed those destructive comments. I began to think that my tabloid past had been a complete waste of time and that it could not be used by the Lord.
However, Norma smiled and said pointedly, “It’s a good thing that Billy Graham doesn’t know that you can’t write….” I smiled weakly in response.
Within a few days, the tickets and the visa had come through, and I drove to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to fly to Moscow, via Frankfurt, Germany.
Before I had left, I sent a message to Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Russian Christian dissident who had spent many years in the Gulag for his faith – and for running a Christian discussion group at the Moscow State University, where he had found Christ after viewing a film about the life of Christ.
While in the Gulag, Alexander went on many hunger strikes. The guards would take his Bible and Orthodox Cross, which he wore around his neck, from him, and then he would then refuse to eat and go on hunger strike. This occurred on several occasions, and he would say, “I would rather die than be without the Word of God and my cross.”
“Please execute me by firing squad”
After five years of this appalling existence, he finally cracked and wrote a tragic letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, telling him that he was a Christian being held the Gulag and that, during his five years there, he had not received one visit or even a letter from a Christian. He told the Soviet leader that he knew it was “a sin to commit suicide,” but he wanted to “go home to be with Jesus” and so he asked if he could be “executed by a firing squad.”
I received an English translation of Alexander’s anguished message to Gorbachev, which was sent to me by Keston College in England, a center for the study of religion under communism. I wept when I first read his letter, feeling that we, in the West, had so let him down by not supporting him.
I managed to get the mailing address of the labor camp where he was being held — Perm 36, near the Siberian border — and went on the “Praise the Lord” show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and asked viewers to not only pray for Alexander, but also bombard the camp with messages of support, which they did. (They sent their letters to me and I then, with the help of my then PA, Brenda Poklacki, sent them off in huge numbers to the camp.)
Apparently, Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain, had also heard of his case and, during a visit to Moscow, “asked” Mr. Gorbachev, in a way that only the “Iron Lady” could do so, to “set him free.”
Amazingly, Gorbachev agreed to her request, and so I was anxious to meet him in Moscow, where he was now running a home for battered women and children.
After checking into the President Hotel, a secret place that had been built for communist leaders visiting Moscow like North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung, I went to bed to try and get a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, I received a call from the front desk saying that “a man called Alexander is here and he wants to see you.”
I rushed down the stairs and there he was, dressed in a pin-striped suit, wearing glasses and with a pony tail hairstyle. He was nothing like I had imagined.
“Dan,” he said extending his hand to me. “Thank you for caring!” I had to choke back the tears as he said this.
I then took him into the restaurant for breakfast where we were joined by A. Larry Ross, and some of the Billy Graham team members. (Later, I was privileged to conduct the morning Bible study for the BGEA team who were with us.)
After the coffee was poured, Alexander ask if I had asked American Christians to write to him and so I explained about the TV appearance.
“Did you ever see the letters that were sent to you?” I asked him.
“Yes, they would take me into a room filled with sacks of mail, but then they would not let me read any of them,” he began. “I can’t describe the feeling of joy that I got when I realized that people did care for me after all.”
He then locked his eyes on mine and asked, “Did you also ask people to pray for me?”
“I thought so,” he continued, as he took a sip from his coffee cup. “Let me tell you what happened. The guards would show me the sacks of mail, which I guessed were from America, then they would take me to a punishment cell where they hoped I would die from the cold. I was only wearing flimsy clothes, and the cell was like a block of ice. I would begin to shiver and soon hypothermia would set in and I knew that I hadn’t got long to live.
“Then a great miracle happened. I believe that God would wake up someone who saw you on television there in America, and they would begin to pray for me and suddenly I felt God’s arms wrap around me like a comforter, and warmth would flow back into my freezing body. This happened several times and again I want to again say, ‘Thank you for caring.’”
After an extended breakfast, we parted company, and I just wanted to cry with joy that this amazing man of faith had been delivered from the Gulag and he just wanted to say “Thank you for caring.” I knew that was not just for me, but also for the thousands of Christians who had also “cared” for his condition.
Crusade takes place in a stadium barred by President Carter for the US Olympic team
By the way, Billy Graham’s historic Moscow crusade, organized by several Billy Graham team members, including my dear friend, Dan Southern, was held in October 1992, in the indoor Olympic Stadium which, twelve years earlier, had been the site of the Moscow Olympic Games that thanks to President Jimmy Carter, the United States had boycotted, was quite incredible.
“So it looks to me like maybe the Lord had the Russians build that facility for us to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Southern recently told me. Like other team members, he and his family, had lived through some dangerous times in Moscow during that period of unrest.
I spent three wonderful weeks meeting daily with Billy Graham along with A. Larry Ross, and worked on the various news releases that went out around the world, one of which was called, “A Miracle in Moscow.”
What a crusade it was to report on! Each night, eager Muscovites filled the 38,000-seat stadium to hear Billy powerful preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. On the first evening, inquirers coming forward signed 10,641 cards of commitment; on the second evening 12,628 signed, and on the closing Sunday afternoon, some 50,000 persons had jammed into the stadium, and apparently, the fire people didn’t try to limit them. Another 30,000 stood outside in the freezing cold, where a huge television screen with audio, echoed what was happening inside. The number of decision cards signed was 19,417.
A highlight was being able to film the Red Army Choir on that first night, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which still sends shivers down my spine. Another, which I will never forget, was when, on the final night, quadriplegic, Joni Eareckson Tada, who had been sitting in the wheelchair section of the stadium, was brought up onto the stage, to share her extraordinary story, and was interpreted by a blind Russian translator. Then, Mr. Graham, who was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, spoke, and it was to me and illustration of how God can use anyone, despite their disabilities, for His Glory.
When I got home, I talked it all over with Norma, and I told her that I knew that I had to re-start my journalistic career, and so, with her full encouragement, I began the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net) as a first step.
I had finally realized that God can use even an ex-tabloid journalist to spread the word about what He is doing in His World.
And it all began with a phone call, a miracle meeting in Moscow with a wonderful Russian Christian dissident, and three incredible weeks in the Russian capital with an American evangelist.
It truly was “A Miracle in Moscow,” and that’s how ANS first began.
By the way, if you would like to help us continue with our news service, it’s very easy. Just go to www.assistnews.net and then scroll down the page to where it says DONATE TO ASSIST NEWS and put in the amount you would like to donate.If you prefer a check, just make it out to ASSIST and mail it to PO Box 609, Lake Forest, CA 92609, USA. I can then say to you, “Thank you for caring.”
Photo captions: 1) Dan Wooding meeting with Alexander Ogorodnikov in Moscow. 2) The Billy Graham media team in Moscow. Larry Ross is the tall fellow in the middle of the picture and by his side is his wife, Autumn. 3) A more recent picture of Alexander Ogorodnikov. (http://www.frontpagemag.com). 4) Dan meeting on a later occasion with Billy and Ruth Graham at their home in Montreat, North Carolina. 5) Part of the huge crowd in the indoor Olympic Stadium, Moscow (BGEA). 6) The Red Amy Choir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (BGEA). 7) Dan Wooding chatting with Billy Graham in Essen, Germany, where Dan was working as a writer for Mr. Graham.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 53 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the author of some 45 books and has two TV programs and one radio show in Southern California, and Dan has had the privilege of being part of Billy Graham’s media team not only in Moscow, but also in Essen, Germany, and also in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He even wrote the cover story on Billy and Franklin Graham for the Saturday Evening Post. Dan also hosts a radio show and two TV programs all based in Southern California.
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