Bringing God's Word To
The words sounded ordinary,
but they took the listener's breath away.
"Would you help us establish
a Christian college in Moscow like the ones you have in the United States?"
That was the question Vladimir
Kinelev asked John Bernbaum '63 one day in 1992. Kinelev became minister
of education after the former Soviet Union dissolved from an international
superpower into the current Commonwealth of Independent States. The new
government sought to restore some facets of civil life, including religious
freedom. With Communism's stranglehold broken, Bernbaum was poised to create
a rooted Christian presence in the heart of Moscow.
"The enormity of that invitation
was overwhelming," said Bernbaum, who earned his doctorate in European
history from the University of Maryland in 1972. "That was my first trip
to Russia, and I was elated to have such a grand opportunity presented
to me. There was no way I could say no. It was like (the apostle Paul's)
The wheels for his trip began
turning when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Bernbaum, then vice president
of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities at the time, was
asked by the CCCU president to help initiate exchange programs between
schools in eastern Europe and the United States. He accepted that offer,
and three years later, he was in Moscow.
After Kinelev's request,
Bernbaum began to assemble a team of American and Russian Christian scholars
to devise a strategic plan. He traveled between Moscow and Washington,
D.C., meeting with government and academic leaders. Three years of planning
culminated in 1995 when the Russian-American Christian University opened
its doors in Moscow. Bernbaum has been its president since its beginning.
"These last 14 years have
been richly rewarding for me," he said. "I had no idea that I'd be working
in Russia, but it shows the sovereignty of God's will. This experience
really taught me how to trust Him. His calling has been so clear to me.
"Before the university opened,
I was in Moscow for one of our planning meetings. At the end, we closed
with prayer, and some of the Russians had tears streaming down their faces.
They were so grateful just for vision of having a Christian college for
their children to attend. I had heard so many stories of Soviet oppression
and persecution of Christians. Knowing the history of what they endured,
I was thankful to help them make a dream come true."
Although his time as a student
at Trinity was brief, it afforded Bernbaum the right environment at that
point in his life. Those two years were pivotal for the young man who came
from Timothy Christian High School in Elmhurst, Illinois.
"I came to love the Reformed
perspective, and Trinity stretched my mind and nurtured me," he said. "At
that age, I could have gotten lost at a bigger school, so the attention
and support I received was crucial. Being able to have dinner with some
of the faculty and getting to know professors like Cal Seerveld, Bob Vanderveld,
and Edwin Rules.those are memories that stand out to me."
After Bernbaum finished his
two years at the College in 1963, he graduated from Calvin College with
a bachelor's degree in history. He and his wife, Marge, were married a
few days following his graduation and moved to Wheaton, Maryland, a short
drive from the nation's capital. They raised seven children and now have
13 grandchildren. They still live in Wheaton and attend the National Presbyterian
Church in Washington, D.C.
In 2001, Bernbaum, named
Trinity's alumnus of the year in 1997, accepted a position as a trustee
of the College. Before then, his travel schedule called for five or six
trips to Russia annually, in addition to the customary obligations that
university presidents have. Now he has an official reason to return to
campus a few times each year, and he looks forward to every visit.
"There is such an upbeat
attitude on campus, and the excitement is contagious," he said. "We are
dealing with problems of prosperity - too many students and not enough
space - but those are the kinds of problems you don't mind having. I'm
pleased to contribute to the great work that's going on at Trinity, and
I'm eager to see how the College will grow in the near future."
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