Sentenced to 21 years in prison, Valdur Vesingi would serve 14 years before being paroled. During the 14 years, his life completely changed in ways he could not have anticipated.
Pere Raadio (Family Radio), along with founder Jim Carlson, conducted a prison ministry. In conjunction with Pere Raadio, All the World sponsored radio advertisements for United Church of God literature, which was being translated into both the Estonian and the Russian languages. Early in 2005, Valdur requested the literature and, strangely enough, he wanted his literature in English. His English preference raised some questions.
Later in 2005, it became apparent that Valdur was “getting it” when he wrote a letter asking if he was correct in perceiving that the Bible emphatically contrasts with doctrines being taught by “other churches.” The starkness of the question intensified when we subsequently discovered that Valdur knew nothing about God or any churches when he was incarcerated.
In late December of 2005, prison chaplain and head of Annemõisa House halfway house, Olavi Ilumets, arranged for us to conduct a Sabbath Bible study inside the prison. About 50 men attended. Valdur was one of those men. It was at this Bible study we met Valdur in person for the first time.
While Valdur was imprisoned, Olavi conducted weekly Bible studies. Valdur was a regular at those studies, usually presenting a different point of view about the truth of the Bible. The consequences were frequent “lively discussions.” Olavi nevertheless patiently served his prisoners to the best of his ability.
Following the initial Bible study, in 2006, we began personal visits with Valdur. Prisoners could have a maximum of one personal visit per month, and two persons could visit at a time. Being in Tartu for a month at a time four times per year, I visited Valdur on every trip. These visits continued for 10 years. Sometimes other persons would also visit.
In the beginning, Valdur expressed his feelings: He never wanted to leave the prison. Rooted in the belief prison is where God changed his life, he perceived he could best serve God for the rest of his life from that venue. In a unique way, he was ministering to his fellow prisoners. There were conflicts over his beliefs. First the prison authorities rejected his determination to observe the Sabbath and later the laws of clean and unclean meats. Valdur stood firm in the face of harassment and potential additional penalties. Eventually, the prison authorities relented.
A different motivation manifested itself in Valdur. With Olavi’s assistance, he began to translate United Church of God literature into Estonian. We accepted his first translation, fearing the quality and doctrinal correctness. In editing Why Does God Allow Suffering, resident Estonian expert Toomas Schavak delivered the following evaluation: “I could not have done better myself.” Valdur translated several more booklets, and the developing sense of purpose was therapeutic for him.
Olavi helped to make translation possible for Valdur by arranging four to five hours a week on a prison computer. When a translation was completed, Olavi e-mailed the Word file to us. Valdur’s work would have been “bottled up” if Olavi had not helped out.
Valdur was spiritually transformed by doing this work. He was convinced he was best able to serve God inside the prison and that a new seed was germinating. Could it be possible he might be a more effective servant on the outside? For a while Valdur struggled between these two ambitions. After 12 years in prison, Valdur was now thinking about the possibility of parole.
Doubting the possibility, Valdur nevertheless decided to apply and let God make the decision. There were two requirements for making an application for parole.
The first requirement to make an application was that the prisoner needed to have the promise of a job. With the help of Valdur’s niece, Monika Joost, Tõnu Aigro, CEO at the specialty glass manufacturing plant Marepleks, agreed to hire Valdur, complete with all necessary Sabbath day work accommodations. Tõnu certified this in a document to the prison authorities.
Also, prior to making any application, every prisoner must establish he has a place to live. Valdur had no immediate family with whom he could live. The faithful chaplain, Olavi, had the solution. Olavi made it a work of his ministry to acquire a home into which such prisoners could live after parole. We contacted Olavi, and Olavi agreed to reserve a room for Valdur. With that commitment from Olavi, Valdur was at least able to make an application for parole.
Nothing could be guaranteed by making an application. The application would go before the court for a decision. There were concerns. Valdur could be considered a problem prisoner because of his Sabbath and dietary conflicts. Valdur decided to let it be in God’s hands. Many people were praying for the outcome.
Valdur was paroled in May of 2015 after 14 years in prison. Robert Schultz of the Smiltene Baptist Church, Monika and her daughters Madli and Maaria, met Valdur and Olavi at the prison gate. Valdur could only take those same clothes he was wearing when he entered prison. They had been in mothballs for 14 years. Unlike many of us with our clothes after that amount of time, he could still wear them. The church in Smiltene, out of their own liberality, collected all the things necessary for Valdur to begin a new life on the outside, including all apartment furnishings, and all personal clothing and other items. Without this help, Valdur had nothing.
Valdur only needed to live in the prison house one month before finding another accommodation. But having the accommodation reserved was critical to his release.
Recognizing the value of what was being done by chaplin Olavi Ilumets and his ministry, LifeNets was inspired to support Olavi’s efforts for the coming year with 100 euros ($110) per month for 12 months. There is sizable work to be done in order to keep this “halfway house” in operation.
We first met Valdur 10 years before his parole. None of us could foresee the ultimate outcome of his circumstances. We walk not by sight, but by faith, as God directs our paths. Olavi Ilumets and his halfway house were monumentally important to what God was doing in Valdur’s life.
Priceless faith was built by all of those who participated in this continuing 10 year commitment.