By Brian Koonce
ASTANA, Kazakhstan – At least one couple is enjoying the recent arctic chill that blew through Missouri. That’s because Don and Diane Combs are used to it being much, much colder.
In Astana, Kazakhstan, where they minister as Cooperative Program-supported International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries, it’s -35 degrees.
The Combs are back in Missouri on furlough staying in Raytown and will return to the mission field in March. Diane is originally from Grandview and Don is from Kansas City.
“It’s great to be back home,” Don said.
Don and Diane’s journey from western Missouri to central Asia began in 1980 when he accepted Christ as his Savior after spending his life in church. The Combs had been married for six years and Don had just gotten out of the Navy when he was saved and began to feel God’s call to ministry. He went to college and after graduation God led them to pastor First Baptist, Braymer. Throughout the years he also pastored at First Baptist, Tipton; Temple Baptist, Springfield; and McCarthy Baptist, St. Joseph.
During the 1994 Missouri Baptist Convention annual meeting, the Combs committed to pray for the Convention’s partnership with Belarus. Soon he had the opportunity to go, and later Diane did the same thing. It was the beginning of God calling them to the mission field.
In 2002 they left their three grown children behind and moved to Belarus with IMB, encouraging local churches and believers. After three and a half years, they began having trouble securing visas and IMB asked them to pray about transferring to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is far from Belarus, but as former Soviet states they share a common language, Russian.
The Combs have been serving out of the capital city, Astana, for two and a half years now. Although it is merely a blip on the radar for many Americans, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, with a population of a little more than 15 million. It borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Russia. The official language is Kazakh, but the de facto language of commerce is Russian.
Kazakhstan is historically and culturally Muslim, but Don Combs said the region’s history has allowed for Christianity to gain a foothold in the central Asian region.
“Christianity came through the area in about the 700s,” he said. “Then the Muslim influence came in after that and really dominated. But during the days of the Soviet Union, Lenin and then Stalin began exiling enemies of the state and they were sent to either Siberia or Kazakhstan. Christians began pouring in from Belarus, Ukraine, Germany and Russia, and many of them were Baptists. They took their faith with them and continued to have Bible studies in the gulags. When the Soviet Union fell, the people returned to their home counties but the Baptist Union remained.”
Today, there are roughly 300 churches that are members of the Baptist Union with right at 10,000 members, including First Baptist Church of Astana, where the Combs are members. The church has about 200 members, but most of the other churches are very small, with 3-15 members.
The historical Muslim influence is very strong.
“To leave your Islamic faith and become a Christian is a very serious matter,” Don Combs said. “In many ways they’re treated as an outcast and told they’re leaving their culture and are no longer true Kazakhs. But those are believers who take it very seriously and are committed to reaching their families and believers.”
The Combs work alongside nationals, helping train them to figure out the next places to grow and plant churches. They work in volunteer teams from the United States as well, and Don Combs added he “would be thrilled” for Missouri churches to take part.
Kazakhstan is quickly becoming westernized, especially in the cities, but Don Combs said those creature comforts are also proving a barrier to the Gospel.
“In the cities, like Astana, where we live, it’s very modern but in some ways that’s a problem for some people. The things that are available in the western world are becoming available where we live: cars, gadgets, big screen TVs, and many people are just too busy trying to make money to buy stuff.”
He asked that Missouri Baptists keep the Kazakh believers in their prayers.
“Pray that they will remain faithful in their work and not grow weary in their labors, because the response is slow,” he said.
He also asked that Missouri Baptists pray for Diane and him – the only two IMB missionaries in their city – and consider coming to Kazakhstan on a short-term mission trip.
“We’d love for a volunteer team to come over,” he said.
The Combs are especially looking for a team to come next February to coincide with the 2011 Asian Winter Games in Almaty, a city of 1.3 million people about 800 miles southeast from the capital.
“Athletes and spectators from 45 different countries will be coming into Kazakhstan, and many of them will be English-speaking,” he said. “We’re looking for a team to go out to coffee houses and the events and meet people and strike up a conversation to share the hope that is in our heart.”