Recently I visited Estonia and attended a funeral for Natalja Stepanova, which was in the town of Elva. I had a brief part in the service giving a talk which honored this true shepherdess, a real "mother of Israel."
Natalja Step anova was born in Russia in 1924. At the age of 14, her mother and three aunties were thrown into prison for keeping the Sabbath and sharing the truth of God with others. Natalia had two younger sisters and a baby brother who was still in arms. The children were all placed into an orphanage, but Natalja, at the young age of 14, got them out and cared for them herself for ten years.
At age 24, Natalja married a young minister, Jlja Stepanova. They ministered for 16 or 17 years in Uzbekistan. There were only 11 members in the entire providence when the Stepanovas arrived but by the time they moved to another state in the former USSR, there were well over 100 members. The Stepanovas lived and shared their faith.
They started the Adventist church in Turkestan. Later they movedback to Estonia for pja was Estonian. Their last home, which they built with their own hands, was in the town of Elva.
The funeral was well attended. Over 100 people came to pay their respects. Though icy snow covered the ground, people wanted to honor this wonderful lady. Her husband was the last to speak in that little cemetery chapel. He moved over to the open coffin where Natalja looked so serene and then spoke to his wife about some wonderful memories. I can remember many of his words. "Natalja, I want to get close to you but there are too many flowers." (Some of the flowers were then removed so he could stand right by the open coffin. He then put his hand over her folded hands, so that only a sheet separated them.)
"Natalja, you and I have lived in unity for 45 years. You raised your own sisters and brothers at an early age, and you have also raised our three children." (Their daughter is a minister's wife in Lithuania; one son is a minister in Estonia, who lives in his own house next to his parent's home; and the other son is a layman in Germany).
"You worked with me in Russia, but you were more successful than me. You were kinder and you helped more people than I did. We went through difficult times together." (When they had meetings in their house, the KGB would follow the people, stop them and warn them not to have any more meetings. The people would then go to another member's house and have their Sabbath meetings. They were never put in prison but were continually harassed. They expected to be put into prison at any time.)
"You were always patient, kind and courteous, and you stood beside me all these years and helped me greatly in my work. You have gone to sleep now, Natalja, for just a short time. Soon we will be together again, and I will hold your hands again and we ill never be parted, never again!"
While the English custom at funerals is to have a closed coffin, here I could witness, asleep in an open coffin, the sweet serenity of this shepherdess, a wonderful soul winner who started a new group of Adventists in Elva during her retirement years. I felt it an honor to be there in her sleeping presence.
On behalf of our world church, I spoke a few words of thanks for the work that she had shared with her husband. Hers was an abundantly fruitful life, a life of courage and joy as well as sacrifice and hardship. What would we ministers do without our committed wives?