by Ginny Cooke
Ginny: You are part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian faith. Can you tell us about it?
Bob and Cheryl: The Antiochian Orthodox Church is the oldest still an existing church, started by Saints Barnabas and Paul in the first century. St. Peter was the first bishop there before he was taken to Rome where he died as a martyr. It is the seat of one of the five ancient patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Today it is in communion with the Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Romanian, etc. Eastern Orthodox churches. The Church of Rome broke with the Eastern Churches in 1054 A.D. but the mutual anathemas were lifted recently and the two sides are moving closer toward communion with each other again. Both of us were raised in the Evangelical Church and through a series of experiences and our work, we converted to the Antiochian Orthodoxy after 2007.
Ginny: As missionaries for more than 40 years—including 20 years full-time, how did you first get interested in this field and what kind of missionary work are you doing?
Bob and Cheryl: I (Bob) committed my life to Christ as a teenager and soon became interested in the struggle between Christianity and Communism. After high school, I studied Russian in the Army, and in university, I majored in Central and Eastern European Studies. Cheryl and I were married just before our senior year and two years after graduating we became missionaries to that part of the world, working on a team that took millions of Bibles, New Testaments & other Christian literature behind the Iron Curtain, and editing, translating and printing such literature.
Ginny: You’ve mentioned that you worked in several parts of Europe, England, and Austria before spending 17 years in Russia, how was missionary work in Russia different or similar to those nations?
Bob and Cheryl: Our time in Western Europe and traveling behind the Iron Curtain was in the early 1970s when our two children were born. We returned to the U.S., raised them through high school, and sent them to college, and then we went to the USSR as it was collapsing and became just Russia. It was a time of great economic turmoil and hardship: we lived through one million percent hyperinflation there in the 1990s. We started five or six Evangelical churches in Russia and I published a revision to the Russian Bible. But we were gradually drawn to Orthodoxy as the nearest thing to original Christianity and decided to become Orthodox.
Ginny: What is the Agape Restoration Society? What is its mission and whom do you serve?
Bob and Cheryl: We started Agape Restoration Society in 1998 while in Russia as a ministry to orphans, disabled and elderly people, visiting them in hospitals and in their homes, providing rehabilitation and care. We set the goal of constructing a Christian cooperative housing community where they could live, worship, and receive restorative care. We call it “The ARC” - Agape Restoration Community: ramp-accessible, no stairs, wide doors.
Ginny: What is cooperative housing? How does it work?
Bob and Cheryl: Good question! Co-op housing is something between living in an apartment and living in a condo: You don’t own an apartment, but you own a condo by yourself. In cooperative housing, you own shares in the co-op, giving you the right to live in one of the housing units.
This joint ownership of the co-op creates a sense of sharing and community not found living in an apartment or a condo. And with a chapel/community room in the building, you have a place for worship and fellowship where people with disabilities can gather without having to climb stairs, travel, and get in and out of vehicles.
Ginny: How many individuals are you able to reach at this point through your online ministry? Have any churches expressed interest in ARS?
Bob and Cheryl: We have received literally dozens of responses from church leaders of many different Christian confessions all over the world to become part of Agape Restoration Society, as well as invitations to come to them and help them start an Agape Restoration Community. At this point in time, however, Cheryl and I are “semi-retired” (meaning we put on a new set of semi tires and keep on trucking!), and we don’t have funds to travel abroad starting churches as we did earlier.
So we have over 10,000 people on our mailing lists, over 20,000 web pages on our websites, and we make freely available to all our contacts online Bibles in eight languages and a one-year online program consisting of six interactive courses in English and Russian called “Social Ministry of the Church” at www.Agape-Restoration-Society.org/index04.htm. We are currently working to establish the very first housing cooperative and pray and expect it should be underway in approx.3 years.
Ginny: If people want more information or are interested in becoming part of an ARC - Agape Restoration Community, what should they do?
Bob and Cheryl: Go to www.Agape-Restoration-Society.org/ARC; take a look at some of our web pages there, then click on the “Contact Us” button. We have located property just outside Pittsburgh and hired a world-class architectural firm to produce drawings for our first ARC. We’re now taking names of people who want to live in such a Christian community.
Ginny: Thank you both for your time and for sharing so much about the work of ARS.