To Russia, with love: Newspaper exec turns missionary

Daily Herald/April 29, 2004

Arlington Heights, IL -- Neil Clark has sold his house, his car and almost everything he owns.

He's quit his job as Daily Herald printing facilities manager, where he helped create a $50 million printing center in Schaumburg.

Soon after his visa arrives in the mail, the former Algonquin resident is packing his clothes into two suitcases and leaving to become a missionary in Russia.

It's a transformation years in the making.

"For the last seven years, I've sought my faith more seriously," he says.

"It's just been a burden on me to do something different. I never knew what that was, but I knew I'd change careers at some point."

He started doing volunteer work with juvenile offenders and kids at risk seven years ago, and it grew on him. In 2001, he took his first of several trips to Russia, and was moved by what Russians, and particularly kids, had to endure - poverty, alcoholism, depression and homelessness, for starters.

"There was a burden on my heart for the people of Russia. They've suffered so much, beginning with the czars and then under communism," he says. "Each time, I was longing to be there and participate in ministries."

That longing grew until he became convinced God intended for him to live in Russia serving the poor.

"Every step of the way, God continues to confirm this is the direction I should take," Clark says. "God has an amazing way of using your experiences and situations to direct you where your ultimate calling will be."

People tell him it seems courageous, but he doesn't see it that way.

"If you're not doing what you're meant to do, that seems scary. And it seems scary to be on your deathbed saying, 'What did I do in my life?'æ" he muses.

In the back of his mind, Clark, who is 46 and single, was thinking he'd do his Russia mission when he reached 55 or 60, but he says everything came together perfectly to do it now. So he's working to recruit ongoing prayer and financial support to pay his living expenses in Russia.

He leaves in mid-June and plans to move into a furnished apartment in St. Petersburg. He'll work with Yielded Evangelical Servants, a Christian missionary organization, and also have contacts with another Christian group, Youth With a Mission. He plans to stay indefinitely - probably at least 10 to 15 years - and hopes to have enough money left for a modest retirement when and if he returns.

For the first year, he'll spend a great deal of time learning Russian. Then he plans to work helping homeless children and families, teens who run away from alcoholic parents, girls at a crisis pregnancy center and refugees in a squatters' camp, where they try to scratch out subsistence from dump heaps.

"When you work with juveniles at risk, it takes a person that doesn't mind losing a thousand times and having one success," Clark offers. "Most of the time kids don't listen, they reject you or disappoint you. But when you see a life change, that makes it all worth it."

In the long term, he wants to create a retreat and training center for rural Russian pastors.

"They're mostly young and inexperienced," he says. "When you're out in rural Russia, where everybody is poor, living on $30 a month, the frustration makes it difficult. I want to help them get the training and tools they need to be emotionally and spiritually energized."

For now, he's getting antsy to leave, and a little nervous. He'll be leaving behind many creature comforts and moving to a city where street crime is a threat. He'll miss his mother, sister and brother. Come winter, he'll have to brave a frigid, largely sunless climate.

None of that deters him.

"I have a feeling," he says, "that God will provide."

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