By Christopher Smith
On a warm train in Russia, Earl Brackin was handing out pins with the message of Christianity on it without wanting anything in return. A few minutes later, he received something unexpected.
“I felt someone poke my back and I turned around and there was this big Russian guy,” said Brackin, minister of worship at Church on the Hill in Dalton. “And, in broken English, he looked at me with this big smile and said, ‘I love Jesus,’ and he bear hugged me and just wouldn’t let go. It was such a special thing.”
Brackin’s local band — the Earl Brackin Band — visited Russia through the Engage Sochi project during the Winter Olympics last month through the International Mission Board, a large Christian mission agency. The band, which formed a year ago, brought with them an assortment of banjos, bass guitars, dobros, mandolins and fiddles to share their passion of bluegrass and Jesus.
The band visited the area from Feb. 12 to Feb. 20, thanks to roughly $40,000 raised by family, friends, church members and a Kickstarter campaign. The band includes Brackin, his daughter Bea, Stephanie Brock, Tod Brock, Justin Parrish, Jared Spier and David Taylor. Ken Hamilton, who normally plays banjo for the band, did not attend and was replaced by Parrish who lives in Charleston, S.C.
Brackin admits that before his recent trip to Moscow and Sochi, Russia seemed synonymous with a tense childhood growing up during the Cold War.
“Back then, we all just knew that any day Russia was going to launch a missile at us,” he recalled.
And when most people think about Russia today, Brackin added, they’re likely to think about the country’s aggressive occupation in Ukraine that has world leaders navigating a tenuous diplomatic crisis.
But there’s a difference, Brackin emphasized, between the Russian government and “the people” he met who give out big hugs on train rides.
“We were standing in the Red Square (in Moscow) after we arrived, seeing all the parades for the Olympics ... that was a surreal moment for me,” he said. “And then to meet the people and realize they’re just people like us. Don’t get me wrong. Politics is important. But to go beyond that and see people, honestly, makes it hard to watch what’s going on over there.”
Music and prayers as gifts
After two days as tourists in Moscow, the band flew to the town of Sochi where bluegrass was a big hit with the locals.
“They loved it,” said Jenny Godwin, a non-musical member of Brackin’s church who went to “talk to strangers while the band played.”
“One person came up and said, ‘It just makes me happy in here,’ and touched her heart,” Godwin said. “Most people would just start dancing. It was kind of comical how many people came up to us just to dance and flock to get their picture made with us. They were very receptive. We got so many people laughing and hugging us.”
People were especially receptive, Godwin said, when she told them “we were praying for Sochi.”
“That really seemed to touched them,” she said. “And it wasn’t just Russians. I talked to people from so many countries. The world came to us. Most of the people were from Moscow or Sochi or surrounding areas. But everyone was so touched. They thought our music and our prayers were like giving gifts.”
Most Russians they met were Russian Orthodox, a branch of Eastern Orthodox, or secularist like atheists and agnostics, Brackin said. So his band — protestant evangelicals with ties to Wesleyanism — stood out with their faith and the few Gospel songs they played.
“The thing is, we were mostly there because we love bluegrass,” he said. “We like to play the music. We were there doing what we enjoy doing and the people loved it and it was able to give us a bridge.”
From AC/DC to talking about Jesus
“We were up in the Mountain Cluster (a mountain venue for ski games near Sochi) and we found spot where we could play. We started playing and the folks loved it,” Brackin said. “When we finished, this tall, young Russian came up and he spoke some English. He came and said, ‘I play guitar, not like that. I don’t know that.’ He didn’t know bluegrass. And I said, ‘What kind of guitar?’ and he thought for a second and said, ‘Metal.’
So the band played AC/DC songs on mandolins and banjos.
“And he immediately went, ‘I know that!’ And so he followed us the rest of the day and we made a connection with him and talked,” Brackin said.
Lynn Murphy, a retired assistant professor from Dalton State College and friend of Brackin who went on the trip, said music can be “used as a communication tool” that transcends different world views.
The band’s bluegrass music allowed Godwin to speak to people about Christianity, she said.
“I really didn’t want to shove the Gospel down anyone’s throat,” she said. “It was mostly about just getting to know them. If the opportunity provided itself, than we would talk about Christ.”
Playing on a train
Murphy said the band sought out all kinds of venues. Organizers with the mission board told them to “to be more than flexible, be fluid” when looking for places to play their music and engage people along with other bands from around the world, Murphy recalled.
That meant pulling out their instruments on a commuter train that spanned the 92 miles of Sochi and the neighboring village of Adler where the Olympic Park was erected and most of the events took place.
“People were just so receptive on the train,” he said. “People took videos. They danced with us. It was a lot of fun. And after we were done, the guy from the International Mission Board who was with us, Marc Hooks, would say in Russian, ‘Thank you folks, this is a group of Americans playing a type of music called bluegrass and we just want to say that Russians and Americans are friends.’”
Even Sochi security officials joined in the dancing, Brackin said. The band later learned they shouldn’t have had instruments on the train, which was against security protocol because weapons can be concealed in them. They were only asked to stop playing on their final train ride, having to send their instruments to the airport by bus.
“People were upset,” Brackin recalled. “They wanted us to continue and got mad at the security people. We told them, we didn’t mind. We didn’t want it becoming a big deal.”
Between playing on the train and finding public venues — including outside the Team U.S.A. House where athletes and their relatives and friends hung out — the trip was a blur, the band said. It’s possible somewhere in that blur they played for famous athletes, Brackin said, but wasn’t sure of anyone specific. Murphy said he was able to watch several hockey games.
Godwin said she had two chance encounters with a British bobsledder named Joel Fearon, once at the Moscow airport and later in Sochi when the two recognized each other. Fearon’s team placed fifth in the Olympics.
“He was just like, ‘Oh, hi, how lovely to see you again,’” she said. “It was really cool.”
The point of the trip wasn’t to meet athletes, but to “meet strangers and tell them about Christ’s love,” Godwin said.
“Never in a million years would I have imagined going,” she said. “And now, I can’t imagine not doing it. It felt like home.”’