Alabama group's tiny Bibles used for evangelism in former Soviet bloc

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2001

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- Paul Lemons' ministry started out small -- tiny, to be exact.

He produced Russian-language New Testaments the size of matchbooks to smuggle through the mail past the KGB into the then-Soviet Union. The print was so small each softcover text came with a magnifying glass.

Big things grew from that beginning nearly two decades ago. Lemons' Alabama-based East European Harvest has since made hundreds of thousands of Bibles that have been distributed in the former Soviet bloc, and is taking on new projects in Africa and China.

The ministry, which has a hand-operated bindery in an old wood-frame shop, just purchased an automated system in a 32,000-square-foot building.

The organization runs on donations and work done mainly by church groups and individuals from as far away as Wisconsin.

''We have all volunteer labor,'' said Lemons, an 80-year-old Baptist minister who takes no salary. He lives off Social Security and proceeds from land he sold years ago.

The organization's busy season is under way. East European Harvest now makes normal-sized Bibles, and young people out of school for the summer work on the small assembly line.

''Sometimes there's two working in here and sometimes there's 30,'' volunteer Bob Phillips said as he demonstrated how Bibles are made. ''You never have any idea how many lives are going to be touched and changed by one Bible that goes out of here.''

The ministry may be effective, but it's not fancy.

Bible covers are cut in one dimly lighted room, and pages produced at a commercial printer are cut and bound in another area. Yet another part of the swaybacked building is used for storage and more binding work.

Guest quarters are available for workers at the group's small compound. Classical music plays in the musty office, which was still decorated with holiday cards and a tabletop Christmas tree in late spring.

Lemons moved to the coastal city of Mobile after being seriously injured in a car accident while in Israel in 1965. Full recovery took years, and he became depressed. Finally in 1983, Lemons said, a voice came to him as he sat in a rocking chair and prayed to die.

''The Lord spoke to me and said, 'Paul, do not be afraid for I have great things for you to do,''' he said. ''The Lord said, 'You go to Russia and I will take care of you.'''

In 1985, Lemons went to Russia, which was still officially atheistic, to deliver supplies to the underground church.

''I saw very few Bibles over there. I came to the conclusion that they just were not available,'' he said.

He formed East European Harvest the following year with $10,000 he borrowed, producing the tiny, black-bound New Testaments and sending along the magnifying glasses. ''We mailed over thousands of those and the (Soviet) post office never once questioned it,'' he said.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, allowing for greater freedom of religion, Bible shipments continued. But Lemons said the group's flow of Bibles into Russia has virtually stopped.

''The Orthodox church in Russia wants to keep out the evangelicals,'' he said. East European Harvest is now focusing its efforts in two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Belarus, plus Romania.

The organization may also expand to other parts of the world. Lemons hopes to begin distributing Bibles in China, much like he used to send the scriptures to Russia when it was under communist control.

End Advance for Friday, June 29

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