Few may have heard of John and Cheryl Kershner, an Adventist dentist and his wife from Frederick, Maryland. The couple are local celebrities and household names in Zaoksky, located two hours by car south of Moscow. They have taken about 60 trips to Zaoksky over the past 30 years, investing an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources in the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s premier educational institution in the former Soviet Union.
John, who retired on his eightieth birthday in June 2023, first came to Zaoksky shortly before the Soviet collapse in 1991. He set up a makeshift dental clinic, bringing his own equipment to spend countless hours fixing the teeth of children, students, faculty, staff, friends, and neighbors of the university.
Potential patients eagerly anticipated his next visit. The list of people awaiting fillings and extractions often filled up weeks before his arrival. He never turned anyone away. Even with jet lag from the eight-hour flight from the United States, John typically got to work as soon as he reached the university. Someone once remarked to me, “The teeth of half of Zaoksky’s population are shining with healthy smiles, and the other half can’t wait until John comes to fix their teeth too.”
John usually brought a small dental team of other Adventists, Christians, and even atheists. Zaoksky provided an opportunity to witness to those dentists and hygienists about God’s love. Every team worked hard and never complained.
A rare gift
John has a rare gift of friendship, knowing how to accept and appreciate others. Despite a limited knowledge of the Russian language, John visited the homes of Russian families and made lifelong friends with university students and leaders, construction workers, drivers, teachers, pastors, and kitchen workers. Where John was present, celebration and fun was sure to follow. Table conversations and friendships were unforgettable.
“We are delighted to see the depth of love that the Lord has put into John’s heart,” said Alexander Salnikov, a gifted craftsman who, with his wife, Masha, has welcomed John into their home more than 50 times. “He knows how to love sincerely, to love those who are suffering.”
John made friends everywhere: in the local hospital and village church, among local government officials, and on airplanes. At one point he was affectionately nicknamed “Ivan Ivanovich,” the most common name in Russia. Interestingly, after making friends in Russia, John often invited them to visit him in Maryland. Some people he couldn’t help with his limited dental equipment in Zaoksky ended up being treated at John’s clinic in Frederick.
How many people have received dental help? No one knows for sure, and if John knows, he isn’t telling.
More than teeth
The assistance has gone far beyond teeth. Yelena, the daughter of Vasiliy Novosad, who supervised the construction of Zaoksky in 1986, was diagnosed with cancer as a 17-year-old girl in the late 1990s. Seeing that she had no chance of receiving effective treatment in Russia, John took her to the U.S. Consulate in Moscow to plead for a U.S. visa. To their delight, the consulate officer granted the request. Later John and Cheryl cared for Yelena both before and after the successful operation in the United States. They also covered her tuition to attend a U.S. college.
Many students have received an Adventist education through John’s help. Recognizing gifted young people who were committed to Jesus and eager to study medicine, John has helped put many of them through AdventHealth University in Florida, Andrews University in Michigan, Loma Linda University in California, and Southern University in Tennessee. Sometimes he has covered the tuition himself, and at other times he has found donors.
On one memorable occasion he intervened on behalf of a predental student with a heavy debt at Andrews University. He and his wife donated their private airplane to the university’s aviation program to cover it. In another instance John became aware of a young woman who could not pay for her last two years at Loma Linda University’s School of Dentistry. He found someone to pay the tuition. Students have been deeply touched by John’s kindness and seen it as God’s answer to fervent tearful prayers.
John and Cheryl fell in love with Russian music and have partially or fully sponsored more than 50 students in Zaoksky’s music department over the years. Without their generous support the department would probably not have survived several difficult years. John helped purchase musical instruments and donated money so the Zaoksky choir could travel and perform concerts across Russia and abroad. In 2009 John, together with his friends, organized and financially backed a trip for the Fletcher Academy choir from North Carolina to travel to Zaoksky. The 45 students were well received as they sang for Week of Prayer meetings and at several concerts.
An unassuming man, John says little about his mission efforts for Zaoksky. His eloquence is his works. A wheelchair purchased for a girl with a disability. Money given to buy medicine. Airfares covered on behalf of financially struggling students. Vaccinations. Clothes. Food. Computers. Textbooks. Plane tickets for a musician to give a concert for the Zaoksky community. More plane tickets for a pastor to hold a Week of Prayer at Zaoksky. The list goes on and on. Heaven only knows all the names and circumstances in which the Kershners intervened to make a difference in someone’s life. Without a doubt, their love for Zaoksky reflects their love for Jesus. Sadly, Cheryl passed away last March. The Kershners’ legacy will be lasting and continued by other mission-minded people who were inspired by their quiet dedication to Jesus. As a token of Zaoksky’s appreciation for the Kershners’ support, the university’s student center has been named in their honor.
Yuri Drumi, former president of Zaoksky Adventist University in Zaoksky, Russia, has known John and Cheryl Kershner for three decades. He now serves as associate professor of mission and intercultural studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Photo by Enis Yavuz on Unsplash