“It’s finally over!” Families of detained volunteers celebrate their release
The families of Elders Kole Brodowski and David Gaag, two volunteers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were detained in Novorossiysk, Russia, are breathing a sigh of relief today as word has come back that their sons will finally be coming home.
Brodowski and Gaag spent three weeks in a detention house under charges of illegally teaching English without a license. Since then, their families have been waiting and praying for the young men’s safe and speedy release.
“God is there, our prayers were answered,” Brodowski’s father posted on Facebook after receiving news of his son’s release. “Hallelujah it’s over!”
Half a world away and helpless
David Gaag was giddy when he got his calling to serve in Russia. The 19-year-old young man uploaded a photograph of his own smiling face onto Facebook as soon as it came in, holding up the letter and proudly telling all of his friends and family:
“I am so excited to serve and preach the gospel to the Russian people. I know the Lord will help me to accomplish this task which He has set in front of me.”
He couldn’t have imagined, then, that, little more than a month into his mission, he would be pulled out of a meetinghouse in the middle of what he, Brodowski and his attorneys insist was nothing more than a games night, and hauled into a detention center.
Their families, since then, have been desperately struggling for any update they can get on the young men, relying on the support of church officials to keep them updated on what was happening with them.
Their families say Browoski and Gaag were kept inside of what their attorney told CBS was a “dormitory-type room” and were allowed to make calls home.
Still, their parents had to struggle with the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen to their sons. At first, it was expected that the whole problem would be resolved in less than 24-hours; for reasons undisclosed to the public, however, that plan fell through, and weeks dragged by.
A political message?
It isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had to be careful traveling in Russia since 2016, when anti-terrorist laws in the nations forced missionaries not to proselytize outside of their meetinghouse and to rebrand themselves as “volunteers.”
Six Latter-day Saints were detained in Russia the year the law came into effect, ostensibly over problems with their visas. All six, however, were released in due time.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been extremely sensitive to Russia’s laws ever since; so much so that some church members have expressed suspicion over the claims that Brodowski and Gaag could have been teaching English.
“Missionaries and the church go to great lengths to abide by the law,” former congressman Jason Chaffetz told KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic. “I can’t believe that these two young men were doing anything other than what they were allowed to do.”
The Russian media has certainly told another story. Four days after the men’s arrest, the Russian news website Komsomolskaya Pravda released an interview with Brodowski, apparently quoting him and another volunteer, Sam McMurray, as saying that they’d set up an office to teach English and to prepare residents for English exams.
Brodowski and Gaag’s families, however, both deny that the men were teaching English. Gaag’s father, in an interview with KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic, was adamant: his son is innocent.
“They haven’t done that,” Udo Gaag insists. “He didn’t break any rules.”
Chaffetz, for his part, believes that there’s more to the arrests than teaching English. Their arrest, Chaffetz believes, may have been “a little bit of a message that the Russian government is trying to send, saying: ‘Hey, you’re going to have to back off here a little bit.’”
Whatever the truth of the story is, the public, Chaffetz says, will probably never hear it. Indeed, the details of how their release was won are being kept under wraps.
The young men’s parents, however, are just grateful that their sons are coming home.
Brodowski’s father, Kyle, took to Facebook to thank everyone involved in their release, writing: “There were many people I’ll never meet that worked day and night for the past three weeks to free these young men. Thank you to all,”
Above all, though, both men’s fathers have extended heartfelt thanks to Mission President Eric Ottesen and his wife Elizabeth.
“Each day they drove 6 hours round trip to the detention center to visit and provide support to our boys,” Kyle Brodowski says.
Gaag’s father, Udo, echoes the sentiment. “They were there every day and did an amazing job taking care of them,” he told KSL. “They provided them with pillows that they didn’t have and other things they could use.”
The church has not expressed any concerns that missions in Russia are dangerous. Through a statement from the church spokesperson Eric Hawkins, they have indicated that missions in Russia will continue, saying only: “The Church is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers and will continue to fully comply with Russian law.”
“I think it would be more concerning if there had been more volunteers who had been detained,” he told Dave & Dujanovic. “The fact it was just these two could be played up to be an isolated incident.”
The young men are currently en route home. They will be reunited with their families soon.
More to the story
Hear Jason Chaffetz and Sam Penrod’s full interviews on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.
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