SOMEONE who understands more about Russia and Ukraine than probably most of us is farmer, Bible smuggler, preacher and undercover agent still doing Missionary work, Emerson Skinner.

His family have farmed Trenchard near Eggesford since 1917.  Emerson said: “The boys are still there now as well as one of my three grandchildren.” 

Born in 1932, he went to school in Coldridge, Wembworthy Primary, then Chulmleigh Senior and Belmont College near Barnstaple as a boarder, leaving when he was 17 years old to help his father, Fred Lewis Skinner.  

“My father died tragically in 1959, so at 27 I was thrust straight into running the farm.  Being after the Second World War, we already had Italians working for us and very good they were.”

But in his early 30s after his uncle died, Emerson ended up taking over his farm as well.  It was 25 miles away from Trenchard with mainly sheep.  That meant Emerson had his own two workmen and three at his uncle’s farm. 

By then he was married and preaching all over the South West as far as Bristol and into Cornwall. His family worshipped at Wembworthy Congregational Church. 

“At that time I was learning to fly light aircraft and Basil Pring , the flying instructor of Dunkeswell Airfield, said to me why not create an airstrip in one of your fields.  This I did in the ‘70s, it is being carried on by my sons Nigel with Robert,” said Emerson.  

When a man he knew could not do his regular trip into Austria to work with the Slavic people, Emerson and his brother went instead, taking Bibles and medication. 

They met a Russian who had been imprisoned by the Germans but who had escaped.  He had been taught there was no God but after he got away he had many lucky escapes including when soldiers were prodding the hay stooks where he and two friends were hidden. 

For some reason the bayonets stuck into his stook missed him.  This and a number of other lucky episodes set the man thinking.

“Eventually he came to Swansea, became a Minister and was looking after Slavic people who had escaped Russia, never to see their families again,” said Emerson.

“Russia then was controlling Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, Ukraine was part of Russia which then controlled Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and there was East and West Germany and the Iron Curtain, all 600 miles going from the top of Germany down through. 

“At that time I was getting interested in Bible smuggling and was taking Bibles into Russian-controlled countries, mainly Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland. 

“I teamed up with a man from Exeter, driving to Poland.  We had some scary times.  You’d get to the boarder between us and West Germany there were men with rifles and dogs snarling and growling,” Emerson explained.

Whenever they stayed at an hotel, they were aware there could be bugging devices hidden.  Another time they came across the United States Embassy where large pages of current world news were put up on the railings.

Emerson took a photograph but was immediately pounced on by Communist guards then the police came and Emerson was led away in handcuffs, his camera confiscated.  

The questioning began, Emerson protesting that he was British, not “Americano”.  The interrogation went on for an hour and five minutes.  

“I was exhausted.  Then they asked what month it was.  I said November. They said ‘we’ve got you, our tourist industry finishes the end of August so you are a liar and a traitor.’

“I said to the Lord ‘I think Lord, I might be going to go to prison now.’   Then something wonderful happened, the Lord told me line by line what to say. 

“‘Ah’, I said.  ‘You don’t understand.’  ‘What don’t we understand?’ I said I am a farmer and I study the soil.  ‘Oh, you study the soils do you?’ ‘Yes’”, I said, ‘you have some excellent soil here where you can grow wheat and barley and grow it very well.

“‘Oh, you like our soil, you like our country?’   ‘Yes’ I said.  In no time they buckled under the words that Almighty God gave me and I was released, handcuffs taken off, empty camera given back with no film in and also my passport,” said Emerson. 

All their work was at night.  Emerson was co-driver and on one occasion he was told to stay hidden under a blanket while his mate stole away with a big bag of Bibles.  Emerson had to stay hidden because of the Russian soldiers all around. 

This was well before midnight.  By the time it was 2am, Emerson was getting worried but his friend eventually came back, saying he had to wait until all the soldiers had gone to be able to deliver his load.

“We slept in the car, sometimes under a hedge or bombed out building.  It was rough, it was challenging.  I always took tins of food with us.  A can of beans was a luxury.  One time we took pairs of women’s, men’s and children’s shoes. 

“Under the shoes we had Bibles and a guard asked where we were taking the shoes.  I had to spin a story, he spoke English but it still took a long time.  He said he wanted to know where we were going, what were we doing and he said that we were ‘destroyers’.  I never flinched, he was mad at me, he said ‘get out of here’ and we did.

“This was the tightest I have been in,” Emerson said.

Another time the man he was with was not well and asked Emerson to preach instead.  There was an interpreter, to his surprise Emerson was asked to preach again that morning.  But he offered to sing instead, which he did.  That evening he was preaching at a church on the Ukraine and Bulgaria border.  

He had also been asked to help with Bible smuggling with Underground Evangelism of America to share the driving on the long distances going into Poland and other countries. 

Emerson commented that he was a fool for doing that when he could be back at home but was told that was his mission, to help.  

He took a lot of Bibles to the border of Ukraine because it was Russian, as well as Bibles to the churches in Ukraine.  Emerson continued: “I was working for Underground Evangelism of America behind the Iron Curtain.

“In my 50’s two of the UEA asked me to do a job for them, I said I was taking in Bibles and food and people were starving because it was controlled by Communist Russia. They said the job was very dangerous because I would need to wear bloomers to carry dollars. This money was to pay the Pastors to keep the churches going, I said I would enjoy that! 

“They said you have to put directions in your shoe because we dare not let anyone find where you are going.  To do this job I had to be on my own.  They said they would give me three days of instruction.”

Emerson added that they went to Europe on a mission six times, and had been to Africa as well.  He has preached in 12 different countries.

One time Emerson and his wife were in the south of Poland where Emerson was speaking at a church holding 800 people.  The Pastor came up saying he had met Emerson before, explaining that about 25 years earlier, Emerson had called with enough money to pay the Pastor’s wages for six months.  

Emerson said he was still involved in Ministry work and is one of the UK delegates for World Evangelism whose headquarters are in San Diego, California.