Ülo Niinemägi

Ülo Niinemägi is probably one of the most colorful people in Oleviste Church. He is well-known, not only in his home church but among many Estonian Christians. He is easy to recognize, because wherever he goes, he takes along a candid look in his blue eyes and at least two heavy bags. What path has this man walked before and after he was chosen to be a pastor for this huge congregation? The story, however, is not meant to be a song of praise or a monument to a living person. Its only purpose is to show how a life has changed and record some present-day folklore of our church.

Behind all the bigger youth movements there is unrest. Young people protest against an adult world filled with wickedness and hypocrisy. Sometimes the unrest is nothing more than the thrill of doing something different than what is generally accepted. For Ülo, he was never a good, obedient child. He always knew how to get into all sorts of trouble. Once he fell into a deep sewage well and it took a while to fish him out. There were times when he was removed from the highest plank of scaffolding or when he was sinking in clay at a construction site. Frequently he was seen rambling with other boys in underground tunnels dating from the World War II and likely to cave in at any moment.

Ülo says that at the age of twelve, he and his friend were dragging a bomb, more than a meter long, into the neighboring forest to blow up "the enemy headquarters". According to the other boy's calculations, the bomb had to warm up for "exactly" 22 minutes before it would explode. So the boys placed it in a fire and left to wait some distance away. Time dragged on and finally the boys went to find out what was the matter. Then there was a huge blast that cut down many big pine-trees around the site, not to mention the "enemy headquarters." Ülo thinks he owes his life to a miracle of God.

At every school Ülo attended, he was involved in trouble. Tobacco was used by him from his first year at school, and often his smoking resulted in a burning hay barn. There were problems with his conduct as early as primary school. Later the problems became even more serious and Ülo had to leave school before the end of the eighth grade. His mother sent him to a boarding school for juvenile delinquents where he managed to finish the eighth grade. He decided to continue his studies at a vocational school but then a rebellious spirit broke out in him. He changed his mind and ran away from his boarding-school home one winter morning in 1968. First he went to Russia and slept in stairwells while headed steadily toward the South. Finally he reached the Mountain of Ararat in Armenia where he spent three months. These were to Ülo's mind, one of the most exciting times of his life. Meanwhile, Ülo's mother was searching for her son, showing his photograph to everyone she met.

In Yerevan, the capital of the then Soviet Republic of Armenia, Ülo came in touch with surrealism, hippies and drugs. He became fully immersed in the culture. In the daytime, he went to the movies or lounged on the grass with some local idlers. From Armenia he planned to cross the border into Turkey, but before he could do so he was picked up by the Soviet police, the militia, and returned to his home.

After this Ülo's inner restlessness became even deeper. New conflicts and intrigues followed and two more schools were left in the middle of the term. He says something seem to force him into behaving in ways he could not control.

In one school Ülo led a small revolution. The youngsters scattered leaflets, locked the hostel warden in her room and cut off the phone lines. The police had been told that the "coup" would begin at six a.m., but the rebels started an hour earlier. The rebellious group woke up all the students and armed them with stones, ink-bottles and slogans. They protested several issues, a ban to wear long hair and the order that you had to bend your knees or lose some of your food portion if you did not know your lesson. As a result of this adventure, Ülo had to depart from the school.

After that, Ülo spent most of his time in the company of hippies. He had tasted hashish while in Armenia. Besides that, all kinds of tablets were consumed and other drugs injected in the vein. They also inhaled Latvian-made cleaning agents like "Sopals" and "Vicka".

"I remember one time I went to fetch some cleaners from Riga [Latvian capital] and on the return trip started to use them in such amounts that I was assailed by Martians and had to flee from the coach," Ülo recalls.

Ülo's nickname, at the time, was "the Fan." Generally, he was considered a lost person. If it was possible for someone to escape the world of drugs, it would not be Ülo. Once his friends saved Ülo's life by throwing away all his drugs because the young man was slowly dying.

"Drug-use is an impasse," says Ülo. "For many people there is no return from it. Man's own power is not enough for that. Many times, God has literally brought me back from the other world."

One day, as he was passing by the Oleviste Church in the company of his friends, on impulse he decided to step inside. The songs he heard were being sung from bulky hymn books called "To the Praise of the Lamb". For a 19-year-old hippie with long hair and patched clothes it was a life-changing experience to sing in a church from an old hymn book in Gothic letters. No one came and scolded him for his long hair, he was just allowed to sit by himself. It was the singing that brought him back time and again, says Ülo.

One day after the evening service an old lady sitting next to him tapped Ülo's shoulder and said: "Sonny, give your life to the Lord!" The fact that he could give his life to the Lord surprised him a great deal, says Ülo. This was the one thing no one had ever advised him to do. How could this happen? He was told to go to the front and meet the pastor. It was pastor Oskar Olvik, who then shared the office with pastor Osvald Tärk. When Mr. Olvik asked what he wished, he said he wanted to give his life to the Lord. Indeed, he had no idea what was going on. The pastor took him to his office, where they had a lengthy talk. Ülo told him about his life, including the hippie world. This was something entirely new to the pastor and Ülo in turn was surprised that the old man knew nothing about those things. At the end of their talk they prayed. Then Ülo was given the book of Psalms in Gothic letters. He read the book during the next couple of months traveling around with the hippies.

"One time when I was with my friends, we were offered tablets containing morphine. I felt I was facing something horrid." The same night he went to the church and, going to the altar, he asked the pastor if they could pray. "I had a clear understanding that I had to ask for freedom from all this. The pastor said that one could always pray and told me about the man depicted in the painting above the altar. He said all my troubles: narcotics, tobacco and alcohol were on the Cross." As Ülo confessed his sins, the pastor asked him if he would like to give up all of them. "I understood that I had made a most important decision. My prayer was illuminated by divine light. I felt that this power, this force tore out all the dirt from within me. I felt as if I could fly and instinctively started to wave my hands like wings. The pastor must have had a good laugh at the sight."

Ülo wanted to tell the whole world what had happened to him. "I talked with people at the Town Hall Square and every other public place. "I never held any evangelical meeting in a particular place. I would just start talking to people. But I did so in a loud voice so that everyone willing to listen could hear. Wherever I went, I had the church with me."

Ülo thinks that in the 1970s people were much more receptive than nowadays. No doubt, some charm was added to the Gospel by the fact that it was something different from the ruling Communist ideology. According to his estimate, about 95 per cent of the people he met were interested in the Good News.

By then Ülo was growing a Jesus-beard, long hair and went around with a huge Bible in his hand. He was no longer wearing his former patched jeans, but a suit with a white shirt and a tie. This was when his habit of carrying bags started. As times were harder, he restricted himself to one bag only with many Bibles in it. His contemporaries testify that even then Ülo was characterized by an immense interest in the Bible. He read the Bible wherever and whenever he could.

For young people the life of a Christian was not restricted to the church building. "The youth were very homogeneous at the time," Ülo recalls. "We gathered at Jaanus Kärner's place in Looga Street and were in prayer. There were prayer meetings in Apteegi Street and the young people were together there."

"I did not become a great "on-the-bench-believer" just because of the fact that I said my prayer of commitment at Oleviste," Ülo says a little contemptuously. "I went to any place where young people gathered. There were home prayer meetings like at the house of Martha and Mary in the time of Jesus. We prayed for hours and sought the face of the Lord. believe the existence of such places was crucial for Estonia."

Often young people gathered in cafes and had a sort of Bible study there. Many people from outside Estonia hippie youngsters and dissidents from Russia, Latvia and elsewhere, came to the cafes "Pegasus" and "Küllus". There they sat together for days on end, historian Jaan Bärenson says.

How did all the people who knew Ülo take his sudden changing? For some it was a message of joy, for others a cause of worry. Ülo's mother, who worked as head of a post office, thought her son was better off involved with drugs than to shame himself by becoming a Christian. There had been a sort of scandal in their home when Ülo and his sister were secretly baptized as little children at their grandmother's initiative. Time changes people, today Ülo's mother is also seen at church meetings.

Former friends from the hippie world thought Ülo was either cracked or that he had chanced upon some new narcotic responsible for the blissful look on his face.

During this time, the churches did not remain untouched by the new youth culture. It was often a cause of resentment by older believers when young Christians entered church in jeans or with long hair and a beard. They saw this as being of the world.

There were some things in Ülo's behavior that seemed unacceptable to the older generation. Hippie sincerity and lack of restrictions were not always compatible with what was considered decent.

For instance, the present chairman of the economic council of Oleviste Church, Siim Teekel, tells a story which, though dating from a later period, might be characteristic of the attitude. He says some elderly sisters had come to Mirka, an old brother, and complained about Ülo's behavior, which they considered too liberal. Namely, he was said to have held his hands around some sisters' shoulders while praying. Brother Mirka listened to them, nodding, and then said: "All you say is true, sisters. Brother Niinemägi does have some faults. But how much have you prayed for this man? First, you should give thanks that he has become a worker for the Kingdom of God and reaches out to people. Secondly, you should pray that he could become even better."

The same attitude was held by pastor Paldor Teekel, who baptized Ülo at "Kalju" Church. He said: "Look, what Ülo was like right after his salvation - he was dirty and disheveled. Look, what he has become now!"

"The 1970s was a revolutionary period for Estonian society and the church," says Jaan Bärenson. "The new youth culture we know as the "Jesus movement" was born then." A band called "Selah" from the Methodist Church was quite popular at the time.

"God performed a lot of miracles at the time as people who were not believers came to church," Ülo recalls. "At a meeting in Mere Avenue, more than 150 hippies were present, who came to listen to "Selah"."

The 1970s was the beginning of the summer youth camps of Oleviste Church. The first summer camp at Vikipalu was held in 1973. In a couple of years the task of organizing the camps was taken on by a body which called itself the konsiil - "the council" - which comprised Indrek Luide, Helari Puu, Enn Palmik, Mati and Jaan Bärenson, Mart Rannut and Joel Roos. This group was responsible for the organization of all the summer camps until 1981.

Jaan Bärenson says that even then Ülo's knowledge of the Bible started to surpass that of the older Christians. He was the winner in most of the Bible quizzes. At first the boys of the konsiil were able to outdo him, but Ülo worked hard and soon left them behind. He never omitted to ask a question when he had one.

Besides campfires and sleeping in tents, there was a powerful spiritual atmosphere in the camps. The young people were taught the Word by Oskar Olvik, Arpad Arder, Priit Rannut and others. At night there were prayer meetings, led by Rein Uuemõis, the present senior pastor of Oleviste.

This was also the beginning of the spiritual revival of the 1970s. In the summer of 1975 the Holy Spirit descended upon the people at the Vikipalu youth camp. The number of participants rose from a couple hundred to double that.

Meanwhile Ülo was homeless, living in Tallinn. He stayed overnight at various Christian friends. There was a period of spiritual growth when living at Arnold Turkin's, who was the caretaker at Oleviste. It was then that Ülo finished secondary school. As he got a job at the "Silikaat" factory, he was given an apartment of his own - an answer to prayer. Once more he got into trouble with drugs, and there were large hippie parties at his place. He knew what the Scripture said about seven spirits more wicked than the previous one coming to dwell in a man, and kept himself under control.

When school was over, Ülo decided to embark upon missionary work. First he thought he would go to South-Estonia, where he was born. At last he chose to live in the university town of Tartu, where there are always a lot of young people about. He worked with "Kolgata" Baptist Church in 1976.

"Of course my preaching was very radical," says Ülo without hiding his spiritual panache. "I led the young people into the streets. We organized large revival meetings and visited the student hostels, distributing tracts."

Jaan Bärenson recalls: "Ülo frequented every single hostel in Tartu, took every student "by the button" and told them about God. He proved to be quite a nuisance for the KGB."

"Effataa", a choir from Oleviste, came in 1976 to perform the musical "If My People" at the Methodist Church in Sõbra Street, Tartu. Ülo worked diligently to fill the church with people.

While living in Tartu, Ülo married at the end of 1976. "I had been in love for a week and took her as my wife," Ülo says, laying his head in the lap of Signe Niinemägi, sitting next to him on the sofa. "She's probably the only girl here at Oleviste whose father has been wakened at three o'clock in the morning to ask for his daughter's hand."

Ülo recalls during this period: "God gave us revival in Sõbra Street in Tartu. "Next year immediately after the summer camp Signe and I went on a wedding trip to Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. There were two hippies who had come to Estonia to purchase drugs whom I had led to Christ. Now, they were very enthusiastic about faith and we went to see them. The city was not open to outsiders and special permits were needed to enter it. No one would give me one.

"So we got off the train one station before Vladivostok and stayed in hiding for half a day there, then we traveled on by commuter train. The two-way ticket cost 109 roubles. It was probably the cheapest train ticket in the world for a journey as long as that," Ülo chuckles.

In the end of the 1970s a number of revivals swept over the territory of the then Soviet Union. The revival to Estonia came through Finland.

Ülo says: "I remember that brother Tarmo Vardja saw a vision of people standing in line in front of a church and falling down, one after another. The vision came true. In 1977 a man named Toivo Rynkkänen came here from Finland, saying he had been sent with the full blessing of God. He preached a simple sermon, and then reached out his hand, and someone fell down. Then another and another. The people stood up and the Spirit of God descended on all of them." Miracles started to happen: the blind saw, the deaf heard again, and needless crutches were piled in a heap in the Chapel of Mary. Oleviste was the starting point for the biggest revival in Estonia and the Soviet Union.

"The church was so overcrowded that we had problems with finding seats for the unbelievers - our own people would arrive half a day before the meeting, and occupy all the best places," Ülo says. "We used ushers to control the crowd but it was all of no use. Inflammatory speeches were given to make room for the sinners but believers continued to storm the front rows."

He continues on: "There were many prophets. One illiterate prophet in the Ukraine was said to have suddenly started to sing: "Tallinn - my love. Go to Tallinn; I will bless you in Tallinn." Then those people had unfolded a map and found that, indeed, there really was a place with that name, and moreover, it was in the U.S.S.R.! They immediately purchased tickets and arrived with a large delegation. It was amazing to watch all these men clad in black arrive. They were like pilgrims in the Holy Land."

The wave of revival then spread to Russia, but lasted for only a short time there. In 1980 it was banned to hold meetings in Russian in Oleviste. It marked the downfall of the revival in Estonia. Prayers were still made by the same brothers as before but the great fire was extinguished. "A man can take nothing unless it is given to him from above," Ülo notes. "Revival was a time given by God, it was not out of the righteousness of the people."

The work in the congregation was carried on, however. Young brother Ülo Niinemägi "still flew and preached" as Jaan Bärenson says. Ülo says that he was always involved in every sort of forbidden activity. For example they reproduced various underground religious literature on a typewriter and distributed it despite the harassment by the authorities. There were outings and video presentations. "Video recordings of Reinhard Bonnke and Kathryn Kuhlmann went over very well," Ülo remembers. With Rein Uuemõis they started a Bible course for young Christians by Derek Prince. Ülo took part in several courses himself, like those organized by the Young Men's Christian Association or the Campus Crusade for Christ.

The work in prayer groups was blessed. The group leaders were accountable to Rein Uuemõis, who gave them counsel and guidance. "In the midst of all these years something was lost," Ülo admits. "Later many prayer groups were left on their own. Now we're hopefully rediscovering this work."

Testifying of his faith whenever possible, Ülo developed step by step and in 1986 he was chosen officially to be one of the preachers at Oleviste. In 1989 he was elected as dean, and gave up his well-paid job of a plasterer. He decided to devote himself full-time to the work of God's Kingdom, being one of the first young people to make use of the opportunity.

Ülo says he has always been interested in every kind of media work. One day as he was with a home prayer group, he experienced the falling of the Holy Spirit on those praying, and received the message that he should give all the glory to the Lord and start a program of spiritual music in Estonian Radio. The times were much freer now with perestroika going on in Russia, however, the idea was still unprecedented in Estonia.

Ülo says: "In March of 1991 I compiled a one-hour sample program of Gospel music using the equipment I had available. I did not know anyone in the Estonian Radio. I wrote an application asking for broadcasting time.

"There was someone daring enough to let me on the radio. It was the editor of the midnight programs, Helgi Erilaid. When the "Midnight Gospel" started there was much interest among the listeners. This program was on for two years."

After the Estonian Radio was reorganized and the new channels: Radio 2 and Radio 7 were born, Ülo moved with his monthly Gospel program to the latter. Now he has a program of his own in the "Pereraadio", which transmits its broadcasts 24 hours a day from the 127-meter tower of Oleviste Church. Ülo has also been involved in the Estonian Christian TV. Love for music has induced him to help organize nearly all the Gospel Festivals that have taken place in Estonia.

At the end of 1991 Ülo headed for England to improve his knowledge of the Bible at King's College. "Before returning home in 1992 I interviewed Cliff Richard at Royal Albert Hall," Ülo remarks joyfully. "Coming off the plane in Tallinn, I went immediately to the Estonian Radio and the next day the interview was on the air."

In the fall of 1992, three new pastors were elected by the congregation to help the aging pastor Ülo Meriloo. These were: Rein Uuemõis, Henno Hunt and Ülo Niinemägi. At the end of the year the new pastor visited the Holy Land. He confesses having always carried in his heart love for God's chosen people and having often prayed for Israel. Supported by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem Finnish Branch he was responsible for the establishment of the branch of the embassy in Tallinn. "I am more an honorary member of the embassy as the wish of my church was that I could devote more time to my pastoral duties," Ülo smiles. "A pastor's work is rather exacting. Maybe I am a bit overloaded too! If it is God's will, I will go on a missionary trip to Russia this summer.

What has kept Ülo Niinemägi so youthful through all these years? "Youthfulness is not about years but about us being creative and ready to be changed in God's hands. I believe that whenever we stand still, it causes stagnation in us - in our bodies and minds. We mustn't build our mill on one side of the river because the wind always blow in one direction. The wind can shift. It is the same way with revival - we must be open to receive from God something new and fresh!"

written and translated by Aldo Randmaa

Ülo Niinemägi