Mormon missionaries kidnapped in Russia 15 years ago reunite to tell faith-filled story
One of the kidnappers, a 19-year-old Russian man, had monitored them throughout the ordeal and the three had much to talk about, including sports, politics, the differences between Russian and American customs, and even the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the missionaries were in the country to teach.
"We tried to build those relationships with him so if there ever was a chance for him to decide, 'Do I kill these guys or do I let these guys go,' hopefully the friendship we had tried to establish would save our lives," Propst said.
Their conversations, like many dealing with the gospel, had been deliberate.
Throughout the long days together, the two never neglected to pray — alone and together — submitting themselves to God. They believed that their faith would get them through.
On the fifth day, their prayers were answered when an older captor came home very drunk and said he was going to let the missionaries go. It was a prospect that was hard for Propst and Tuttle to believe, but they hurriedly put on their coats and shoes and rode quietly, huddled in the back seat of a small car for about 45 minutes.
"He says he could hear my heart pounding and I could hear his," Propst said of his companion. "There wasn't a word spoken that entire time. We thought we were being taken to our final resting place."
Then they were pushed out of the car into the snow and the vehicle drove away.
The two jumped up jubilantly, hugged and then immediately fell to their knees in thankful prayer that they were still alive. Their faith, Propst said, "was paramount."
"Once we submitted our will to the Lord's, it really brightened our day," he said.
The missionaries quickly contacted police and church officials and shortly thereafter, they were whisked away to Germany for presumptively better medical care.
The mission president in charge of the two missionaries and about 145 others at the time, was released from his duties early and died in April that year, from complications of cancer.
Sheridan Gashler, of Centerville, said he and his wife, Pamela, arrived in Samara to lead the missionaries in May of that year. After learning of the kidnapping and meeting with many nervous missionaries, he said he "made a lot of changes."
"First, we made sure everybody was in on time, they had to be in by 9 p.m. at the latest," he said. Such a kidnapping, happening in midday, Gashler said, is unforeseeable and cannot be prevented. But the new president did his best to keep the missionaries focused and on task.
"We all just wanted to make sure everything went well," he said. "We just preached the gospel as we should."
He increased the number of required discussions taught per week in each companionship of two missionaries from less than five to 30 and the mission went from being one of the lowest baptizing missions in the area, to the highest in Russia and then in all of Europe.
"They did it, and we were blessed," Gashler said.
In 1998, there were six missions and about 5,000 LDS Church members in Russia. The 2012 LDS Church Almanac lists eight missions and more than 21,000 members.
For their own safety and for the sake of the work they were doing, Propst and Tuttle were later transferred to separate missions in England, where they each received therapy and completed their two years of service.
Aside from a few unauthorized phone calls during that time, to help them cope with the situation, the two lost touch after returning home and resuming their lives.
It was Utah filmmaker Garrett Batty who reunited the former companionship last year to talk about their ordeal and the potential for a feature film on the matter. He said he had always wanted to make a movie about the incident, but wanted to give the men sufficient time to heal. The film will reveal various conversations and details about the experience that the public might not already know.
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