I was born into a Christian family in the formal Soviet Union in 1978. There was only a single church in the town we lived in and it was a Baptist church. The church was founded by my great-grandfather. I was the third generation in the church. Faith was a big part of our life. My mother told me many stories of how they had to have faith in God to get through many struggles and life-threatening situations. By God’s grace and our faith, one of my brothers is still alive today while all the other children in the hospital died during an epidemic. When my mother just gave birth to my brother, Emmanuel, the doctors walked into her room and told her that her son will die. However, she stood firm in her faith and stated that her God will keep her son alive. I can only imagine the emotion she was going through. Will God hear her prayer? Will this be a testimony to the communist nurses? Or not? This was surely a test of faith. And to everyone’s shock in the hospital, he survived and my parents named their son “Emmanuel” – God is with us. By God’s grace and many prayers, my father is with us today. My father was almost taken by KGB to who knows where. Being that he was planning to carry on the mission work into other parts of Russia, he was becoming an upcoming leader in the church. Local government got the news of it and decided to do something about it. It was not a secret that if the regional KGB office requested your presence in their office, it basically meant facing incarceration for being a leader in a Christian church. But he came back with only a warning. I was a child and did not really know about most of these events until later in my life. Faith was a big part of our life.
Living in the Soviet Union and being born into a Christian family meant that everyone knew you as a Christian person. With that came all sorts of religious persecution. But I was not really born into a place or time with major persecution. There were certain things that I was not allowed to participate in, such as some school programs that dealt with communism inculturation. I suppose schools tried to isolate us to create shame or make us feel less than other kids. In reality, it actually took off the pressure of me not to deal with the issue of religious discrimination. I did not have to make hard decisions to stand against the communist ways. On the other hand, it was actually quite funny because the bullies or the so-called “cool kids” in my class were not allowed to participate in communist social inculturation programs either. These “cool kids” were very successful in making it desirable for all other kids not to want to participate in those programs. These kids were the troublemakers and bullies in the class. In Russian culture, it was desirable for a boy to be the toughest kid on the block. I remember sitting next to one of them. His name was Misha. He was one of the smaller boys in the class and not very tough. But he made up for that by being the bad kid in class and that made him very popular. I remember he picked a fight with me once and I knocked him over with one blow. Now, that was not a problem, the problem was that he had the whole class behind his back and I had to run for my life because he had the whole class chasing me after I knocked him down. It all turned out all right because I was one of the fastest runners in my class so no one could catch me or my twin brother Andrey. By the next day, everything blew over and was back to normal. Getting back to inculturation, here we are, Christians kids getting what all other kids want. That completely removed any shame tactics that the school administration was trying to use on us because the social culture counteracted against it.
Church life was nothing out of the ordinary for us kids. It was similar to an American Baptist church in a small town. The only thing that was different was church leadership. The Russian church did not consist of a single preaching pastor, instead, all the leaders shared in that responsibility. That was the major difference that I noticed between the Russian Baptist Church and American Baptist Church coming from a 10-year-old boy’s mind. As far as supernatural is concerned, we were Baptists in our worldview. That means there was no gifts of the spirit or any miracles like the bible writes about. Most supernatural happened through God’s ordinary governance of the world through natural causes and natural laws. Extraordinary providence did not exist anymore. Those were stories of the past. I was too young to understand any of it, therefore I believed what I was taught. This is the backdrop for my faith formation.
I was introduced to Pentecostal practices when we were migrating to the USA. When we were in Rome, the Italian government filled entire hotels with immigrants. The Slavic community would organized church services in the hotel cafeteria that we stayed at. As far as I remember, I think they had services every day of the week. This is where I ran into Pentecostals. I did not really think anything of them. Considering the circumstances, most were united in faith at that point. What stuck in my head about Pentecostals until today are the loud preachers and loud prayers. I heard people speaking in tongues but that did not really pique my curiosity. I was more concerned about playing soccer and making money at the local gas station.
When we moved to America, I picked up English very quickly. By kids summer camp time, I was able to understand most sermons. We moved to the United States at the beginning of spring. A Baptist Church in Kansas City took us under their wings. We went to all their events, from Awana to summer camps. During the summer camp, I remember someone explaining to me that I needed to receive Jesus into my heart. I always thought that I was a Christian but after that conversation, for some reason, I was convinced that I needed to receive Jesus into my heart. So I raised my hand that same day, during an evening service, when a preacher asked if someone wants to receive Jesus into his or her heart. As much as I could understand as a child, all I knew is that I wanted to be with Jesus and had fear of hell. I received Jesus into my heart during camp our first summer in America.
Not very long after our move to America, my father looked for a Russian community since he was striving to be a church leader. We moved a few times in search of a Russian community where my father could serve as a minister. Many years went by and much has been indoctrinated into me. I did not run into anyone from other denominations during my childhood. None of the cities we lived in was a big hub for Russian Communities. It was when we grew up when we were able to drive and the Russian community grew in Erie, PA that we finally started to run into other denominations. I remember during our high school years, a few new families moved into town and we became friends with them and they were from a Pentecostal background. This was the climax of denominational differences in my life. I remember our parents having debates between baptist and pentecostal views during bible study. Eventually, those debates made their way to us teenagers. To no surprise, I quickly figured out that I held strong Baptist views. I remember talking to my parents about some of the differences. Their answer was not very convincing, but it sufficed my curiosity. I just wanted to have an answer. The answers were not based on theological reason but more dealt with life experience, someone they knew or their parents knew that supposedly was demon possessed by trying to speak in tongues. I was told it’s better to stay away from it, and that no one ever got better by practicing it. The methodology of reasoning was being built into me by my father. He was able to debate many of the elders in the church and that passed on to me and most of my brothers. To us teenage boys, it was not about the truth but about winning an argument. But of course, we would always say our reasons are built on “The Truth”. In reality, we just debated until the other person would give up. We did not really care to explore the other point of view. We knew all their tactics and how to respond to them very quickly. Thankfully, none of this created bad feelings between me and my Pentecostal friends.
During all this time, I felt the increasing presence of fear that I might not make it to heaven. I received water baptism but that was still not enough. This might have been due to the way my father raised me. We were raised by a typical strict Russian father. It seemed that he was always disappointed, in what seemed, everything I did. That was not the case, it was the devil working his way into my heart. But I was always able to convince myself that I am saved by faith and I would overcome the sense of fear with reason. But this would eventually lead me to a very mechanical religion. How is this possible? I was going to church a few times a week and believed in God.
At the end of my 4th year of college, I realized that my life is not really what I wanted. I did not want the American dream, I wanted the kind of life that the Bible described. To another person, there is nothing wrong with my life but to me everything was wrong. I was in my last semester of college. I had a job waiting for me, plenty of friends and a bright future ahead of me. Can you imagine, I had a sense that everything is wrong with my life. What else can a young man ask for? It did not help that pressures of the world were also invading my life. I remember I was sitting at work and looking up at the ceiling and reaching out to God. “God I do not want this life, please change it or take it away”. What exactly was wrong with my life? Did I not have faith in God? I did, I believed that he was my savior. Let me see if I can phrase this properly – I had a personal belief in God but I did not have this personal relationship with God, as you would experience with another person. During the last few years in college my faith grew to such a mechanical worldview, that when I took a religion class in college with a liberal professor, I embraced it. I became a naturalist. I believe the professor labeled himself as a Presbyterian. He did not believe in miracles and I’m sure he was a deist and held to natural theology. The world became defined by mechanical laws of nature for me. It did not help that I was studying mechanical engineering. God was not this personal being, He was present but not personal. Now, I would still use the word personal God and personal relationship to describe my relationship with God. But the understanding of this personal relationship was different. I remember one of the days when I was discussing a subject of miracles with my father, I was looking fervently into my father’s eyes and argued that he was wrong about miracles in the bible and that there was either a cultural or physically possible explanation for each miracle in the bible. It’s kind of paradoxical that my father, being a Baptist, did not believe that extraordinary miracles are possible in our time today, but yet, believed in the extraordinary miracles in the Bible. There was this war in my life between this personal idea of God that was always preached to me and the beliefs that I held to so hard, which was also being formed by the same people. The problem was that this personal God did not fit in with the “truth” that was formed in me. I lost my way due to traditions and doctrines. The day I reached out to God to change my life was a breaking point. I was desperate to know the truth. I knew He was the only one who could bring light to my issue.
Where did this all come from? How did I get to this point? What was I indoctrinated into for me to fall into such a trap? Little did I know, that the truth that I was taught was never checked or verified by my father or by my grandfather or any elder for that matter. After God brought me back and put me back on the right path, I was able to study this topic in depth and now I am able to share it with you in this book. I actually pendulum swung the other way for a short period of time. The second book in this series will cover that. But I wanted to give some light on this part of my journey before we move on to my later life.