From drug addict to missionary
Jenya, a skinny boy 10 years old, looked at his parents who were slumped across the sofa and bed, unconscious in their little wooden house.
Sighing, he picked up a pen and drew a cross over the last day of the month on his calendar. His parents had been drinking all night and had passed out. Earlier in the year Jenya had decided to mark each day on his calendar with a cross when his parents ended up in such a state.
Today, as he looked back over the past month, he noticed that every day had a cross marked on it. Jenya picked up his football and went outside to find some of his friends. There was certainly nothing for him to stay at home for.
This is how Jenya grew up, more on the streets than at home, shop-lifting, pick-pocketing and fighting. By the time he was 14 years old, Jenya was a regular at the local police station.
When he received his first prison sentence at 17 years of age, one of the local policemen smiled with satisfaction, and commented: ‘Finally we’ve got you where you belong — behind bars!’
Looking back now, Jenya doesn’t want to talk about those times in a Russian jail. He comments that until someone experiences such conditions he will never understand, however well he might try to describe it.
His first prison sentence lasted two years. Towards the end of his stretch he began to experience a tremendous spiritual emptiness and a heavy tiredness which he couldn’t shake off.
Earlier, in 1991, when the doors to Russia were flung open, Christian books and Bibles were brought in by missionaries who had been praying for such an opportunity for many years. One such mission had set up a little bookstall in a metro station in the city of Novosibirsk.
This stall had caught Jenya’s interest as he stepped of the metro train. He picked up a Bible, turning it over in his hand, and started to ask the man behind the stall what this book was about.
The missionary explained to him that this was God’s Word to humankind, and that he could give Jenya a copy for free, if Jenya could show him his Russian internal passport so that the gift could be registered.
Not having his passport with him at the time, Jenya travelled back the length of the city of Novosibirsk to collect it and then returned to the Bible stall and was rewarded for his efforts with his very own Bible.
Now suffering from this terrible spiritual emptiness in prison, Jenya remembered the Bible he’d been given a few years before, and that was now lying at home — maybe it could somehow help him satisfy this terrific spiritual thirst he was experiencing?
He asked his mother to bring the Bible in, and he started to read it. At this point, Jenya had his first encounter with Jesus Christ. In an Orthodox prison chapel, he started to pray to Jesus and felt something change inside him. He immediately stopped smoking and swearing, and began to think about how he might become more religious and devote his life to God.
He was duly released at the end of his two years, now with a new life before him. He had paid for what he had done. God had touched his life and now he had an overwhelming desire to start again — to settle down, find a wife and start a family.
Jenya worked hard to try and achieve these things, to build his life up again piece by piece. He found a girl whom he loved and married her. They had a baby girl together.
Life was looking up and it seemed that Jenya had escaped a life of alcohol, drugs and prison, which was sucking down so many of his friends with whom he’d grown up on the streets.
However, unfortunately Jenya hadn’t built his new life with a strong foundation. Although he had achieved some measure of success in life, along the way he had forgotten about the God he had prayed to.
He had not asked for his help or blessing, and had done it all his own way. And gradually, everything that he had built began to crack and crumble before his eyes. Both he and his wife started to take drugs together, and the need to feed their habit meant that Jenya turned to crime.
Once again he was caught and this time sentenced to three years. Amazingly, he was released after just one.
Again, as he left prison he thought about making a new start, but was sure that God would have nothing more to do with him, since he had already failed so many times.
Jenya’s wife at this point was very ill and addicted to strong drugs. A friend of hers invited her to a Christian drug rehabilitation centre run by a Baptist church. Most Russians, however, are very suspicious of Baptist churches.
During the days of Communism, the government put out propaganda against the Baptists, accusing them of sacrificing their children during communion services, holding orgies and many other terrible things.
Some of the fear and suspicion which was generated by this propaganda inevitably lives on, and is often coupled with a feeling that any non-Orthodox church is a sect, come in from the West, and that it is dangerous and anti-Russian to have anything to do with them.
Unfortunately Jenya’s wife had such a mindset and refused to go into the rehab centre, afraid of betraying her nominal Orthodox faith. After Jenya got arrested and was sent to prison for a third time, she soon died of a drugs overdose.
Now, when Jenya was released after his third time in prison, he had no one and nothing to come back to. He felt an overwhelming sense of loss, darkness and emptiness which nothing could fill.
He would wander the city streets looking for something or someone — he wasn’t sure what — but would always end up disappointed, not having been able to find it. He got into a relationship with a woman who was involved in the occult, who suggested that he visit an old lady who practised witchcraft, to see if her power could help him come off drugs.
Somehow, Jenya knew that this was wrong, not pleasing to God, and ultimately dangerous and he immediately split up with the woman.
Jenya now reached the lowest, darkest point in his life. He would take drugs and get drunk in the afternoon, cry all night, and then go out looking for more money and drugs in the morning.
He describes it as a living hell. He was right at the point of taking his own life, and only a childhood conviction that this would be a terrible, unforgivable sin stopped him.
At this time, Jenya met an old acquaintance on the bus from his school days who came up to him and said the words, ‘God loves you’.
This old contact invited him to church and to a church rehab centre, but, just like his wife, this was too big a step for him to take and Jenya replied: ‘Get away from me. You’re from a sect!’
He went to see an Orthodox priest that he had known previously to ask for help, but the priest replied that he had no time to see him. ‘How about tomorrow?’ Jenya asked the priest, desperate.
To this, the priest replied: ‘I have no time for you today. No time for you tomorrow. I’ll never have time for you’.
Eventually the inevitable once again happened. Whilst breaking into a car, Jenya was caught and taken to the nearest police station where he was locked in a small room.
As he came out of his drug-induced high, he realised that this would be the fourth time he would be going to prison and he just couldn’t cope with that again — this time they would surely throw away the key.
Alone and desolate in the small cell, he got down on his knees and started to cry out to God for help. He prayed and cried and begged God’s forgiveness for all that he had done. And from that point God started to intervene more and more in Jenya’s life.
Miraculously, minutes later, the police decided to let him go and he walked out of the station a free man. Sometime later he found a card which had the address of a Baptist rehab centre written on it.
He decided to at least visit the place and, as he entered it for the first time, he realised instinctively that this was the right place for him, the place where he needed to be. He understood that it was God himself who had brought him there.
To be concluded
Colin and Bron Cleaver
The authors are leaders of Operation Mobilisation Russia and the founders of OM’s Discipleship Centre in Novosibirsk, Siberia. The story above is included in a booklet they’ve written called The Siberian six, which can be ordered from their web site, www.ru.om.org