Last week at the Desiring God conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, we were able to connect with pastors and leaders from all over the United States and even some church leaders from around the world. The conference was great, but after three 15-hour days I was ready to zone out and rest on the plane ride home. What I didn’t know was that God wanted me to hear a story that was unlike any I had ever heard and one I will definitely never forget.
As the airplane filled up, a young dad with his one-year-old son on his lap sat in between me and another gentleman who was sitting by the window. As the doors to the plane closed I noticed there were two empty seats in the row in front of me, so I moved up to them so the dad wouldn’t have to hold his son on his lap for the whole flight. In my new aisle seat, it was just myself and an older well-dressed gentleman sitting near the window with an empty seat in between us. In hindsight I wish I had initiated a conversation right away, but we only exchanged a ‘hello’ until the last hour of the flight. Our conversation started when I noticed he had a Russian Bible. I smiled at him and pointed to the Bible on my iPad. With a thick Russian accent this man named Yevgeny began to share his life story with a passion and emotion that reflected a deep well of experiences rooted in a death-defying faith. Here is a synopsis of the story he told:
Yevgeny was born in Communist Russia during WWII. Before he was born his father was imprisoned in Siberia for his Christian faith. His mother was about to be executed for her faith when in a moment of desperation she prayed to God and then plead with the solider about to pull the trigger, saying she was pregnant so he would be killing two people. The soldier had a young child at home and couldn’t pull the trigger. Yevgeny’s mother lived and so did he. When WWII ended, Yevgeny met his father for the first time and he still recalls that meeting – embracing a gaunt bearded man who had survived the horrors of prison in Siberia. Years later his father shared with Yevgeny how other Christians who were packed in his jail cell would scrawl pieces of scripture on the concrete wall as they remembered them. Their fragmented Bible was written on stone and served as the only comfort and hope they had in that dark and cold place.
This commitment to the faith displayed by his parents was a springboard for his own faith as he recalled to me the persecution the underground church faced in Russia. He told me how believers would print and bind their own copies of the Bible to distribute to the persecuted church. At one point, as he told me about a group of believers getting caught by the KGB for distributing Bibles, he looked down at his own leather bound Bible and momentarily reflected on the access to Christian literature here in the United States. With tears beginning to well in his eyes, he commented on how easy it is to access Christian literature here compared to what he had experienced.
His parents had experienced intense persecution and he had as well. While serving mandatory time in the Russian military, his quarters were often subject to a search by KGB agents looking for illegal literature – his Bible. With hiding places for his Bible limited, all he could do was pray they wouldn’t find it. And they never did. God then gave Yevgeny an opportunity to pray with one of these same KGB agents to receive Christ. As the agent prayed, Yevgeny pulled his Bible from its hiding place. The new convert stared in amazement that the Bible had never been found even though it was there in the barracks the whole time. Three generations of Yevgeny’s family were persecuted for their faith before eventually immigrating to the United States and as he shared about this transition is was clearly evident how grateful he was.
As we approached the airport in Spokane, I asked why he was coming to Spokane. He told me his five children, parents, and siblings were now spread out around the United States. His mother had passed away the year before at age 99, and he was visiting his 97-year-old father in Spokane, knowing his days are short. I was amazed to hear that not only had they endured persecution they had lived long, full lives. As the airplane taxied to the terminal, I regretted that I hadn’t started this conversation as soon as we had taken off in Minneapolis but felt incredibly blessed at the same time.
You never know the stories of those around you. I had just sat next to a 69-year-old giant of the faith from Russia, whom I will never forget.