ANTONINA, RUSSIAN BELIEVER

by David Sisler

For three months during the summer of 1993 I was the missionary pastor of Maranatha Christian Center in Samara, Russia. This column is an excerpt from my daily journal, written while I lived and worked in that city of 1.5 million.

It was 1972. Antonina Chemereva was 38. Leonoid Brezhnev was firmly entrenched as the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics. What little hope for freedom that may have been apparent when Nikita Khrushchev made overtures to the West was quickly dashed when Khrushchev was toppled and became a non-person.

Under the firm and brutal hand of Brezhnev, indeed all of the Communist leaders until Mr. Gorbachev, religion was tightly controlled. There was one officially recognized Christian church, the Russian Orthodox Church. Even its members were closely monitored and its services were strictly regulated.

Many church buildings were simply designated for state use and those congregations were disbanded. All pews were removed from those churches that were allowed to remain open. The Communists believed that if worshippers had to stand, they would stay away. When services were allowed, normally at Christmas and Easter, standing room only crowds filled the buildings.

Another phenomenon of Russian religion was the secret, underground, and of course, illegal home churches. It was here that Christianity survived and even flourished.

God singled out men who would dare to lead His people. They were men who risked their freedom, if not their very lives, to be overseers of the small home churches. Because of the danger of discovery, groups were generally small in size, usually numbering less than 20.

It was in one of these home churches that Antonina's mother found Jesus, and it was here, too, that Antonina began her Christian life.

Police and the KGB were constantly searching for these groups of believers. Rarely did the church meet in the same place twice in a row. Like First Century Christians who used the sign of the fish to identify themselves, Russian believers developed a simple code.

The next meeting place would be announced before a service had concluded. If danger was suspected, a light would be left on, a shade would be raised, or perhaps a broom or shovel would be placed upside down near the door. If a meeting was thus canceled, the pastor would get word to his members through individual contact. Because one man going to several homes might attract attention, a system of relays was developed.

Even with all of their care, home groups were occasionally discovered. Sometimes, but infrequently, they were betrayed. The betrayal was often from the outside. Someone would be trusted with the group's secrets and that person would sell the information to the KGB.

One time Antonina's group was discovered and the police burst in. All of the members of the small church feared arrest or worse. The police captain announced, "I am making a list of everyone in this room who is with Jesus." He went around the group and asked each member in turn, "Are you with Jesus?"

At each affirmative answer, vital information was recorded name, address, occupation and place of employment. That list would later be used to deny promotions, deter someone from securing better housing, or sometimes prohibit them from receiving essential services like electricity, gas, water, or even food.

When the officer reached Antonina, she replied, "Yes, I am with Jesus. Would you like to be with Jesus, too?"

A gasp of horror escaped someone's lips. The policeman glared at the diminutive Christian. She held his gaze with a smile that telegraphed an inner conviction.

Then the policeman's stare softened. "Not today, Mother" (a title of respect, not an indication of parentage), he answered. "Not today."

With that he dismissed his men and made no further inquiries. Although still shaking with fear, the small group of believers rejoiced at their escape.

One of the prayers that Antonina began praying almost as soon as she became a believer was for the salvation of her young son. It was a prayer 20 years in the answering, but God honored a mother's prayers. Today her son is the pastor of Maranatha Christian Center in Samara, Russia.

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Copyright 1993, 2000 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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