The Life-Changing Power of Jesus Christ!

Welcome to ConvertedToChrist, a site where we have published the testimonies of fifteen Ukrainian Christians that we interviewed in 2008 as we traveled throughout Ukraine.  After publishing their stories in booklet form and creating a Russian language website, we followed up on their lives during a 2011 trip.  It is our prayer that these booklets will be used of God to touch many hearts and lives and bring people to a place of personally being “converted to Christ,” finding Him to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life!

We trust that you’ll enjoy reading these stories as much as we enjoyed hearing them and publishing them.  As we sat with these individuals and interacted with them personally, our own hearts were stirred by the change that God has made in their lives.  May your heart be touched as well.

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“God Has A Purpose For This”

“God Has A Purpose For This”

Vladimir Karakulin
Kherson, Ukraine

The first man to experience space travel was the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.  He made his famous flight on April 12, 1961.  While he was orbiting the earth for the very first time he gushed about its beauty. “The earth is blue. … How wonderful. It is amazing.”
Back on earth, I was being born on the same day in a well-known pediatric hospital, and things were not looking so beautiful. The events in the sky would negatively affect my life forever.  During my delivery, my mother began to experience serious complications.  Instead of staying by her side the doctors and nurses left the room to listen and watch the news of Gagarin’s flight into space.  My mother was left in a room alone and unattended where she cried for help.  A dentist, who happened to be in the hospital, heard my mother’s screams and came to her rescue.  I was born breach, and when I was pulled out of my mother’s womb, it was done so forcefully that my neck was serious injured.  I would be an invalid for the rest of my life.
As I began to grow, the rest of my body tried to adjust to the awkward position of my neck; I developed problems walking and standing straight.  As a child I became despondent because I knew that my handicap caused my parents to suffer.  I used to dream of what it would be like to be healthy and for our family to be normal and unaffected by my physical problems.
My father, who served in the Soviet navy and later became a police officer, loved soccer, and was a big fan of the Moscow Dinamo team.  He spent lots of time talking to me about soccer, never dreaming how much I wanted to play.  One day he gave me a soccer ball.  He did not realize that this would provide me the inspiration I needed to make the effort to walk.  I spent hours playing with my ball, struggling to walk, run, and kick the ball.  Eventually, to some degree, I succeeded.
Although I loved soccer, the boys of my neighborhood would not invite me to play—at least not at first.  Instead they would mock and laugh at me. I was tormented by their ridicule. However, I continued to watch them play, despite their taunting, and one day I was given the opportunity to play; the boys were amazed that I could actually play quite well.
Over time I was given the opportunity to play more often, and through soccer I developed some important relationships.  One of my physical education trainers at school had had been the trainer of Valery Barzov, a well-known athlete and fellow student of my school.  This instructor was very kind to me and allowed me to exercise and practice with the other boys.  He never looked down on me because of my handicap, and as I think back on my childhood, I am so grateful to this man for giving me the chance to do what I had often dreamed of doing.
One day, when I was in the sixth grade, my parents and I were traveling home from a small vacation.  Instead of stopping in our hometown of Nova Kahovka, my father just kept driving right through the town.  I asked my parents why we weren’t going home, and they informed me that our new home was in Kherson.  They had been afraid to tell me earlier, because they knew how upset I would be to leave my friends in Nova Kahovka and endure the adjustment of moving to a new place.
Our move to Kherson went better than I initially expected.  Yes, I was again mocked and taunted because of my handicap, but before long I became involved in soccer and other sporting activities.  By the time I was fourteen, I was a serious fan of the Kherson soccer team, Crystal.  I had a group of friends with whom I regularly attend the soccer matches, enthusiastically cheering for our home team.
These friends and I organized our own team, but it was hard to find players and good fields.  So we “invented” the game of mini-soccer or “foot-zal,” which we later discovered was a well-known game in other countries.  After we organized our team and determined the rules, we decided on the name “Sputnik” (Satellite).
Some time later there was a large celebration in our city to honor the Komsomol, the communist youth organization.  Soccer matches were organized for this event, and we wanted to play, too, but the city officials did not approve of us since we were not an officially government sponsored team.  So we decided to organize our own Kherson mini-soccer federation, and I became the coach and manager of our team.  We were eventually invited to Zaporozhye where we found out about other mini-soccer teams in the Soviet Union and also learned the proper rules for the game.  We played in a tournament there, and despite our new understanding of the different rules for the game, we came in third place.  Many people were amazed to see the new Kherson team, led by a handicapped man, ranked so high.  Eventually I became the head administrator of our mini-soccer league, bringing a long time dream of mine to pass.
As I grew older, I had dreams of another kind; I wanted a family. I became friends with a young lady in my neighborhood.  We shared a lot in common and would frequently take walks together as we talked about life; eventually we started dating.  However, her parents were not happy with her spending time with me, so we continued our relationship secretly.  We even talked about getting married, but she knew that her parents were opposed, and she was afraid to go against their wishes.
She was also deeply bothered by people’s response to my handicap, encouraging me to consider surgery.  I had previously been through some medical procedures in an attempt to at least partially correct my problem, but the results had not been positive.  At the city clinic, I was told about a new surgical procedure that would be offered free to me through a new neuro-surgical organization.
In 1988 I went to Kiev and underwent a complex surgery.  After the surgery, my girlfriend stayed with me until I was feeling better, but it became apparent that the surgery had not had its desired effect. Even though the doctor had said I would have a much more normal appearance, nothing really changed.  My girlfriend, devastated and unable to continue having romantic feelings for me, broke my heart by breaking our relationship.  It was not long before she began dating another boy.
This was a terrible blow to me. As if to add insult to injury, my father died soon after, creating more pain and sorrow in my life.  I had always been upbeat and positive, but now I fell into a state of depression and even lost my desire and interest in soccer. Joy, hope, and meaning disappeared from my life.  I wandered around feeling lost and confused, a shadow of my former self.
One evening, as I was riding the bus home, I met some very interesting people.  I watched them as they spoke happily with one another, and I could see in their eyes a joy and kindness that I had never seen in people before.  They were loving and polite to others, and as I spoke with them, I was amazed at their politeness to me.  They did not act disgusted with me or ask questions but treated me as a valuable person.  Before we parted, they invited me to their Baptist church service the next day.
I couldn’t wait to go and meet these people again, and when the next day dawned, bright and beautiful, I somehow knew that it was going to be a special day. While not able to explain why, I was gripped with a feeling of great anticipation.
From the moment I arrived at the church, it was as if I sensed a new hope opening before me.  These people treated me like they had known me all their lives.  They showed respect for me and offered me a seat.  As I child, I had visited the Russian Orthodox Church with my grandmother, but I could never understand the words because everything was spoken in the Old Slavic language.  It was different here; I could hear and understand the words that these believers sang!  They were beautiful words, speaking of hope and the love of God! I had always believed that God existed, but this day I knew that the time had come to commit my life to Jesus Christ and receive eternal life.  At the conclusion of the sermon, the pastor gave an invitation for people to repent and put their faith in Christ.  I went forward and prayed, asking God to forgive and save me.  That very day my life was transformed by the grace of God. I found eternal hope and salvation! Two months later, I was baptized.
Soon after I began my new relationship with God, I talked with my pastor about my love for soccer and asked him whether or not I should continue my involvement with this sport.  With his wise words of counsel, I realized that God could use any activity that is not sinful to bring glory to Himself, so I continued my involvement in mini-soccer.  Initially, I worked through a ministry that taught children the sport, but later I became an organizer, sponsor, and trainer of an adult mini-soccer team called “Hosanna.”  Today I also own a sports clothing store in Kherson. I love to tell my clients about Christ and encourage them to be involved in sports for the glory of God.
As I reflect on my life, I can see that if only I had begun following Jesus Christ sooner, I could have avoided much of the pain and emptiness that marked my early days.  But I am grateful today that the emptiness inside of me has been filled with the joy of the Lord. I feel assurance that God knows me and has a purpose for me even though I am an invalid.  The Bible says in Psalm 139, “You saw me when I was formed in my mother’s womb…”  I know that God saw me developing in my mother’s womb and knew about my birth before I was born.  He allowed the events to happen that made me an invalid, and He has his reasons for it.
The disciples of Christ once asked Jesus about a blind man (John 9:1-3).  Was he born blind because he sinned, or did his parents sin?  Jesus said that neither had sinned.  The affliction was allowed so that God would receive glory, and when Jesus healed the man, God was glorified.
All my previous life, I looked for an answer to why my life had turned out like this.  Today I absolutely believe that God allowed these events, and even my disability, to happen in order to bring more glory to His name through my life!  If God could change my life and make me joyful and positive even though I am an invalid, then He most certainly can change your perspective on life and give you meaning and joy in living for Him.

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“A Drunkard Becomes A Pastor”

“A Drunkard Becomes a Pastor
Vitaly Yakubets
Chernigov, Ukraine

I was born in 1973 into a large family of ten children; there were five boys and five girls.  I was the eighth child and had several older brothers with whom I spent most of my time.  My mother was a believer and I remember how she used to take me to the Baptist church when I was just a little boy.  But when I was about six years of age, I quit going to church and chose to stay with my brothers and their friends.  Even though I was still just a little boy, I followed in their “older” ways, and my parents were so busy with my nine brothers and sisters that I was mostly free to do what I wanted.  By six years of age, I could already smoke a whole pack of cigarettes in a day.  By third grade, I started drinking, and by fifth grade I was smoking marijuana.
Somehow, though, perhaps from my earliest experience with church, I always had a sense of right and wrong that my older friends didn’t seem to have.  And even as I took part in the sin that was all around me, I knew in my heart that there must come a moment in my life when I would turn from sin.  I always remembered what I had heard as a child in church that the Bible said “a tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down, cast into the fire and burned.”  I knew that someday, if I didn’t repent of my evil, I would be punished eternally.
For the time, I continued to live a wicked life.  I watched as many of my friends and acquaintances ended up in prison or even died as a result of their wild lifestyle, but I always managed to stay one step away from such an end.
After finishing high school I went away to college in Kiev and continued my lifestyle there for three years.  Drugs, drinking, and fighting were a normal part of life.  One day, as I exited my dorm room, I saw the body of a fellow student lying on the ground outside my door.  There had been an argument over a girl, combined with drinking, and a young man had been stabbed to death.  Seeing this kind of violence caused me to consider how quickly my own life could end.
About that time I became very involved in rock music and the culture that it promotes. It became a strong influence of evil in my life, and my college years were filled with concerts and partying.  Nearly every morning, I would go out and buy beer for my friends and myself, and we would only go to classes after we had drunk enough to “enjoy” the day.  One entire closet in our dorm room was piled high with beer bottles, and one day I found my passport buried under the enormous pile of them.  I remember being struck with the thought that this was a good picture of my life:  I was buried under the influence of alcohol and sin.
After finishing college some work opportunities opened up, and I had to make a choice where to go.  By profession I was a geologist, and my work was to find places where coal could be mined.  In 1993 I ended up in Siberia, initially working out in the field, cutting paths through the forest for our geological measurements.
One day as I was using an ax to cut through the forest for a measurement, I had to cross a stream and noticed afterward that my foot was wet.  Upon closer examination, I saw that as I had been cutting through the woods, I had inadvertently cut open my boot and had even cut through my sock!  I was stunned to realize that if I had cut open my leg, I would have easily bled to death, being very far from any town or hospital.
On another occasion, our brigade needed matches to light fire for a camp, and I went to look for someone in our area who might have the needed matches.  For some strange reason, I prayed that God would have mercy on us and help us to find a way to light our fire, knowing how much we needed a fire for the night.  As I came upon a rock, I was shocked to see a matchbox full of matches just lying there!  In fact, one match was sticking out of the box as if it were prepared to be lit. I interpreted this providence as a message from God, once again inviting me to come to Him and find salvation.
Later when we came to the nearest town there in Siberia, a homeless bum met us, and we were able to get information from him about this new place.  He told us who was who, where to find things, and how to conduct ourselves to be accepted by the other men of the town. The rule of this northern land was simple; it was drinking with others and drinking a lot.  The ones who came to work in this place all had one thing in common – they were unhappy depressed men with broken lives and families.  They had come to earn money and find happiness, but after being there for several years, they were still poor and unfulfilled.  They were consuming their money and health on alcohol.
Yet there was something about that wild, beautiful country that drew a person to it.  It was a land of uncertainty, of hope, and of hard work.  But those of us that lived there also lived a hard, sinful life that reflected the wildness and hardness of the land.  And as always, I loved the risk and uncertainty!
I continued living in Siberia for a while, working with teams that drilled in various places searching for coal.  One day we traveled home on a large all-terrain vehicle and stopped in a village to drink to celebrate our boss’s birthday.  When the driver got drunk, he asked if I would drive, but I thought he was joking, so I refused.
In his intoxicated state, he left the road and tried to take a shortcut by driving through a shallow river, although at that time of the year the river was no longer shallow due to heavy rains.  Because one of the doors was broken, the vehicle began to fill up with water!  After a few moments, the water reached up to my waste. In the next instant, the windows were covered with water, and I felt water in my face. Then we were under water.  With a sense of panic sweeping over me, I recognized that this could be the final moments of my life.  I struggled to get through the exit door, but the driver was blocking the door.  I was running out of oxygen when I finally managed, through great effort, to push him to the side, and swim to the surface.  The current was strong and nearly swept me away, but I found the roof of the all-terrain vehicle which was completely submerged and clung to it, somehow keeping myself from being carried downstream.
Local villagers saved us from the top of our sunken vehicle, and as we warmed ourselves and spent the night with those kind villagers, I thought again about how easily and quickly my life could have ended.  I thought of the many times that God had spared my life and knew that the day would come when I would use up all my chances.  I knew that I needed to repent, but I still wasn’t willing to take that step.
Eventually, I was transferred to another village to work, and I was horrified to see the level of cruelty and lack of value for life.  There was little or no respect for God or for people. Religion of any kind hardly existed.  Few people died of natural causes as there were regular suicides, murders, and other crimes and accidents resulting form the horrible alcoholism that plagued the village.  As we walked into the room that we were to rent, we noticed that the ceiling was riddled with bullet holes.
One night, as I was out late, one of my friends (who would later be shot and killed) noticed a young lady walking by, and said, “Hey, Vitaly, that girl’s name is Masha!  She’s one of the few good girls in this town!”  I got acquainted with Masha and soon we began dating.
About this same time, my liver began to suffer as a result of my drinking, and the doctor warned me that I must stop drinking.  I quit for a while but on our wedding day, as was the tradition, I gave a toast with vodka, and sadly, that started my drinking again.
After getting married, I began working as a builder. Again, I encountered many experiences that showed me the love and care of God in my life.  I had more narrow escapes from death.  For example, one day on the job, I heard a sound behind me and jumped to the side just in time to avoid being crushed by a huge block and chains that had torn loose from an old crane.  Again God, in His mercy, spared my life.
All during these years in Siberia, I had a Bible with me that my older brother gave me.  After he became a believer, he presented this Bible to me, and finally one day, I opened it for the first time and began reading.  I was amazed because it made sense to me!  It all seemed so clear!
Unfortunately, I put it away and kept drinking for another week.  Then I opened the Bible again.  And from that moment forward, no matter how often I read it or prayed during times of difficulty or crisis, God’s Word never seemed clear to me again.  But during this time, I never forgot that moment when God had opened my eyes to see that He could make His Word clear to me.
One day when I was traveling to my wife’s village, I decided to hitch a ride on a cargo train, since I didn’t have any money for the passenger train.  I was completely drunk, but I crawled on board, and so as not to be seen, I began jumping from car to car to make my way to the back car where I could jump off when I needed to.  As I did this, I felt a sudden sobriety come over me.  I realized how dangerous this would be in a sober condition much more a drunken state.  As we neared the place where I needed to jump off, I was amazed to find that the train briefly stopped even though it normally never stopped there.  I was able to get off safely, and I recognized that God had once again shown me His mercy.  In spite of all these mercies, I plunged on recklessly in a godless lifestyle going from party to party, far from God and deep in sin.
In 1997, I took my wife and our two sons to Ukraine.  We went for my sister’s wedding, who was a believer.  Upon arriving they urged us to move back to Ukraine.  I left my wife and sons there and went back to Siberia to resign from my work.
When I returned to Ukraine, I was shocked to find out that my wife had repented and become a believer!  She now wanted to be baptized.  I knew that her lifestyle would have to change if she chose to be a serious Christian.  I was not yet ready for such a big change in our home, and so I selfishly hindered her from pursuing God by encouraging her to continue in our sinful lifestyle.
In spite of my opposition, we still occasionally visited church as a family, for I still had in my mind the verse from the Bible that speaks of the “unfruitful tree being cut down and cast into the fire.”  I knew that my time was limited, because time and time again, I had been spared disaster and had been offered mercy.
In 1998, some family members invited us to an evangelistic service at a theater in our town.  As I heard the gospel clearly, for the first time I felt something in my heart that truly wanted to step out, go to the front, and repent of my sins.  But my feet seemed frozen, and I just couldn’t take that step.  However, the meeting produced a spiritual awakening in me, and I began to make changes in my life.  I possessed a new awareness of what God expected of me.  I was still drinking heavily at that time, but my drug use and smoking stopped.
Because of the drinking my liver disease continued to worsen, and I knew that I was only living by God’s mercy.  One night I dreamed a frightful dream in which I was to be executed, and in my dream I cried out to God. This dream shook me deeply, but my drinking and sin continued to an even greater extent, to the point that I could barely walk or control myself.  God was allowing me to come to the end of myself.
Things were so bad at this time that I actually spent two weeks in an alcohol rehab center.  I prayed, promising God that I would go to church and repent if He would deliver me.  I was able to give up alcohol for a while, but I did not keep my promise and fully turn to the Lord.
This process repeated several times, and occasionally my health would be so awful that I would literally fall into a state of hallucination.  Another time I literally stopped breathing and was rushed to the hospital.  I was so bound by the power of sin that I continued to destroy myself with alcohol.  Feeling hopeless, I even seriously considered hanging myself to end this horrible existence.  Although I was able to hide my wickedness from most of my neighbors and coworkers, my family could see what I was doing to myself and to them.  While my sin could be hidden from many of my acquaintances, I could not hide from God who I was and what I was doing.
One day, in May of 2002, I came to such a state of physical and psychological breakdown that I knew I must have help immediately.  I called the ambulance, but when they came, to my horror, they informed me that there was nothing more that could be done for me.  With those words, they left.
This caused me to panic.  We were living with my parents and my brother at that time, and I turned to rush out the door.  As I stared at that door, I knew that if I left I would die.  I glanced over and saw my brother’s door.  I knew that he could pray with me, and I could find God.  For a moment I wavered between those two doors and then, my decision being made, I threw open my brother’s door and said, “Pray with me!  I’m dying!  I need God!”
It was such a hard decision!  After all the times I had rejected God, my heart was full of pride, and taking that step to humble myself and ask my brother to pray for me was a huge turning point.  After we prayed together, my brother called the church prayer group, and as they prayed, the rest of my family gathered around me and began to pray with me.  I was in such a state that I couldn’t stay in one place even for a moment.  But I cried out to God and said, “God, help me to stay here and pray, at least until morning!”  I felt an evil power urging me to get away, but I stayed there, crying out to God.  Each time I would stop praying, I felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit.  Little by little hope began to dawn in my heart!
My wife was in a nearby room during this time, and as I was crying out to God, I heard my mother ask her, “Masha, have you been praying for Vitaly with us?”  To my shock and surprise, I thought I heard her say emphatically, “No!”  For a moment I was tempted to give up seeking God when I heard this.  Would my decision to give my life to Christ cause our relationship to be destroyed?  Could it be that she now didn’t want me to serve God and would hinder me as I had hindered her earlier?  But I persevered and continued to pray.  Later when I asked my wife about this, she said in amazement, “I never said, ‘no!’ in fact I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been praying this whole time!’”  My mother also confirmed this, and I realized that Satan had been trying already to pull me back into his kingdom by playing tricks with my mind.
Spiritually, I felt a release as I prayed in repentance, but physically I was in a terrible condition.  I alternated between feeling a burning hot sensation and then suddenly feeling icy cold.  Finally, I was able to fall asleep.
When I awoke, I stared out the window into a beautiful, clear, clean blue sky, and my heart was overwhelmed with a sense of the deepest peace and joy!  I was afraid to move, afraid that I would interrupt that precious moment of peace.  Finally I stepped outside and, as if for the first time, I saw the flowers and the trees and the beauty around me.  At that moment, it was as if I saw a picture of myself standing on a bridge, and that bridge was leading to heaven.  All around me were the sinful things of this world, but I knew that this new way leading to heaven would be my new way of life!  I called my wife, and joyfully exclaimed, “Masha, I can live now!”
I washed and put on new clothes, because I truly felt that I was starting a new life.  As I walked outside, I met one of the men that I had been drinking with the day before.  I immediately began to witness to him of the change that God had made in my life.
Two days later at work, I found a Bible that my cousin had brought to my workplace three years earlier.  I opened it and read the words of John 15:16, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you to bear fruit…”  I felt the immediate impression that God wanted me to be a witness for Him to others.  I closed the Bible quickly, and said, “No!  I’m not ready for that!”  Then I opened the Bible again, and read the story of the man who cleaned his house of evil, but because he left his house empty, the spirit of evil later returned with seven more evil spirits.
I immediately understood that I had to go to church and obey God or there would be no more chances.  I knew that an even worse evil would overcome me.  I thought back over my life and realized that I couldn’t count the innumerable times when I should have perished, yet God spared me.  I knew at that moment that God had saved me so that I might be a witness and bear fruit for Him.  It was as if the entire puzzle of my life came together in that moment!  My eyes were opened!  How could I have failed to see this big picture before of God’s grace?
As I contemplated these things, my heart was so moved upon that I couldn’t stay at work any longer.  I signed out, left my job, and rushed home to tell my wife.  When I arrived, my face was so different that my wife was alarmed.  She asked, “What’s wrong with you, have you been drinking again?”  I began to pour out to her everything that God had been revealing to me.  I confessed everything that I had always kept from her.  She then began to open up and share with me in a deep and beautiful way, and together we knelt before God, forgave one another, and prayed together for the first time. The next Sunday we both walked to the front of the church and publicly committed our lives to Jesus Christ.  Four months later, July 28, 2002, my wife Masha and I were baptized.
One of the first things that we did after our conversion was to go to the cemetery.  One of my brothers died when he was just four years old, and I knew that he was in heaven.  Because of my own spiritual transformation, I now had the assurance that I would see him someday.  I wanted to go to his grave to be reminded of this fact.
Also after my repentance, I understood that it was not enough to just accept Christ as my Lord and Savior.  It was important that I come to a place, as a new Christian, that I serve the Lord with all my heart and dedicate my life completely to Him and to His service.
With conversion came a new attitude about children.  Even though circumstances are difficult in our country, we have had two more children, knowing that God will never forsake us and will always meet our needs.  Prior to this, we were concerned that we would not have enough resources to provide for a larger family, but praise God, we are now free from such anxieties.
The Lord has also touched my health.  I went to a new doctor and had him do an analysis of my blood and conduct a physical examination.  I did not tell him of my previous health problems.  After the exam, the doctor came back to me and gave a glowing report.  I said, “How can this be?”  Then I shared with the doctor about my previous health problems, and he was amazed!  God truly has renewed my health through His grace and power!
My whole life has changed and been filled with new meaning!  Immediately after my conversion to Christ, I had a passionate concern for others.  Previously I was only concerned about myself, but now I have a deep desire to see others have the hope and purpose in life that I have received from the Lord.  I have been able to share the gospel with those with whom I used to party.  Recently I was able to introduce one of my friends to Christ, who had used drugs and alcohol with me!  What a joy to see the change in him that Jesus Christ has made.
One day some months after my conversion, I received a panicked call at work.  It was my son telling me that our daughter had stopped breathing.  I rushed home and found that the ambulance had already arrived.  I entered the house not knowing whether my little girl would be dead or alive.  Praise God, although in serious condition, she was alive and recovering.  It may seem strange, but through this experience, I felt God confirm to me that He wanted me to serve Him in the ministry.  He, who has all power in heaven and earth, and holds our life and breath in His hands, would lead us, watch over us, and protect us.
Within six months I started preaching at our church, and in two years I was ordained as a deacon.  In 2006, I became an assistant pastor.  Soon after that, our senior pastor was selected as the regional pastor or superintendent of our state, and I became the senior pastor of our church.  What a miracle of God’s grace!  Just a few years ago I was hopelessly addicted to alcohol and was a prisoner in the jailhouse of sin.  Today I lead our local congregation in worship to the God who has delivered and given me a life worth living.
One of our long term plans is to go back to the north land of Siberia and take the good news of the gospel to the people among whom we once lived and who so desperately need the hope that is found in Christ.  We recognize that it’s not enough to just know about God, to have religious relatives, or to occasionally attend church.  Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”  To find salvation, we must be willing to leave our own life, follow Christ and commit our life entirely to Him!  Only then can we truly find the salvation that He died on the cross to give us!

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“My Journey Out Of The Occult”

“My Journey out of the Occult
Vita Yamkimchik
Novomoskovsk, Ukraine

For years my life has been deeply steeped in the world of the occult.  Today, thanks to Jesus Christ, I am free from all my previous association with this realm of darkness.  I would like to tell you my story.
After finishing high school, I decided to study drama in a theatrical institute.  In my first year I became deeply troubled by the immoral lives of the students who studied with me.  I was a modest girl and knew that I would have to either become like them or leave that environment.  I tried for a time to fit in with them, but in the end, I didn’t want to sacrifice all my moral standards to art, which was what those around me were doing.
In our dormitory we were sometimes visited by a man who was an actor and had become rather famous.  He was a practitioner of hypnosis and would often demonstrate his powers.  I was fascinated with this and began to develop my own powers, pursuing it even after I had left the theatrical school.  Once, when I was in the hospital to have my tonsils removed, I tried to hypnotize the other patients in my room.  I was amazed at how well it worked for me.
After I was married and had children, my daughter, who was 4 years old, developed a speech impediment. She began to stutter.  I went to a psychotherapist and asked him to treat my daughter with hypnosis.  He refused saying that his treatment would only help those at least 15 years old.
I went home disappointed, but my neighbor told me about an elderly lady, a sort of witch doctor, who was able to help people.  I quickly found this lady, and in just three sessions, my daughter had completely stopped stuttering and additionally had lost her fear of heights.  I was amazed that this old uneducated lady could do such miracles of which even doctors were incapable.  With her potions and strange utterances, she had healed my daughter!
I thought that my problems ended, but in reality, they had just begun.  I was living in Dnepropetrovsk during this time, and after receiving a message from my hometown of Novomoskovsk that my mother had fallen ill and was paralyzed, I moved to her home for several months to help her. When I returned home, I sensed a coldness in my relationship with my husband and discovered that he had been committing adultery. I filed for divorce.
Trying to find help, I turned to a fortune teller.  When she found out that my mother-in-law had been involved in black magic, she informed me that it would be useless to try to reestablish my marriage.  Supposedly, the black magic of my husband’s family had put a curse upon us destroying any possibility of a happy future together.
After my divorce, I wondered how I could protect myself in the future from such curses.  I watched the television programs of psychic, Vladimir Kashpirovsky, and observed how he promoted the concept of extra sensory perception.  I was fascinated with this and especially was interested when Kashpirovsky informed his listeners that there would be classes offered in the psychic field throughout Ukraine.
When instructional courses were offered in Dnepropetrovsk, I talked with a friend—a doctor who had been trained in this field.  He asked me more about my interest and encouraged me to wait and see what I would dream that night and then act upon its prompting.  Sure enough, that night I dreamed that I was participating in these courses, and so I enrolled.
The course was two weeks long.  We had many lectures and practical experiments in meditation, yoga, auras of power around the human body, and drawing power from nature.  We were instructed in how to develop extra sensory perception and psychic powers, and at home I actively involved myself in these practices.  It was interesting to me that during the courses we were told that “God” does exist, and that we had been chosen by Him to use our powers.  So I began to believe in God and actually became convinced that what I did was through God’s power.  I considered myself a Russian Orthodox believer, as do many folk healers who are actually practicing occultism.
I also began practicing “white magic” to heal others.  I used mantras and psychic powers to treat those who had physical and psychological problems.  I studied under an old lady who was a folk healer, and she helped me continue to develop my extra-sensory abilities.
In spite of my success in this area, I began to enter a dark, confusing period of life.  I noticed that, although I had success at relieving people of their problems, yet these same people often ended up returning to me for relief from other problems.  I recognized that many of them were suffering the results of their sins, yet they seemed powerless, despite my best efforts, to gain victory over their bad habits.  I tried to help them forsake their sins that were bringing these consequences, but I was frustrated to see that the powers that worked through me had serious limitations.  People would become almost addicted to their need for my powers and would return again and again.
By this time I was married to my second husband.  One day my former mother-in-law came to visit and brought a large amount of very expensive food for our family.  She had always wanted to harm me, and I immediately knew that these things were cursed by her black magic, but I was so confident in my powers that I spoke my mantras over those products and kept them for our family.  We were not rich, and it seemed to be unthinkable to throw that food away.
That evening my husband tore the house apart in a terrible rage. Some time later he was involved in an adulterous affair. Other complications also developed in my life.  One day it dawned on me that my powers to block my former mother-in-law’s curse had not worked!  This realization terrified me; I felt extremely vulnerable and even contemplated suicide.  I started feeling strange urges to throw myself from a building or cast myself in front of a train.  Something always seemed to restrain me from following these urges.  Today I believe that this was God’s grace, but at the time I turned to an acquaintance of mine who was a psychic.  As I spoke with this lady, her eyes seemed to be staring through the wall beside me while she described to me the whole situation with my mother-in-law.  I thought that it would be wonderful if I had this kind of power.
I talked with my husband and told him about the curse.  Together we went to the home of an old lady—a folk healer—who could “deliver” us from the curse of my mother-in-law. Those of us who were involved in folk healing, commonly understood that we could heal others, but that our practices would have no effect on ourselves or our own families.
After the old lady met with us for several sessions and supposedly delivered us from the curse, my husband started his sinful lifestyle again.  I was amazed!  How could he again continue his wicked lifestyle even after the curse had been lifted?  Why was it that these powers could not give lasting deliverance?
In my despair and confusion, I continued to search for answers.  I heard about Yevgeny Dubitski, an extra-sensory psychic authority who had become quite famous.  I went to a nearby city to meet with him, discuss my questions with him, and seek his counsel.  He listened to my concerns and encouraged me to come to his mass seances, but after attending five times, I received no relief.
I had heard Dubitski speak about his spirit guide and alter ego, and I thought that this must be some sort of “angel” that would come, heal, and do good.  At home I carried out my own seance and called for this spirit to come.  When I saw a spirit in the form of a silhouette, I told it that I wanted to be a psychic.  I felt a voice speak to me telepathically, “You will see, but not all at once.”
About a year went by. One night I closed my eyes on my bed to sleep, suddenly it was as if I was seeing a movie!  The vision was very vivid; I began to think that perhaps I was starting to receive the gift of psychic perception. The next morning I went to my psychic acquaintance, and he confirmed to me that this was how it worked.  As I entered this new psychic world, I began to see visions regularly; sometimes when I expected them and sometimes when I didn’t.
People that would come to me who did not know about my new realm of occult practices, would be amazed that I could describe their plans, thoughts, and details of their lives.  It was as if I was tuned to a radio channel that would feed me information, and I was sure that it was correct.
After I saw that I had these abilities, I decided to divorce my husband.  I did this on the basis of what my occult practices directed me to do.  For making decisions I used a chain with a talisman that would move.  When I had asked the question, “Should I stay with my husband?” the talisman had directed me to leave him.   I placed my faith in these things, and I sincerely believed that a new day of success and joy would dawn in my life. Yet that moment never seemed to happen, and my loneliness and emptiness increased.
I continued my efforts to help people through my folk remedies and extra-sensory methods.  People came to me for various needs.  For example, one day I received a call for help by the parents of a little boy who had swallowed a chemical (manganese).  His throat was burned and inflamed.  He was in intensive care, facing drastic surgery, and it was feared that he would be an invalid for life.  I was given a vision that this had happened to the child because of the sins of his father, so I sent the father the message that his sins must stop if I would be effective in helping his son.  I then held a series of five seances, and the boy was healed!  He was released from the hospital.
As I reflect on situations like this, I realize that Satan uses these types of healings and helps to hinder people from truly turning to God in repentance.  Individuals get the instant help that they desire, and then they continue living their old sinful life as before.  People don’t understand that when they get supernatural help from occult methods, their sicknesses and problems go from their bodies to their souls.  They often feel better in their bodies but develop great problems in their souls.  The difficulties that they face later are far worse than any prior experiences. They pay the price for turning to folk healing and occult practices with psychological disturbances, family problems, and other tragic consequences.
I lived in constant fear during these years I practiced my medicine and spiritism.  I would constantly quote mantras to protect my house from evil. On one occasion when I forgot to do it, I literally felt a spirit choking me.  Fear and superstition were a continual part of my life.  Despite these fears, I continued my practice and was certified in Kiev and given a license by the Health Department, officially approving me to treat people.  I was now allowed to advertise my services, even on television.
One day a man, who was a believer from the Orthodox Church heard about me through an advertisement.  He came for a visit and tried to convince me that my powers were not from God as I thought they were.  He didn’t base his accusation on any authority, and I argued with him, attempting to justify myself by saying that I didn’t use black magic but only tried to help people with my abilities.  As I spoke I realized that my life contradicted my words.  I had been married twice unsuccessfully, and I couldn’t protect myself from curses, or my children from their problems.  The people that would come to me for help would have to return again repeatedly and couldn’t manage their own lives without my help and counsel.  I could see that something was very wrong.
I conceded that perhaps my powers and abilities weren’t from God.  I had been told this before, but when this man spoke to me, I was finally ready to listen.  Even though he didn’t tell me where it was written in the Bible that occultism was wrong, I still believed him, for he, also had been connected to occultism in his past.  I burned my license.  Then I went to the Orthodox Church and confessed my sin and stopped my occult practices.  The priest told me that I should plead with God for five years if I ever hoped to receive forgiveness.  He told me that I was allowed to step over the threshold and pray, but I could not come any further into the church.  Acting on the advice of the Orthodox believer who had helped me leave my occultism, I visited a monastery staying to pray for hours at a time.  I went there often during the space of one year, yet I felt no peace.
Some people told me, “You just need to get an Orthodox priest who will bless you in your folk healing and then you can continue with happiness and peace.”  I turned to many priests but often heard different opinions.  One even told me, “Go and help people with my blessing,” but I didn’t trust him. Although Satan brought along many temptations to go back to my occult practices, I resisted.
Finally, I met a friend of mine who had become an evangelical Christian believer just one week prior to our meeting.  She asked if I would like to meet and talk with a woman who previously was a folk healer and had treated children.  I was always interested in meeting new people who had a similar background to mine.  The woman came to my house, and we began to talk.  We conversed for six hours, and with interest I noted that she did not just tell me what her private opinions were—instead she shared with me from the Word of God and told what God himself had revealed about occultism.  I listened with amazement to many passages from the Bible that warned about the evil of sorcery and spiritism.
At first I tried to defend myself, saying that I never used black magic and only used white magic to help people. Surely there was no sin in that.  But she asked me, “Are you looking for truth or not?  Truth is in Jesus Christ! You do indeed have a curse on your family, a curse from God because of your evil doings and disobedience to God’s Word!”
Immediately, great fear swept over me.  I thought of my children and the evil I had brought on my family.  I was terrified with what I had done; guilt lay heavy on my heart.  Feeling a strong compulsion to pray, I bowed on my knees, confessed my sins, and asked God to forgive me for Christ’s sake.  I placed my faith in Jesus Christ and trusted in Him alone for salvation.  I boldly took the step to renounce Satan as my lord and declared before God that Christ Jesus was now the Lord of my life!  I immediately felt relief and joy.  As the burden of sin lifted from my heart, I knew that I had made the right decision to part with my old ways and begin a new life.
Soon afterward I attended a service at a Baptist church where I met with the pastor after the service.  He spent many hours answering my questions and encouraging me.  I was touched and blessed by the love of this pastor and the members of his church.  I came to realize that the love that they had for one another and for me represented the true Christianity of God’s Word.
The next week when I attended church, I went forward and openly confessed before those who were present that Christ Jesus was my Lord and Savior.  Again I felt great joy and a sense of liberation as I publicly renounced my former life and committed my life to Christ!
Two months after this experience, I discovered that I was given some new talents, unlike the old occult abilities I had possessed.  I was able to write songs of praise and thanksgiving to God, and I even began to sing these songs in church.
The change in my life was dramatic!  I felt that an enormous transformation had taken place in my heart.  Forgiveness replaced the old bitterness. Where before I had felt such unrest and lack of purpose, now I felt a true peace and meaning in life!
Following my conversion, I met a man who was a practitioner of folk healing.  When I shared with him about my new life in Christ, he said, “Don’t become a fanatic!  I’m a believer too, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t practice our spiritism.”  A few days later he called me and with great surprise told me what had happened the day we had talked.  He had tried to “look through me” in the way that we psychics would do, but he said that it was as if he had run into a wall!  He asked for more information about my church and my faith and even visited church several times.  Through this and other circumstances I saw the power and grace of God, and how He gives the protection and peace for which I had always longed!
Over time God began to lay a burden on my heart to help people who were caught in the net of occultism.  When I received an invitation to a local conference of folk healers, I fasted for three days and asked my Christian friends and church leaders to pray for me.  When I attended the conference, I was able to communicate with a man who was a folk healer.  After sharing with him, I gave him some material and wrote him a letter.  A few months later I called him.  He was amazed and said, “I was just thinking about you!”  The Holy Spirit had been preparing his heart.  He told me that he and his wife had been repairing his wife’s grandmother’s house.  This grandmother had been involved in witchcraft, and while working on the house, they encountered many occult articles.  He and his family suffered very negative consequences. In fact, he was still not feeling well.
I invited him to visit the church with me, and he responded.  But he couldn’t understand the idea of repentance.  He felt like he had lived a good life and repentance was not necessary.  The pastor spoke to him and shared that all men are sinners and that we all need to repent of the sin of not allowing Christ to be Lord and Savior of our lives. God was merciful to him, and eventually he and his family repented and were saved. Now I am praying for many others like myself and this man who have been beguiled by Satan, that they also would come out of darkness and bondage into the light and freedom that Christ offers.

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“Twice Freed”

“Twice Freed
Victor Chernyshov
Shachtyorsk, Ukraine

The Bible says that a person who receives Christ becomes a new creation. The old passes away and all things become new (II Corinthians 5:17). I can testify to the truth of this declaration, for it has been demonstrated in my own life. Once I lived in the clutches of sin, seeking only to please myself.  It was not only me but many others also through my sinful living. When I finally turned to God in humility, He radically transformed me and set me free.
I was born in April of 1960 as an only child.  I grew up like most Soviet children, taking an active part in all the communist youth programs. I heard next to nothing about God during my childhood although I did visit my grandfather’s house on occasion. There I saw some Orthodox icons hanging on his walls, but that was the limit of my knowledge of religious matters.
I do remember thinking about death as a child.  Once there was a funeral in my village, and as I sat in my yard watching the mourners pass by, I began to cry, “I don’t want to die!”  My mother comforted me by saying, “You’re too young!  Don’t think about death!”  Because she didn’t know God herself, she couldn’t give me any true comfort.
As a teenager I attended a technical school and was involved in sports, especially soccer. I had many friends from my neighborhood, but not all of them were good.  Under their evil influence I began to drink.  My parents were casual drinkers and would often offer me a little alcohol. Before long I was drinking to excess.
I graduated from school in 1978 and moved to the Vinnitsa region of Ukraine to work with my aunt.  While there I received my license to work as a truck driver.  As a driver for a collective farm I would make deliveries, and customarily people would  reward me with a bottle of vodka or some other type of alcohol.  At first I would drink just to put myself in a good mood.  But as time went on, I found any and every excuse to drink.
In 1980 I married a lady who also worked on the collective farm, and we moved to Shakhtyorsk in the Donetsk region where I began working for a coal-loading company.  When the time came for me to be enlisted into the Soviet army, I was trained as a cook and eventually was appointed to an army base in the Gomel region of Belarus.
There I was given the privileged position of head cook.  My father was ill during this time and I received special treatment being allowed to visit him on several occasions.  Like always I used these times to engage in drinking and carousing.
My father passed away during my army service.  I had a fairly good relationship with him, but he had been a strict communist and had no belief in God.  One time I brought some icons from western Ukraine to decorate the room. He ripped them up and exclaimed, “Shame on you!  This trash is unworthy of the son of a good communist!”
After my army service, I found a job at a coal mine, but it didn’t last long.  I moved to work at another coal mine where I secured a job operating heavy machinery.  My salary wasn’t very large, so I looked for ways to steal anything that I could from my place of employment: coal, metal, concrete, etc. I sold it and kept the money.  I actually made a business from stealing; I would take stolen coal to a neighboring region and sell it for a profit. Because I continued drinking heavily and missing work, I eventually lost my job.  My wife and I were also having marital problems, and before long our relationship ended in divorce.
I then traveled to the Rostov region with a friend, hoping that if I left my surroundings, it save me from my destructive drinking habit and sinful lifestyle.  But my sin and inward depravity followed me wherever I went. Soon I had the same kind of friends as before, drinking heavily and living a prodigal life.
The director of the collective farm in the Rostov region where I was working initially appreciated my knowledge of heavy machinery and gave me many privileges, allocating to me a lot of land and a nice house. But this good life didn’t last long.  Since I was living with a succession of women and drinking continuously, the director eventually grew disgusted with my ways and forced me to leave.
I traveled back to the Vinnitsa region and lived with my aunt. I found another job but failed to change my lifestyle.  My outward appearance easily deceived people. I seemed to be a very capable and professional man, but sin still ruled my life. For some time my ex-wife and I moved back together. A daughter was born to us, but we soon broke up again.  Once more I moved to the Donetsk region. The year was 1986, and from then until 1994 I bounced around working in various coal mines.
In 1994 I took a job as a truck driver. That year I was arrested for the first time for failing to pay child support. There were people who told me, “You have good credentials and you should be able to get off all right.”  I went to my court hearing with white pants and a white shirt, thinking that everything would work out fine as always.  I was shocked, however, when I was handcuffed and taken immediately to a prison work camp.  Finally my evil ways were beginning to catch up to me.
Valentina, the lady with whom I was living at this time, filed a complaint on my behalf, and the authorities began to reexamine my case.  Not long after, Valentina suffered from hemorrhaging of the brain and three days later she died. When I found out she had passed away, I was shocked and devastated, because she had been a very kind and stabilizing influence in my life. There was now no one to appeal for me.
I was finally released from the work camp after one year.  Sadly, my prison experience and Valentina’s death had not really changed me at all. In fact, as I was leaving, I threw a wild party for my friends. Six of them ended up in solitary confinement for a time. The guards wanted to punish me as well, but I was already a free man and was able to get away. I found a new job at a coal mine and the cycle of sinful living started all over again.
One day in 1996, on the Ukrainian holiday called Driver’s Day, I went to my mother’s home for a visit.  My mother had recently remarried a man who drank heavily. I discovered that my new step-father had stolen my mother’s pension money and had gone out to drink. When he returned home, he had gotten into a fight with my mother. When I saw that she had been beaten and was crying, I became enraged. I threw him out of the house and gave him a serious beating.
The next day he came back to apologize to my mother. I was still there and observed their reconciliation. He and I decided to sit down and drink together, but I noticed that he had been seriously hurt in our fight the day before. He couldn’t even eat or drink. I knew then that something was seriously wrong.  Alarmed, I told him, “You’d better get to the hospital, Lyosha. You’re hurt badly.”  I called the ambulance, and he was taken to the hospital.  Tragically, his condition worsened due to his internal injuries, and within two weeks he was dead.
The police came to question me, and I told them the truth.  After acknowledging what I had done, the legal proceedings began.  On my court date I was totally drunk.  I knew I could end up in prison, and in my despair, I drank heavily.
The judge sent me to a temporary jail, but my behavior was terrible. I was rude and insolent. The local guards finally had enough, so they dragged me into the hallway and began to beat me unmercifully. Again and again they hit me with their batons. I suffered severe internal injuries as well as a seven centimeter long gash in my head. I was taken to the prison hospital for three and a half months, but afraid of what those prison guards would do to me when I returned to the prison, I signed a document saying I had no complaints about the treatment I had received there.
In the prison hospital I began to think seriously about my life.  I knew that my verdict would be a minimum of five years but could be much, much more.  I wanted to be free, and it scared me to think of being in prison for such a lengthy time. While recuperating at the hospital, I was given a New Testament. My fellow inmates and I used the first several chapters of Matthew to roll cigarettes, but then my eyes fell upon the Lord’s Prayer. Because I was so desperate to get out of there, I began to memorize the prayer thinking it might help me. I repeated it like it was some kind of good luck charm.
As I continued to read the New Testament, my heart was touched. That little book began to turn my thoughts toward God. I was still sick and suffering internal bleeding. Out of desperation I begged God to get me out of the horrible mess I had made of my life. That prayer seemed to renew my strength.
Then I was pleasantly surprised when after this one of my fellow inmates received a large amount of fruits and vegetables from home which he shared with me. With this good source of nutrition my health began to improve, and I was even able to get up and exercise. However, when I was moved to the regular prison quarters, I basically forgot about God although the words of the Lord’s Prayer did remain in my heart.
My verdict was announced in September of 1997.  I was sentenced to seven years in a Donetsk regional maximum security prison. After being transferred to this prison, I went through medical testing as was customary for all prisoners. Even though I had been feeling weak from the experience of the past months, I was still surprised when I was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  I was immediately transferred to a special prison hospital for inmates with tuberculosis.  While there I learned that the tops of my lungs were actually disintegrating. Realizing the seriousness of my condition, I started to think more about God and spiritual matters.  Even though I did not know or serve God, I began to pray for His help. Meanwhile, through exercise, sports activities, and cold showers, my health was miraculously restored.
During this same time there was a man in my hospital who had become a believer in Christ. As a friendship developed between us, he began to tell me about Jesus and gave me excellent literature to read about God and Christianity. He shared with me about the One who loves us and wants not only to heal our bodies but also to save our souls! He told me about Jesus Christ who is the one way to salvation.  From the Bible, he showed me that I must repent and receive Christ as my Lord and Savior. At first there was much that I didn’t understand, but as our relationship developed, he continued to share with me, and I continued to listen.
In August of 1998, it was time for me to leave the tuberculosis hospital and return to the prison.  I was not yet a true repentant Christian, but my heart had been prepared. On the day I was scheduled to depart, my friends from the hospital kindly gathered together whatever clothes and pleasant things that they could find and gave them to me.
I waited for the transportation to come and take me away, but the transport never arrived. So I was sent back to my friends in the tuberculosis prison hospital.  My believer friend, Sasha, talked with me as we walked in the prison yard the next day.  Once again he shared about God, trying to convince me to repent and give my heart and life to Jesus Christ.
Though it is rare to ever be alone in prison, when Sasha left, I found myself standing in an empty prison yard. Right then, God’s conviction fell upon me, and I lifted my heart to heaven and said, “Oh, Lord!  You know my sins and you know my life!  How can I come to you?”  I began to repent, praying that Christ would come into my life and cleanse me from every sin.  As I finished praying, peace and a sense of relief came over me! I went and told Sasha that I had repented and we rejoiced together! He then presented me with a beautiful New Testament containing the Psalms.
The next day I was transported to the maximum security prison, but my heart and life had been changed. I was born-again! I truly felt the difference for I had a new freedom in my soul!  I treasured my Bible and longed to do good and grow spiritually. I still knew very little about the Christian life, but I was trying hard to serve God.
I was sent to the work camp sector of the prison, and little by little, people began to recognize that I was a believer that had been transformed.  I was introduced to other believers and began to spend time with them. The desire to socialize with the people who lived the lifestyle that I had previously lived was now gone.
Soon after my repentance when I was still a novice in my walk with God, my aunt sent me a package of tobacco. I decided to have a cigarette, so I rolled one and began to smoke. Suddenly I was filled with a sense of revulsion. I threw down the cigarette and never smoked another one after that. God was helping me break with the sinful habits of the past!
Those of us who were Christians were allowed to meet together every evening before and after dinner for prayer and a time of sharing together. We ministered in the prison hospital by visiting and sharing about Christ with the sick inmates. We also gave them tracts and sanitary items.  We were even allowed to visit the new prisoners in the quarantine area and witness to them.
In September of 2000, a visiting pastor baptized me and some other Christian converts at the prison hospital. I continued to grow in the Lord and enjoyed fellowshiping with other Christian inmates and with the church groups that came to minister to us.
In 2001 I submitted an appeal for parole along with a letter for forgiveness. The pastor of the church that visited me also submitted a letter of appeal. President Kuchma signed an order taking one year off my sentence, and about this same time, a new law was passed that provided for more leniency with convicts who had committed crimes similar to mine. I was soon put on a path toward a speedier release, so long as my good behavior continued.
The months went by, and still I was not released. Finally the regional prosecutor came to the prison and looked through my case. After reviewing my papers and seeing the reports of my good conduct, he ordered that I be released. It was September of 2002.
After five and a half years, I was finally a free man. As I walked out of the prison, I could hardly believe what was happening to me! Another inmate, who had visited our prayer meetings, was released with me. Together we immediately went to the local Baptist Church – to the people and to the pastor who had visited us in prison.  We wanted to express our gratitude to them and, most of all, give thanks to God! As I opened the gate of the church, the first person I saw was a lady named Margarita.  She fed us and then called the pastor to come and pray with us. We all fell on our knees in the church and gave thanks to God.
After that time of joy and thanksgiving, my mind was suddenly drawn to another matter. I had recently received a letter from my mother telling me to hurry home when I was released from prison, because she was very ill. I showed the letter to the men of the church, and they urged me to head home right away.
When I arrived at my mother’s home, it was a warm, sunny day. I walked into her house and saw my mother laying sick on the bed. I said, “Mama! It’s me! How are you?” She looked up at me but did not recognize who I was. “Who are you?” she asked in a weak, sick voice.  I was broken-hearted. After introducing myself to her, I bought a few groceries and began to clean up the house. The place was dirty and unkempt due to my mother’s illness.
The neighbors saw that I had come home, and they invited me over for a cup of tea. I went over and was talking with them when suddenly I could hear my mother crying out, “Help!  I need help!” We called the ambulance, and they arrived, but they only gave her some medication and left.
As I sat with my mother, we talked. I shared with her the message of Jesus Christ and urged her to cry out to God, repent from her sins and receive salvation.  She listened carefully and then began to cry and pray. Right there she repented of her sins and asked God to forgive her. I left her for a few minutes, and when I returned, she was sitting there with an expression of deep peace on her face. She spoke to me boldly, “My son, listen to me!” I was amazed to hear the strength in her voice. She continued, “My son, I’m going to die.” I began to protest, but she interrupted me and told me she was prepared.
Later I went into another room in the house. Glancing back into my mother’s room, I saw that she was sliding off the bed. I quickly ran over to the bed and caught her in my arms. I called for the neighbors to get the ambulance, but by the time help arrived, my mother was gone.
I sought out Fyodor, the pastor of the local church, whom I had contacted only through letters. He was a great help to me through the difficult time of the funeral. I could see God’s hand of mercy manifested through him and throughout the whole situation.  Pastor Fyodor’s church held a beautiful service and dinner in memory of my mother.
After my mother’s death, I began working for a fellow believer from my church who was kind enough to hire me. This income, though helpful, was not sufficient, and I began to look for other employment. I worked for some time as a security guard at a coal mine and later as a supervisor at a sanitation dump. I earned money at other odd jobs as well. In time I was offered a job as a manager for a plastic trash recycling company some distance away. Eventually I opened my own plastic recycling business as a franchise under the original company.
In June of 2003, I married Margarita, the lady who had first met me at the church when I was released from prison. God has blessed me with a wonderful wife and many other blessings.  Above all I am blessed with freedom from my former sins! I am most grateful that Jesus Christ has given me such wonderful peace and joy. Today I am involved in ministry in my local church.  I participate in village evangelism and visit prisons where I preach and counsel inmates. I even minister in the very prison where I once was incarcerated! What a joy it is to share with others about the change that God has made in my life.
God loves all sinners, but He is grieved with our sin. He tells us to repent and turn away from evil. Those who humbly come to Him and repent of their sin, will not only receive His forgiveness, but will experience His life-changing power.  I was a perishing alcoholic, unworthy of any mercy, but God has forgiven me and given me a new life!  I have a peace in my heart that I never knew before!  God can do the same for you! Come to Him – the old things can pass away and all things can become new. In coming, you will find that the bondage of sin will give way to the freedom of His Spirit and life.

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“Free At Last!”

“Free At Last
Vasili Derenski  
Mariupol, Ukraine

Until I reached 42 years of age, I spent most of my adult life in prison.  I was unable to control my behavior, so the penal system had to incarcerate me. I was imprisoned six different times, my sentences ranging anywhere from seven months to more than eight years. Five times I was released from prison only to return again not long after.  When I was released the sixth time, I was a very different person.  I have not returned since.  Why?  Let me tell you my story.
I was born in 1960 to parents who were common factory workers. I was the younger of two sons.  In my early years my parents were heavily occupied in building a new house for our family, and because this project took up most of their free time, my brother and I were left mostly to ourselves.  The Bible says that “a child left to himself will bring his parents to shame.”  Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened in my case.
Initially I was a good student in school, and my mother was very proud of my academic achievements.  But while I was still a young boy, I began to disobey my parents and often skipped school.  This behavior worsened as I got older.  I had a rebellious nature, and from very early on I wanted my own way.  Many times I was ordered to appear with my parents before the court for unruly children.  There were many complaints from other parents about my appalling influence on their children.  I was naturally a leader and was a powerful influence and example for evil.
Because I hated school, I constantly tried to create problems there.  I even broke the windows of my school during winter, hoping that classes would be canceled because of the cold, but the repairs were made quickly and school continued.
I then decided to do damage that would take much longer to fix.  I set the school on fire!  Some friends and I started the fire in the basement of the school which soon spread to the first floor.  Sure enough, we were out of school for two weeks, and I was very proud of my work, even though the principal of the school nearly got caught in the fire.
It was eventually discovered that I had instigated this deed, and for the eighth time I was called with my parents before the police.  This time I was sent to a special school for juvenile delinquents.  I was there for two years, but I did not change.  In fact I tried to escape thirteen different times but was always caught and brought back.  After being released, I was returned to my home where my waiting parents were hoping that I had been reformed.  Their hopes were quickly destroyed.  I was still uncontrollable, and unfortunately I became even worse.
I became a leader among the local youth who would gather and get involved in mischief.  I was seventeen years old at the time, and it was only five months after my release from the school for delinquents, that I got into a serious gang fight at a dance club.  Many were involved in the fight and seriously hurt.  One individual was actually killed.  Four of us received a prison sentence for our involvement in the fight.  My first sentence to three years in prison would be but the beginning of a long period of my life spent as a prisoner of the state.
It turned out that I was the same rebel in prison as I was on the street. I never wanted to submit to orders and was often placed in solitary confinement by the prison authorities.  On one occasion I was part of a group of prisoners who beat up some of the prison helpers who were working for the administration of the prison.  To avoid the punishment that we knew was coming, the twelve of us who were involved, slashed our veins so that we would end up being taken to a hospital.  Because of my evil ways, the prison authorities labeled me as a serious troublemaker and warned that my sentence would be increased if I did not shape up.  The warnings fell on deaf ears; I continued my troublesome ways.
One day we were sent out to work in the rain with inadequate clothing.  We were so angry that we set the prison wood mill on fire.  Information about our behavior traveled to the Donetsk prison authorities, and they sent orders to control us at any cost.  A special police squad was dispatched to put us in order.  It was my first time to experience this kind of wrath from prison officials.  After we were separated and beaten, we were transferred to other prisons.  I ended up in the Kherson region of Ukraine in solitary confinement.
When I was released after seven months, my mother and father met me, and again hoped that I would be different.  I sincerely desired to be a better son not wanting to disappoint them, but all my efforts were in vain.  Within a few months I broke into an apartment and committed robbery.  As a consequence I was sentenced to another five years of prison in the Nikolayev region.  I was a leader in mischief and a problem for the authorities, so half of my sentence was spent in solitary confinement.
When it was time for me to be released, I was disgusted with prison life and purposed to never return again.  I was free for two years, got married, and even had a son.  For the most part I lived a sober life, and though I occasionally used drugs and alcohol, it was never a serious addiction.  I even had a fairly decent job though the wages were low.  But my old habits resurfaced, and trying to improve my circumstances, I turned to the wrong once more and committed another robbery.  Again I was incarcerated in the Donetsk region.
During this imprisonment I thought much about my life and tried in my own power to break the habit of my destructive ways.  I read a lot and worried about what my behavior was doing to myself and to others.  I knew that I had to rethink the direction of my life, and I truly thought that I could change if I tried hard enough.
When I was released, I took my family to Siberia, hoping to start over.  In a short time, however, I was again arrested for robbery.  I told my wife to go back to Ukraine since there was no one there in Siberia that could help and support her.  I was ashamed that I had let my wife down.
I was given four years in a prison of the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia.  In two years my wife stopped writing me letters, and I also stopped writing her.  I realized that I had no right to make her suffer with me, and I did not judge her for the decision she made.  Eventually our divorce was finalized.
It was also during this prison sentence that I first met believers in Christ.  I went to one of their services and received some literature from them.  They prayed for me, and I left that meeting with a positive impression of them.  Some of my fellow inmates who were Christians witnessed to me and impressed me by their good lives. But I could not understand them.  I knew that they were talking about something that I did not possess.  After reading the New Testament that they gave me I still could not understand it.
During this sentence I corresponded with many women by letter.  At one time I was writing to twelve women who were all very different.  For some reason I was fascinated with female psychology.  Just before my release I wrote to Marina, one of those women, and told her that I would like to meet her.
On the day of my release, in 1995, she was there to meet me.  I went home with Marina and met her parents.  Her mother knew that I had been in prison but not her father.  I was able to make a good impression on Marina and her family.
When I told her that I needed to go back to my hometown of Mariupol, Ukraine, to take care of some personal matters, Marina was worried that I would not return and insisted on going with me.  She struggled with this fear because she had three children from a previous relationship and knew that I had the added burden of looking after four more people other than myself.
Within a year I was again arrested for robbery, and in 1996 I was sentenced to another 8 years.  I was very concerned about Marina, knowing that she was far from home and knew almost no one in Ukraine.  I cared deeply for her and wanted to marry her, and eventually I did after my release from prison.
Meanwhile, my life seemed so empty during this time in prison that I began to think again about God and to read Christian booklets. Occasionally, I talked with Christians who visited the prison, and they told me that I needed to repent.
I had seen people in prison come to God and then fall away, and I did not want to be that kind of person.  Sometimes I heard the believers singing and praising the Lord, even during the rain, cold, and snow.  They were prisoners like me, yet they were different.
During this time I wrote letters back and forth with a woman who had questions about God.  She asked me questions that I could not answer, and since I had friends who visited the Baptist services in prison, I turned to them for help and advice.  This communication was another experience that forced me to think even more about God and the meaning of my life
One evening when talking with a close friend about these letters that I was writing, he listened with genuine interest.  We discussed repentance and other spiritual truths.  Finally, we parted and went to bed.  The next morning he was visibly a new person!  The change in his countenance amazed me, and I was even more amazed when I learned that he had prayed during the night and repented, calling on Christ to save him.  His change powerfully affected me.  Together we visited a service held by Baptists in our prison.  It was there that I began to realize that I could not help myself.  Only God could change me.
One night shortly after, I lay in bed and began to pray to God.  I told Him that I realized my inability to change without His help.  I prayed and asked for His forgiveness and for His help to become a new person.  I told Him that I knew He was the only One who could change me.  After praying I felt a feeling of freedom come over me!
I soon began to keep a Bible by my bed at all times so that I could regularly read and study it.  I started going frequently to the prison “prayer room.”  I knelt down and prayed, and even though I knew that others were looking at me and wondering, I did not care!  I even sang to the Lord!  I had decided to follow Jesus.  God gave me the deep assurance that He had forgiven all my sins, and I knew that God had changed me, that He was real, and that others could see the difference in me just as I had seen the difference in my friend. One fellow prisoner even told me, “Vasili, your voice has even changed.”  Of course, there were skeptics who thought that my change was only temporary.  But thank God, they were wrong!
In July 2002, I was released after 23 years behind bars.  This chapter of my life was over, thanks to the power and grace of God!  When I told my family and friends on the outside about the change God had made in my life, they smiled and said, “That’s nice!”  But they did not really understand.
My wife at first seemed fine with the fact that I had become a believer.  She said, “I’m a believer, too.”  But she had never truly repented and committed her life to Christ.  We began to have problems in our relationship.  I told her that she needed to repent, and she would agree and cry, but she could not believe that God would truly help her.
One day, I saw that Marina had been dishonest in a transaction at the store where she worked.  She incorrectly set the scales which she used to weigh the produce.  When I saw that it bothered her, I invited Marina to come and sit by me encouraging her to examine her heart.  After our discussion, I noticed that Marina had corrected the scales.  Other changes soon followed in her life as she began to read the Bible with me. Before long she repented and received Jesus Christ as her savior.
My mother was concerned that I would not be able to get a job because of my past, but God miraculously supplied me with a good job.  This also was a testimony to my relatives and others as they saw God working in my life.  One day my mother told me, “I suppose that I would believe in God, too, if someone would come back from the dead.”  I replied, “Do you think I was alive all those years?  I was like a dead person!  I should have never come out of prison.”  She agreed that she never expected me to change.  I told her that God wanted my change to be a witness to her.  Before long she, too, came to the Lord, as did my daughter.
In 2003 God allowed my wife, daughter, mother, and me to all be baptized together!  What a blessing it was that my own change led to changes in my family.  You can imagine my joy as I entered the baptismal waters with them to give public testimony to the mercy, grace and power of Jesus Christ.
I am now involved in prison ministry with other members of my church.  We hold services in six different prisons.  Many of the administrators know me for I used to be incarcerated in their prisons.  They never expected me to make a lasting change, but now, as I go back to minister in these prisons, it is a great testimony to them.  I am so thankful to God for finding me and saving me in such a wonderful way.  He has blessed me with health, a precious family, and a good church.  Because of all that He has done for me, it is impossible for me not to preach the Word of God!

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“From Problems to Poetry”

“From Problems to Poetry
Valentina Konovalenko
Donetsk, Ukraine

Deep in the heart of southeast Ukraine is both the state and city of Donetsk.  While the state is known for its abundance of coal mines, the city is home to two million inhabitants.  My mother moved to this region to work in the mines when I was just a small girl.  Life for her was difficult due to the fact that my father died when my mother was just forty years old.
When I was just seven years old, an extraordinary event took place in my life.  I received a small New Testament in the mail from my aunt.  She had become a believer and was attending a small evangelical church in a village called Dimitrievka. Someone had sent her a copy of the New Testament from America, and having a desire that I would read the Bible, she sent it on to me.  This was rather astonishing, because at that time in our country, Bibles were difficult to obtain, and even many pastors had only portions of Scripture that were copied by hand.
Many of my older relatives were still unable to read, so they would sit me on a bench and gather around as I read to them.  My mother, however, was an Orthodox believer, and when she understood that my aunt was a evangelical Christian, she took the New Testament away from me and sent it back.
After finishing school, I married at the age of twenty.  My husband worked in the mines of the Donetsk region, and I was a teacher in a school for children who were partially deaf.  Two daughters were born to us.
For many years I lived just like almost everyone else in our society.  I considered myself a good and decent person, as did those who were around me. The days and years of my life came and went as I cared for my family and grew older.
In those days I very seldom thought about God, but events took place that reminded me of the reality of His existence.  For example, one of my pupils in school had especially struggled with mathematics. This little boy was often required to stay after classes to do additional work.  One day when I was hungry, I left him to do his assignments while I went to eat.  When I returned, I was amazed to find the boy on his knees, praying the Lord’s Prayer!  When I asked him where he had learned it, he told me, “My grandmother taught it to me, and she said that if I’m ever going through some difficulty that I should pray it.”  I smiled and said, “Well, perhaps God has heard your prayer. You can stop praying now and go eat.”
This was during the years of communism, and it surprised me to hear an eight year old boy praying.  In our schools the children were taught atheism.  Upon seeing this boy pray, I had to admit to myself that I, too, remembered those words from my childhood and would repeat them nearly every day as I left for work.  Deep inside I knew that God was real, yet I had no true relationship with Him.
As the years progressed, things became more difficult.  The economy was bad and we were poor.  I often did not know how I would feed my family.  Long periods would pass when we received no salary whatsoever from our jobs.  I was constantly thinking to myself, “Where can I get food?”  Yet something strange often happened.  I heard a gentle voice within telling me not to worry or be anxious about finding food.  Little did I know that God was beginning to reach out to me, urging me to trust Him, and causing me to sense His leading and comfort even though I did not yet know Him as my own Lord and Savior.
When I was around the age of 48, I experienced a strange and sad period in my life when everything seemed to fall apart.  It was as if my life had come to a dead end.  My adult daughters were going through divorces.  My marriage was also falling apart, since my husband had become interested in a woman twelve years younger than me. I had to attend court hearings due to the divorce proceedings. I felt like I was buried beneath mountains of pressure.  Many nights I could not bear to be in my own home, so I would spend them at the boarding school where I taught.  But even there in the comfortable room where I stayed, I lay awake at night, hearing the autumn winds blowing the rain against our building, and I listened to the hollow knocking of the branches against my window.  It all seemed to be an echo of the turmoil and loneliness within my own soul.
As a sense of emptiness and helplessness engulfed my life, I began to be racked with anxiety and doubts that I had never experienced before.  One night while alone in my room, I fell on my knees and cried out to God.  I said, “Lord, I cannot go on by myself.  I’m so helpless to do anything about these ruins that have become my life.”
About this time I was working with a woman whose husband was a believer, and he was able to obtain a Bible for me.  Initially I read it with a skeptical eye, looking for contradictions and errors.  However, while reading the Old Testament prophesies, I could see clearly that they had been miraculously fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ, and I was unable to dismiss this as mere coincidence.  Little by little, as I continued to read the Word of God, faith was born in my heart.  I began to see God answer my prayers and work in my life.  I was so grateful to Him for His help, especially after the dark period that I had come through.  I soon desired to start attending a church.
I visited the Orthodox Church first but felt only a spiritual emptiness there, and so I decided to just stay home and read the Bible by myself.  This did not altogether satisfy me, because I still longed for fellowship, and I prayed, “Lord, please send me other believers who are like me, so that I can be encouraged in my faith.”
Although I know it may be difficult to believe, a strange dream guided me to the church which I now attend.  In my dream, I was walking along a dirty, unfamiliar road when I saw a town before me.  I recognized the town and knew that if I would go just one bus stop further along the road, I would be able to find my way home.  When I awoke, I thought to myself, “What a strange dream!”  Then I remembered that there was a Baptist Church (called a House of Prayer in Ukraine) on the very road that was in my dream. For some reason that fact seemed important to me, so one Sunday soon after I decided to visit this church. I was fifty-four years old when I entered an evangelical church for the first time and was immediately struck with a feeling that this place was like no place that I had ever been.  I felt an unexplainable emotion within me as I sat and listened to the preaching of the Word of God.  By the time the pastor had given an invitation to repent, I was trembling and uncertain of what to do.  A woman sitting near me leaned over and asked me, “Are you saved?  Have you repented?”
I answered, “No,” but even as I spoke, I understood that this was precisely the need of my heart, so I stood and went forward.  I did not know what to say, but I wept and cried and spoke the only words I could think of—the words of the Lord’s Prayer that I remembered from my childhood.  I especially remember praying the words, “Forgive us our debts.”
My life was immediately filled with joy and freedom.  The burden of my sin and guilt had fallen away, and I felt such love for God!   In the months and years that followed, God was so good to me in every area of my life.  My husband and I were reconciled and remarried.  My daughters also found wonderful families.
Sadly not everyone shared in my rejoicing.  My older brother angrily called me a traitor for supposedly betraying our orthodox faith, even though I previously had no true relationship with God, and he himself was a heavy drinker.  Although I tried to share with him about the change that the living Christ brought to my life, he would not listen.  “I am my own God,” he told me.  Tragically, two years after my conversion, he ended his life by hanging himself.
The sorrow of my brother’s death was made even greater when I saw how my sister-in-law and her family immediately began fussing and fighting over his property.  Most of the funeral preparations were left to me, and in the midst of the confusion I lost my temper with them and said words that a Christian should never say. Soon after the funeral I became ill and lost strength in my legs.  For nearly a year I was bedridden, and it became clear to me that this was chastening from the Lord for my ungodly response.  My family diligently cared for me during this time.  My son-in-law, a doctor, did his very best to help me, but to no avail.
Then in 1999 a Christian evangelist came to our region to hold special church services.  My husband had become deeply saddened and frustrated by my physical condition, and he informed me that he was arranging for me to see a traditional folk healer on the coming Saturday.  I told him, “I don’t want that.  If you want to help me, please just take me to church—to the last service with the evangelist on Saturday.”
He looked at me and said, “You need to make a choice.  You can decide to pray or do something that will really help you.”  He said this because he did not believe prayer would help.  I told him that I chose prayer.  He then answered, “Well, may your God heal you.”
On Saturday I was taken to church where I heard the Word of God.  On the following Tuesday I woke up in the morning with an amazing thought running through my mind.  “I’m going to stand up today!”  And then I did in fact stand up and walk outside where I soaked in the beauty of a summer day and deeply breathed the fresh air.  God had indeed raised me up!   My husband was incredulous.  He just stared at me, and then said, “Why, you’re walking!”  I answered, “Yes.  My God has healed me!”  I gave him a Bible which he began to read, and in time I had the joy of praying with my husband as he repented of his sins and received salvation in Christ.
I continued to grow as a believer, and my life was filled with new purpose and meaning.  I soon noticed that many people at my church were actively involved in different kinds of ministries. It seemed that everyone was involved in some kind of work for the Lord, and I also desired to do something for Him with my life.
Our pastor frequently encouraged us to seek direction from the Lord for the ministry that He wanted us to do, and he assured us that God had work for everyone.  “If you don’t yet see what ministry the Lord wants you to fulfill,” the pastor would say, “then just wait on the Lord, and He will show you.”
I was not aware that I possessed any special gift, and my faith was very weak, but one day as I listened to people read poetry during the church service, I thought, “Now, reading poetry!  That is something that I can do!”  Then the question occurred to me, “Where will I find poetry to read?” An older sister in the Lord was sitting in front of me, and she had a little book of Christian poetry from which she would often read to the congregation.  I asked her, “Can I have your book, so that I can use some of those poems, too?”  She smiled at me and replied, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to use all those poems myself!”
I began searching and found another book of poetry.  I was disappointed when one of the women at the church informed me that all of those poems had already been recited during the services.  I then decided that since there seemed to be no other options I would try to write something myself with the Lord’s help.  I did, and that desire was blessed by God and turned into several entire books of poetry for adults and children!  These volumes of Christian poetry that the Lord has given me have now circulated and been a blessing to many.
As I look back on my journey, I am amazed that God reached down his hand to me in the depths of my despair some years ago. He found me with a broken heart, a broken family, and a broken life.   But thanks to Him, He has changed all of that by healing my brokenness. He has placed such joy and love in my heart that I now find pleasure in expressing my feelings in the poetry I write.  Truly, because of Jesus Christ, I have journeyed from a world of depressing problems to a world of joyful poetry.

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