MACHULISHCHI, Belarus (BP)–Misha Bogdanov once marched as a communist army officer under the flag of the Soviet Union.
Today, as a Baptist pastor in Belarus, he marches to a different beat. Misha — his name means “given by God” — and his wife, Lena, live in Machulishchi, where he is in his third year as pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church. A military town, Machulishchi was home to a secret Soviet air force base until 1990.
Born into a family of believers in Gomel, the 39-year-old pastor learned the story of Christ at home from his parents. “At the time, my parents could not take their children to church because it was a time of persecution,” Misha said.
“In school I was taught there was no God but man came from monkeys,” he said. “Our teachers were very open with it, even though our parents tried to talk them out of it.”
Lena added: “People said, ‘Oh, those poor children (of Baptists).'” Misha recalled how his parents prayed that their five children would become Christians. “But when I grew up, this world was more attractive to me. I began to live an ungodly life, a free life,” he said.
“When I saw the contrast between my life and the life of my parents, I felt very bad. I was looking for a way out, to live another life. In order to change, I went to the military academy. I was there for four years. I studied very hard to finish school and to rise in rank.”
While he gained discipline in his life at the academy, he moved away from his parents’ faith and became a communist. After graduation, Misha served in Khazakstan as an army engineer. After one month, his commanding officer gave him 10 days of vacation to find a wife. He met Lena and married her four days later. “I had a very wise chief,” Misha admitted. “He knew if I did not marry, he would lose an officer.” They were married in Khazakstan.
Misha thrived in the military and, after 10 years, had attained the rank of major. For part of his career, the young engineer built roads during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1987, his uncle, a Christian, gave Misha a Bible. In the evenings, he and Lena began to read from it, focusing particularly on Proverbs and the Song of Solomon.
Then came what he described as a “serious trauma.” He suffered muscle and nerve damage in an accident. That was God’s way of saying, “Look at me,” he said. “In the military hospital, Lena gave me a pocket New Testament. I started to think about the meaning of my life. I started to think about God. Also, we had an accident in my family. My youngest brother was only 22 years old and died in a car accident. I went to the funeral. For me it was a stressful time.”
It also was the time when Misha began making his way back to God. After his recovery, he transferred to Chernigov, Ukraine, “to get closer to home.”
That was the summer of 1991, the same year the couple went to a Baptist church — a visit prompted by a desire to please Misha’s mother and by curiosity. He had heard that Baptists drank human blood and sacrificed children. The couple wanted “to see how they looked and what they sang.”
They saw a man there about the same age as themselves. “He knelt on his knees and asked for repentance,” Misha recounted. “We said, ‘Why is he doing this? He is crazy.’ We didn’t understand a lot and were very critical. Before this visit, we thought Baptists were something terrible.”
But they kept going back to the church — for five months — before they repented themselves and accepted Christ. Misha retired from the military in May 1992 and was baptized in April 1993.
Soon after retirement, God “gave us an apartment in Machulishchi,” Misha said. “When I came to Machulishchi, I had a desire to learn more about Christ and the Bible,” he said. That desire was satisfied in nearby Minsk at St. James Bible College, administered by Campus Crusade for Christ through the Baptist Union of Belarus.
The congregation Misha serves traces itself back to 1976 to the wife of an army officer when Machulishchi was still a secret base. She had come from Siberia and prayed God would send her Christian friends to Machulishchi. One year later, God sent three.
When the Bogdanovs arrived, the congregation numbered 17. It would have had more, but “when the communists found out, they would transfer some,” Misha explained. The congregation faced obvious opposition.
“On October 15, 1994, the church was officially established and the members suggested I become the pastor,” Misha said. “We baptized seven in 1995 and eight in 1996. (Belarussians have “conversations” with new believers for several months until they mature.)
He continued, “Because I was in the army and I knew the service, my choice is to work with the military and with military families. A fisherman understands fisherman. A military man understands the military. People know me. I am a Baptist and a pastor.
“The people say I am a strange man. When they find I was a military man, they say, ‘How can this be?’ They can’t understand how I can be a believer and was in the army. The officials at the base respect me because of my military background, but they are surprised at how I can be both.
“One officer said to me, ‘OK, you are a believer but why a Baptist?’ I explained to him that I found the God of the gospel in a Baptist church.”
Today, the church at Machulishchi, which is constructing its own building in the center of the city, has 37 members with as many as 50 or more in attendance. Three Sunday school classes total anywhere from six to 18 children a week. Southern Baptist missionary James Elliott, who works with Misha, said a Bible study has been started in nearby Godiva. “The people there walk 30 minutes to attend services in Machulishchi. The goal is to start a church in Godiva. Last week, 20 attended Bible study there.
“Misha carries the weight of the city,” Elliott said, “because he is the pastor of a church being built in the middle of the city. They’ve petitioned to have it stopped. He had to go by nine offices three times to get the appropriate signatures and stamps. He’s a central figure. When we walk from the church to his apartment, they all know him. He talks and witnesses to everyone he sees.
“He has a strong will, and it comes in handy,” Elliott continued. “The same stubbornness that would enable a man in the army has been transplanted into a full Christian life.”