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Faith & faithfulness reflected in Belarussians’ college days

BOLIVAR, Mo. (BP)–They grew up 15 minutes from each
other in a city of 2.5 million people. But they did not meet
until they were 3,000 miles away attending college in a
small Midwestern town.
Lena Bystrova and Mila Firisiuk, both university
graduates from Minsk, Belarus, have been attending Southwest
Baptist University in Bolivar.
But that is where their similarities end.
Lena, 26, graduated Dec. 19 with a degree in business
administration. Mila, 21, has completed her first semester
and plans only to attend through next spring.
Lena’s three years in Bolivar have changed her
perspectives — in more ways than one. “I’m still the same
person,” she said. “But things around me have changed.” Lena
said she suffered from culture shock when she first arrived.
“This is an absolutely different environment. But people
were patient and kind, and I appreciated it.”
School also was different. “In Russia, school is
competitive; you must take difficult tests to go — it’s not
like here where you pay money and go,” Lena said.
“Our tests are comprehensive and oral. It’s hard
because you must memorize everything. It’s very stressful.”
Lena’s first semester at SBU also was difficult because
she needed time to adjust to English. “The first test I
took, the professor told me I could have all the time I
need,” she said. It took her six hours to complete. “That’s
how I learned to be patient and kind. People showed me
unconditional love.”
First Baptist Church pastor Ray Leininger and his wife,
Judy, also showed Lena unconditional love by taking her
under their wings. “We kind of became adoptive parents to
her,” he said. “We attempted to treat her as one of our
They also helped alleviate any lingering fears Lena had
about Baptists. She recalled that in Belarus — part of the
former Soviet Union — government propaganda accused
Baptists of being a cult that sacrificed babies and treated
women poorly. In fact, Lena never would have attended SBU if
she and her family had not overlooked the word “Baptist” in
her paperwork.
“As soon as I got here and I learned it was a Baptist
school, my parents wanted me to come home,” she said. “But I
didn’t want to go home because I didn’t see anybody killing
anybody. I thought the environment was OK. I felt all right
from the very beginning.”
But it would take much longer for her mother’s fears to
fade. Every time she called her daughter, she would remind
her of what she had heard about Baptists. She also warned
Lena not to date any Baptist boys.
“Obviously, I saw that the propaganda back home was
wrong,” she said. “The government back home was always
speaking against religion.” Thus, when Lena came to America,
she came as an atheist. That, too, has changed.
“Back home, we read a lot,” she said. “So when I got
here, I
started to read the Bible, just like any other book. I just
wanted to be more educated. When I read it, I never thought
that I would believe in God. The birth of Christ by a virgin
— it sounded really weird.”
She also started attending First Baptist Church
regularly because it helped to improve her English speaking
skills. “Ray (Leininger) was a good speaker,” she said. “And
the Leiningers were the only friends I had. I was always
asking questions, and they always answered, but they never
pushed me to believe in God.”
Two years after Lena arrived in the States, “Toymaker’s
Dream” — a drama symbolizing God’s creation which he must
redeem — visited SBU. “It was at that point that I realized
that the Bible was not about all these little things that I
wondered about — like how Jesus turned water into wine and
about the virgin birth.
“But I had to come to a point where I had to close my
eyes and believe,” she said. “When I saw the dancing
(choreography of Toymaker’s Dream), I could relate to it
because I have been dancing all my life. I didn’t have time
to question it.”
That was about a year ago. In October, Lena announced
to those attending the Missouri Baptist Convention meeting
in Springfield that she had become a Christian. It was the
first time she had professed her faith publicly. She was
baptized Dec. 14 in First Baptist Church, Bolivar.
“The last three and a half years have probably been the
hardest experience of my life, but also the best experience
of my life,” said Lena, who plans to begin a job in business
administration in California in the new year. “When I look
back and see how much I’ve learned, I know I’m a much better
person than before.”
Mila has a quite different story to tell. First of all,
she grew up in a Baptist family in Belarus. Her father,
Alexander Firisiuk, now is the president of the Union of
Evangelical Christians-Baptist. Mila remembers vividly the
risks her parents took in taking her to church.
“Children were not allowed in the sanctuary until about
age 10,” she said about life under communist rule when there
was one Baptist church in Minsk. “People were afraid to go
to church, but from the time I can remember, I was in
church. My parents took that risk.”
Growing up in a Christian home helped ease the culture
shock of coming to America, Mila said. “I’ve interpreted for
many Missouri Baptists who have come to Belarus,” she said.
“So I don’t see so much different between Belarussian
Baptists and Missouri Baptists. Of course, the culture is
different, but it didn’t shock me.”
She also had visited America prior to attending school
here. “I came with a choir from Belarus in January 1996,”
she said. “We spent a month traveling in five or six
states.” The choir tour was part of the Missouri Baptist
Convention’s partnership with Belarussian Baptists.
It was during the choir tour that Mila first was
presented with the option of studying in America. After
graduating at home with a degree in international law, Mila
decided to spend a year studying in the States.
“I want to have more experience,” she said. “I want to
work with an American business in Belarus, like as a legal
adviser. So I think American business techniques will be
valuable to me and help me to get a better job, and the
language experience and computer knowledge will be very
Mila said she, like Lena, does not date many Baptist
boys — but not for the same reasons as Lena in her earlier
days at SBU. “Belarussians don’t date a lot,” Mila said. “We
don’t date just for fun; we date if it’s pretty serious —
if a guy wants to marry a girl.”
Mila spends her college breaks traveling around the
state speaking in Missouri churches that have “link-up”
churches in Belarus. A total of 205 Baptist churches in
Missouri financially support, provide materials and/or
short-term missionaries to 187 Baptist churches in Belarus.
“It is a delight to have Mila here,” said Alberta
Gilpin, chairperson of the MBC committee overseeing Mila’s
stay. “She gives us a taste of Belarus right here in
Missouri. It’s a good experience for her and for us.”

    About the Author

  • Stacey Hamby