IZHEVSK, Russia (BP)–Vasily Zagrebin sports the busted grin of a boxer who’s gone too many rounds: crooked teeth, broken nose, bent eye socket.
Zagrebin was beaten and left for dead during a drunken binge years ago. “Thank God I lived through it,” he says.
But a life of drinking and carousing cost him everything else -– his wife, his job, his health.
Now a Baptist evangelist in Russia’s Udmurtia region, Zagrebin walks or rides his bicycle from village to village to share Jesus with the Udmurt (OOD-mert) people, the focus of this year’s Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelization, which Southern Baptists will observe May 27.
Born to an Udmurt family, Zagrebin and his five brothers and sisters were baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, but it didn’t mean much. “We didn’t believe in God, but we believed in spirits in the woods -– bad spirits,” he explains.
Argumentative and combative, he beat up other kids, began smoking at age 7 and drinking in grammar school. He dropped out of school altogether in the eighth grade. Much worse followed.
“He was a hooligan,” says Southern Baptist missionary Tim Wicker, who works among the Udmurts. “A rough character.”
After his near-death experience, however, Zagrebin heard the simple Gospel for the first time when Baptists visited his village. He began attending their small-group meetings, under cover of night because of his self-consciousness about his disfigured face. True to form, he argued with the Baptists and with God until he repented and gave his heart to Christ. He quit drinking. He also quit swearing: “I just couldn’t speak those words anymore. I had to learn how to talk again!”
Then he began the work of an evangelist.
“That was my call,” he recounts. “I knew I must tell others how to be saved. I learned how to do evangelism through the [Baptist] church and I began to go door-to-door in my village.”
Baptist leader Alexander Popov helped Zagrebin get reconstructive surgery for his ravaged face. It will never look “normal,” but the joy of Jesus shines through.
Eight years later, at age 36, Zagrebin will gladly walk miles through snow to share Jesus in other villages. To speed up his travel time, visiting students from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, bought him a bicycle. It suits him just fine. He can ride 50 kilometers at a stretch without breaking much of a sweat. Someone offered to buy him a car, but he politely declined; he couldn’t afford the upkeep. Besides, villagers wouldn’t listen to his message if he drove up in a vehicle they could never buy.
Sometimes he gets chased away, but he keeps on sharing the Gospel.
“Like the Apostle Paul, I was the chief of sinners,” he says. “Now I want to be in the villages. I just have to tell. I want so much for others to know.”
To order a DVD and other free resources related to the Udmurt people of Russia, visit ime.imb.org/dayofprayer or call 1-800-999-3113.