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Rising above repression
Soviet persecution couldn't stop Denver missionary's destiny
By Mickey Noah
SBC North American Mission Board
Denver-- Little Anatoliy Odnoralov often came home after school with a bloody nose, the result of just another day as a Christian at his school in the North Caucasus region of the old Soviet Union.
"Since early childhood, I knew the price for my convictions," he said.
Anatoliy was the third-born son o fan ordinary shoemaker. He and Anatoliy's mother were faithful believers in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, they were believer living in a godless, atheistic nation dedicated to the persecution of Christians.
As the family grew to 13, Anatoliy's father faithfully drew them together and read stories from the Bible, urging his children to pray. With his meager cobbler's pay, he purchased a guitar and an accordion and taught himself and his children to play. He even formed a family band -- pretty easy to do with 13 children in the home.
"The school where we were studying mocked us for our convictions and belief in God," recalls Anatoliy, now 43 and a Southern Baptist North American Mission board church-planting missionary serving the Russian and Jewish communities of Denver.
Although the Odnoralov children were excellent students, teachers and peers treated them as second-class citizens because of their faith. Continually harassed by the KGB and the Soviet Union's Committee on Religious Affairs, Anatoliy's father constantly was being summoned to speak to the authorities. He was accused of educating his children "inappropriately," and authorities threatened to remove the children from his care.
Russian newspapers would use the Odnoralov family as an example of backward thinking. They wrote: "There are still people in our society who continue to live in accordance with the old ideas of the Bible and thereby hinder the development of our prospering country."
Constant badgering by the KGB cost Anatoliy's father a series of jobs and the family fell into poverty.
Anatoliy's father was killed in a road accident in 1982, leaving 13 children in the care of their widowed, asthma-afflicted mother. At one point, Anatoliy's mother ran out of money and had no way to buy milk and bread for her large brood.
"Kids, I don't know what we will eat tomorrow," she told her children one night. Later, the children overheard her praying: "You are the God of orphans and widows. You are my Father and you promised not to leave me. Support me in my faith and send bread for my family."
Early next morning, a loud knock at the door awakened 19-year-old Anatoliy.
"Mother came out with her eyes red from crying, and we came out with her into the street," he remembers. "We saw a man, and before our eyes, there were two huge bags of food. The man said the food was for us," Anatoliy said.
"Who are you? Where are you from?" we asked the stranger. "But he told us not to ask him anything. Even today, we do not know anything about him and have never met him anywhere again."
"I believe we'll meet him in eternity," he said.
Anatoliy would suffer more, almost unbearable, religious persecution while serving in the Soviet Army. After the military, he attended Ukraine Bible Seminary before immigrating to the U.S. where he studied at Oklahoma Bible Institute in Oklahoma City. He married -- his wife's name is Natasha. The couple has four children.
Anatoliy Odnoralov is one of more than 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. This year's national offering goal is $57 million. All proceeds support or assist missionaries such as Odnoralov.
In Denver, Odnoralov operates the International Center of Hope, a ministry focusing on the 60,000 Russian-speaking immigrants in the greater Denver area. Only three- to four percent are believers; 80 percent are Russian-speaking Jews. He and his wife also work to start new churches in the city's Russian-speaking Jewish communities.
"When we launched the center less than a year ago... we had to go out and look for local Russian people at their residences. It was not always easy," Odnoralov said. "Now, people come to the center on their own."
The chief project of the center is teaching English as a Second Language to as many as 100 Russian immigrants at a time. The center also offers classes in music, art, Russian history and Hebrew. The courses are provided at a nominal charge.
Summer camp for children is another ministry. "We see kids accept the Messiah, and they pass on the good news to their friends and family members," he said.
The center sponsors home Bible studies for Russian-speaking people. Odnoralov said people prefer studying the Bible in homes rather than local churches.
Sharing the gospel is the Odnoralovs' mission but that comes after they build frendships with the people who come to the center. "We are not afraid to show them how we live, so we have mutual understanding and then they open up to the gospel," he said.
Through the work of the center and its home Bible study ministry, Odnoralov said he has seen God's love help hurting individuals and families. "We see families on the edge of divorce. We see people who are depressed. And then we see families restored and relationships between parents and kids restored."
Perhaps the most difficult group in which to serve are Russian Jews, Odnoralov said. "There have been many dark periods for the Jews -- like the Holocaust -- in which so-called Christians were cruel to Jews. That's why jews nowadays are resentful and very skeptical about Christians."
The Russian Jewish community does not share a common belief system. Most Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union are atheists, Odnoralov said. "Others are willing to admit there's a God, but they're not ready to accept Jesus. They want to attend a synagogue rather than a church. Others say, 'there is a God but I'm waiting for the Messiah.'"
The Odnoralovs and other Christians from the Russian community who serve at the center refer to themselves as Messianic Jews. The title demonstrates respect for Jewish tradition and Old Testament teachings, and sometimes will open a door to share the gospel with Russian Jews. Odnoralov said he and his volunteers tell the immigrants that the Messiah already has come -- and is coming again.
"It's very difficult for Russian-speaking people, especially Jewish people, to accept this good news," he said. "We usually have to work for a long time to create faith in them. As the Apostle Paul said, 'the veil on the Jews' eyes can be lifted only by Christ Himself.'"
Odnoralov said the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is important "because we devote all of ourselves to this ministry. It's important for us to have the offering as our backup. For us to successfully hit the targets that God wants us to hit, we need this support."
There was a time, Odnoralov said, he wanted to stay in Russia, where he already was a missionary doing important work. He had no desire to immigrate to America. He said he asked himself, "Why do I have to go to America if I am serving here?" But God created extraordinary circumstances and I had to go to the states. When I came here, I was asking God, 'God, why am I here? What am I supposed to do?'"
Odnoralov was eight months into his new life in the U.S. when God used an elderly Jewish man to answer Odnoralov's questions.
The missionary was handing out Christian literature to Russian-speaking Jews on the downtown streets of Denver. "One day, an old man, a Jewish man, came up to my table," Odnoralov recalls.
"He asked me why I had come there, bringing my strange God and Christian literature. I told him I was bringing the literature just to give out and let people read it. The old man looked deep into my eyes and said, 'I'm an old man. I will die soon, but my people will live until the Messiah comes."
Odnoralov said the Holy Spirit immediately spoke to him, telling him to look into the eyes of the old man -- and into his heart.
"The Jewish man's eyes were empty and without hope. 'I want you to speak, to tell these people about Me. Tell them without stopping,' the Holy Spirit said. At that moment, I finally understood my call."
Odnoralov said his mission became clear. "God just put me in the place where I was supposed to be. All my questions that I had before leaving Russia were answered here, and I am very thankful to God for this call. I feel I am in the right place -- where God wants me to be."