I was known by the nickname “Nightmare” to the young people who knew me. After becoming one of the leading water polo players in my native Uzbekistan as a young person, I wandered from athletics after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and fell into the drugs, gangs and crime that were rampant in that period of the early 1990s.
I grew up without a father. My mother, a communist, was so concerned about my downward turn into drugs and crime that she went to an evangelical church and prayed for me: God, if You exist, save my son.
At my mother’s insistence, I went to church. A missionary from America who was at the church later told me: “I thought you came to kill me because of the demonic look on your face.” In the church, many could not believe I had come. But Jesus touched my heart. I cried for about 30 minutes, with many in that congregation of 70 people also shedding tears. I gave my life to Jesus that day, and I covenanted with God that I was ready to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. But I had no idea what lay ahead.
Within six months of my conversion, in 1993, my wife and I went as missionaries to Andijan, Uzbekistan. Andijan is one of the most Islamized cities in Uzbekistan, where more than 96 percent of the people are Muslim, according to Pew Research. Evangelicals comprise less than 1 percent.
We started a church in Andijan and it began to slowly grow. The authorities immediately became concerned and began to call me to the local prosecutor’s office to discuss what we were doing. By 1997, the authorities issued a decree requiring churches to register with the government. We didn’t register, and I had to go underground. At that time, many churches went into hiding as local imams and mullahs were attempting to report unregistered churches to the police.
In 2005, with a president who had singled out Christian missionaries as a harmful cultural influence, the government passed a law prohibiting Christian evangelism, missionary work, the distribution of religious literature and gatherings in homes.
Amid increased persecution, I was arrested in 2007, charged with “extremism and proselytism” (winning converts from Islam), and “illegal religious formation.” I was sentenced to four years in prison.
Almost every day, it was evident God was supernaturally helping me.
As hard as it was for me, it was harder on my wife, Marina, and our daughters—Masha, Sasha and Vera. They had to travel more than 600 miles to visit me, but they never missed a visitation. Marina had memorized many Psalms and would recite them to me, a blessing because the Bible was forbidden during my four years in prison.
Psalm 118:17 comforted me from my first days in jail: “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” Often, I was on the verge of death, and at several points I wished I could die. But God’s mercy prevailed.
I turned 40 years old in jail, praying that day for a gift from God but not telling anyone about my birthday. I was compelled against my will by the prison staff to go to the library with the other inmates that day. I thought I’d read everything worth reading there. While scouring the shelves, I spotted a book titled The Path to a New Life. I looked at it and my heart began to beat faster. It was the New Testament, concealed enough by the title that the censor must have mistaken it for a self-help book.
When I came to the checkout table, the librarian asked me: “Have you decided to mend your way?” I said: “Yes. Yes I have!” That day, I received the best birthday gift ever! For the next eight months, I read the Word of God secretly before it was finally confiscated. I carry thanksgiving in my heart for all the Christians who prayed for me. I received thousands of letters with words of comfort. And during this period, I received fewer beatings and punishments.
After the New Testament was confiscated, which was near the end of my four-year sentence, I was sent to a disciplinary cell, which is usually a sure way to lengthen one’s sentence by several years. I was expected to receive another three years in prison. I hardly had any strength in my body, and the disciplinary cell was nearly as frigid as the sub-zero temperatures outside. I couldn’t sleep at night because of the cold; sleep wasn’t allowed during the day. In my misery, expecting death to come knocking, I was saying my goodbyes to my family in my mind. I recall using all my energy to repeat the Lord’s Prayer.
Then one day the cell door abruptly opened and the officer took me to the commanding officer, who sent me to a ward. The next day I met with my wife, and then I was released. I was free!
The men who escorted me to meet my wife told me it was a miracle that I had been released after receiving disciplinary confinement so late in my jail term.
“There were no such moments in the history of this jail,” they told me, marveling. God again had helped me. After inquiring about who might have used political leverage to attain my release, we could find no answers. A U.S. congressman had written on my behalf, but so had European politicians and human rights advocates.
Finally, one pastor told me: “Why do you want to know? Maybe it was a call from Heaven!”
After my release, I was under surveillance for two years and couldn’t go to church, preach or attend a public meeting. I had to be home no later than 9 p.m. Also, I had to report to the police regularly, and our house was watched.
After learning that surveillance could continue another three years, my family and I fled to safety to the city of Kiev, Ukraine. We spent three years there waiting for U.S. refugee status. During that time, we started a church in Kiev. Today, the churches in Andijan and in Kiev are growing, led by pastors who preach the Gospel. God taught me lasting lessons during my persecution, not the least of which is this: He is always good.
It was not easy to understand then, but looking back I am full of gratitude to my Lord. I thank Him that He molded my character, gave me a loving family, true friends, a dedicated church and thousands of prayer warriors.
What am I learning today? As with each day, I am learning to trust my loving God. A few months into our new life in America, it is not easy. But we rest in this: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We dream about the ministry and are praying for opportunities to start a Russian-language church in America. And we continue to pray for safe houses to be available for Christians caught in persecution inside the former Soviet nations.
©2017 David Shestakov
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Decision Magazine.