We were guests at Roman’s church the night I met a real saint. It had been an incredible week of serving in Ryazan, Russia for our missions team, and we were thrilled to finish our time worshipping in an authentic, Russian house church, singing common hymn melodies in two languages. Roman Popov’s grandfather came in late, stepping quietly and humbly, his wife on his arm, making sure the door closed behind him without noise. The room stopped anyway. The song leader froze. The twang of the upright piano dropped out of the room like a balloon letting out air. Everyone turned around. It was really quiet. It was as if Jesus himself had walked into the flat.
I had to move around just to get a look at him. That couldn’t be Jesus. Zacchaeus, maybe. It was a short, stumpy old man with neat, pure white hair and wrinkled pink skin. There was some scattered applause at his arrival. Older congregants slowly moved towards him for warm greetings. A spirit of celebration filled the room. But this was no celebrity. His countenance was holy—even from my folding chair. It changed the whole room. I caught the attention of our translator, sitting next to me, with raised eyebrows and a tilted mouth (which is indeed the universal face for “?”). “Svetoy,” he said, “svetoy.” He was clearly excited about this man, too. “Who?” “SVETOY. You must meet him. You must. Get your camera.”
The worship service was clearly over now. A small group remained around the mysterious old man, while others started to ready snacks and drinks from the kitchen. The party was no longer about our visiting missions team. My wife and I grabbed our camera and followed our translator into the circle around the visitor. He waited until the old man acknowledged him to speak. He spoke to him in Russian. With his gestures it was clear that he was presenting us and describing our mission work to him. At the conclusion of the translator’s introduction, the man reached out to me with both arms to embrace in a hug. He pulled back, leaving one hand on my shoulder, and placed his right hand on my forehead. He looked deep into my eyes. His presence was full of the Spirit. He spoke words directly to my soul. In Russian. Then he kissed my cheek. “This is Roman’s grandfather,” the translator said very quietly, “and he offers you his blessing for strength,” which made our translator (who looked just like Rowan Atkinson, so we called him Mr. Bean) so emotional he continued in almost a whisper, “and thanks you for coming here to teach the children about Jesus, and he—well, he asks that you please thank your fathers and grandfathers in America for their prayers and the Bibles they sent.” I was very confused. I suspected something monumental was happening in the midst of great modesty. But I knew this man was close to God. He was glowing like Moses off the mountain. I felt like I was meeting the Apostle Paul. Our translator nodded at my camera, insisting we get a picture with him before moving on. The old man obliged. It was as we scrambled to our pose that I saw the tattooed numbers inside his wrist.
Later that night, our translator told us his story. He had been imprisoned in Siberia with murderers for merely distributing Bibles under Soviet rule. His wife was left to raise and support their nine children alone. He accepted his imprisonment as a mission field, and led hundreds of prisoners to faith in Christ. As the years went by, four of his sons joined him in the same prison for the same crime of distributing Bibles. After more than a decade of imprisonment, at the collapse of Communism, the jailor came to release him, since what he had done was no longer a crime. “You did not put me here,” he responded to the jailor, “My Lord Jesus did and I will leave when He tells me to leave. And He has not told me to leave today.” So he stayed in prison for another year, continuing to minister to those in the jail. Christians from around the world prayed for him and his family, and sent him Bibles to distribute in the prisons. He became a legend in the Russian prison system and in the Russian free church. The hardest of prisoners respected him. The most righteous of church-goers celebrated him. In the jail cells, they called him svetoy—the saint. His beautification was the freedom he sacrificed. His canonization was a prison tattoo. And his sainthood came not from his placement, but from his steadfast faith in the One directing his path—even to a jail cell in Siberia.
Where has He put you today, oh saint?