Last Friday I was invited out to supper. The Directors of the Latvian Biblical Centre, Ester and Vitali Petrenko, decided to invite some of the pastors of churches that collaborate with them to a ‘thank you’ dinner. Since the Centre contributes to the academic training of our cadets for officership, I got an invite.
Ester and Vitali live in a lovely house on the outskirts of Riga. In conversation with Vitali I complimented him on his home and he told me that he and Ester could only afford to build it because he was a builder by trade and could therefore do much of the work himself. Knowing that Vitali has a PhD from Durham University in the UK, I was curious to know how he had transitioned from being a builder to an academic. Not with the greatest stretch of the imagination did there seem any connection between the two.
He then told me his story. Brought up in Belarus, his father, a pastor, was imprisoned for his Christian faith when Vitali was still a small boy. He described how this event in his life and the sense of living in constant fear affected him, and made him quite a withdrawn, quiet boy. As a young man he became involved in youth work, working for a pastor who also had been imprisoned for his faith several times, but who instilled in Vitali his own passion for reaching out to others with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Although a builder by trade, Vitali began to have a desire to learn more about his faith and had the opportunity to share this dream with a representative of Scripture Union from the UK, Mike, whom he met at a conference in Moscow. Some time later, out of the blue, Vitali received an invitation to study a certificate course in theology in the UK. Unbeknown to Vitali, a church had approached Mike saying that they had received a legacy and wanted to ask his advice about spending it on literature for Eastern Europe. Mike remembered Vitali and suggested that the church use the money to sponsor a young man from Eastern Europe to fulfil his dream to study more about his Christian faith.
Vitali came to England. One thing led to another and eventually he achieved a Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s degree in theology at the now London School of Theology, at which point he thought he would be returning to Latvia to use the knowledge he had gained. It was then that he felt God telling him that he would study for a Doctorate in Theology. Vitali could not see how this would be possible, but, believing that this was God’s will, he applied for funding to various organisations, only to draw a blank. Around this time, a friend who had accompanied him on a mission in Eastern Europe was invited to tell a church of rather elderly ladies about his travels. As part of his presentation he told them about Vitali, little thinking that there would be even the remote possibility of anyone in the congregation being able to help Vitali financially. However, God, as we know, moves in mysterious ways, and some time later, an elderly lady, anonymously through an intermediary, felt led by God to provide the substantial amount of funding, £48,000 in all, which Vitali required to complete his PhD. To this day, he does not know the identity of his generous benefactor.
So there you have it. Unlike the first disciples, Vitali did not become a fisher of men, but he has become an important builder of faith and knowledge for the Christians in Latvia.
The fireplace? Vitali told me that he always dreamed of having in his first home an English marble fireplace. He bought it cheap on Ebay just before he left the UK and it was stored away for 6 years until, at last, it was able to have pride of place in the house that Vitali and Ester have made their home!