What I fear most is power with impunity. I fear abuse of power, and the power to abuse.-Isabel Allende link
TWW is sure getting around!
Eliza Melnikova and Natalia Levinskaya are two very young women who have been working towards serving God in a full time position in missions. However, they have had a couple of bad experiences in churches. They found TWW while doing research in the Internet on church abuse! They wrote me and told me about their difficulties, breaking my heart. They said they were looking for someone to believe them. I did because their stories, while taking place in a different culture and with different expressions, deal with the the misuse of money and authority driven pastors.
This story hits home for me since my father's family immigrated from Russia. Their names are now placed on the wall on Ellis Island. My father could not speak English until first grade. I grew up learning to make traditional foods, including pierogi. I have been privileged to visit Russia on three occasions as I sought to understand grandparents. My grandmother, a peasant woman, once told me that the Tsars were bad enough. Then came Lenin who was no different. They fled to the United States to escape poverty and oppression.
As you read their story, please be aware that you are reading about a different culture. The churches with which they were affiliated were Pentecostal/Assemblies of God which, according to them, are the predominant churches outside of the traditional Russian Orthodox Church. Life is not easy for the average Russian citizen. As the economy rebounds from years of controls, commodities can be in short supply. Substance abuse, particularly alcoholism, is common. However, the people are warm. On my visits to that country, I was hugged by many Russian grandmothers and grandfathers.
Here is their story told in their words. I have done very little editing. I intend to continue to correspond with them to offer them our hope, love, and prayers.
I feel like to begin this, I must start from the beginning. My name is Eliza Melnikova and I am from Russia. I am 20 years old. I came to know the Lord Jesus Christ at the age of 8, when a street evangelist shared the Word of God with me and presented me with a Bible. My life changed on that memorable day. Ever since that day, I dreamed of becoming a missionary someday and sharing the Gospel with the hurting. I dreamed of traveling to faraway lands to share the love of God. I dreamed of singing to glorify the Lord and let the people know just how loved they are, by God. Little did I know that none of these dreams would come true, due to the people I trusted with all that I am – the church.
Difficult home life
It is important to say that I wasn’t born in a happy family. Mine was a rather broken one. My mother always loved me, but my father was an alcoholic. My parents were divorced when I was eleven and my mother married another man. He was extremely controlling, abusive, and also had drinking problems. I was barely ever happy at home, but God kept protecting me. It is amazing what a beautiful relationship I had with Him in the midst of all the pain I endured at home.
Exchange student in the US,
When I was 16, I won the competition that changed my life. It allowed me to go to the United States as an exchange student, for a year – something I’ve been dreaming of. Remember how I said it was my dream to go overseas where I could serve the Lord. That year was truly amazing. I met some of the most special people in my life, went to a church I loved, was able to use the talents I’ve been blessed with to share the Gospel.
Returned home to turmoil
The only thing that bothered me was the turmoil my family was in. My stepfather got even more abusive, and my mother was suffering. It was getting worse day by day. I graduated from high school that year and when I came back to Russia, everything seemed to go downhill at a rapid pace. My stepfather was extremely abusive to both me and my mother, but she would not leave him out of fear. He would continually abuse me physically, verbally and emotionally. Living like that was hell on Earth, but I never let go of God’s hand.
She left home
At some point when I couldn’t take it anymore, I left home and started working several jobs to support myself and my mother. My dream was to go to college and learn to sing professionally, but it was not possible. I still want to, but it’s not possible at all. My mother was not able to pay the tuition, and neither was I. I was renting a tiny, dingy apartment at that time, and kept praying to God to open doors for me to do what He wanted me to.
Church: wealth gospel, bullying, elitism and God's princesses!
Around that time I found a church to go to. I fell in love with it immediately, not because of something in particular, but rather because of my desperate need to belong, to love God together with other brothers and sisters. Something was off from the very beginning, and I sensed it – there was, clearly, some sort of ‘elite’ in the church and they would not even acknowledge me, I was very put off by the way they taught about finances – that if you are wealthy, it means you are blessed and have a relationship with God, but if you are poor, it means something is wrong with you spiritually; I was rather disgusted by how extremely and openly rich the pastor was and how mean and spoiled his children were. But I was lonely, I was scared, I was used to being abused and overlooked, so I tried to ignore those signs and keep enduring it all, ‘for Christ’s sake’, as I thought.
I will be lying if I say everything at that church was bad at that time. Not really. There were some moments I will be forever grateful for. But I had to go through some terrible things, also. I was constantly being bullied by the church youth (remember, I was only 18 at the time) about not being ‘beautiful’. I had some health problems in my early teens, so that led me to gaining some weight due to medications I had to take. I was constantly told that true God’s people are always given wonderful looks too, so it’s another way you can tell if someone is really serving the Lord or not. It seems insanely stupid to me now, but imagine how painful it was for a lonely, abandoned girl who desperately needed some acceptance and affirmation!
Then came the ‘God’s princesses’. I am talking about the privileged daughters of the church’s pastors and leaders that were a cruel clique. They were treated with extreme love (not sure if it is proper to call this sick, selfish admiration love, but here you go) and allowed everything, period. Only God knows all the hurt I went through at the hands of the ‘princesses’ (they really are called this way by their parents and other people at church).
Many other things also went on there…
She shows love anyway.
I felt that this was sick. They have an elite and everyone else was going out of their way to please the elite and be closer to them. I wanted to leave many times, but felt compelled to stay. Finally, I gave in and did all I could to share God’s love with these people, both the elite and the ‘average believers’. I decided it would be my first mission. People barely valued me then, but now I think they do feel my absence since not everyone would be willing to be so patient and keep loving. Since I was not allowed to really participate in the ‘ministries’ and sing, which was my dream, as the ‘princesses’ were always preferred, I decided that my ability to love will be my greatest talent.
I think I should make one more notion: I am celibate, by my own choice and revelation. I was constantly ridiculed, mocked, and ‘disciplined’ for this, but I know what I did this for and I won’t give up. I decided to dedicate myself to the Lord and remain permanently single in order to be able to wholly focus on Him and live for Him only. This is my passion, my calling – to love God! It was been a blessed and difficult journey, but I believe there will be reward for this, once I reach heaven.
She meets Natalia who became her best friend.
Things began to change in several months. I met Natalia, who is now my very best friend and sister. She was slightly older, and a special woman of the Lord and a missionary. She is also celibate. Ever since the day we met, we knew God brought us together was a special purpose, ‘for such a time as this’! We became close friends after several months.
Imagine just how happy I was when Natalia invited me to join her on her upcoming mission trip to Buryatia, which is a small Buddhist republic within Russia! After prayerfully considering this, I knew that this is what God wanted for me, so I said yes! That was probably the third best decision in my life, after saying yes to the Lord as I accepted Him into my heart as a child and saying yes to going to the States as an exchange student! I was so happy! I thought everyone at church would share my happiness, but what followed me telling them about it was one of the worst experiences of my life.
I shared the news with the people at church and didn’t think it was anything bad. I introduced Natalia to my mother and she just loved her. Everything seemed to be so wonderful. Natalia seemed to finally bring peace into our family. My mother was finally making her first steps in the direction of the Lord. For once in my life, I was so happy.
There were signs that something was wrong. I noticed how disparagingly some people at church looked at us, how curtly they talked to us, but since they have never been the nicest of people, I just figured it was their normal behavior. I also assumed they must have been tired, or upset about something.
Pastor says she cannot be a missionary because she came from a 'dirty" family.
Then one morning I get a call from the pastor, asking me to come to church ‘for a talk’. I didn’t really think there was anything terrible coming my way. I came to church all happy and excited, expecting to be prayed over prior to my trip, and what I heard was something I’ll never understand and never forget. In a nutshell, he told me I should not go on that mission. He told me I was not really worthy of being a missionary, as I came from a ‘dirty’ family. He then told me many disgusting lies about Natalia that ‘the girls told him’. I still feel so much pain from that day that I shall not repeat the mean, terrible, untrue things he said. I left the church heartbroken on that day, thinking the worst was already behind me. I was so very wrong.
I later learned that the people at church have been plotting this ever since they heard about our mission trip. They strategically kept making up rumors, just so we wouldn’t go. The girls were apparently jealous. They heard from the pastor of the controlling church Natalia left many years ago and poisoned the hearts of many, many people I trusted. On that horrible day, I lost all the friends I managed to make at that church and other churches that were like it. But the worst was still to come.
Eliza is threatened and runs away
A few days later, I wake up to my mother banging on my door. I knew something was terribly wrong. I get up to talk to her, and find out that the people at church called her and told her all the ugly things I was told on that day, plus many more. She was infuriated! Even though she never went to that church and never even liked them, she was mad now. She told me that I either had to stay ‘at home’ and keep going to that church, or they (her and church pastors) would lock me up. Only God knows how terrible that was. How scared, hurt, and lonely I felt. Her mind was completely poisoned against Natalia, although she used to love her and Natalia never did a single thing wrong either to her or the pastors. She looked insane at that moment, and I was just so afraid.
Please do not judge me for what I did. I knew that staying there locked up at home where my stepfather would beat me up and call me terrible names, was going to be nightmarish. So I just told her I was going anyway, packed my belongings and fled. That night Natalia and I spent at the train station in the nearby city. I kept receiving messages from the church members, telling me they would find me anyway and I would not hide from them, that God has cursed me and what I was doing. I felt like a hero in a horror movie.
I later learned the pastor was stealing great sums of money from the church, which gave him the ability to live and raise his kids in such tremendous luxury. His girls would often make fun of the ‘poor’ people at church, apparently oblivious that it was the money of those ‘poor’ people that gave them the opportunity to wear designer’s clothes and travel abroad nearly every month. That was sickening! You know, he is one of those ‘honorable front seats at all churches’ kind of pastor.
Eliza's mother is sorrowful for her actions and no longer trusts Christians.
I should probably tell you how my mother is doing now. Years passed, and it’s like she awakened from slumber. She herself states she does not know how they could do that to her, how they could allure her. Sadly though, she was terribly wounded by what happened. She can’t trust Christians anymore, especially pastors. She feels guilty for what she did. She is truly sorry. I am beyond thankful to God for how much He has changed her heart. She was finally able to leave my stepfather. She is no longer controlling. I know God is doing something miraculous with her heart.
The mission trip goes well.
Now I would like to elaborate more on the mission trip we went to after all this. Nothing could stop us. We went, and it was amazing. We were serving in a small-small village with another special lady. What God did there through us is incredible. I truly feel like all that we went through before we could go was worth it. Seeing people finding Christ, their hearts restored, it was worth all the pain we both went through. It was worth it! I am now convinced that it was truly God’s will for us. It was glorious!
After our time of service there was over, we served in many other places, in some for a long time, in some for short period of time. We never joined a church. God let us connect with some special people of God during all these times, so we could travel, serve, and do His work. I was also reconciled with my mother!
Their plans to travel to America are thwarted.
Fast forward to summer and fall 2014. We both always knew we were called to go overseas also, and when we were offered a ministry position in the USA (by my friends), we were overjoyed! Unfortunately, our plans did not come to fruition at that time, but we do not lose hope. I am still confident that the Lord is leading us there, and He made us stay here for awhile longer for a reason. We could not afford the paperwork we needed to complete in order to move (the passports, visas, and so on all cost too much for us to be able to afford). We trust in God though, that He will work something out.
They try a new church.
While we were in the process of trying to move, I found a new church in the area and suggested that we try it out. We went there one Sunday, and received such a warm welcoming into the church we both felt absolutely compelled to stay! Everything seemed so lovely. The pastor and his wife were so hospitable, so welcoming to us. I felt like I have finally found a refuge where I could heal after all the pain I endured at church before.
It was started by former drug addicts.
I should tell what kind of church that is. It is the plant of the bigger church that bears the same name. That church started as a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. Every plant of that church has a rehab of their own, all their pastors are former drug addicts, and most, if not all members, are either former drug addicts or their relatives. I have never had any problems with drugs, and neither was Natalia. It is quite strange we were so drawn to that church, but I guess it happened because they were so open and welcoming and we really, really missed that.
We got very involved within a quick period of time, joining many ministries. Natalia is an amazing counselor and has helped many hurting girls and women. I was one of them at some point. She was quickly appointed as the leader of ladies’ fellowship, I was given a singing ministry, which made me so happy! We were pretty upset at that time about our failure in moving to the States, so it was great to start something new and have some sort of distraction. Isn’t it funny how easily you can get involved in something and think that you know what this place is all about, but in reality, you are just clueless and have no idea?
Addiction to religion
I used to admire them for being so courageous and ‘rescuing the drug addicts’, but do you know what these rehabs are actually like? They are usually just a small, shabby house where these people are locked in, with strict rules and regulations, where they are not allowed anything at all and all the ‘ministers’ do is cram them with religion? Sometimes they are made to work, of course they are not given any money they earn, all that money goes to the ministers that ‘keep’ the rehab. Sometimes it ‘works’, as they think – and the poor folks only trade one addiction for another, that is, addiction with religion, but in most cases, it just doesn’t. Most people get so put off by all that has to do with Christianity that they run away from that place and never want to hear anything about Jesus again. Some kill themselves later. Most begin drugs again and then die of AIDS or cancer.
During the short 5 months we were part of that church, three people committed suicide and innumerable folks ran away from the rehab and now live in the streets, taking drugs, simply because they were treated so poorly at the rehab. The ‘ministers’ there are all former drug addicts who went through all the hell at the rehab themselves and liked it, because they could trade their drug addiction for a more ‘fulfilling’ one, as many of them state themselves – addiction with their ministry, where they can exercise authority, fulfill their ambitions and control people to their heart’s content. I would not wish getting under the hands of such a minister upon anyone. They are mostly ruthless, cruel, and enjoy using Scripture for their own profit. Here’s how we became their victims.
Let me introduce you to the pastor and his wife. Pastor Maksim was a heavy drug addict for most of his life and spent over 10 years in jail, as we later learned. He became a believer in a rehab himself, and was a very ambitious minister ever since. He became a pastor after about 4 years of his conversion. He came to our town as a missionary to plant a new church and a rehab and soon met Olga, the lady he would later marry. She became a Christian two years ago, after over 15 years of being on drugs. She was in rehab of a different church, which she left, because most people were scared of her for her love of manipulation, disrupting families and later living with a gang member and drug addict who was not her husband. That woman destroyed every ministry she touched, and most people she was ‘overseeing’ either abandoned their faith altogether or committed suicide. I am not kidding. She had to separate with the man when he was put in prison, and about a month after, she was already in a relationship with pastor Maksim! She is a very charming person, actually, and it’s hard to stand up against her charm and charisma.
I am not telling all this to bring anyone down or get any revenge. I bear no resentment. The only reason why I want to speak up is to stand up for the hurting people who were hurt by the church and rehab there. They will not listen to anyone, because they were hurt so deeply. I want the whole world to know about this, so that we could all raise our voices in prayer for these voiceless people, who are like sheep without a shepherd.
So this is what happened to us. We got involved in the church, super excited to be able to help. We both missed being part of a church family or any community of believers so much. Some things were wrong from the very beginning, and I noticed them, but as always, I would do my best to excuse it all. I would continually tell myself it was not their fault, they were simply overwhelmed, but genuinely good and kind. Does this sound like a lot of people who get hurt by church?
We noticed many wrong things about the relationship of our pastor and his wife. It was obvious that everyone his wife didn’t like for whatever twisted reason she had, would later get insulted, scoffed, or even excommunicated by the pastor. It was scary, to be honest. At one point Natalia had a dream, where she saw pastor Maksim get extremely rude and violent at us, but we just shrugged it off. Olga was showing her true self to us, slowly. She would continually lie to take advantage of us, whether it be financially or physically, to get us to do something she wanted.
Then we noticed she was strategically dividing our families, by rumors and manipulation, as well as trying to destroy our friendship. We were disgusted by how badly she spoke of certain people. We never brought a single slanderous accusation against anyone, not even those who hurt us. Olga would knowingly make other people say mean and humiliating things about us, making it seem like she was not behind this all. We were shocked, as we never did anything bad to her. I did share the story of how badly we were hurt in that other church, telling them confidentially how much we needed support and refuge. I believed we were safe there, but I was so wrong.
Asked to leave worship ministry
One time the pastor called and said he would be coming over, to have a talk. When I look back on that day, I do believe we both sensed something terrible was going to happen. He arrived, looking wound up already, and we offered him tea and lunch, which he curtly denied. What he then told me was something that wounded me deeply. Without any preparation, he bluntly told me he wanted me out of the worship ministry, saying I was ‘not ready’. He said that after having talks with my previous pastor and hearing some things about me, which were all made up by his wife, as I later learned, he decided it would be best for everyone.
He said I needed to not let my pride stop me from leaving the ministry. He said he only let me do it because he ‘didn’t have a better choice’, but ‘now he does’. I then started crying, which he ignored. All I wanted was to glorify God and share His love through something I thought I was called to do – singing! I don’t normally cry in front of people I don’t know well, so it was utterly humiliating, and he acted very indifferently and cruel, and accused me of pride and manipulation. He then said it was okay for Natalia to stay on the team, but not me for sure. Well, as you might have guessed already, that was Olga’s attempt at destroying our friendship and making me lose something I cherished. He then left, saying he was glad to get it over with.
After he left, I felt so bad I couldn’t stop crying for hours, which is not something that happens too often, as I am a pretty tough girl by nature. My head was aching badly, and so did my heart and my entire body, probably from so much stress. I was hurting so bad that I literally crawled to a drug store to get some pain relievers. I shall never forget that day.
As you might have guessed, Olga then took my place in the worship ministry. It will be fair to say she cannot carry a tune. After several days, she took Natalia’s woman’s ministry as well. Women stopped attending when Olga took over, because she was openly abusive and controlling. Most other people who were on the worship team ran away from the rehab and now do drugs. I am overwhelmed by this. We are both heartbroken.
Several months ago, Olga helped me find a part-time job as an English tutor for one of the church ladies’ kid. That was of great help at first, but once they had me out of the worship ministry, that job became terrible also. They probably asked the lady to stop paying me. She also started treating me very unfairly overall.
Leaving the church
After much prayer and contemplating, we decided it was best to leave that church. The only reason why we kept attending for so long was for those people we truly felt compelled to help, but apparently us staying there and hurting does not help anyone… Since that, all other members of the church started shunning us. It is sickening to think that they are all being abused, too, and then they still shun us as they are taught. Right now, here we are, heartbroken, used, cheated, without ministry, without jobs, not sure what the future holds. We are left after all this, without a penny. I can’t help but wonder why I even live.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read this. I already love you very much.