Sviatlana Panamarenka was born 14 years ago in Gomel, a city of over a half a million people, a nine-hour drive west of Moscow in Belarus. Passionate about music, Sviatlana sings, plays the piano, and enjoys listening to her sister Hanna play the violin.
When Sviatlana was six years old, her parents divorced.
“In Belarus, it is not like America where you get married later in life. Most people get married very young and stick with their partner no matter what.”
Finding it hard to find a new husband in Belarus due to her status as a divorced woman, Sviatlana’s mom turned to an online dating site. This was when she met an American man named Chad.
“I was never really religious, nor were any of my friends. We went to church on Easter, and we don’t celebrate Christmas. Christ is not popular there like he is here in America.”
“Growing up we all believed in a creator god; we all knew that something created us. But no one I knew really had a relationship with this God that created us.”
At this point in her life, content without a relationship with God, Sviatlana saw Chad begin to share the love of Christ with her mother. Her mother believed what Chad had told her and started sharing that love with her daughters.
“It’s not that I didn’t believe in God when she told me about Him, it’s just that I felt like I didn’t need Him in my life. Why would someone need to die for me? My life was just fine as it was.”
The relationship between Chad and Sviatlana’s mother began to get serious. Her mother told Sviatlana of the possibility of moving her and her sister Hanna to America to be with Chad.
“At first I did not take her seriously. But then one Friday I got a call from my mom, and she told me that we had tickets to America for that Thursday.”
“We had to get on a train in Gomel to go to the airport, and that is where we said goodbye to all of our family. That was probably the saddest moment of my life. My family has always been the most important thing to me, and I knew that I would not see them again for a very long time.”
Sviatlana and her family started their journey to America; almost 6000 miles from their home in Belarus. Six thousand miles away from her family, her friends, her school, and people who spoke a language she could understand.
“When I first got to America I had a really hard time because I didn’t know the language and I didn’t have any friends. I cried a lot, but I tried not to let my family know because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”
During this transition period, Sviatlana began going to church at First Baptist Zachary. As someone just learning English, church was a difficult environment.
“I didn’t even know you were supposed to dress up, so I showed in Nike shorts and a t-shirt, and I was so embarrassed. We sat down in the back row, and I didn’t understand a word the preacher was saying. But I always really loved the music, and when my sister started playing the violin for the church, I began to go more and more; on Sundays and Wednesdays as well.”
Through her time at Zachary Baptist, Sviatlana came to know more and more about God and His desire for a presence in her life, and God began to work on her heart.
“I learned that God loves me and wants to take my worries, so I started to trust him with my promises, and he would take them away.”
God continued to work on Sviatlana’s heart for the next year as she experienced the beauty of trusting Him with her burdens, and God made His presence clear to her last summer at Fuge.
“I knew lots of things about God, but I never felt the Spirit or a connection to God. But during worship that summer I felt a connection with the Holy Spirit for the first time.”
“Back in Belarus, everyone liked me. I was never bullied, I had lots of friends; I thought it was a pretty good life. The whole brokenness circle in the three circles; I didn’t realize that’s where I was. I feel like God had to take me out of my comfort zone to show me that I needed Him. That’s why I am so thankful I got to come here because I can’t imagine what my life would be like without God. Now I can’t wait for the day I get to reunite with my family in Belarus to tell them about God and the love that He has for them.”
When thinking of barriers to the Gospel, most think of location, isolation, illiteracy, prevention by culture or law, persecution, etc. But these are not the most dangerous barriers to the Gospel; the one that is most dangerous is the one invisible to most of us: comfort.
Nestled in the false security of comfort, the Gospel can seem unnecessary.
“Why would someone need to die for me? My life was just fine as it was.”
This lie from the devil is often why people are reluctant to come to Christ. Few are those that do not come to Christ because they believe they are too broken to be restored; many are those who are too blinded by the comforts of this world to see their need for Him.
Everyone has been uncomfortable at some stage of life. Most people feel uncomfortable for a large portion of their lives. But trillions of dollars are spent, institutions are developed, social media profiles are publicized, hours upon hours of viewing time are consumed, relationships are created, and ultimately lives are wasted in pursuit of avoiding the internal crisis we all experience: the emptiness of a life separated from God.
However, as followers of Christ, we have been pulled by the loving hand of grace from out from the quicksand of our comfort zones, into true security under the robe of Christ’s righteousness.
For Sviatlana, it took 6000 miles separating her from the things she held dearest to reveal her need for Christ and His salvation. In His sovereign grace, God took Sviatlana away from her family, culture, language, and home, to show her that the only true “comfort zone” is found by those covered by the righteousness of Christ, ready to stand by His side before the judgment seat of God.
“If you don’t know how to fit in, God will always find a place for you if you do the right thing and worship God. He will move you to the right place; if you trust Him.”
The right place will not be where you intended to be apart for Christ. The right place may not even be where you intended to be even after you have trusted Christ with your life. But Scripture shows us that inside our “comfort zone” may be the most dangerous place we can be regarding our relationship with Christ.
If you do not know Christ, trust that Christ is calling you out of the lie that tells you that you don’t need Him. And once you do, you will find that what you thought was a comfort zone was a danger zone; unfulfilling, unsatisfying, and ultimately leading to death. Not only that, but you will be filled with the power of God through the Holy Spirit, surrounded by family in Him, and made heirs with Christ, and inheritors of eternal life. You’ll never be “out of place” or unsatisfied again.
If you do know Christ, recognize His call to bring you out of your comfort zone as well. Allow Christ to lead you like He led Sviatlana; to places thousands of miles away, to people, you have never met, to unfamiliar languages. Discover that what you thought you left behind is overshadowed by the wonder of God’s grace — eternal treasure awaits!