Remembering His Underground Church, a Pastor Tries to Unify Old and Young

Dec 12, 2017

Worshippers in the Russian-speaking Bread of Life church in Christian County, Missouri listen to the sermon.
Credit Ryan Welch / KSMU Radio

Rows of chairs line the modern sanctuary, filled with worshippers from teens to older adults. Some pray in Russian; others are speaking in tongues.

The Bread of Life Church is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.  It’s nestled in a rural part of Christian County, Missouri, surrounded by fields, a few homes, and farm roads.

Nicholi Illyuk, born in Ukraine in the 1960s, is the pastor.

It was different in the Soviet Union. Christians who practiced outside the state-sponsored Orthodox church didn’t worship openly – they hid.

Nicholi’s church there was underground.

Igor Illyuk is Nicholi’s son.

“So they gathered together in homes, houses. Many times they had to change location every Sunday, or whatever, not to get caught. Because if the people got caught, the owners of the house, they’ll get arrested and sentenced,” Igor Illyuk said.

One woman we interviewed for our series, Anfisa Tolokovskaya, told us her husband was arrested and imprisoned for 10 years for preaching evangelical Christianity. She used to visit the Christians in prison, she said.

Another Springfield resident, Lyubov Chernioglo, described to us worshipping at 4:00 in the morning to avoid imprisonment.

The Iron Curtain of communism came down nearly 30 years ago.  As a result, the older and younger generations have different perspectives on religious liberties, and how those liberties are practiced here.

As the pastor, Nicholi Illyuk is trying to keep his church from splintering along generational lines.

“Young people want to sing worship song, old people want to sing old songs,” he said.

Also, older women tend to cover their hair in church, but not younger women.  People who lived under the careful eye of the KGB and other Soviet intelligence agencies are much less trusting than their descendants.

He’s fighting the request to have two separate services. The old bring their rich experiences, he said, and the young bring the passion.

“In [our] Board of Directors, we have old people and young people. And sometimes, it’s not easy. We may have a discussion,” Illyuk said.

One of those discussions was about opening a coffeeshop--in the church.  The millennials were eager; the elders balked.

“So in the Soviet Union, never we had before a coffeeshop, like in [the] church. It’s only church,” Nicholi said.

But in the end, the board members did something else they’ve learned to do here in a democratic republic:  they put the matter to a vote.  And in went the coffeeshop.

One of the reasons the nearly 300 Russian-speaking church members chose the Ozarks is because it is considered a morally conservative part of the country.

According to the U.S. Department of State, nearly half a million religious refugees have come to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union countries since 1989.