The power of the Book

Esther Hippel | Moldova

After four broken marriages, alcoholism, stealing, fighting, prison and attempted suicide, how it is that Viorel Cebotari today runs OM’s day centre for vulnerable children in Caplani, a village in south-eastern Moldova?

The 41-year-old Moldovan is married, has three children and is a hard worker, devoted to God and his community. Meeting him, it is hard to imagine that for many years he was a criminal and alcoholic – a man considered to be beyond hope. But he happily testifies to the miracle God has done in his life.

Growing up during communism, Viorel was taught that God did not exist. His father committed suicide when he was two, and he grew up as an only child. Soon, Viorel was going his own way, ignoring his mother’s attempts to set him straight.

As a teenager, Viorel and his friends were the village troublemakers. Drinking, stealing and getting into fights, they were constantly in trouble with the police and frequently in and out of prison.

By age 25, Viorel, sick of his empty life, tried to commit suicide by drinking poison. He was rushed to hospital and survived. Even after this, though, he continued his old ways for several years and never thought about God. That was, until he found himself in prison once more after seriously injuring another man in a bar fight.

To Viorel’s surprise, his cellmate asked questions about God and seemed to believe that “somewhere there is a God”. But Viorel despised his life – he had been married four times and his wives had left him. He felt lonely, knowing that nobody needed or wanted him.

The idea of God repeatedly returned to Viorel’s mind, though, and he made a deal with God: “If you really exist, get me out of this prison and I will serve you!”

After one month, Viorel managed to bribe the authorities to set him free. However, he again returned to his old way of life. Shortly, in his spirit, God reminded him of his promise. Viorel assumed it meant entering a monastery. Since he did not know of any monasteries and was ashamed to ask, he decided to somehow get his hands on a Bible and see what it would tell him to do.

“I had no idea about the Bible at all,” he admits today, “and I really thought it would be written in there which monastery I should go to and where to find it.”

Transformed by God’s Word

Viorel found a Bible and began reading. “I started right at the beginning,” he recalls, “the first verse of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (1:1; NIV). It felt like an electric current was flowing through my body, and immediately I knew this Book was not like any other book.

“I had always liked to read,” he continues, “and because my mother had been a teacher, we had lots of books at home, but they had all said that there is no God and we had evolved from monkeys. Now this Book said there is a God, and that He had created everything!”

Viorel continued reading and came across the narration of the woman at the well, in the New Testament, whom Jesus tells, “… you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18; NIV).

I have only had four wives, thought Viorel. Here is someone else like me, and Jesus did not reject her.

He came across the same truth again and again as he read, from the woman caught in adultery to the criminal on the cross next to Jesus. It amazed Viorel that Jesus was willing to receive them.

“I had become used to insults and rejection,” he recalls. “Not even my own relatives wanted anything to do with me. By reading the Bible the conviction grew inside me; God loves even me and for the first time in ages I felt hope.”

For a while his habits improved because he read the Bible, whereas before he had been sleeping during the day and drinking at night. But soon he was again drawn to alcohol and slipped back into his old ways. However, he still carried his Bible wherever he went and would read it even when he was drunk.

“I knew all the places in the Bible where it says I shouldn’t do what I was doing,” he remembers, “and I even read it to my companions, telling them, ‘See what the Bible is saying. But we, what are we doing?’ We were afraid because we knew it was wrong, but we couldn’t stop.”

This went on for years, and for Viorel they were the hardest years of his life. Though he had done the same in his youth, he now knew it was wrong. He often promised God he would stop, only to realise he couldn’t, and this bothered him.

“How is it possible to read and know all this and be unable to live it?” he often wondered. He believed in God but could no longer love himself.

Finally, one day he broke down and cried. Getting on his knees, he cried out, “God, I am at the end; I can’t live like this! Show me what to do.”

Today, Viorel calls this incident his true moment of repentance – the moment he admitted his own efforts were not enough and threw himself on God’s mercy.

Transforming the community

Returning to his home village, Viorel looked for a local church and found four elderly women meeting in a private home. When he walked in on his first Sunday, they were surprised and at first did not know how to talk to him, as they knew what kind of man he had been. But they accepted him.

Viorel married a believing woman, and they soon had two children, Beniamin and Estera. There were complications after Beniamin’s birth, and for a year the couple was in and out of hospital. The doctors said the boy did not have any chance of survival.

When, during this time, Viorel’s wife again became pregnant, they urged her to have an abortion, but the parents decided to fight and pray for the lives of their children. When Beniamin had a successful operation and Estera was born healthy, the thankful parents made plans to care for other sick or neglected children.

This was the start of the day centre in Caplani. It was a difficult beginning, partly due to the lack of good facilities, but also due to the suspicion of the village people.

With a general prejudice against evangelical believers, combined with the Viorel’s well-known past lifestyle, people suspected this was a way to trap unprotected children in order to sell them. However, after watching them over the years, the villagers’ opinion changed.

Partnering with OM in other projects in addition to the day centre, the church gave out food parcels, fire wood and school supplies. People understood the believers wanted to help. They also saw the transformation in Viorel’s life and witnessed the positive development of the children in the day centre.

Even the parents of these children could not remain untouched. Most of the parents are alcoholics; many grew up with Viorel and used to drink with him. Now they often express a wish to also experience such change in their lives, and Viorel points them to God, with whom there are no hopeless cases.

The mother and grandmother of two children from the centre have already become believers and been baptised; other parents regularly come to church. And to the people in the village, attending the evangelical church is no longer regarded as something suspicious: The believers are no longer “sectarians who steal children” – today they are called “the people of God”.

Published: Monday, 31 March 2014
Credit: Esther Hippel
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In Moldova, OM focuses on outreach & church planting in the least-reached regions of Moldova, as well as mobilising and equipping believers for local and global mission.

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