Two friends warned me that trouble lay ahead in the weeks before I left my home in Zambia to study medicine in Russia.
Both friends had studied in Russia and faced fierce opposition over their desire to worship God rather than attend classes on Sabbath. They cautioned me that my faith would be tested.
I didn’t think it would be that serious. Little did I know.
The first month passed smoothly. I arrived in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia for my first year of studies, during which I was to focus on learning the Russian language. The teachers didn’t seem to require much from the foreign students, a group studying on Russian state scholarships.
But in the second month, one of my classes began to meet on Sabbath.
As the first Sabbath class approached, I went to the teacher, my heart thumping, to ask permission to skip it. The teacher refused and told me that as a foreign student, I was obliged to obey the rules of the land.
I skipped class anyway.
The following Monday the dean of students at the preparatory department summoned me to his office and sternly handed me a letter of warning. Nevertheless, I missed class again the next Sabbath. I was genuinely scared about what would happen next. Sure enough, the dean summoned me again the following Monday.
This pattern continued for several months. Then the dean decided to change the letter of warning to a letter of expulsion.
A kind language teacher interceded on my behalf, pleading with the dean to change his mind. I prayed about the situation, but I’m afraid that I had little or no faith. I was crying most of the time. My classmates urged me: “Just go to class. God will understand.”
I spoke with my parents. They loved me, but they also didn’t want me to lose the scholarship.
I then learned from classmates that foreign students could transfer to Moscow or another Russian city that didn’t require classes on Sabbath. I begged the dean to allow me to study in Moscow. I also contacted a pastor and family friend in Zambia, Moses Ziela, and we prayed together.
To my delight, the dean soon announced that I could transfer to Moscow. When I told Pastor Ziela the news, he replied: “I’m happy for you, but this won’t get any easier. Be strong.”
He was right. Things got worse.
The first day of class at the Moscow State University of Medicine and Dentistry fell on Sabbath. I immediately lost all hope, but I determined that I would not allow Sabbath classes to provide an excuse to break the Sabbath.
For a while I felt that being enrolled at the university was the worst decision I had ever made. While I had faced opposition from only the dean in Rostov-on-Don, in Moscow I experienced open hostility from student leaders, professors, and my new dean.
It was difficult for me to explain to the dean why I chose not to attend classes on Sabbath. When I first mentioned the words “for religious reasons,” he immediately stormed out of his office.
The pastor of the Moscow International Adventist Church helped me write a letter to the dean explaining why I couldn’t attend lessons on Sabbath and asking for permission to transfer to a class that met on another day. The pastor told me that Russian law protects religious freedom and prayed with me. I felt a new sense of calm.
The following Monday I presented the letter to the dean. He tossed it in my face.
“If you can’t abide by our rules, then leave,” he said angrily.
My grades began to suffer. The professor who taught the Sabbath class wasn’t cooperative, and I found it difficult to catch up with the missed lessons. One professor heard about my ordeal and bluntly asked me: “What kind of God would want you to break the rules? If your faith is genuine, why won’t He let you miss church so you can attend classes now and attend church during summer vacation?”
Midway through the semester the dean summoned me to his office after reviewing the class records and noticing my continuous absence from Sabbath classes. He gave me a stern warning.
I renewed my efforts to make up the missed classes, but I was too far behind. Toward the end of the semester the dean’s secretary informed me that I might not be allowed to stay the next semester because of low grades and “insubordination.” I cried in her presence. She asked me to reconsider my faith.
I needed help presenting my situation to God, so I explained everything to the Moscow church pastor and my Sabbath School class. We prayed together. Then I began to plead my case before God.
Monday passed without the dean calling me into his office. Then a week went by. Still no word came from the dean about whether I would be expelled.
Three years have gone by since I began to pray about my Sabbath classes, and I’m still waiting to be summoned by the dean and told that I have to leave Russia. I am scheduled to graduate in 2018. God has worked a miracle every day of my studies in Russia.
One remarkable moment that might help explain why the dean has left me alone occurred near the end of that first semester in Moscow. The professor who taught the Sabbath classes was rebuking me for asking to be excused when the university president happened to walk by. The president stopped to ask what was wrong, and the professor rushed to paint a bad picture of me.
The president turned to me and said, “Why won’t you attend lessons on Saturday?”
“Because of my faith,” I said cautiously, worried about what would follow.
“Are you a Seventh-day Adventist?” the president asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said, utterly dumbfounded.
“I love that church, even though I don’t attend,” the president said. “I grew up loving and treasuring its truths and teachings.”
I sent up a silent prayer and said, “That’s wonderful! Could you sign this consent letter for me to skip classes?”
“Sure,” the president said. “You must realize that when you are in a foreign land you must abide by its rules. This Sabbath commandment, however, is a rule above human law.”
Kapalasa Kasempa continues to study in Russia.