It was my director, Mark Cathey who first told me about Ilya. In fact, I knew about Ilya years before he even thought about God, because Mark and Melinda have loved Ilya and his parents like family and talked about them to me for as long as I can remember. They were best friends and next door neighbors with Ilya’s parents while they lived here in St. Petersburg. So it was with interest that I followed his story when I heard that he was coming to live with the Catheys (now in Minnesota), and then even more when I learned that he had given his life to the Lord. Though I knew of Ilya through Mark, I actually met him through my son, who is on the basketball team Ilya coaches.
Meanwhile I have been working on a ministry here in St. Petersburg of leadership development, discipleship, and citywide cooperation for the Gospel since 2007. My background was in Christian counseling and life coaching, but over the last few years, my focus has narrowed to building teams who can break normal Christian barriers of cooperation and tradition to create an infectious culture both within the existing churches and be fresh enough to reach those outside of the walls of church as well.
Our latest project in creating such a super team is youth oriented, and although I have some background in youth work, our ministry is about empowering local leaders. When I heard from Mark that Ilya was looking for some extra work, I put 2 and 2 together and got inspiration. This was our man! To my delight, Ilya needed no convincing, because God has truly prepared him for just this calling. Let me interrupt the narrative here to let Ilya tell his own story.
I started playing sports when I was 3 years old. First was gymnastics, and then at age nine I was sent to basketball to be with my friend. And since then I have really liked basketball. I always wanted to be better, stronger, and faster, but this did not always work out because of my small height. Many people said that I could not become a professional player, but this motivated me to prove to everyone that I could. Then in 8th grade I came to America to study and play basketball, but in fact it was all about basketball. While there, I learned about God from Melinda Cathy. As I recall, she quoted to me Psalm 37:4, “Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” This moment completely changed me. I had always been looking for something that could help me achieve my goal! And at that moment my relationship with God began. I grew in the knowledge of the Lord, but yet basketball was still in first place. When I was 19 at a summer church camp I started to think about this. There we sang songs like “Lord, you are everything to me, you are everything that I need” and many others with the same meaning. It was very difficult for me to say these words, because I knew that they were not true for me. I sat and cried. And at that moment I decided that the Lord should be number one, period. And so it happened, but it was still very difficult for me to give everything to God. And of course this meant giving Him basketball too, because it was my life. Over the next year I talked a lot with my wife on this topic, and the next summer at the same church camp I decided that it did not matter what happens, the main thing is to fulfill God’s destiny for my life. It does not matter if I play professionally in basketball or not. A month and a half after camp, I was not chosen by any team, and my professional career ended. That is, what happened was exactly what I had feared. It was the hardest moment of my life! I had to get a job, and I realized that I did not want to work anywhere except in ministry to God. After a while I began to work as a basketball coach in a Christian school. And if I go back to the question that inspires me, work in the ministry inspires me! I like to instruct, communicate, tell the story of my life to my students and share my experiences. Unfortunately, when you are a coach you do not have much time to talk about God. And now I have a great opportunity to communicate and share with people in the context of Lyle Thomas’ ministry. I’m just grateful to God that I’m where I am, and I can’t wait to see where the Lord leads me.
Ilya is currently working on a small outreach team building relationships with a group of unchurched college kids. He has our ministry’s DNA and connects well with the kids, who are just a few years younger than him. Ilya joined our team in April of 2017, and you can support his financial needs here.