Four years ago this month, on a cold, gray night, a 16-year-old Bulgarian boy fell on his knees to accept Jesus in his heart. He had contacted the U.S. Marines Corps for an application, but has since given up every military dream. Now he faces a new challenge: college.
“I didn’t really want to kill anybody but I kind of wanted to,” said Ilia Panayotov, now 19 and a freshman at the American University in Bulgaria.
Admirably willing to share his experience, and totally confident, Panayotov exposed an obsession with violence in his early youth. He had read every military and weapons article that he could find. Memorizing caliber sizes became a habit. Then, a new idea started to control him. Supported by his best friend, they decided they should go to the United States and get into the Marine Corps.
“OK, I know it’s bad, I don’t want to kill anybody,” Panayotov said. “But if I go to the Marine Corps … I want to go to the field. If I stay there for like a year and I come back and I haven’t killed anybody… means that I haven’t really done much!”
It was religion that kept Panayotov away from a military career, he said. He was raised in a well-educated and wealthy religious family (although his parents didn’t became Christians until the end of the socialist period). But it was an online pamphlet that drove him to a new direction. A pastor writing “how to be saved” was the spark, Panayotov said, but it wasn’t a change of a night but a step by step process.
However, he said, coming to the university was “a slap in the face.” Freshman life features plenty of craziness, but Panayotov still practices his beliefs at a tiny Baptist church downtown.
“A lot of people in our age have traveled around the world, they’ve been in plenty relationships but they are always looking for something big,” Panayotov said. “The biggest thing you can get is a relationship with God.”
In the Church he gathers, he listens to the sermons and sings some songs, mostly gospel melodies. But for Panayotov, a crucial moment begins when the ceremony ends. Then the congregation talks, checks if everybody is doing well, and people share their concerns. One friend from the community offered to be a volunteer coordinator for a welfare project to help Roma children. And he accepted. The project actually has more than 40 members, most of them college students.
Far from home, and starting a new life for a second time, the guy who described himself as “young, shy and asocial” now enjoys the place he has found and its people.
“My life has changed, he said. “I never thought I’d be working for a project for example. But that’s secondary. The friendships I found here, that’s what I care most (about).”
Edited by Mark Wollemann