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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Implausible Journey

By John W. Kennedy
Aug. 24, 2014

At first glance it may seem odd that a Rwandan who married a Russian while pastoring in Moscow is leading an Assemblies of God church called Hope of Israel — in Brooklyn, N.Y.

But once Pastor Jan Berkmans explains the curious ministry path he took, his life makes perfect sense.

Forty-five years ago, Berkmans was born into an upper-class family in Rwanda, the seventh of eight children. The religious family went to Mass every Sunday. Because of his father’s social status, businessmen, political figures, Catholic priests and even bishops stopped by Berkmans’ home with great regularity.

While still a youngster, Berkmans began dreaming of life as a priest. He became an altar boy at the age of 8, and attended Mass before and after school every day.

But then Berkmans’ father suffered poisoning from methane gas during an extraction project he oversaw at Lake Kivu. When Berkmans was 11, his father died. The social calls from prominent commerce and religious leaders ceased. Not only that, when it came time for Berkmans to take an exam to enter seminary, Catholic officials denied the fatherless boy the opportunity.

With his vocational aspirations dashed, Berkmans reacted with anger and astonishment. He walked away from church, and started questioning the existence of God.

While in high school, one of Berkmans’ six sisters died. Heartbroken, Berkmans kept wondering if he would ever be reunited with her.

Although he felt rejected by the church in which he grew up, Berkmans kept thinking about heaven. He decided to seek out a Pentecostal congregation, even though he and many other people despised them in his hometown. Pentecostalism had a reputation of being the religion of the uneducated lower class.

“I was shocked to hear people praying from their hearts, and not just reciting memorized prayers,” Berkmans recalls. “I heard people praying for different family needs, and I understood that I could pray for my own need.”

During a church service, Berkmans fell prostrate, begging God for mercy and forgiveness. By the time he sat up, only the pastor remained. The pastor asked if Berkmans had a Bible. Berkmans did, and for the next several days he did little else but read it, culminating with a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ.

As an excellent student specializing in biochemistry, Berkmans qualified for a full-ride scholarship to a Russian university, just before the Soviet Union dissolved. Despite warnings to stick strictly to academic rigors and not get involved in any religious activities, Berkmans began attending an underground Pentecostal house church soon after arriving in Moscow in 1990.

The Pentecostals in Moscow tended to be intellectuals, including a sizable number of Jewish believers in Christ. The first night he attended a service, Berkmans received a prophetic word from the Lord: “I have brought you to this people. I will teach you here and make you my minister. I will send you to serve another nation, and also take you to serve your own people.”

Berkmans remained in the church for nine years. Halfway through his Russian residency, Rwanda experienced the mass genocide tribal conflict that claimed nearly a million lives. Berkmans believes God spared his life during the massacre. His mother Therese had died a week before the conflict broke out.

By the time the Russian government granted Berkmans traveling papers to leave the university to attend his mother’s funeral, the genocide had started, preventing anyone from entering Rwanda. Although the tribal warfare resulted in the deaths of 50 relatives, the fact that Berkmans’ immediate family had gathered for the funeral on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo allowed them to flee the violence. Berkmans didn’t hear from his siblings for another three years.

While at the Russian Pentecostal church, Berkmans started leading the youth ministry, got involved in church planting, and took part in the congregation’s Jewish evangelism outreach. He also preached, initially in French through an interpreter until he became fluent in Russian.

When Berkmans began attending church, a 23-year-old woman named Katya welcomed him as the first nonwhite in the group. Berkmans barely noticed her for a couple of years afterwards. But when he started praying to find a wife, Berkmans says God prompted him to pay attention to Katya. Having converted to Christianity, Katya had a heart to minister to others from a Jewish background.

“She was filled with love and pity for those who either substituted the knowledge of God by pursuit of academic knowledge or who sought God in the traditions of Judaism,” Berkmans says. “At first I was not attracted to Katya’s physical beauty, though later I realized actually she was quite good looking. I was attracted to her inner beauty — she was wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord.”

The couple wed in 1994.

Berkmans, inspired by Pentecostal ministers who spent years in jail for their faith, found the post-communist era of the 1990s an exciting time to minister in Russia. The Pentecostal Union ordained him in the midst of his preaching, evangelizing, and church planting activities.

Then, Berkmans says, the Lord clearly directed him and his family to move to the United States. They immigrated to the U.S. in 1999 as a Russian-speaking Rwandan-Jewish family.

Berkmans father-in-law, Igor, a secular Russian Jew, found the notion of his son-in-law moving to the U.S. without understanding English and with a fourth child on the way to be ludicrous. Igor, a scientist and physicist, envisioned Berkmans working a menial job and the family living in poverty.

“I told him we hoped in God, who can do all things,” Berkmans says. “God brought us to this country and gave us the children. God did not bring us here to starve or to beg.”

Backed by bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, Berkmans’ résumé impressed a Connecticut firm looking for a senior research and development chemist/product specialist. His father-in-law vowed to give Berkmans a car if he landed the position. The offer seemed safe, because Berkmans knew no English.

Berkmans went to the interview armed only with three sentences Katya had written on a piece of paper: “I have a wife and three children to feed. I believe that God brought me here for a great purpose. You give me the job, God will help me to do it!”

Three executives asked Berkmans multiple questions and he responded to them all by simply reciting the words on the paper. Miraculously, Berkmans returned home with another paper he couldn’t understand — an offer for the job.

Later, Berkmans learned that one of the three men conducting the interview, his future supervisor, had become a Christian, attended a messianic congregation, and marveled at the faith Berkmans displayed. The supervisor interceded with the company president frustrated with Berkmans’ non-answers, and vowed to take responsibility for the new hire.

The company president agreed to a six-month trial period, provided that Berkmans could speak, write and read English — and do his job — by the end of the probation.

Berkmans met all the criteria — and he also acquired an automobile from his father-in-law.

“God honored his faith and met his family’s needs,” says Scott Temple, director of the AG Office of Ethnic Relations in Springfield, Mo. “His story testifies that God will help those who walk by faith, not by sight.”

Upon achieving financial security thanks to his profession, Berkmans eyed a return to ministry. His desire to connect with the Assemblies of God grew when one day in a joint prayer meeting he heard an AG missionary speaking in tongues in Berkmans’ Rwandan language.

Eventually, Berkmans transferred his Russian ministerial credentials to the AG and he became a part of the U.S. Slavic Fellowship. He serves as a pastor to Slavic/Russian people in New York.

Berkmans’ messianic congregation, Hope of Israel, is located in Brighton Beach, the epicenter of the Russian Jewish population in the U.S. Seventy percent of the residents in the neighborhood speak Russian.

For a time, Berkmans worked as both a chemist/product specialist during weekdays and as a pastor evenings and on weekends. Yet he understood he couldn’t do both long term.

“It required more faith to voluntarily leave my professional career than it had taken to go to interview without knowing English,” Berkmans says.

Initially, some Jewish neighbors felt intimidated by the church, which meets for prayer and worship services on Saturdays. A synagogue is located directly across the street, and leaders went to court to demand the Hope of Israel sign be removed. A court ruled the signage could remain.

Gradually, the ice began to melt, and Russian Jews are no longer antagonistic.

“Jan has won friends among rabbis and community leaders in the Jewish community,” Temple says. “He is considered a great asset in Brighton Beach.”

“People are used to our presence and see us not as a threat, but as caring friends,” Berkmans acknowledges.

Part of the compassion is evident in a nonprofit charity Berkmans formed in 2005 called Global Help to Heal. The ministry originally assisted the homeless and drug addicts in the Brighton Beach neighborhood. But it has expanded to help those impacted by natural disaster, war, genocide, poverty, hunger and disease.

Global Help to Heal strives to bring faith, hope and healing to those hurting morally, spiritually, physically and economically.

Among other benevolences, the charity provides tuition, school uniforms and daily meals to more than 1,500 children in Rwanda.

Through it all, Berkmans is relishing his implausible journey.

“The Lord, who sent me to carry out this ministry, also has provided me with all the necessary gear,” says Berkmans, who now is a father to two sons and three daughters. “The fact that a black man is speaking Russian to his Jewish wife and his mulatto children is an opportunity to make many new acquaintances.”

“Jan is one of thousands of ministers the Holy Spirit is calling to America as missionaries,” Temple says.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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