As a child, Peter Kulakov's family would hold baptisms in the dark and hide Bibles under a double floor in the outhouse.
As he was growing up in the communist Soviet Union, his family grew used to being persecuted for their faith. His father and grandfather did prison time for their beliefs. His uncle died in a Soviet jail.
While he was serving in the Soviet military, officers would mock Kulakov. In grade school, Kulakov said, teachers and students alike would laugh at his beliefs.
"It was considered shameful to be a Christian," he said. "My school principal often called me up front, in front of the whole school, and would start scolding me for my faith."
After three generations of his family suffered from religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Kulakov moved to the United States in search of religious freedom. Now, after more than a decade in America, he's taken the helm of the 600-member Ooltewah Seventh-day Adventist Church. He previously pastored churches in Indiana and metro Atlanta.
"What impressed me the most when I came to the United States is the personal freedom to have your own point of view," he said, "to have your own faith and it's respected as your faith."
In his first three weekly sermons at the Ooltewah church, he has unfolded the story of his religious persecution. In many ways, he says, it's his experience that bolstered his faith and prepared him for a life of ministry.
He recalls a time in 1982 when he was first entering the military. He stood in front of a panel of officers requesting that he be off each Saturday, the Adventist Sabbath.
"They just couldn't believe their ears," he said.
No one gets any days off in the military, the nonbelievers said.
But he held firm, even under the intense questioning of a general.
"I felt like that was my first sermon," he said. "Without my notes and without my Bible, I had to give a testimony of my faith, in front of a panel of military officials. It went on for about 30 minutes and they were listening. I was impressed. I felt like God was giving me strength."
Kulakov isn't resentful, but grateful for the deep faith that resulted from his persecution.
"We were learning to stand for something we believed in," he said. "Our faith was getting stronger."
And he's not leaving his Russian roots behind. He records a regular faith-based television program for broadcast in Russia and travels back to Eastern Europe several times a year to evangelize.
"I can't just leave them behind," he said.
Phillip Samaan, a professor of theology at Southern Adventist University, said Kulakov's example should help congregants avoid taking their own freedom for granted.
"Obviously we are very fortunate to live in the greatest country in the world and be free," he said. "We don't even think about religious persecution. I think his presence will challenge the church to treasure the freedom that we have."
Samaan has long known the Kulakov family. And he says their example is a testament to all believers.
"I think it will just simply encourage them to appreciate what they have and remain faithful regardless of what's happening in our world," he said.
And Kulakov's experience is already touching church members here, said David Bissell, who served as the congregation's interim pastor for seven months before the new pastor's arrival.
"It encourages us to have a greater faith and trust that God will be with us in the challenging times that we face," he said. "It is humbling and it is also encouraging."
Bissell said the new pastor's first three services have been full.
"I don't foresee that that's going to wane," he said. "I think that's going to build."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...