How does a man go from the intent to kill a pastor and burn a church to the ground, to caring for orphans and seeking spiritual revival? What makes him stick around for the long haul when everyone else is fleeing the nation? What compels a person to persevere with the odds perpetually stacked against him? We recently spent a day with Gaiceanu Vitalie, a Moldovan pastor who is uses his story of transformation as a catalyst for reformation and a case for stubborn hope.
The modest village of Pînzăreni, Făleşti is just a pinpoint in the middle of Moldova’s planar countryside. The village is Eastern Orthodox, a cultural precedent with ancient roots. Yet a handful of evangelicals live on the fringes of this community. These Christians dwell in the midst of the dominant Orthodox church—one that is shaped more by Moldovan tradition than active faith—and are persecuted for their beliefs.
On February 9, 2001, a Sunday that began like any other, these battered disciples shouldered the cold and trekked the long journey to morning service. Embedded among them was 17-year-old Vitalie and his father Anatolie, but they marched forth with an entirely different purpose: to burn the building to the ground.
Vitalie and Anatolie lived in the throes of religious tradition, but a personal faith in God was entirely foreign to them and practically sacrilegious. It incensed Vitalie that his mother Larisa had “found Jesus” and claimed that she now lived a better life. He wrote her off as brainwashed and spent two years ridiculing her while Anatolie beat her into silence.
That particular Sunday, Vitalie and Anatolie sought to free Larisa from “slavery” by destroying the church and murdering its pastor. As they loitered outside the building, match in hand, a chorus of hymns drew them inside.
“We were paralyzed. We could do nothing.” Vitalie recalls. “My father looked at me, I looked at him, and we just sat down. We did not know what to do.”
The two summoned an alternative plan: they would wait for worship to finish, then follow through with their intent. But from the moment the pastor began preaching, something took hold of Vitalie and Anatolie.
“When the pastor said, ‘Whoever wants to give their life to Jesus, stand up,’ my father and I didn’t even look at each other; we stood up and repented. From that day, I was born again. My life was transformed,” Vitalie says.
Though Vitalie had served as the right hand to an Orthodox priest, he’d seen his religion as a cultural duty rather than a living, breathing faith. He describes his former self as a servant of pure “legalism” and an “empty religion” that was completely devoid of Jesus. He became obsessed with pursuing this relational God; he prayed for hours a day, memorized scripture, and applied for seminary. Around that time he received a prophecy from an elderly woman at his new church: “You will be a great servant of God, but you will go through much persecution in your life.”
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul promises that “all who desire to live a godly life in Jesus Christ will be persecuted” (1 Tim. 3:12). After God met Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul’s life was marked by the kind of persecution he once inflicted on others. It’s a story that is echoed not only in Vitalie’s dramatic, Paul-like conversion, but even more so in the events that would play out over the next sixteen years of Vitalie’s life.
Nestled in between Romania and Ukraine, the small nation of Moldova remains largely unseen to the rest of the world. But what this former Soviet Republic lacks in size it makes up for in statistics. Moldovans garner an average monthly salary of $230 USD, solidifying Moldova as the poorest nation in Europe. The country also has the world’s second-highest number of alcoholics per capita.
For centuries Moldova has endured near-constant invasion and occupation. Because times of unrest and transition produce fertile soil for human trafficking to take root, Moldova is the number one European hub for sex trafficking. It’s estimated that 1 in every 100 Moldovans has been trafficked.
In a land of despondency and few economic opportunities, the seduction of foreign jobs is strong; about fifteen percent of Moldovans live abroad. Because of this mass exodus, Moldova has been coined “the fastest shrinking country in the world,” with four people migrating out of the country each hour. As for those who don’t have the luxury of leaving, many gravitate toward dangerous but lucrative work such as prostitution, where girls as young as 14 are forced into sexual relations with 12 to 15 men per night.
Vitalie paraphrases what the youth he works with often say: “Why would I choose to make one hundred dollars per month as a teacher if I could make one hundred dollars a night as a prostitute?”
Disillusioned by the false promises of a crumbling nation, Vitalie dreamed of serving God abroad. Like many of his peers he fantasized about places with richer ministry and economic opportunities. But after his first year of seminary Vitalie sensed his mission field was Cornesti, Moldova’s most unreached and unchurched village. Vitalie’s advisers discouraged the idea and told him he would lose funding and support.
“I asked God what to do,” Vitalie says with a lightness as he recalls what happened next. “So I went into the forest with a guitar, and God gave me new songs. I didn’t know how to sing, play guitar, nothing. They said I was tone deaf. But when I was playing and singing, a hundred street kids gathered around me. I prayed, ‘God, this is my church: kids.’”
And so Vitalie went to Cornesti. He spent long days in the village, writing music and playing games with the children. They flocked to him and his pure message: You are loved.
“God showed me the power of the simple Gospel. No money. No friends in the religious movement, no umbrella, no sponsor, nothing. I just went into the village and God gave me these kids,” he says. “I went with twelve of them to a prayer meeting, where they were baptized in the Holy Spirit. They studied the Bible and marked it red.”
During this time, Vitalie met partners willing to invest in Cornesti with an operating budget of 10,000 euro per month, allowing him to buy the biggest building in town, renovate it, and house and feed fifty orphans every day. Orphan care was a significant part of Vitalie’s ministry; due to Moldova’s economic crisis and the ensuing mass emigration, many children are left behind as their parents seek opportunities abroad. It is estimated that nearly every third child in Moldova grows up without parents.
Vitalie may have seen a version of himself in these youth, hard and bitter from the dealings of circumstance. After all, he knew a thing or two about adversity, coming from the poorest family of the poorest village in Moldova. “People would look at us like garbage,” he remembers. But he took on the words of John 1:46 like a battle cry, that indeed “something good can come from there.”
He clings to the memories of those days in Cornesti like his most treasured possession. “It was the greatest time in my life,” he recalls. “There was no stress, just joy. I was like fire.”
For followers of Jesus, a bittersweet dichotomy exists between obedience and the inevitable opposition that lurks around the corner. Vitalie was no stranger to this contrast and it wasn’t long before priests from four local churches became envious of his success. They purchased his building, changed keys, and confiscated furniture. The resistance culminated in a lofty demand: Vitalie was required to pay a significant portion of his support money to other churches in the area.
Vitalie faced his biggest crossroads thus far: accept the terms and go behind the back of his sponsors, or be cast out of his church’s network. If he chose the former, he was guaranteed the opportunity to pursue his Masters of Divinity in Kiev. In true-to-form headstrong fashion, Vitalie refused to pay on the grounds that the fee was not biblical, and after twelve years of obedience to the local church, he was ostracized by his church’s elders.
“The worst thing you can lose in life is your name. They said, ‘You are nobody. But if you come to us and accept our condition then everything will be fine.’ I asked, ‘Show me one thing I didn’t do right.’ And they said, ‘You did everything fine. But you must obey your [elders].’ I had no more friends. They looked at me like a leper.”
It is two years later when I first meet Vitalie—sixteen years to to the day, in fact, from when he dropped the match and stood up in an act of obedience. We sit in a café in the heart of Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. The atmosphere feels weighty as he recounts his story with visible anguish, as if turning over the pieces yet again would illuminate a new revelation and make some sense of what occurred.
Vitalie is 33 now, but he seems much older. His leathered hands tell the story of a man who has built and rebuilt his life a dozen times over. His leaden face is heavy with the weight of patience and suffering. His father passed away a few weeks ago due to untreated metastatic prostate cancer, just after his brother was imprisoned. His sponsors have all but disappeared, and now that he can no longer care for his orphans, he fears many of them will return to prostitution. With no money and no tangible hope to apprehend, Vitalie admits that this is a very hard season—perhaps the hardest yet.
But Vitalie knows that this isn’t a road block, only a detour. Refusing to resign as a victim of misfortune, he persists in his calling, knowing that there is no alternative option.
Still in my heart, I want to do something in my life that will remain in eternity. I can’t live like others—eat, sleep, and go to heaven.”
Here is that stubborn hope—nothing stops Vitalie. The true embodiment of a reformer, he is committed to seeing his mission through for as long as it takes, even if he doesn’t see the reward in his lifetime. He stands on the promise of a woman’s prophecy to him long ago, as well as a vision once given by pastor David Wilkerson: one day a great revival in Moldova will transform all of Europe, in the name of Jesus. “I hope that this will happen someday, even if it won’t be in my life,” Vitalie says. “But if it will be, I’m happy to just be a part of it somehow.”
Vitalie’s story calls to mind a “long obedience in the same direction.” In his book by the same name Eugene Peterson writes, “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions … It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he would do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith.”
In spite of the evidence at hand, Vitalie’s imagination remains wide and deep with a God-given vision for Moldova’s future. Like Peterson, he is expectant that “God will provide the meaning and the conclusions.”
But one has to wonder, why stay? Why not immigrate to a more prosperous nation, where the work pays more and supporters are much easier to recruit?
Because, according to Vitalie, there is power and simplicity in being a Christian in Moldova. “[Moldovans] don’t need so much to be happy like other people. I see hope in the simple things; in simple people empowered by God.
“My dream now is to start a school of transformation in Chisinau,” continues Vitalie. “Where we can empower local people to [first] stay in Moldova, and [second] to love Moldova more than America. The grass is greener in the U.S. I understand there are many problems here. But there is a hope. When you see things are impossible, you need God. It’s easy to say you have God in America compared to Moldova; America has a stable economy and human rights. Here, when you say God is almighty, where? It’s difficult to see. But I see that the church is the light in the darkness.”
If ever there were a place where the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few, it’s Moldova. More than anything, this nation needs people willing to walk the long, arduous road of reformation when the light is waning.
“We need disciples—local people who will stay. People who will fight for Moldova because they want to see transformation. People who will fight and fight and fight until they see results,” Vitalie says. Particularly he sees a need for investors to put money back into Moldova’s economy, perhaps by starting micro-businesses or buying property and renting to visiting missions groups.
His hope for Moldova might be elusive. But Vitalie knows that this nation can be transformed because he himself was transformed. God placed the mantle of reformation on a boy from the poorest family of the poorest village in the poorest nation in Europe.
“He took me from the mud and put me in the heavenly places, like Ephesians 2:6,” Vitalie says. “I see hope because God transformed me.”
In Vitalie’s eyes, Moldova is worth fighting for because there is something to be said about standing for hope in the most resigned corners of the earth. “Where the darkness is bigger, the light is stronger.”
And with that, Vitalie takes one last swig of his third coffee of the day. After all, there are battles ahead and Lord knows he’ll be awake for the fight.