Imprisoned as a threat to the state, Pastor Kashkumbaev had every reason to feel discouraged. But a pointed question from a Christian brother changed his perspective, leading to a powerful work of God in a Kazakhstani prison.
“You will serve 10 years of hard time,” the investigator said solemnly. The elderly pastor would be almost 80 by the time he completed his sentence, and part of it, he learned, would be spent in a psychiatric ward.
Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbaev knew that prisoners in the psychiatric ward were routinely drugged, causing them to lose the ability to even think or move. They would drug him to a point of losing his mind. His heart sank. While he was not afraid to die, he didn’t want his seven grandchildren to see him in that condition. Death didn’t scare him, but losing his mind did.
In May 2013, Pastor Kashkumbaev was arrested after being falsely accused of harming the health of a church member at Grace Church, a legally registered church in Kazakhstan. Authorities filed five charges against the pastor, including a charge of inciting religious hatred.
The psychiatric ward
Pastor Kashkumbaev was filled with dread as the day approached for his transfer from the prison in Astana to the psychiatric ward. But before he left, he received a visit from a good friend and brother in Christ. The pastor, with tears in his eyes, told his friend, “This is probably the last time I will talk to you in my right mind.” “Where is your faith?” his friend replied.
That simple question was just the encouragement the pastor needed. “I felt like I was under the cover of the risen Lord,” he said. Pastor Kashkumbaev’s outlook on his imprisonment changed completely, enabling him, with God’s help, to lead almost 100 fellow prisoners to Christ during his nine-month imprisonment.
One night as Pastor Kashkumbaev slept, he felt a hand grip his throat to strangle him. As he instinctively grabbed the hand and tried to pull it away, he saw the darkness and evil in his bunk mate’s eyes. At the same time, however, he felt at peace. “What do you need?” he asked the man.
Suddenly the man’s appearance and behaviour changed. “When are we getting out of here?” he asked. After climbing out of his bunk, the pastor tucked the man back into his bed and prayed over him.
After the incident with his bunk mate, Pastor Kashkumbaev began thinking of his cellmates as sick children. He had compassion and love for them, he cried and prayed for them, and he did what he could to help them. Knowing he might be given mind-altering drugs any day, the pastor took every opportunity to share the Gospel with them.
When the day finally came for his first injection, the pastor turned to his cellmates for help. As he began to lose consciousness, he cried out, “I am dying!” His cellmates, who didn’t want to lose him, called for the guards. “The old guy is dying!” they yelled.
The guards rushed into the cell and carried the pastor into the hallway. After helping him regain consciousness, the doctor ordered that no more drugs be given to the pastor.
Prison officials ordered him to write down how he had become a Christian. Pastor Kashkumbaev gladly shared his testimony and told them about Jesus. In his prison ‘confession’, he wrote in detail about what Jesus had done for him. And, being a pastor, he made sure that he included a sermon.
Most of the inmates in the psychiatric ward were summoned to meet with the psychiatrist only once or twice, but he was called 18 times. “Why are you so concerned with me?” he asked the psychiatrist.
“You are such an interesting character,” she replied. “We don’t sense any evil in you. This isn’t normal.” “Christians are not supposed to answer evil for evil,” he told her. “We are called to bless people. We are called to bless friends and enemies with a sincere heart.” The clinic finally called in an independent expert to evaluate Pastor Kashkumbaev. “I don’t understand how you ended up here,” the expert told the pastor. “You are a completely adequate person.”
Authorities decided that the pastor should be returned to the prison in Astana, but before he left the psychiatric ward he was able to lead several more people to Christ.
Before returning to Astana, a young heroin addict was brought into Pastor Kashkumbaev’s ward. As the young man suffered from withdrawal symptoms, he underwent seven sleepless nights.
The pastor shared the Gospel with him, even though someone in the cell was reporting him to the authorities. “Only Jesus can help you!” he told the addict while holding his hands. The young man clung to him as if he were drowning.
“Don’t think that no one needs you,” Pastor Kashkumbaev continued after sharing Jeremiah 29:11. “From these words from God Himself you can see that He needs you. You are needed. God keeps His Word. It is as good as done! For Jesus, your addiction is nothing. All you have to do is believe that He can heal you. He is alive; He is risen from the dead to help you, to justify you.” “What do I need to do?” he asked the pastor.
“We are going to pray together right now,” the pastor replied. “But you have to believe that God hears your every word.” The addict repeated the prayer after the pastor.
After saying the prayer, the young man slept for the first time in a week. Knowing that evening roll call was just an hour away, the pastor prayed that he might somehow be allowed to continue sleeping.
When the officers finally came for roll call, Pastor Kashkumbaev stood between them and the bunk of his sleeping friend. “Why is he sleeping?” an officer asked the pastor. “He should be standing during the roll call.”
“He has not slept the entire week,” he quietly explained to the officer. “He asked me to pray for him. God gave him this sleep that he needs desperately.”
When the young man awoke 20 hours later, the pastor prepared tea and something for him to eat. “Do you remember that you asked Jesus to come into your heart?” he asked him. “Yes, I do,” he replied. “Where is Jesus? In my heart?” The pastor then taught him how to pray.
“You are now a member of God’s family,” he told him. “You are not addicted to any drug,” he continued, and knowing that drugs were freely sold in the prison, even by the guards, the pastor said, “you can say no.”
For four days Pastor Kashkumbaev taught and encouraged the young man before being transferred to another cell. As he was leaving, the former drug addict began to cry. “What am I going to do without you?” he asked. “Are you alone?” the pastor replied. “Who is in you? Hold onto Jesus; you are not alone, you will do fine.”
Pastor Kashkumbaev was released from prison in February 2014, and four of the five charges against him were dropped. He has returned home, however he remains under house arrest and must check in with police every two months. He continues to minister to his congregation.
The pastor said he does not regret his time in prison. “In prison the Holy Spirit opened one dimension of prayer to me,” he said. “We need to pray the same prayer for both friends and enemies. Pray that they will know God and sincerely love Him and Jesus Christ, whom He sent, His only begotten Son.”