Armenian convert feeds faith in Texas
By Jenny Hartgraves
When Artyom Tonoyan graduated from Dallas Baptist University in May, it was more than a great accomplishment. It was a dream come true.
As an Armenian citizen, he believed receiving an American education was something only the rich could afford. He never believed it was possible for him.
But through the grace of God and an American missionary, Tonoyan explained, he not only received the degree he always wanted but found what he's always needed–Jesus Christ.
|Artyom Tonoyan (right) poses for a photograph with Ria Voss and others on the streets of Chuguev on April 2, 1994, the day he professed faith in Jesus Christ.|
Tonoyan, whose friends call him “Art,” grew up under oppressive communist leadership, and his father actively participated in the Communist National Party. As a 14-year-old, he lived through a violent earthquake that killed 60,000 people in his small city. He remembers sitting in the classroom when it happened, watching the walls crack and crumble on the students.
“Walking down the streets was like digging through coffins,” he said. “It was very apocalyptic. People would literally come out from underground horrified and think that this was the end of the world.”
In an atheist nation, the earthquake caused people to question the reality of God for the first time and talk about religion openly. Tonoyan's family was homeless and poverty-stricken, and they moved to Ukraine in search of a better life.
Tonoyan always wanted to go to school. The system of higher education in Ukraine is expensive, but not because of tuition. Students study for years with private tutors, preparing for entrance exams to gain acceptance at the few credible universities. Tonoyan's family did not have the money to help him study for school. After years of studying on his own, he was devastated when he wasn't accepted at any university.
“I just thought everything was unfair,” he said. “When a lot of people are making it and you can't, it's tragic. So I started hating myself and hating my parents. I hated everything and everybody. I felt like a failure.”
With the fall of communism, “everything my family worked for and believed in became a sham,” he said. His father turned to alcohol, and Tonoyan ran away. At 17, he joined his older cousin in the jewelry business, a profitable and popular industry for Armenians. While training for the business, Tonoyan was kidnapped and held for ransom. His cousin owed money to former business partners in Poland, and he told the kidnappers his young cousin would pay the debt.
“My cousin–my partner–set me up. I was just a kid,” he said.
The robbers took Tonoyan to Bratslav, Poland, and demanded $20,000 ransom in 12 hours. If they didn't receive the money, they said, they either would kill Tonoyan or sell his kidneys.
“They told me that if I preferred living to dying, then I could sign in the bottom right corner. At 17 years old, you don't want to die or become a half-person. I had no idea what I was going to do.”
As they held him at knifepoint, he caught a glimpse of a dangling cross above his head and turned to God for answers. The cross, which he had worn as jewelry without religious significance, had been ripped from his neck.
“It was the first time I had ever gotten on my knees to pray. I said: 'God, if you exist, then help me get out of here. I'll serve you for the rest of my life, I promise.'”
In one of the many acts of mercy in Tonoyan's life, the robbers took him to the international post office at rush hour to make a phone call. Beaten and bruised, the Armenian stood out in the crowd with three brute men holding his arms. When one man briefly released his grip to light a cigarette, Tonoyan took off running.
“It was like a movie,” he said. “I nearly got hit by a car, and I'm screaming, 'Help!' in every language I can think of, hoping somebody would understand. A couple of cab drivers got one of the guys, but the other two were still after me.
“I ended up hiding in the bushes, bloody with my clothes torn. They had taken all my proper documents–my passport, my visa. I was trapped.”
It wasn't long before the police discovered him and helped him find his assailants. They returned his passport, and he didn't press any charges. “I told them, 'I don't want to ruin your lives, just let me leave,'” he said.
At 18 years old, Tonoyan was determined to make it on his own. He returned to Ukraine and after a brief period of parties, drinking and drugs, he was left homeless on the streets. There was no one to turn to, he said, because “when you run out of money, you run out of friends.”
“It was winter, and I was freezing cold. I was sleeping wherever I could, in parking lot entrances or public toilets,” he said. “Nobody cared if I was dead or alive, and I started thinking about killing myself. I didn't want to prolong the pain.”
Tonoyan had forgotten all about his prayer to God. He rationalized his escape in Bratslav, giving credit to his fast legs and quick instincts. He had forgotten those feelings of death and despair in the earthquake at 14. All his life, he relied on himself to make it through.
But when he couldn't trust himself, he could only learn to trust an angel–an angel named Ria Voss.
Voss has been to the Ukraine on 14 mission trips with her friend. She remembered seeing Tonoyan for the first time as “a street kid with dirty clothes” in Chequeaz.
“I saw this huge crowd of people gathered outside, and this woman was speaking English, and people were singing about Jesus,” Tonoyan recalled. “A guitar was playing, and all I could do was make fun of them, crack jokes. I thought these people were freaks.”
But Tonoyan's curiosity drew him immediately to this woman–her smile, the way she stood and took pictures of all the children, the way she reached out to him and treated him like someone important. Voss was the first American he had met, and he wanted to talk about “macho men” Arnold Schwarzenneger and Sylvester Stallone, he said.
When Voss told him she knew somebody even bigger than them, he was taken in.
“Jesus,” she said. “Jesus is more famous than those guys.” Voss, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., shared her Christian testimony with Tonoyan. Out of eight people standing around, he was the only one to make a profession of faith that day.
“There was something so special, so different about Artyom–I knew that God had a call on his life,” Voss said. “I loved him from the minute I saw him.”
“The thing that touched me the most was that here was this lady, a thousand miles from home, and she's come all this way and paid all this money to come and talk to me about Jesus,” Tonoyan said. “All I could think was: 'Who am I? I am nothing, I'm nobody.' She had sacrificed so much to come and talk to this nobody.”
Voss gave him a Bible with the name of a local church and her phone number in America, something she said she never did but felt it was appropriate.
“She told me that as soon as I get a chance, I should call her,” Tonoyan said. “But I'm homeless, I thought. I can't afford to call America. But I just nodded my head OK.”
That was the beginning of an incredible relationship between this Armenian boy and American woman. After reuniting at the church in Kharkov the next day, made possible by a donation from a stranger on the street of the exact amount for bus fare, Tonoyan and Voss made a promise to stay in touch. Tonoyan learned English quickly, and within six months he started translating for Americans who came to his country.
A new Christian and a faithful student, Tonoyan was consistent in reading the entire New Testament.
“For two weeks, I couldn't get past the geneaology. This begat this, and this begat that–I read it over and over trying to understand,” he said. “I remembered Ria telling me to read it carefully because it was the word of God.”
“In six months, he grew spiritually like nothing I'd ever seen,” Voss said. “He had such a hunger and a longing for Christ. Because he's been faithful in the little things, God's continued to be faithful to him and his wife.”
Tonoyan has come a long way from that cold winter day in the streets of Ukraine, but he gives all the credit to two people in his life–Jesus and Voss. Without Jesus he wouldn't have a purpose, and without Voss he wouldn't have his life, he said. “She was the vehicle used for God's love.”
Voss even gave Tonoyan the chance to pursue his dream of an American education by bringing him a scholarship application for Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas. The application was sent first to Ukraine, and then put into the hands of a pilot to take to Armenia where Tonoyan could pick it up. Out of thousands who applied, Tonoyan was one of the few to receive his first full year tuition free.
In fact, he received all his tuition free. Even when he transferred to DBU, “God provided for me over and over again,” Tonoyan said.
Upon acceptance at Baylor University's Truett Seminary, there was a mix-up with his international papers, and he now has to wait on a work visa so he can raise money for school. On top of that, he and his wife, Lydia, whom he met at Christ for the Nations, are expecting their first child in November.
“God has sustained both him and his wife at DBU for four years,” Voss said. “He has the heart's desire to do what God wants and a tremendous desire to study. These kids have walked the faith-walk like nothing I've seen.”
Eventually, Tonoyan hopes to return to Ukraine and start a Christian college, sharing God's love with people and making dreams of quality education come true.
If he could ask Jesus one question, he said, it would definitely be “Why me?”
As a “nobody” from Armenia, he said, he understands the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.