Bodjidar Popov opened an envelope and pulled out a black and white, ruffled-edge photo of his family on his wedding day. Life in 1956 Bulgaria required that the reception be simple and at home. His wife, Spaska, hugs him tightly as they stand behind a kitchen table surrounded with family and friends. In another photo, his mother Elsa Popova walks with her grandchildren. And in another, his father Simeon Popov is preaching from a pulpit in Shumen, a pulpit he would later share with his son.
Simeon Popov survived both world wars, Soviet take over of his country, and nearly six years in prison work camps. He lived long enough to convene Bulgaria’s first meeting of “survived Methodists” in 1990 after the fall of communism. Only three Bulgarian congregations remained in tact and in their own church buildings through the Cold War.
Now, Bodjidar Popov at 85 is just younger than his father was when he died. He lives in the small apartment he once shared with his wife and is literally surrounded by the chocolates his daughters send him from Switzerland and the new editions of his father’s books.
Bodjidar Popov leaned back in his chair and spoke through his translator, Jessica Morris-Ivanova who now co-pastors the Shumen Methodist Church with her husband.
“I want to start with the year 1937,” Bodjidar Popov says.
That was the year his family moved to Voyvodovo for his father to serve a church just south of the Danube and the Romanian border. Three-quarters of the town were Czech Protestants who had fled persecution. Bulgarians had invited the immigrants to repopulate the borderlands and the town boomed to 800. They were sturdy, hard-working farmers. Bodjidar, whose name means ‘God’s gift,’ was five years old. He was the youngest of three stairstep children, and he really did not want to go. The Czechs dressed funny, he thought. Yet like most children, he quickly found fast friends.
The farmers’ life was intensely hard. The Czech laborers worked from sun up to sun down in the fields five days a week and a half day on Saturday. The women did all the laundry and cleaning on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, everyone arrived church with crisp clean clothes. The Popovs’ was the largest of the three churches in the community.
Life was joyful. Every farmer saved a portion of the field for sunflowers, which could be converted to oil. At harvest, the flower heads were brought in to be cracked open. The young people would break the flowers apart and sing.
In the years that followed, Bulgaria was pressured to join the Nazis in World War II and soon after the Americans began bombing the capitol. The American Methodists’ mission board had been funding many of the pastors’ salaries and the Popovs’ church was truly a mission community. In 1942, their access to funds was cut off.
Simeon Popov called the family together to discuss big decisions that had to be made. A small life insurance policy had matured and with that money they could buy two cows and plow. They would become farmers, like their Czech church members, and the church taught them how to survive.
“We lived in a primitive way,” Bodjidar Popov said. “We had a wood stove but there wasn’t wood in the village. We burned sod from the fields. And, we would burn the shafts of wheat.”
Bodjidar Popov would go to school in the morning, head to the fields till the sunset, then do homework by the light of an oil lamp. They grew vegetables, smoked meat in a hole in the ground, and wrapped eggs in pork fat to allow them to keep longer. Simeon Popov continued preaching even while farming, but he realized he needed some kind of transportation. The family managed to secure the first bicycle in the village. With a basket on the front and back, he could haul wheat in burlap bags. Bodjidar Popov and his siblings competed for permission to clean the bicycle and ran after their father with joy as peddled down the street.
The intense life with two full-time jobs and a family to care for caught up with Simeon Popov, and he developed double pneumonia. “We called the doctor from the next village. He said, ‘Popov you can’t carry two watermelons under one arm. You need to leave one watermelon.’” His illness came at the worst time: the wheat had to be harvested once it turned golden or the grains would fall to the ground. No one in the village could help because they were busy with their own crops. So, young Simeon and his brother Blagavest got tools from a Czech blacksmith and took to the fields. They got up each morning at 2 a.m., ate and dressed, milked the cows, then walked an hour to their plot. Their fields had to be harvested in the cool of the morning because working in the heat of the day was impossible. Exhausted but diligent, they brought in the harvest.
Simeon Popov recovered and returned to his jobs of preaching, caring for the community, and farming. By then, the Soviets had come and Bulgaria became communist. The villagers made almost everything they needed themselves and turned over a portion to the state. They grew hemp and flax, soaked the stalks in the river to separate the strands, then wound them together to make rope and sturdy bags to carry wheat.
One year, the harvest was particularly weak for the village. The Popov land was on a hillside and produced even less then their neighbors. Simeon Popov was called to the municipal offices and told he would be required to turn over his entire crop.
“I said, ‘What are we going to eat?’ My mother said, ‘I am not going to give it away.’” But his father insisted because pastors were already being arrested. “My father said, ‘If we don’t give them the wheat, they will take me and throw me into prison anyway.’” So, with tears pouring down his face, Bodjidar held the sack open as his father scooped wheat with a bucket. They delivered the entire crop to the authorities.
Word spread amongst the village’s 200 homes that the pastor’s family was without bread. The Popovs would wake in the morning to find bags of wheat left in their yard at night. Quietly by day, their neighbors came to retrieve the bags, now emptied.
“We had wheat, not just enough for food but also enough to sow for the crop,” Bodjidar Popov said. “Like the widow in Elijah … she said this is the last wheat and oil. Elijah said to make the bread, and so she did. We’ve experienced these Biblical stories that have been true reality in our lives. It was a testimony to the village that my father didn’t protest or rebel, yet God still took care of him.”
By 1949, the Bulgarian communists cracked down on religious groups. Church members’ farm equipment was confiscated. A man who ran a small meat packing plant had donated oil for the church’s petroleum light. He was beaten in jail and his property taken. The community banded tightly together.
“The faith in God connected us. Whoever was in need, we helped,” Bodjidar Popov said. “When someone was in trouble … a house fire, a horse died … someone else would go around in town for them and ask to give to help. Sometimes people would have more after than before the loss.”
Communist leaders decided the best way to break up Christian communities was to go after church leaders. Simeon Popov was working in the fields when the local militia came. They tore apart his house while an officer was sent to bring him in. In a nearby town, the three children were away at high school. Church members came to tell them what happened.
The oldest, Blagavest Popov, knew his father would be taken by train to the capitol Sofia. He waited for every train and finally saw his father taken on board. He slipped inside, found the compartment, and begged the militia officer to let him sit with Simeon Popov. The guard, breaking protocol, relented, and they road to Sofia together. “My father said God will never forsake us. There is no need to worry.”
That summer, Simeon Popov was put on trial for being a spy and telling government secrets. His wife Elsa Popov was in the courtroom. She was horrified to see her husband visibly shaking, then pleading guilty to all charges. Nearly all the pastors pled guilty, including the Methodist district superintendent Yanko Ivanov, who received a life sentence.
The pastors’ families could not understand why the men would plead guilty. “We all wondered how it was possible for all these pastors to say something that is not true,” Bodijar Popov said. But the superintendent’s son explained his father had held off despite repeated beatings. That’s when the militia brought in his wife, beat her, and threw her into the next cell. Ivanov could hear his wife weeping through the walls, and he relented.
Throughout the country, nearly every pastor trained abroad was placed behind bars. Simeon Popov was sentenced to six years and six months hard labor. Every two days he worked counted as three days toward his sentence, allowing him to finish his sentence a bit early. First, he was in a box plant in Sofia, then was sent to Varna on the Black Sea coast. Occasionally, prisoners were given a chance to have 10 minutes for family visits. Bodijar Popov made his way across country 500 kilometers to the prison.
The visiting hall was a corridor with a two-meter gap in the middle. On one side, family members were held back by chicken wire; the prisoners were behind bars on the other. All the families talked loudly and frantically across the gap. Simeon Popov assured his son that he was well and gave him fast advice: The communists were already confiscating property and farm animals in Romania. This would happen soon in Bulgaria, he said, but not to worry.
“I was looking at my watch to see how much time going by,” Bodjidar Popov said. “At six minutes, the bell rang. The milita man yelled, ‘Dogs leave. Dogs move.’ The visitation time ended. My father was waving his hand at me, ‘God will not forsake us. Do not worry.’ I was so disappointed and discouraged.”
Devastated, he went back to the house of a fellow Christian who had been kind to his family. She saw how distraught he was and decided he needed to go to the opera. There, he discovered what would become a life-long source of joy. “I went with this troubled heart and now the opera is the most wonderful thing to me. I loved Mozart and Bach, and from Romans 8, these words have been true … everything works for the glory of God.”
Bodjidar Popov was sent off for his obligatory military service. Those who were said to be “of good hope” were sent to be soldiers in the army. Those whose fathers were in prison, like him, were sent to become laborers. Bodjidar Popov tried to prove his worth first digging railroad tie trenches then working in a coal mine. Once his service was complete, he was able to earn a certificate as an electrician and took a job in a factory near Voyvodovo.
He was 28 and lonely when driving down a road he stumbled on a family with a broken wagon. He helped put the wagon right, and the farmer offered him his choice of the watermelons they were hauling. Bodjidar Popov turned to the pretty blond daughter and asked her to choose. She picked the largest one from the wagon for him. He kept thinking about her and wondered if he could find her with the other young people who gathered in the park in the evenings. He did. They chatted easily and he was impressed with her character. He offered to walk her home. Young Spaska told her father about this man and he cried out, “He is the finest in the village.”
They married and had two daughters.
After Simeon Popov was released from prison, he eventually moved with his wife Elsa to his hometown of Shumen and began preaching around the country. He was chased out of the capitol by the city officials, and threatened if even he ever put his foot onto Sofia’s ground again. So, he began writing collections of his sermons and other Christian books. They were published outside the country under titles without an author listed. Getting them back into Bulgaria was a challenge.
Bodjidar Popov drove his station wagon to a designated spot in the forest where he and his father met smugglers driving a false-bottom truck. Within three minutes, the Christian literature and Bibles were piled in the station wagon and covered with tarps. Once on a thousand book run, they were heading back into Shumen and saw a long line of cars with police searching each one. Bodhidar Popov knew they were about to get caught, but his father prayed silently beside him. When their car came to the front of the line, they were waved on through without question.
“These experiences are unforgettable. They made us so much closer to God,” Bodjidar Popov said. “They filled in us a hard, unwavering victory-making faith. If we had everything handed to us, it is possible we would not be so close to God.”
Police officers routinely watched the Popov house. Guests arrived with full bags and left with empty ones. Elsa Popov hid Bibles in her stove and refrigerator because the militia inevitably came to search.
“They would look under the bed, and she would never put them there. Once she wasn’t able to put away the literature in time, and they were able to catch her with some Bibles,” Bodjidar Popov said.
The Popovs realized that their house was bugged. When foreigners came to visit, Simeon Popov put his finger to his lips and suggested that they talk outside.
In the late 1970s, Communist Party officials strategized to more subtly remove the influence of Protestant churches while maintaining tight control of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church leadership. Methodist pastor and church historian Margarita Todorova unearthed documentation after the fall of communism that laid out plans to force church mergers, confiscate funds for trumped up financial irregularities, and to eliminate church properties from public view. These party reports called for careful coordination between local leaders and state officials to prevent church members from becoming too vocal when outraged or too “stirred up and mobilized.”
A large international hotel was proposed next to the Shumen Methodist Church. The church, which had been built just after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and stood near the center of town, needed to go. Party officials feared, “it could become a place visited by foreigners staying at the hotel which in itself could stir up and stimulate the church activity,” according to a 1982 report from the Ministry on Foreign Affairs.
Simeon Popov was offered remote space for his church on the far side of town. He countered that the existing building was owned by foreign mission boards, and if the land was confiscated, those boards would protest to the embarrassment of the country. He was not going to let go of the property without a fight. He sent appeal after appeal to the municipal and national authorities. At long last, he won. The property was declared a historic site and could not be removed.
Bodjidar Popov had been working as an electrical technician in a theater company and his wife Spaska was a German teacher in central Bulgaria when they received a call that Simeon Popov had had a heart attack. Bodjidar had sometimes preached for his father and worked in the Shumen church, so he was asked to take his father’s pulpit while he recovered. It was August of 1989, just three months before the Berlin Wall fell.
That spring, a frail Simeon Popov convened the Bulgarian provisional conference meeting. The pictures of him leading the prayer and blessing the communion bread are among that last ever taken of him. He died not long after his birthday in October.
Bodjidar Popov was commissioned to pastor the Shumen church, where served for nearly two decades. At 85, his last life mission is to get new editions of his father’s works, now complete with Simeon Popov’s name, into the hands of Bulgarians. He delivers them to public libraries and churches.
Late one spring evening, he called Shumen’s current co-pastors Jessica Morris-Ivanova and Ivayo Ivanov and asked them to collect a box of books for distribution. I walked with them through the dark streets to his apartment. He told us again how much he has been blessed despite life’s hardships and he again quoted from Romans 8. He gripped my hands tightly to say goodbye and said, “We will meet again.”