USSR to USA: A theology professor's journey of faith

By Sam Cushing | January 31, 2018 12:06pm

Nina in her office at UP.
by Julia Cramer / The Beacon

Over 1,700 miles from her home in Chelyabinsk, Russia, a 17-year-old Nina Henrichs-Tarasenkova stood in a Moscow airport, alone and stranded. She had no money, nowhere to stay and no friends or family for hundreds of miles. 

The year was 1996, and there were few opportunities for Henrichs-Tarasenkova to study theology in post-Soviet Union Russia, she said. After over a year of sending applications to the United States, Henrichs-Tarasenkova finally received a scholarship and an opportunity to study theology at a school only 11 miles from UP, where she now works as a theology professor.

Henrichs-Tarasenkova began teaching at UP in 2013, as an adjunct professor of theology. She received a full-time position in 2016, 20 years and 8,600 miles away from that lonely day in Moscow. When Henrichs-Tarasenkova was young in the Soviet Union, communist regimes led campaigns against organized religion, leaving the country lacking in religious buildings and religious education. 

She found religion from her mother as a young child, and came to the U.S. to earn her undergraduate degree in theology at Warner Pacific College. She got her Ph.D. in New Testament theology from the London School of Theology at Brunel University and is now in the process of becoming a minister in the Protestant Church.

When Henrichs-Tarasenkova reached the airport in Moscow, an unforeseen paperwork mishap trapped her there for another week. For years, all the aspiring theologian wanted to do was study the Bible in America. Finally she was so close, but found herself stuck in a big, unknown city with nothing but a few suitcases.

“I’m 17 years old, and I’m stuck in Moscow… What am I gonna do?” Henrichs-Tarasenkova said. “So I cried and I sat on my suitcases.”

In that moment, the faith in God that had been so important to her since she was a young girl gave her strength.

“I felt that God told me, ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart,’” Henrichs-Tarasenkova said. “I took deep breaths and I let things happen.”

Henrichs-Tarasenkova believes that God provided for her in the Moscow airport in that moment of need. A security guard at the airport sympathized when she told him her story. He invited her to stay with his family at his home until her paperwork went through. One week later, she was on her way to Portland, ready to begin her religious education at Warner Pacific College.

Life behind the Iron Curtain

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Henrichs-Tarasenkova had a very different childhood than the one her four sons experience today in the U.S. 

“In terms of food, there were restrictions,” she said. “Sugar was rationed, butter was rationed, meat was rationed.” 

But Henrichs-Tarasenkova said she didn’t see this a bad thing.

“I grew up where that was the norm,” she said. “I learned to appreciate things as they are, and appreciate relationships, and understand that the material stuff doesn’t really contribute to my well-being as a human being.” 

Despite common misconceptions about life in the Soviet Union, Henrichs-Tarasenkova felt she had a happy childhood.

“I always thought of my childhood as a good childhood,” she said. “My parents and my grandparents all loved me, and that was the most important thing for me.” 

Living in the Soviet Union meant having different rights and norms than Henrichs-Tarasenkova now experiences in the United States. Her grandfather was put to jail for speaking out against the government. Even talking about certain subjects was forbidden.

“I also knew there were certain topics I didn’t want to discuss,” she said. “If we are challenging the government, if we are talking about that, that has to stay inside the family.”

For decades, communist regimes in the Soviet Union led campaigns against organized religion in Russia from the 1920s through the 1980s. It was only after the fall of Soviet Union, in 1991, that churches began reopening on a large scale. It was at this point, in 1992, that Henrichs-Tarasenkova was baptised in an Orthodox Church.

“For me to be Russian was to be Orthodox,” she said.

Henrichs-Tarasenkova’s faith journey began as a child, living with her parents in a Russian town called Chelyabinsk. Her first exposure to Christianity came when she was eight years old.

“I started obsessing over the question of ‘why am I here?’” she said. “Life was kind of meaningless and pointless. And I was very scared to go to sleep because I was afraid of dying.”

That’s when her mother, an atheist, decided to share the “good news” with her to quell her fears, leaving to her the decision of what to believe. Her parents showed her art books with pictures of Jesus, and told her about her grandmother, a Christian, and the stories she’d been told about Jesus and God.

“And from that point on, I felt like this is a good idea. That gave me comfort,” Henrichs-Tarasenkova said.

In the fall of 1993, Henrichs-Tarasenkova’s mother, a theater teacher, had missionaries in her class who invited her to their Bible study.

“It was the only opportunity for me to learn about my faith, about the Bible” she said. 

And after some time, she began teaching the Bible at churches and at two different orphanages.

“I sensed this was what I needed to do,” she said. “My passion was for the orphans.”

Inspiring wisdom

Being a mentor and role model was very important to Henrichs-Tarasenkova from a young age, a passion which she keeps today as she guides students and inspires colleagues.

“It’s not just about intellectual stuff she wants to cultivate with students, but also opportunities for deliberation on what wisdom means,” said theology professor Rachel Wheeler. “And that’s really wonderful.”

Henrichs-Tarasenkova’s compassion for others is something she’s become well-known for in the UP community, and is evident in her interactions with students.

“She sacrifices a lot of her personal time to interact with students beyond the classroom,” Wheeler said. “And not a lot of faculty cultivate that relationship with students.”

Senior communication studies major David Knopp, a former student, knows about Henrichs-Tarasenkova’s kindness firsthand.

“She’s helped me with a lot of different things in life,” Knopp said. “I consider her a good friend. If something’s really troubling me, I can trust her.”

Henrichs-Tarasenkova has been a guide in Knopp’s faith as well.

“She’s helped me along with my (faith) journey,” Knopp said. “When thinking of the most religiously rooted people I know, I definitely look to her.”

The path to preaching

Henrichs-Tarasenkova’s passion for faith teaching has led her to begin the process of ordination in the Protestant Church. As an ordained minister, Henrichs-Tarasenkova will be a licensed pastor within a Protestant tradition. 

“In the tradition I am part of now, pastors are voted upon by congregations and from what I understand women pastors are often voted down because they are women,” Henrichs-Tarasenkova explained. 

If ordained, Henrichs-Tarasenkova said she would be open to preaching when asked to, but finds herself too busy at this point with her family and career to pursue it actively.

“I’m pursuing ordination... because I want my female students to be empowered,” she said. “If they know that I am an ordained minister of a church… it opens up possibilities for them.”

Though Henrichs-Tarasenkova feels she has been fortunate that she has not personally felt discriminated against within theological academia, she recognizes that it’s a problem many women do face. She especially feels safe to teach and feels supported at the University of Portland.

“I like UP as a school, I think it gives me a lot of freedom to be myself, and to grow, to pursue scholarship, to pursue relationships and friendships,” she said. “Why would I go anywhere else if I feel so good about being here?”

Almost 21 years after that lonely day in Moscow, Henrichs-Tarasenkova sits in her cozy office in Buckley Center. Her desk is populated by photos of her husband and four young sons, and the shelves above are adorned with theology books and artwork from her students and children. She’s found a place to call home.