My story, like so many people, started in church. I grew up in a typical Christian family in Bulgaria, which meant going to church every week, and when we moved to London whilst I was a teenager, it remained the same. As a child, I found Church boring; I wanted to be outside playing basketball and having fun instead.
I started playing basketball when I was eight years old, back in Bulgaria, and I instantly fell in love with the game. It became everything that my life revolved around and so at the age of 17, I moved to America by myself, to pursue my dream of becoming a professional player. It was the first time I had ever been away from my family and I was now on the other side of the world, away from everything I knew. It was a challenging time in my life and I was having to face things that few 17-year olds have to deal with. Being based in Mississippi, a very Southern state, it was the custom that every Sunday, people go to church. So in my late teens, I continued to go along with my host family.
Although I had been attending church my whole life in Bulgaria, London and Mississippi, I don’t believe I ever encountered God personally until one Sunday at church after a particularly tough week. School was not going well, I was at odds with my host family and I was feeling crushed. I felt that my world was crumbling and was on the verge of quitting the dream and just going home. On that Sunday however, the message was simply: “Don’t give up. Go every step of the way.” I just thought that every word of that message was meant for me, as if God was speaking directly to my heart. It was probably the first time I’d ever listened to a full sermon and as I started to cry, I knew that God had a plan for me. I began to read the Bible and slowly learn that God was always with me during both the good times and the difficult times, and that He would never give me anything I could not handle. So I kept going, and eventually, my career began to take off.
Towards the end of my career, I suffered several injuries, one of which ultimately ended my career. Hearing the news after an MRI felt like being stabbed with a knife in the chest. I didn’t know what would happen, whether or not I’d be able to ever play again. I strived to keep going; I sat out for six weeks, followed an intense schedule and diet plan, but after my final season the pain was unbearable. In an instant I had gone from spending every moment of my life playing basketball and basing my world around what was best for my career, to facing an uncertain future. I had built my life and my identity around my career, but now that it was about to end, what did I have left? I began to rethink my life and I realised that there was something huge missing, and that something was God. Although I had left God out of my life for so long, I knew that if I turned to Him he would still be there.
It wasn’t exactly an overnight decision, but it started with a simple prayer one evening. I remember distinctly being in my room, alone, and as my fears and thoughts grew unbearable I began to pour out my heart to God and gave all my brokenness to Him. Day by day, week by week, I continued to pray as the countdown to my retirement got closer. I began to read the Bible once again, I listened to podcasts and I eventually made a promise to myself that if I could make it through this, I would go to church when I got back to London. I would strengthen my faith once again, and fully reconnect with God.
When I finished my last season in May 2018 and moved to London, I decided to come to Hillsong after a recommendation from a family friend. That first Sunday, I instantly felt like I was home. I was taken aback by how loving and supportive everybody was. I met some girls from the Sisterhood and New to Church teams and they immediately invited me to sit with them. A girl named Becky also invited me to come to a Sisterhood group. I was grateful, but I felt that I had too much on my plate already. I was looking for a new job, a new home and a new start, and since I’d only just got back into church, I thought it probably wasn’t for me. However, Becky sent the information anyway. Call it fate, call it divine intervention or call it coincidence, but when I received the text, the address was literally three doors down from where I was staying, and I took it as a sign, that I had to go.
The girls I met there have grown to become some of my best friends and though I have only known them a year, it feels like I have known them forever. They were there for me during some of the lowest points of my life that year and took me from feeling empty and lost, to finding peace and fulfilment again. Whilst I was in London trying to figure out my own future, my family in Bulgaria were attacked and their house vandalised and my father had a serious accident at work. In the midst of this, that community of girls drew close and helped carry me through all of that.
A year on, I serve every week at Hillsong on both the New to Church team and the Sisterhood team. I love my Sundays. I get to be the person that those girls were for me, when I arrived for the first time. I get to be involved in introducing people to God and I get to give back to something that has given me so much. I realise now that, although I spent so much of my life apart from God, He never left. He was there every step of the way.