Published on July 14, 2021 by Grace Thornton  
IvFam 74

When Anton Ivanov was a freshman in college, he heard a voice that changed his life.

Her name was Dasha Popova, and she stood out from the other tennis players at the University of West Alabama (UWA) because she spoke with a Russian accent.

That day, when UWA was playing Ivanov’s team from William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he went up to her and asked if she would speak to the college on his behalf.

Ivanov had come to the United States from Russia on a tennis scholarship, and certain rules restricted him from being able to approach coaches on his own. So, he had to have someone speak for him to the coaches.

“I was just looking for any school to transfer to for tennis-related reasons,” he said. “And since we beat that team, she spoke to the coach for me.”

The next year, Ivanov was at UWA. And as he got to know the young woman who had helped him transfer, he found out she was something he wasn’t — a follower of Christ. 

“I was not a Christian, not a believer at all,” he said. 

But he would soon learn that God had orchestrated his path with as much intentionality as he had with Dasha’s.

About 30 years ago, Popova’s mother, who was an English teacher in Ukraine at the time, started translating for missionaries and she heard the gospel — and believed. Some years later, her father and Popova believed, too.

Langston Haygood—a Christian counselor and former adjunct professor at Beeson Divinity School—also had started taking mission trips about 25 years ago to Ukraine with Covenant Presbyterian Church in Homewood, Alabama. While there, he met Dasha’s mother and family.

After that, Haygood helped bring the young woman to study English for a semester in high school, then Jefferson State Community College, and then the University of West Alabama, where she ended up on the tennis court with Ivanov.

“When we met and I transferred to UWA, through Dasha, I started meeting all these other Christians, including Dr. Haygood,” he said. “That slowly started to change my thinking and slowly started to change me because I was surrounded by all of these Christians.”

Ivanov said his faith was a slow and gradual process. He and Popova graduated in 2014 and both pursued master’s degrees in mental health counseling at East Tennessee State University. While there, he started attending church and reading the Bible.

“This was when I gave my life to the Lord, in 2016,” Ivanov said. 

He also married Popova that year.

“We moved back to Birmingham because Dasha started working for Gateway Counseling Center because she always wanted to work with kids in foster care and adoption,” Ivanov said.

Not too long after, Haygood, who had become what they call their “American grandfather,” took Ivanov out for a birthday lunch.

“He said, ‘Anton, do you want to go to seminary?’ And I told him, ‘No, sir, I don’t want to go to seminary,’” Ivanov said.

At that point, he wanted to be a counselor, and church work wasn’t on his radar. But Haygood, who had taught Christian counseling at Beeson, knew that Ivanov was interested in Christian counseling and thought Beeson might be a good fit. It wasn’t long before Ivanov also began to feel like seminary was exactly where he needed to be. And God continued to open doors.

Due to his residency status, he wasn’t eligible to receive any student loans. But then Beeson offered him scholarships.

Through a series of “providential” happenings, Ivanov also ended up at Third Presbyterian Church, where assistant pastor and Beeson graduate Hunter Twitty, M.Div. ’14, offered him a pastoral internship.

That shifted the course significantly for him, his wife and their young daughter, Zoe. This summer, after graduating from Beeson with a Master of Divinity degree, he was offered a full-time position at the church as an assistant pastor. This new position offered him and his wife a chance to apply for a long-term visa to stay in the U.S. Now, Ivanov continues to wait for the visa to be approved before he can begin his new job.

“I’m very glad that Beeson makes the requirement to take an internship, and I wish I had done it earlier, because it changed the way I was thinking about church,” Ivanov said. 

His time at Beeson was “the best four years of my life,” he said. “The professors are world-class theologians. It was really just for myself a formative experience, because I’ve grown so much in the faith and received training I never thought I would. It’s very humbling.”

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.