Russia and Beyond
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Copyright © 2001 by Matt Kronberg, Mike Peterson, Jedd Medefind, and Trey Sklar.
Published in association with Yates & Yates, Literary Agents, Orange, California.
Introduction: First Seeds of an Adventure ix
1. 3,000 Miles in Ten Days 1
2. A Lesson in Generosity: Guatemala City, Guatemala 21
3. The Four Amigos! Together in Guatemala City 34
4. Into the Highlands: Uspantan, Guatemala 47
5. A Scathing Letter and Some Sweet Sorrow: Leaving Guatemala 61
III: RUSSIA AND BEYOND
6. The Wounded Bear: Moscow, Russia 71
7. The Secret Police: Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Russia 75
8. Scarred Hands and Iron Doors: Serpukhov, Russia 92
9. Village at the Edge of the World: Loly, Russia 102
10. Heart of the Gulag Region: Yemva, Russia 117
11. Waltzing through the West: From Moscow to the Mediterranean Sea 139
12. Land of the Pharaohs: Cairo, Egypt 153
V: South Africa
13. Beauty and Strife 171
14. The Mountain Kingdom: Maseru, Kingdom of the Lesotho 176
15. The Road to Durban 193
16. Rajas, Rice, and Rickshaws 215
17. A Change of Plans: Chirala, India 238
18. Sisters of Charity: Calcutta, India 249
19. The End of Our Rope 261
20. 100,000 Rickshaws: Dhaka, Bangladesh 285
21. From Mosquito Nets to Marble Tile: Bangkok, Thailand 301
22. Notes from the Underground 329
The Adventure Begins 358
RUSSIA AND BEYOND
- six -
The Wounded Bear
the kingdom of hope, there is no winter.
international airport could not have been more different from Miamis.
Gone were the gleaming buildings and the bright Florida sun, the palm trees,
warm air, and shorts-clad tourists. In Moscow, a heavy gray pallor had settled
over all, from the stone-colored terminal and the dour attendants to the leafless
trees and sullen sky above. As we walked into the terminal, the word cave came
to mind. Funding for carpet and lighting must have been viewed by the Soviet
planners during the Communist years as unnecessary extravagance for the workers
Trey stepped up to the passport control booth. Zdrastvuitiye! he greeted the lady sitting behind the desk.
She offered no reply, but grasped his documents and stared at his face as if it was a rotten plum. Satisfied there was some resemblance between the photo on the passport and the man before her, she stamped the book and waved him through. Trey caught sight of his mother, Mary, jostling for position along the low fence just outside of the terminal.
Can you grab my backpack? he said to Jedd, already moving off toward her.
As the rest of us emerged from passport control, Trey waited, standing next to his mother, his arm over her shoulder. Marys blue eyes-much like her sons-were glowing.
Its great to have you here, she said, welcoming each of us in turn with a motherly hug.
Youre looking great, Mary, said Jedd. It was true; her vivacity and petite frame suggested she was quite a bit younger than her fifty-something years.
She tilted her head and winked. I guess the ice-cold weather here preserves you pretty well.
The multilane road leading to central Moscow was deep in slush. Row after row of identical drab apartments filled the skyline with two-hundred-foot-high boxes of gray concrete that had been built during the Communist years to house the masses. It is often joked that the Soviet government saved money by hiring only one architect to design all their buildings. From one end of the former Soviet Union to the other, and even into the former Eastern Bloc countries, a traveler will find countless replicas of the same towering cement-block apartments.
Most of inner Moscow, however, was built before the Revolution of 1917. So, as our road wound closer to the center of the city, the dreary apartments gave way to magnificent buildings crafted in the nineteenth century or before. Finally, we tumbled from our vehicle into a snow-filled alley in back of a building that fronted on Moscows famous Petrovka Street. Bags in tow, we squeezed through a battered door on the ground level and lumbered up four flights of stairs to the top floor. Mary opened the heavy oak door and a second, metal-plated one just inside the first.
This is home as long as youre here, boys, she exclaimed, ushering us from the dreary stairwell into a warm room that smelled of cookies.
It feels great to be back in Russia! Each time I visit my family, I feel like I appreciate this place more. Every aspect of Russia is deep and strange to me, yet also inviting. I cant wait to plunge further into this mysterious land with the guys.
We had originally planned to spend two days with the Sklars in Moscow before traveling south to the Republic of Dagestan, but a recent outbreak of civil unrest in Dagestans capital city caused us to change our plans. Under our revised itinerary, we would spend our first weeks in two cities near Moscow, then travel to Russias far north for the final three weeks before Christmas. Our contact, Athletes in Action missionary Steve Barrett, would be contacting friends of his in the areas to which we would travel; the locals would work to set up opportunities for us to speak about our travels-and Christ-in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, and the like. Apparently, Americans were enough of a novelty outside of Moscow to gain a hearing in most any location.
That first evening, Moscow beckoned and we could not resist. Though we had gone twenty-four hours with almost no sleep, we bundled up and headed outside, hiking down the sidewalk, through the piled snow, with icy patches crackling beneath our boots. We examined bread shops, banks, and the many-pillared Bolshoi Theater. An immense statue of Karl Marx stood in the middle of a large plaza, looking down with disapproval at a nearby Western-style mall. Men and women bustled past bright shop windows. In the sky, a high, wispy fog was turned ghostly yellow by the city lights.
A pair of Russian girls flowed past in long, fur coats, one glancing at Jedd long enough to offer him a faint smile.
Must be the beard, Jedd. It makes you even more irresistible than ever, quipped Mike.
Jedd shook his head. I thought Russian women were supposed to be hairy-faced. It seems like every girl Ive seen tonight is gorgeous.
They are, affirmed Trey. I dont know how that stereotype got started, but it couldnt be more wrong.
Must have been Cold War propaganda from the U.S. government, joked Mike. They were afraid all the guys would defect if they knew the truth.
What a contrast with the men, Matt added. Most of them seem to have the same haircut and wear nothing but black and gray.
Its true, Trey agreed. I wonder if that comes from growing up under a police state like the U.S.S.R. where being noticed was a fearful thing.
At the end of Petrovka Street, we entered a three-story, red-brick gatehouse.
Whats this? asked Matt.
Youll see, replied Trey in a hushed voice.
We passed through the gatehouse and came out onto a vast plate of cobbled stone. Glowing walls hemmed us in on all sides. To the left, the intricate facade of what looked like a nineteenth-century department store extended on for more than a hundred yards; on the right, the turreted walls of the Kremlin rose high into the foggy night. Directly ahead, the multicolored onion domes of St. Basils Cathedral blazed out of the mist. We were standing in the immortal Red Square.
The hammer-and-sickle flag no longer flew above the Kremlin, but atop a massive clock tower, an immense Communist star-each arm five feet long and made of solid rubies-turned the shredded clouds around it bloody. Mystery flowed from the granite-hewn mausoleum where Lenins corpse lay. Distant echoes of rumbling tanks and goose-stepping soldiers from the past blended with the sounds of enchanted visitors and strolling lovers.
Mikes half-whisper broke the silence. I remember seeing the Soviet military parade through this place on TV when I was little. I always thought about what Id do if they attacked.
Part of me hoped they would, Jedd said, nodding. A little boys fantasy. I thought itd be great to take to the hills and fight for America.
Mike smiled faintly. Yeah, like in that movie Red Dawn.
We explored Moscow for another hour before a combination of cold and sleepiness
finally began to penetrate the excitement.
I think Id say Im just about ready for a nice, warm bed, announced Matt.
Are you sure? asked Trey with a bit of disappointment. How about we turn back in another half-hour?
Im getting pretty tired, too, Trey, affirmed Mike.
Okay, Trey agreed. But well take the long way back.
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- seven -
Dozens of tracks extended before us across the station. Snow fell slowly that morning, leaving a light dusting on the train platform. Mike pushed his hands deep in his pockets.
What time is Steve supposed to be here? he asked, knowing the answer.
Hes a little late, said Trey. Steves Mr. High Energy, but he always seems to be a few minutes behind.
Steve Barrett, the director of Athletes in Action of Moscow, would be traveling with us out to the nearby city of Orekhovo-Zuyevo. Christian friends of his who lived in the town had arranged for us to spend the week speaking in schools, orphanages, and other locations. Steve would get us situated and spend the first few days with us before returning to Moscow.
It takes the body a little while to adjust from Central America to Moscow, said Mike, a slight shiver in his voice.
Matt dragged his backpack over next to Trey. Were you ever able to find out if our bank account has received any more donations? he asked.
Trey shook his head. I know its stupid, but I forgot to check when we were in Florida. Now its going to be difficult to do it from Moscow.
Matt seemed a little annoyed. Jedd, what did you say your calculations came out to?
Weve used up just about all of the funds we had in our account when we left. Unless more donations have come in, we could be very close to broke.
Trey was rescued from having to respond as a stocky man in a black peacoat strode toward us across the platform. I think thats Steve, he said.
The mans hat stretched low across his brow. His chiseled face was covered with three days of stubble, looking more like a member of the Mafia than a missionary. Back in his college days, Steve was an NCAA national champion wrestler for Oklahoma. He would have competed in the Olympics in 1980 had the U.S. not boycotted the Moscow games. It was ironic that Moscow is now his home.
In addition to a weightlifting regimen, Steve often runs stairs, up and down the twenty flights in his apartment complex. Some of his Muscovite neighbors think he is a bit crazy.
Steve allowed for a quick round of introductions, then asked, You guysve got everything you need?
Ive got mine, said Matt.
Good. Keep that stuff on and youll be fine.
We reached Orekhovo-Zuyevo by early afternoon. The sun was already low in the
sky. The city appeared much like the dozens of other small cities that encircle
Moscow. We had passed through several on the two-hour train ride out. Most flew
by the windows as little more than a blur of gray and white. At the occasional
stops, the dull colors came into focus: a smattering of nondescript factories;
white snow on buildings and brown sludge in the streets; some individual homes
built early in the century, and always at least a few of the huge concrete-box
Steve hailed a taxi and we loaded it up with our luggage. We would walk the mile or so to the central part of town to Orekhovo-Zuyevos only hotel. Hotel 274 did not look like much from the outside. Wooden bars covered small, dingy windows. As with the exterior, the interior paint falling from the walls was a faded pea green. Behind a green desk in the corner sat an immense lady dressed in a slightly darker shade of pea green.
As we entered, she glared suspiciously. There was no doubt who was queen of this castle. Steve approached in respectful silence.
What do you want? Only her lips moved. Her eyes and facial expression remained remarkably fixed.
Two rooms, please.
She shook her head slowly, leading with her chin. We had heard that the role of a hotel desk clerk in Communist days was not to facilitate stays for guests, but to ensure that none but the right sort of people stayed; at Hotel 274, apparently nothing had changed. For several minutes, Steve and Pea Green debated-her presenting trumped-up reasons why we could not stay and him refuting each faulty argument.
Give me the passports and visas, she finally demanded, apparently yielding.
After scrutinizing them for several more minutes, a hint of a smile crossed her face. You cannot stay here, she sniveled. The authorities in Moscow have not authorized you to stay in this city.
Steve was correct in protesting that our multientry visas, procured by friends of the Sklars in the Russian government, did not require special authorization to stay in cities outside of Moscow. She would hear none of it. Two hours, several phone calls, and half a dozen attempts to contact the local authorities produced no change. We were stuck. It appeared that we might be forced to return to Moscow.
I cant believe this lady, Trey muttered.
Matt-rarely one for sarcasm-laughed quietly in disbelief. The only thing worse than a corrupt Third World bureaucracy that takes bribes is a corrupt Third World bureaucracy that doesnt.
Let me call the guy who has been trying to set up speaking stuff for you guys. If he doesnt have any ideas, we may have to cancel, said Steve.
When he returned from the phone booth, Steves face was hopeful. Hes putting the word out among the locals. I doubt any of them have big places, but Russian believers always surprise me.
Twenty minutes later, the man Steve had called drove up in front of the hotel. He embraced Steve, greeted us, and then related that a Christian woman had volunteered to move out of her apartment for us and we could use it as long as we were in town.
Matt glanced at Steve with some concern. You sure about this?
Believers here see things differently. She wants to do this. If she didnt, she wouldnt have offered.
It was the second time someone had moved out of their home for our sake.
The apartment was small-a kitchen, dining room, and closetlike bedroom-but it fit our needs wonderfully. Our hostess was a middle-aged woman with graying hair and big, childlike eyes. She helped us move in and then disappeared before we had a chance to thank her.
We spent much of the following days at several orphanages for young children.
The ladies in charge would gather the children for our Bible stories. Afterward,
the affection-starved youngsters delighted in romping and wrestling or just
sitting in our laps, often three or four at a time.
In the evenings after dinner, we often remained around the table for hours, drawing stories out of Steve. As he spoke, his face reflected the extraordinary twists and turns of each narrative, his sky-blue eyes bulging as he reached the storys climax. The tales of his work throughout the former Soviet Union proved fascinating: wrestling contests against savage men in the mountains south of Russia whose disdain became respect after he managed to pin their champion; visits to the peoples of Ossetia, whose entire Christian faith consists of eating a lamb and getting drunk once each year in a holy copse of trees; the Olympic gold medalist wrestler whom Steve hid from organized crime bosses for several months after the man accepted Christ and decided to change his ways.
Steve recounted a time when he had shown the JESUS film to a group of men in the Caucasus Mountains. One man watched with rapt interest. When the film ended, he watched it a second time, absolutely enthralled. After it was over, the man sat deep in thought. Finally, he announced to Steve that he wished he could follow Christ, but would not be able to because he ran a gas station.
Steve allowed us to ask the obvious. A gas station?
The man couldnt become a Christian because he ran a gas station, Steve repeated with a smile.
We waited for him to continue.
In the Caucasus Mountains, the gas stations are all tied to the Mafia. You cant run one down there without being tied into a lot of shady dealings. If the guy decided to follow Jesus, he knew hed have to get out. And he couldnt just sell the station. Hed have to be on the next train to Siberia, or the last thing hed hear would be the sound of his brains flying out the back of his head.
Man, Matt muttered under his breath.
Jedd mused, It is easy for me to think that I would follow Jesus in any situation, but I wonder how Id come out if the first decision I had to make for Christ was something like that.
That was a tough decision, followed Steve, tougher than we know-leaving family, friends, job, everything. And it all had to be decided right when he first encountered Jesus, just like it did in the story of the rich young ruler. But when it comes down to it, thats a decision we all have to make. We tend to think that being a nice, churchy person is at least halfway there. But Jesus didnt want any disciples who werent in 100 percent. It was all or nothing.
So youd say that someone who wasnt completely sold out isnt saved? Mike questioned.
Steve responded thoughtfully, I dont know, Mike. In the end, its up to God to decide exactly who has committed their life to Him. Im thankful to know that even the greatest saints failed at times. Just think of Peter.
But I do know that Christ demanded that those who follow Him follow with everything, even if that involved fumbling and bumbling along the path. Well all make mistakes, but it all comes down to the root-level question: Do I want to give Him my all or not?
Trey probed further. Some people seem to have to decide everything at the beginning: all or nothing right off the bat. Others have a lifetime to think about it.
Steve rubbed his jaw as he thought for a moment. Yeah, some people do have more time than others. But ultimately, they have to choose also. Thats how it is for most of us. We may not face the big decision right at first, but the truth is, by the time we reach the decision point, the choice has probably already been made. All the little, day-to-day decisions we make shape who we are. When we come to the big crossroads, we will just continue in the way we are already moving.
What was it like for you? asked Mike.
I accepted Jesus when I was young, and most of the way its been smaller, easier decisions. In the little things, was Jesus the master or was I? I hit my big follow me decision when God called me to leave my farm in Missouri and take my family to Russia. When I was younger, I had done some work in Eastern Europe, but as an adult, I was pretty content out on my farm. I had a wife, three young daughters, not much money, and I didnt know a lick of Russian. But there was no getting around the fact that God wanted me here.
So you went?
Yep. Thereve been some rough spots along the way, but Id do it again a hundred times. When you know youre living for something eternal every day, even the worst isnt too bad. Anyway, I knew I would probably have been more comfortable at home, but Id never be satisfied with farming if God wanted something different for me.
At Home with Aunt Lucy
The woman who had lent us the apartment was not the only face of warm hospitality
in Orekhovo-Zuyevo. A big second (and we do mean BIG) was a rotund elderly lady
who everyone called Aunt Lucy. Aunt Lucy outweighed many an NFL lineman. Her
dark eyes twinkled fiercely in her broad face, and only when stopping to catch
her breath was she not in motion. As she had every morning during our stay,
Aunt Lucy entered the apartment before dawn and set a kettle and the breakfast
victuals on the stove to warm.
Then-much earlier than we had requested the night before-she crashed like a Gestapo raid into the room where we slumbered. Angry Slavic tones boomed off the walls. Steve did not open his eyes, but hissed translations to us as she rolled on and on, her hands on her hips, jowls bouncing up and down.
Youre guilty of many unforgivable offenses, he explained. You sleep too long, you fail to jump to your feet upon waking, and you generally resemble old women.
Just when we were sure she was about to begin beating us with a rolling pin, Aunt Lucy broke into laughter so jolly we could not help wondering if she was related to Father Christmas. Matt and Jedd sat up halfway, not sure how to respond. When we finally began to smile ourselves, she once again set her jaw and resumed her tirade . . . only to burst into yet another round of raucous laughter. Once assured we were awake, Aunt Lucy returned to the kitchen, leaving us to pull on our many layers of clothing and gather at the table before her food-chunks of fatty sausage laid on heavily buttered pasta. Lucy stood over us as we ate, ready to whisk a not-quite-finished bowl from under our nose, pile on more pasta, up to the brim, and then push the filled bowl back in front of its owner. She would not be satisfied until we had eaten all she had cooked.
Breakfast finally done, strong chai downed, and heavy jackets donned, Steve and the four of us shuffled out the door to the days work. Aunt Lucy clogged traffic in the little coatroom as we passed by, harshly admonishing us to put on our caps and zip up our jackets. Before returning to her own home, she would wash the dishes and straighten the house. We could hear her voice launch into a Russian hymn the moment the door shut behind us.
Well be at an internot today, said Steve. Thats an orphanage for older kids-junior high and high school.
You think itll be pretty much the same as the other places weve been-speaking and then just hanging out? Jedd asked.
Theres a lot of kids. Youll probably speak to a few different groups. Theyll probably want to play you in some sports, too.
I could use the exercise, remarked Jedd. I love Aunt Lucy, but sausage and white pasta isnt exactly the breakfast of champions.
Just keep doing your push-ups, said Trey. Throughout the trip thus far, Jedd had remained faithful to his regimen of push-ups, pull-ups, and other exercises, often with his backpack on.
Jedd bent down and scooped a mound of snow with his mitten. As he walked, he shaped the crystals into a sphere, then pitched it over Matts head toward Mike.
Nice shot, said Trey.
A moment later, a return snowball crashed into Jedds Russian cap.
Hey, you about knocked my head off. Jedd turned his head parallel to the ground and tried to pick snow out of his ear.
Mike grinned and offered something of an apology. He turned back to Trey, taking on a more sober tone. Did you have a chance to talk with your mom about how things are going with your dad?
Not as much as I wanted to. When I brought it up, she seemed a little strained and said we should talk about it when we had more time. We just didnt have a chance. Shes trying to be strong, but I can tell its been pretty rough.
From what I can see, shes being incredibly strong.
She always is, but it seems like things are getting worse. I was telling Jedd that I want to try to spend some time in Moscow to be with the family for a few days next week. Is that okay with you?
Of course. Let me know if we can . . .
Another snowball broke against Mikes shoulder, spraying Trey with snow as well. Trey offered Mike a we can talk about it later smile.
The boys at the other side of the soccer field appeared to be between nine and
thirteen, the biggest one hardly reaching Treys shoulder. We had talked
with several groups in the internot, telling about our travels and life in America
as well as our faith in Christ. As Steve predicted, at the end of our last talk,
the challenge had come from a straw-haired boy in a ragged coat: Will you play
us in a game of soccer?
Matt sprinted toward the ball, reaching it before his ten-year-old opponent. He had not dribbled the ball twice, however, when he landed on his back with the wind knocked out of him. Beneath a thin layer of recent snow, the ground was more like a hockey rink than a soccer field. The little fellow had snagged the ball and taken off down the field. Jedd-a little out of control-collided with the boy and both tumbled. Jedd made it to his feet first, but a boy in old red sweats stole it from him and headed off in the other direction. Moments later, a thin spring-loaded leg fired the ball past Mikes hands.
Come on, fellas! shouted Jedd. That was pitiful.
We improved a bit as the game went on, but not by much. What the kids lacked in height, they made up in skill. After an hour of ice-rink soccer, we were exhausted.
The outcome particularly disappointed Jedd. Its pretty sad we couldnt even half their score, he said, shaking his head as we walked off the field.
Steve headed back to Moscow that afternoon. We would continue to visit schools
and orphanages on our own, with a student from Moscow named Elena translating
for us. Steve would return one morning later in the week to join us for a speaking
engagement at a nearby military base.
Were on for nine-thirty on Thursday, so meet me there around nine. Ill explain the details then, promised Steve. Its an OMON base, so the security will probably be tight. Just have Elena explain who you are-theyll be expecting you. By the way, Ill be bringing my Russian teammate Victor out with me. Youll like him. Great guy. He used to be in the navy.
Costs of Discipleship
After a full day of speaking and sports, Aunt Lucys dinner of beet-laced
borscht, mounds of bleached pasta, and hot dogs looked very appetizing. Halfway
through the meal, friends of Aunt Lucy stopped by for an un-expected visit.
Lucy found two extra chairs and plates, and we squeezed shoulder to shoulder
around the table. The man was a Baptist pastor from a neighboring town, his
bushy gray eyebrows matching his stiff suit, his wifes jet-black hair
pulled back tight in a bun. They greeted us politely but said little during
As the chai tea and candies were brought out, it became apparent that the pastor did desire to speak with us. With Elena translating, he quizzed us on our backgrounds, families, and denominations. He had not heard of Calvary Chapel, Covenant, or even Presbyterian before. His eyebrows seemed to lower with apprehension, but he ultimately appeared satisfied with Treys description: Theyre a lot like Baptists. We could not quite tell whether he was just curious, or if he was probing to see if we were sincere in our faith; probably a little of both. No doubt a pastor who served in Communist times took care to be initially inquisitive with those who presented themselves as Christian brothers. After a time, we were able to ask questions of our own.
Youve been a pastor all your life? inquired Matt.
Since I was a young man, he said. My job was at the factory, but my real work was teaching at the church that met in a home near our apartment.
Do you have children? Mike asked.
One, his wife said, almost inaudibly.
We waited for her to continue, but she said no more. We wondered if it was a sad thing in Russia to have only one child.
Jedd spoke up. What was it like to be a pastor before Communism ended? The pastors eyes rested on the table for a moment after Elena had explained the question.
He glanced at each of us before replying quietly. There are books now written about it, but we lived it. After a moment of silence, the pastor looked up at us again. I dont want to bore you, he apologized.
No, please, we want to hear what you have to say, assured Trey.
I dont want to bore you, but it is true, he repeated. We have had our share of troubles. Often the KGB came crashing into our gatherings. Theyd smash tables and break chairs and yell at everybody. They would write down the names of every person there and take away our few Bibles and hymnals.
Did they hurt you physically? asked Matt softly.
I was lucky. They did little harm to my body. I know other pastors who lost fingers and worse. Some were taken and never came back. Usually they would bring me to the station and question me and yell at me for hours. Then they would let me go, warning me that theyd send me to Siberia if I kept preaching. It was she who was once hurt badly. He nodded toward his wife. She offered her same soft, sad smile. She was very pregnant at a time when our church was raided. They pushed her down and someone kicked her. It caused our child to be crippled.
We could only stare at the table.
The pastor seemed ready to move on to another topic. The conversation was interesting, but images of clandestine services, angry soldiers, and pregnant women continued to spin through our heads. They remained with us that night in our sleep.
The following evening after Lucy had gone home, we sat around the table discussing
the days events.
Im really enjoying our times at the orphanages, remarked Trey.
The soccer games are great, said Mike. Everywhere we go, they want to challenge us. They feel like theyre on top of the world if they beat the Americans.
They always do, stated Jedd flatly.
Matt said, Its hard to know how to talk to the kids here. Its so much easier to connect with people when you understand their culture.
Right, agreed Mike. You think, what do I have to say to a Russian orphan? Our lives are just so totally different.
I think the way were doing it is the best we can do-just trying to be real, said Trey. Tell em about our lives and some of the things weve seen and what faith in Christ can be.
Matt nodded. Its a good lesson for me. Speaking in places like this cuts out the illusions I sometimes have that Im going to change peoples lives with the right words. If theres going to be any real impact, God is going to have to do it. You always know that in theory, but here it kind of hits you over the head.
What about tomorrow morning? said Mike. How did Steve set this up for us to speak to Ministry of Interior troops anyway?
I have no idea, said Trey, shaking his head. You guys know what OMON is? Its the special federal police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The KGB was split into several divisions after the fall of Communism. OMON is the part that works inside Russia, like the FBI in America. As I understand it, theyre really feared. Ive seen some of the OMON troops in Moscow. They usually wear all black with only a single Ministry of the Interior patch.
How do you know all this stuff, Trey? Jedd mused. Trey just smiled.
Matts thoughts wandered. I wonder what these guys were doing when we were kids, during the Cold War. If they were KGB officers in the Communist years, who knows what kind of terrible things theyve done.
Maybe well find out tomorrow, said Mike, his eyes wide with mock fear.
Im starting to get a little tired, said Trey. You guys mind if we do our evening Bible study now?
During our reconciliation and confession time, Mike wanted to talk.
Jedd, theres something Ive been wanting to bring up with you, said Mike. He seemed a bit wary, unsure how to proceed. Jedd reassured him with an I-can-take-a-hit smile.
It seems to me that, in games and other little contests and stuff, you lose your focus sometimes. You get too competitive. You care so much if your team wins.
Jedd nodded. I know that I was that way when I was younger. Youve seen this recently?
Well, Ive seen it a lot of the times weve had competitions. Im especially thinking-in some of the soccer games. Weve been playing against junior highers, but I can tell youre always just dying to win.
Of course I want to win. Why not? replied Jedd with a questioning, slightly irritated smile.
Its not that. Its just . . . I mean, whats our purpose for being here? Like today, I could tell you were getting frustrated with Trey when he wasnt up to speed. I was out of breath, too, and I knew you werent happy with me, either. You shouted several times . . .
Jedd cut in, I only shouted at my own mistakes.
Maybe. It was just the whole attitude, though. It seemed to me like you even got kind of rough with the kids. Why was the little game so important? We might even make a bigger impression on the kids when they beat us.
I disagree, Mike. I know at that age I wouldnt have had much respect for lame foreigners if they came to America and played a sport like they didnt care. Why should we ever give anything something less than our best shot?
We shouldnt, but the best isnt always in winning a game or declaring some sort of victory. I admire that about you, Jedd, how you never settle for a halfhearted effort. Its great how you always want to seek the best, but I think that sometimes youve got to be more careful in defining what the best really is.
The discussion continued late into the night. Jedd tried to be open to the criticism, but could not help being defensive. Reasonable conversation gave way to frustrated argument, then returned to discussion, only to get bogged down once again in debate.
The words Jedd shared before going to bed were terse but genuine. This stuff is hard to hear, but I do appreciate your bringing it up, Mike. Ive got some thinking to do.
I feel painfully reminded tonight of how far I am from the man I want to be. The more I think about it, the more I realize that many of the things I enjoy and value most-athletics and weightlifting, reading for knowledge, intellectual discussion-all good in themselves, find their motivation in me with a desire to be seen as great.
I know it is not the facade of greatness I seek to achieve. If everyone in the world thought that I was great, but I knew that I was not, I would only be disgusted. I desire to be good, wise, and loving through and through. But even this is still all about me, and I am so often concerned about others perceptions of me. How do I rescue what is best in these desires while cutting out what is so self-centered and self-serving? Please help me, Lord!
Victor the Captain
In the morning, we said little to each other as we stumbled around the apartment,
pulling on our clothes.
You just put on my sweater, Mike, stated Matt flatly.
Gray light trickled through the windows. It was as overcast outside as it was in our heads, and a breakfast of rubbery hot dogs and buckwheat did little to help rouse us.
The OMON base assembly hall was empty when we arrived. Our footsteps echoed loudly as we walked between the rows of empty seats. By 9:25, we were getting nervous. Steve and his partner, Victor, had still not arrived. Had the speaking engagement slipped Steves mind? What had he told the OMON commander this presentation was supposed to be about, anyway? Did the officers even know we are Christians?
At precisely 9:30, a group of sharply dressed cadets filed into the room and filled the front four rows. The only sound came from the squeaking of their boots. The officer turned from across the room and looked at us, his voice deep and hard. Our translator turned to us.
He wants to know if youre ready.
Jedd swallowed hard and opened his mouth to reply. Just then the auditorium door swung open. A wiry Russian entered, followed by a smaller man in a black peacoat. It was Steve and Victor. Relief washed over us as they strode across the room. Victor spoke with the OMON officer while Steve explained the situation to us. We were to be only part of the presentation. Jedd would share briefly, but Steve and Victor would cover the rest.
The cadets appeared curious enough as Jedd spoke about the United States and his faith in Jesus. An American was enough of a novelty to be interesting. Victor, however, held a different sort of interest. He had been a high-ranking military man himself, one of the youngest submarine commanders in the history of the Russian navy. Steve translated for us as Victor paced back and forth behind the podium, laying out the story of his life.
I know what it is like to be in your place, he began. The navy was the place of my service to our country. As a young officer, I felt great pride in my work and in my position. Men like Napoleon, Peter the Great, and Admiral Lord Nelson were my heroes. My lifes aim was glory-for Mother Russia, and maybe even more than that, glory for myself. I gave all I had to my pursuit of power and prestige.
Success came quickly. I rose through the ranks. My life was very sweet to me. All the things I sought after fell into my hands: a high level in society, influence and importance, the praise and privilege given to top officers. I believed in myself 100 percent and trusted completely in my own strength.
But one day, everything changed. Victor stopped his pacing and stationed himself in front of the podium. I was in the Barents Sea. My submarine came upon an overturned boat. In the icy water, the capsized men struggled to reach us. We worked desperately to save them, but everything we did seemed to fail. One after another sank before our eyes. And I, the great and infallible, most brave and smart commander of the submarine, could not do anything to save them.
He paused and looked at the floor; it seemed as if the scene were being played out before him again. Many of the cadets faces-up to this point hard as flint-reflected a hint of the emotion we could see in Victor. His eyes swept over the soldiers, seeming to stare deep into each of them.
Finally, he began again. Something happened that day in my head and in my heart. I saw my own helplessness. I saw how false it was that I could imagine to put all my trust in my capabilities, significance, and greatness. I had armed myself with my victories in athletics, my successes in the naval service, and my high titles and responsibilities. It fell apart in one minute. From that day on, life began to lose its interest. Joy and accomplishment no longer interested me and sadness didnt affect me. Every-thing around me was vanity and weariness of spirit. I decided to quit the navy and move to Moscow.
It was there that something happened to change my life. I met some Christians. They didnt have any titles or positions. I had grown up hearing my teachers make fun of them in school. But there was something in them that I couldnt ignore. I looked inside myself and thought a lot about the purpose of life. I began to see that my new friends were worthy of my trust. I saw that they were sincere in their love.
Several months passed before I understood the verse one of my new friends had read to me from Revelation 3:20-Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me. I decided to let the One I knew was knocking at the door of my heart come in. The whole purpose of my life changed at that moment. I knew the search for power and position and prestige would no longer be my god. I would serve Jesus.
Now, I am giving myself more to Him every day. The question I ask each of you is: What is it that you are giving your life to?
Silence held the room for a long moment. Steve returned to the front to join Victor. Together, they explained what it meant to become a Christian and invited any of the cadets who might be interested to pray with them to give their lives to Christ. When Steve finished his prayer, the lead officer barked an order, and the group filed out. We stood by the door, offering the soldiers copies of a paperback that contained both the Gospel of John and the book More Than a Carpenter. Most were at least interested enough to receive a free book. A handful stayed behind. They wanted to learn more from Victor about what the decision they had just made would mean for their lives.
Sunday morning we went to church with Elena and Aunt Lucy. The local Baptists
gathered in an old theater, dark and worn. As we settled into the pull-down
seats, the people seated around us turned to welcome us. After a few announcements
and Aunt Lucys introduction of us, there was music, the Slavic hymns sounding
rich and deep and sad-much like the history of Russia.
Halfway through the sermon, Elena leaned over. I cant believe what this pastor is saying. He is preaching on why women cannot wear pants.
Matt couldnt help but smile, noticing Elenas jeans.
Elena had her head tilted, listening carefully. Ahh. He just said that there are some exceptions.
Oh, great. Elena turned to us again. It is okay for women to wear pants if they are picking mushrooms and . . . She paused for a moment to hear more. And if a woman has nothing else to wear except a short skirt, she probably should wear pants.
We surveyed the audience. They listened intently, heads nodding from time to time.
Elena observed for a few minutes before turning to us again. You will be glad to know that black is not the only acceptable color to wear. We can also wear gray.
This guys a real libertine, joked Mike.
The pastor rolled on, laying out specifics on acceptable and unacceptable activities and attire. No dancing, of course, and no makeup. A wedding ring might be okay, but other jewelry was out. Men should not engage in exercise or sports, which they should shun as vain.
We really did not know what to make of it. Surrounding us were people who had kept the flames of faith alive through darkest night. They had withstood the worst that evil could unleash. Furthermore, they were not-for the most part-dour, crotchety individuals. In fact, most of the people we had spent time with were extremely loving and kind. But somehow, in his zeal to be not of the world, it seemed that the pastor had allowed externals and cultural patterns to become a primary focal point of his teachings.
After church and a final Lucy-cooked meal, we hurried out to the train station to catch the one oclock to Moscow. Crowds were returning to the city after the weekend, and we were forced to stand most of the way. Like our fellow passengers, we talked little. Matt and Jedd read. Mike stared out the window, thoughts inward.
Mikes Reflections-November 23
I just dont know what to make of what we saw this morning. I definitely dont want to criticize the church here-I know all that theyve gone through. Even so, it frustrates me that this pastor would focus so heavily on external issues.
He talked much more this morning about women not wearing makeup or pants than about becoming like Jesus.
Of course there are different expressions of Christian faith in every culture. In a more traditional culture like Russia has outside of its big cities, maybe it is appropriate for Christian women to take steps I would consider unnecessary for the sake of modesty.
But it definitely seems to me that this pastor has gone way too far. Wouldnt it be far better just to focus on the person and teaching of Jesus and let the smaller details be just details?
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- eight -
Scarred Hands and Iron Doors
Steve had seen us off at the Moscow train station, where he introduced us to a seventeen-year-old boy named Sasha, our guide and translator for the week. We liked Sasha immediately, his earnest eyes peering out of a puffy face; frizzy, sand-colored hair; a thickly lined denim jacket giving him a slightly rounded appearance. A two-hour train ride brought us to the town of Serpukhov, where we were met at the station by Pastor Eugene, a thin man in his sixties whose lithe body stood erect as an old pine. After introductions-translated by Sasha-Eugene led off across town with a long, aggressive stride.
Days with Pastor Eugene
is good to have you here, he said, not slowing his gate. Steve told
me on the phone about your work last week in Orekhovo-Zuyevo.
Will we be doing the same things here-speaking in schools and internots? asked Jedd.
Eugene nodded. When Im not doing my pastor work, I like to spend time with kids in the orphanages and hospitals. Their lives are difficult, and theyre always happy when I come. I know they will be very excited to see you and hear what you have to say.
We passed several rows of cement apartment buildings before Eugene turned into the entrance of one. Unlocking a door on the second floor, he announced, This is for you. A young family from the church moved in with their parents so you could stay here. The apartments main room had enough floor space for all of us to sleep comfortably. There was also a small kitchen and a bathroom. It was tiny, but would suit our needs perfectly. We stood quietly, soaking in another dousing of hospitality.
Please, tell them how thankful we are, said Matt sincerely.
Eugene smiled nonchalantly. They were glad to do it.
Heavy scars marked the backs of Eugenes hands. They did not prevent him
from playing with the kids when he would join us at the schools, but they were
a reminder, carved in flesh, of a Christians lot under a Communist regime.
Over lunch during a break between two orphanages, we asked if he would share
his story with us. He nodded, setting down a slice of the bologna he was about
to put in his mouth.
When I was only three years old, he began, Stalin had my father shot because he was a Christian. Without him, it was very hard for us to meet our needs. My mother worked in a factory, but we didnt always have enough. My older brother died of malnutrition. I got work at a tool factory to help support my mother and younger brother.
When I was fifteen, the KGB caught me listening to a Christian radio program on Voice of America. The penalty for that was ten years in prison, but since I was a minor, they kept me in prison for only a few months. When they let me go, they warned me to never listen to that foolishness again.
But after I got out of prison, I kept on listening, even though I knew they had me under surveillance. Then one day, the KGB showed up at my tool factory. They took me in a room and tried to force me to sign a paper that said the Baptists I knew gathered together to sacrifice children and eat them. Of course, I wouldnt sign it, so they threw me in prison again. They kept me in a cell with a murderer. I was terrified. Every night, when I went to bed, I wondered, Is this man going to kill me while I sleep? But I will tell you, during that time, I felt God closer to me than ever in my life.
When I was released, they moved me to another factory. I worked on an assembly line, picking up tiny parts and putting them in the right boxes. Perhaps it sounds strange, but I repeated the same little task so many times over the decades that my hands became permanently deformed. Last year, some Americans Ive never met paid for me to have surgery to fix my fingers. Eugene demonstrated, wiggling his digits in front of us. Now I can use my hands again. We smiled at his display of dexterity, but Eugenes story had left a heaviness on our hearts.
Our road is so easy, sighed Trey.
Have you ever been married, Eugene? Matt asked.
Yes, but this, too, is a sad story. My wife was a secretary in the Communist Party. When I became an elder in the Baptist church, the KGB came to her with an offer. They said, Either you leave your husband or you will lose your job here. As you see now, she chose to keep her job.
days of speaking and sports had left us feeling grubby. Because our apartment
had no shower, Eugene suggested a trip to the banya as the cure for our woes.
The banya, said Eugene when we got there, pointing to a towering wooden structure. I promise we will all be made very clean and fresh.
A lot of Russians outside of Moscow dont have their own bath, explained Sasha. The banya is where they get clean.
How often do they come here? questioned Matt.
Usually once every week or two. Seeing our surprise, Sasha said, You think that is not very much? I have heard that some people visit the banya only once in a winter.
Near the entrance, Eugene stopped at a stall to buy a bouquet of thin birch branches. We glanced at one another questioningly. Were the branches to be a part of our Russian bathing experience?
In the banyas dingy changing room, we abandoned our bulky clothing. Eugene led us toward what looked like a magical mirror through which naked Russian men were appearing and vanishing. As we walked into the hazy steam room, the roar of rushing water surrounded us. Jedd surveyed our surroundings.
Its like were in a Roman bath. Look at the craftsmanship that went into the vaulted ceiling and the arches over the doors.
Yeah, but all those rows of piping and showerheads cluttered it up with plenty of Communist efficiency, Mike said with a hint of disdain.
All around us, men showered off days, or even weeks, of grime. Less than five feet away, an elderly man leaned against a bench while a friend vigorously scoured his back with a brush. He arched his back, thoroughly enjoying the cleansing swaths of the brushs firm bristles. His pasty belly swayed back and forth as the other scrubbed.
You wouldnt see that in the U.S. I guess homosexuality isnt very prevalent in Russia so the men dont get uncomfortable being naked together.
Its definitely different, Matt replied as he hung his towel on a peg in the wall.
After rinsing, Eugene moved toward a heavy wooden door. He pulled it back and motioned for us to pass through quickly. Scalding air washed over our bodies as we entered. It singed our nostrils. Huge, bleacher-style benches led upward from the ground all the way to the ceiling, several stories high. They looked like stairsteps for a giant. Men lounged at every level, appearing as if they were floating in the mist. Eugene hiked toward the top, weaving through the maze of naked bodies that lined the benches. With each level that we rose, the heat intensified. Hot sweat spattered on us as the men we passed thrashed themselves and their comrades with birch branches. By the time we neared the top, our breath came only in small gasps. Our bodies were futilely trying to cool the air before it scalded our lungs.
Eugene indicated for Mike to lie down. When Mike had prostrated himself on the damp wood, he began lashing him with the birch branches. It will open your pours and clean you very well, he explained.
Must . . . get . . . more . . . oxygen, Mike sputtered, only half joking.
Matt and Jedd glanced at each other, trying not to laugh. Mikes face was tight with pain. Not only did the branches sting, but each swinging motion brought with it a blast of air so hot it was nearly unbearable. The effect was a surreal massaging sensation.
We rotated through the thrash and be thrashed roles for twenty minutes. By then, we were thoroughly cooked.
Well be out in the changing room, Eugene, said Jedd. He turned to the others. I dont know how much longer I can take.
Only a few days into our stay in Serpukhov, Trey caught a train headed for Moscow. He wanted to spend some time alone with his family.
I dont know if Im going to be able to do any good at home, but I at least want to be there.
I just dont understand how everything could be happening like this. My entire life, Ive idolized Dad. I dreamed of following his footsteps to West Point and the Special Forces. His military record and decorations have always inspired me to be brave and bold, but now . . . I dont even want to think about what the future may bring . . . honestly I am terrified. I would do anything to bring our family back together . . .
Eugene had suggested that morning that we seek an opportunity to speak to inmates
of Serpukhovs high-security prison. It was a two-mile hike across town.
Is there a chance we could all get in, Eugene? Matt asked.
Eugene shrugged. Not likely. Im hoping for one or two. The prison rules say specifically that only one non-Russian can go in at a time. I have prayed, though. It wouldnt be the first time God has opened prison doors.
Does everyone have their passports with them? asked Eugene.
We all felt for the rectangular shape under our layers of clothing. A moment later, Sasha and Eugene began talking in rapid-fire Russian.
Something wrong? questioned Matt.
Sasha looked at us with chagrin. Guys, Im sorry. I forgot my passport. I didnt think I would need it.
Didnt you know we were going to the prison today? asked Jedd, disappointed.
Yes. But I dont have my passport here in Serpukhov. Its in Moscow.
Mike jumped in. Dont Russians always have to carry their passports when they travel?
We are supposed to have them on us at all times. I just forgot to bring it.
Well, theres nothing we can do about it now, finished Matt.
Whos gonna go in if Sasha cant translate for us?
Jedd, Mike volunteered without hesitation. He knows the most Russian.
I still wouldnt be able to say anything worth saying. Ill go, but I dont know that thered be much point in it.
All except Sasha slid our passports to the guard beneath a thick glass window. He disappeared and returned several minutes later. Through there, he said, motioning us toward the outside door. The small waiting room was little warmer than outside. A uniformed man puffed on a cigarette and eyed us warily from the other side of a heavily barred door. Another guard appeared next to the smoker and grunted for him to move, then nodded at us as he pulled back the door. Before we knew what had happened, we were in-all of us, including Sasha. We did not know why they bent the rules for us, but this was not the time for questions.
As we passed through the first set of iron bars, the front desk guard shouted, Close the door this time, Fyordor. Its clang echoed dully through the dark, narrow hallway ahead of us.
Grimy passages turned this way and that, winding deep into the heart of the prison. Ancient brick walls, corroded and speckled with mildew, seemed to draw tighter as we proceeded, choking out life and hope. Iron doors, their peek-holes locked, lined the sides. The acrid stench of mold, bleach, blood, and urine added to the sense of suffocation.
Why are you scowling, Matt? Mike asked.
I didnt know I was.
Maybe the weight of this place is getting to me. Just the thought of being locked in here is more than I could bear.
The guard turned to a side door and ushered us into a cell known as Red Corner. The room was decorated with four rows of chairs, a few books, and a table with a small podium on it. A moment later, the guard left.
Eugene explained how terrible it was for prisoners here-he had experienced it firsthand himself. No TVs in the cells or well-stocked weightrooms; just icy-cold cells and an occasional walk across the snowy yard. The diet consisted of two meals of boiled cabbage a day. The rare times they did get bread or meat, they were so thankful they hardly noticed the mold that inevitably pocked its surface.
Jedd said, So whos gonna speak?
I just dont feel like speaking today, Mike stated.
What do you say in a place like this? asked Matt.
Share from the heart, I guess, said Jedd. Remember what Eugene said about these guys probably imagining that all Americans live in a paradise.
Compared to the way they live, we do.
Jedd nodded. And they imagine that we wouldnt have any reason for God since we have it so good. It makes me think...
The deadbolt clanked, and the door creaked open. Twelve young men, hands behind their backs and eyes glued to the floor, hobbled lifelessly to their seats.
Ill be back in an hour, the guard grunted to Eugene. He locked the door behind him, leaving us alone with the prisoners.
Matts mind raced as he glanced around. What would happen if these guys decided to take us out? he wondered. I dont see any intercoms or alarms in here, and there arent any guards.
We were thankful that Eugene seemed entirely at ease. He began by introducing us, lanky limbs gesturing enthusiastically as he spoke.
Today I have brought with me three young men from America. They come from Santa Barbara, California, and they are here to share with you about their lives. Please welcome Jedd, Mike, Matt, and their translator, Sasha.
A lethargic clapping came from about half of the men. We could tell the prisoners were more concerned about their image among their cellmates than creating a good impression on us. Yet surprisingly, they seemed to be thankful for our presence. Jedd talked first. While he shared, Mike and Matt observed the prisoners.
I can hardly believe it. These prisoners are not men; theyre just boys. I dont think any of them could be older than eighteen. The youngest looked not more than thirteen. You can tell how much they just need a mother or father to love and hold them. Although their outer shells are hard, the younger boys feel no awkwardness sitting in the lap of the older. All they have is each other.
Matt spoke next. I know my life is very different from yours. Im
from Santa Barbara. The weather there is almost always nice, and just about
all the people are beautiful. They have big houses and nice cars. A lot of them,
though, arent any happier than you are here. I know a lot of you think
that when you get out of here, life will be a lot better. Let me tell you-it
will be. But even if you were to get out and move to Santa Barbara, you would
still be carrying around a lot of pain and emptiness. Jesus said, Come
to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. My
question to you today is: Have you found rest for your souls? I have no idea
if you have; there is no way I can tell. But if you havent, I can guarantee
that the only way you will find it is by coming to know Jesus . . .
After Matt finished, there was only silence while the seconds passed. Then one of the older kids blurted out, I dont even believe Jesus lived. How do you know He was actually a real person?
Sasha translated what he was saying. Before we could speak, Eugene took over. Why dont we watch this movie about Jesus? Perhaps this will answer some of your questions, replied Eugene.
We put Man Without Equal in the VCR we had brought with us from Eugenes church. Most of the inmates watched it intently, but afterward the conversation went downhill. Some of the prisoners were determined to begin a debate about Christian apologetics, and whether or not Jesus really lived. Were it solely up to us, we would have chosen to steer the conversation in a different direction. Unfortunately, our translator had a different idea.
We sat helpless, watching an impassioned Sasha enter a verbal wrestling match with three of the older prisoners. We tried to interrupt him, but each time we did, he neglected to translate. While listening to a whir of Russian words and an occasional rumble of prisoner laughter, we could only stand by, frustrated.
The guard returned in the middle of the debate. As soon as the door opened, the prisoners stood. They placed their hands on their backs, fixed their eyes on the ground, and filed silently out the door.
We emerged from the prison like men crawling from beneath a tornado-flattened house. The feeling clung to our clothing and hid in our pockets for days. There were men in there; boys, too. They lived there. Day in and day out, squeezed between those walls, sucking in and spitting out the fetid air, forgetting what it felt like to be free.
Maybe the tensions of the prison affected us more deeply than we realized. That
evening, after Sasha had gone to bed, the three of us had a very difficult reconciliation
It seemed to Mike that Jedd always had to express his preferences in every little decision we made: what order we would speak in, what we would eat for dinner, what sports we would play with kids at the orphanages.
We continued for several hours. The tone rolled from discussion to argument and then back again. There were moments of learning, but at least as many of frustration and irritation.
Mike and Matt tried to avoid coming on too strong. For his part, Jedd tried to listen and learn; still, defensiveness snarled from time to time.
It was after 2:00 A.M. when we decided that most of the issue had been thrashed out. Not everything had been entirely resolved, but it seemed there was little to gain from continuing, bleary-eyed as we were. We prayed together and then went to bed. Jedd journaled some thoughts before turning out the lights.
Im hurting. Once again, I feel I have been forced to confront how painfully far I am from the others-centered, unselfish man I want to be.
In normal situations, when youre not so intensely together with people, things like this might never be noticed. But if Im totally honest with myself, I know that almost always in the back of my mind is me. What would I like? How will it affect me? I filter everything through the lens of what do I want? Many times, I give up the thing I decide I want, but always as a conscious sacrifice, rather than as a more relaxed passing up.
I am thankful that Im being forced to see this, even though it leaves me feeling like my guts have been given a once-over with brass knuckles. How else would I be forced to wrestle with these issues? Things like this would only be a significant problem in deep, long-term interaction. Of course, I could avoid the issue by avoiding deep relationships. But that would not solve the problem; it would only entrench selfish, self-centered thoughts and actions.
The question is, How can I change? In my day-to-day choices, I can try to not push my preferences, but that is only dealing with symptoms, not the root problem. Merely acting unselfishly will be a charade until my heart is changed. That is not something I can do on my own. I remember what Salomón said in Guatemala. The best (and only) thing I can do is seek to grow closer to Jesus. As I become more firmly rooted in Him, the fruit of unselfishness-and all other good things as well-will begin to flow out automatically.
from RUSSIA and elsewhere, streaming video, audio
clips and much more available at www.foursoulsthebook.com!
- nine -
Village at the Edge of the World
Two days later, we found ourselves forging north aboard another train whose tidy red cars appeared to have rolled right out of the golden age of railroad travel. At the end of the line waited Russias deep north, the Gulag region. During the 1930s and 1940s, anyone who crossed Stalin was either immediately executed or shipped to the prison camps of the Gulag. For many such prisoners, a quicker death would almost have been preferred.
Steves partner, Victor, volunteered to travel with us for the first week, Sasha remaining with us the entire time to translate. Christians in the city of Yemva, nearly a thousand miles north of Moscow, had planned work for us in their town and nearby villages. For most of the time, we planned to reside at an internot in central Yemva, heading out from there to speak in schools, prisons, orphanages, and wherever else we were welcome.
On the train, Victor and Sasha shared a compartment with two other Russians while the four of us filled a second. Two narrow bunks extended from either side of the small cabin, the lower pair doubling as seats. A small table protruded from the wall beneath the curtained window. Russian pop music crackled from the old radios in each berth. Though snow fell furiously outside, inside the train, it was warm, perhaps too much so. An unpleasant haze drifted in from the smokers in the cabin next door-it was too cold to open any windows.
Between rounds of cards in their compartments, the passengers thought of reasons to walk up and down the corridor and converse in the hallway. The train ride was a rest from the heavy labor that sustained most of them, and there was a friendly, almost holiday atmosphere among the diverse group. We met a woman from Tartar, another from Ukraine, and a swarthy Azerbaijani man who did not like Americans but still enjoyed joking with us. Sasha helped us converse with an old military officer who decried the lack of commitment in modern Russian youth. The car next to ours was full of conscripted soldiers, all in their teens, heading for two years of miserable duty at a military outpost on the Arctic Sea.
Trey climbed up to his bunk to capture the ride in his journal.
Outside, everything is white. Even the wires that run parallel to the tracks look permanently frosted. Several hours out of Moscow, the birch trees gave way to dense forests of pine, perhaps as old as Russia itself. As we go, the landscape changes little, except that the snow keeps getting deeper and all of the rivers and lakes look as though they have been frozen for a very long time.
The time with my family this past week was bittersweet. Ironically, my relationships with Andy and my mom are better than ever-the difficult times have brought us together in an amazing way. Even with Dad, although part of me bristles with anger toward him, I still love him so much. Some of the conversations we had gave me some hope that maybe my familys unity can be restored. I hope that it may be. Lord, I commit my family into Your hands. I feel like we have tried everything, Lord, and the one constant is Your presence. Please sustain us for the times to come . . . whatever they may hold.
A Belated Thank-You
When Trey climbed down from his bunk and stepped out into the hallway, he moved
from window to window, looking out at the landscape, a sharp contrast of white
You are one of the Americans? asked a gravelly voice with a heavy accent.
Trey turned, surprised. An elderly man with a sun-worn face stood peering at him with sharp, blue eyes. A rim of white hair encircled the mans balding head.
I am American, said Trey, offering his hand. My names Trey.
The man nodded slowly and a smile took hold of his lips as he grasped Treys hand. My name is Vladim. Do you have time to talk to an old man?
Of course. Where did you learn English?
Im a geologist. I studied English when I was on a research project in Nigeria.
Youre traveling to Yemva now?
Yemvas not the end of the line. The train goes even farther. Home for me is Archangel, up beyond the Arctic Circle. Ive always lived there. Thats one thing I wanted to tell you about.
Thats way up there.
Vladim nodded and smiled again. I was born in Archangel not long before the Great Patriot War.
World War II?
Thats what we call it here. In the middle of the war, the Nazis cut off Archangels supply lines. It didnt take long for the food to run out. Soon we were eating the dogs and the horses, and then they were gone, too. Vladim paused and lowered one of the pull-down seats built into the side of the passage. Do you mind if I sit?
Trey pulled down a seat.
Vladim continued, Many people were dying. Some of the cold. Some got sick. My brother, he starved to death. I was very near to death, too, when the Americans broke through to us with their ships. They had supplies and food. Ill never forget my first taste of American chocolate.
Trey stared, entranced. Vladim spoke on, intent on telling his story. During the Communist years, the government always said bad things about America. They said America was evil and her people were greedy and eager to destroy us. But I would never tolerate that. I would never let people speak bad about Americans. When I would hear them say bad things, I would say, That is not true. Americans are good people.
When I worked in Nigeria more than twenty years ago, I set myself to learn English. I wanted to learn English so that I could thank an American for what you did for me and my town. You are the first American I have seen since then, so I want to thank you . . .
The Real North
We closed the door to our compartment around midnight. Before turning the lights
out, we read a chapter of the Bible and had our time of confession and reconciliation.
The soldiers in the next car had begun drinking several hours before and now
they were shouting and singing. Some of the folks in the neighboring compartment
had a good supply of vodka as well and were passing the bottles around liberally.
We drifted off to sleep to their songs and the rocking of the train.
When we awoke, the train was still rocking. Outside, the dark of pine needles, tree trunks, or an electric line infrequently poked through the blanket of pure wool. Like a black-and-white film, the vast forest continued to roll by. Occasionally, the woods were broken by an expansive, frozen river or by the small, mostly wooden towns that seemed to have been dropped from heaven; their only connection to the rest of Russia was the tracks on which we rode.
Twenty-seven hours after we departed Moscow, the conductor announced that we
were approaching the town of Yemva. As the train slowed, we piled our bags,
boxes, and backpacks near the door. When it halted, we hopped out into the deep
powder. Many of the friends we made during the trip appeared in the doorway
and began handing our luggage down to us. Vladim jumped down with us and worked
furiously to get everything out before the train moved again. Our possessions
unloaded, he climbed back into the car as the train started off.
Good-bye, my American friends! he cried out.
Others stood behind him, waving as they disappeared into the night.
Snowflakes flurried in the darkness. Whereas the jungles and hills of Guatemala had teemed with movement and noise, chatter and kaleidoscopic color, these ancient forests smothered all sound beneath their snows. But this realm did not feel less alive. It felt more so, like diving into a lake on a frost-covered morning. There was none of the mental dizziness caused by tropical haze and drowsy warmth. We felt as awake and sharp as the edge of a razor.
It is only 4:00 P.M., said Matt with some surprise. But its as dark as the middle of the night.
It hurt slightly to breathe in the icy air, but the tinge of pain brought adrenaline with it. This is it, proclaimed Trey, the real north.
From the station, a bundled shape of a man approached us, his mustache and glasses poking out from beneath a fur hat. It was our local contact, Igor, who welcomed us with a gloved handshake before leading us to a car parked nearby. A large man with a tangled black beard sat in the drivers seat.
This brother will drive your luggage over to the rehab center. It is less than a mile. We can walk, explained Igor.
Whats the rehab center? asked Jedd.
Victor responded, Steve has told me about it. Next to the church is a building where ex-cons stay. When guys whove begun to follow Jesus in prison get out, they can live in Christian community while they learn job skills and adjust into normal life. The local church also has their services here on Sunday mornings.
We were all shaking with the cold when Igor finally turned off the road and led us through the battered front door of an old, ramshackle building. Doors opened to the right and left off a long, dim hallway. A glimpse through one suggested a small, simply furnished dormitory room with two beds.
Ohh, that feels good, expressed Trey as we emerged into a large, well-heated room. The space was open, save for several long tables built from unfinished planks.
Feel free to sit. Ill get some of the men, promised Igor, disappearing back into the hall.
A moment later, several rough-looking men appeared. We stood as they approached. A fellow in a dark wool coat, black hat, and calf-high fur boots approached, his smile revealing a missing front tooth. Without a moments hesitation, he grabbed Trey by the shoulders and planted a kiss on his unsuspecting lips. Trey blinked twice and nearly fell back over the bench he had been sitting on. We had not been told that the Christian men in Russias north took the apostle Pauls charge to greet one another with a holy kiss literally. The others greeted us in like manner and several proceeded to the kitchen to prepare a snack for us. A number of local believers and several more ex-cons stopped by to meet us as we enjoyed a snack of tea, bread, and jam.
Igor says youll be staying at the internot across the street from us next week, said a burly ex-con to Matt through Sashas translation.
Matt nodded, although he had not been aware of the plan.
The man indicated Matts guitar. Come over. We all want to hear you play. The other ex-cons at the table nodded vigorously.
Im not so good, downplayed Matt. But it would be fun to jam. You all play?
Some of us. We all love music.
Jedd leaned over toward Mike. These guys are great!
Uh-huh, said Mike without really hearing what Jedd had said. His eyes roved the room anxiously. He focused on Jedd for a moment. You see a bathroom yet? Ive been holding it for the last three hours on the train so I could use a real one.
Victor glanced over. Do you need something, Mike?
Victor asked an ex-con, who explained that it was just behind the center. Mike left, but returned a minute later. I need my flashlight. Theres no light in the outhouse.
Approaching the small, homemade shack for the second time, Mike clicked on his flashlight and pulled back the plywood door. To his surprise, there was no seat. A pie-sized circle had been cut into the wooden floor. Pieces of two-by-four had been nailed to the right and left of the hole to serve as footpads. A sheet of yellowish ice, half an inch thick, coated most of the floor, including the footpads.
Im going to have to try to balance on that with my pants at my ankles? wondered Mike. He glanced around for toilet paper. Strips of newspaper were all he could find.
Mike shone his flashlight into the hole. What appeared to be a thin brown post rose out of the pit almost to the level of the floor. With surprise, Mike realized the post was not made from wood, but from the instantly-frozen deposits of those who had come before.
Well, Mike said to himself, dropping his pants, thirty degrees below or not, youve gotta do what youve gotta do.
When Mike reentered the dining room, the ex-cons were already gripping our hands and thumping our backs in farewell.
Matt laughed. We just met these guys and they are treating us like long-lost family.
That seems to be just how they see it, said Jedd.
Were heading out already? said Mike, grabbing several slices of bread and cheese.
Well be back later in the week, responded Trey. I guess well be staying at an internot near the rehab center. The next few days well be out in a village fifty-some miles from here.
The lights of Yemva faded behind us. We had divided up between the little car
that carried our luggage and an old Russian army Jeep belonging to the pastor
of Yemvas church. The vehicles slalomed along the frozen road. We had
never traveled sixty-five miles an hour on ice before. Matt peered out the Jeeps
windshield to see what was ahead, but could only make out the dimly illuminated
blur of ice-blown firs.
After twenty minutes of driving, Treys teeth were chattering like a telegraph.
Are you really that cold, Trey? Matt asked.
Th-th-this little heater in the floor isnt pu-putting out much air.
Im feeling it, too, said Mike. My feet feel like theyre gonna fall off.
A few miles later, the Jeeps headlights illuminated a battered sign marked with the word Loly in Cyrillic. The road beneath us was nothing but white.
This is it, said Igor. Soft light glowed through the windows of cottages that lay bundled in the snow. Youll be staying in the gym at the school.
The gym was out behind Lolys school. The old physical education instructor, Alexander, answered our knock on its homemade door and grunted a greeting at us from beneath a bristly mustache. His face was grooved and weather-beaten like the side of an old barn, but his bare arms were strong and sinuous. We learned later that every day he cross-country skied five kilometers to school, played sports all day with the kids, and then skied home in the evening. He was also a hunter, often plying the northern wilderness for big game. Alexander challenged us to a game of horse before he left. He won, and then headed out into the frigid night for his five-kilometer ski home.
Glimpses were all we had caught of the village when we arrived the night before-glowing
windows and smoking chimneys. But now, our first morning in Loly, the eastern
sky was ablaze with dawn. It felt as if we had awakened in fairy-tale land.
Loly lay in a small valley, surrounded on all sides by the dense forest. Most of the cottages had been crafted by hand from logs felled nearby. Icicles hung down over frosted windows. Tendrils of smoke climbed skyward from every chimney, filling the air with the rich aroma of wood smoke. The deep blanket of snow at our feet, like the clouds on the horizon, had turned to cotton candy.
Split-rail fences circled fields of snow, their summer grazers now tucked into barns. A mare stood patiently as her master used a pitchfork to unload a pile of hay from the sleigh to which she was harnessed. A woman dragged a sled to a well and filled her bucket. An old man chopping wood stopped to beat his gloved hands on his thighs to regain sensation in his fingers. Aside from a few power lines, there was no hint of the twentieth century.
After a few minutes of exploring, we walked to the front of the school and went in. It was warm and bright inside. A colorful mural of a boy in a cosmonaut suit covered the back wall of the entrance room. On it were emblazoned the words, Nam Noozhen Mir-We Need Peace. A teacher from the school, Tatiana, had volunteered to cook for us. She smiled shyly when we entered and indicated a table where she had laid out bread, cheese slices, and bowls of cottage cheese. Tatianas Russian beauty had not left her, but she looked worn and very tired, dark bags beneath her eyes.
We learned that her husband had left her years before. With the little money she earned from teaching and odd jobs, she managed to support a daughter attending a university and a teenage son at home. Yet when we offered her a donation for our food, she staunchly refused. Only when we asked if we could give her a little money to help her daughter at school did she consent to any recompense for all her cooking.
On the Court
With Victor, we made a fivesome, so he had arranged a game for us with the Loly High School basketball team. Villagers packed the gym to see the contest. The crowd whooped for baskets made at either end of the court. Alexander had trained Lolys team skillfully; they were the regional champs. We played well, though, and Jedd became somewhat of a celebrity. After each of his baskets, the kids on the sidelines called out, Jedd! Jedd! and gave him thumbs-ups. The game was our first victory of the trip: Team USA 44, Loly High 43. After we handed out copies of More Than a Carpenter and signed countless autographs, Mike and Jedd spoke to those gathered about following Christ. The crowd listened intently as Sasha translated.
The basketball game today was a great picture of how effective sports can be in building bridges for relationship and sharing our faith.
Many Russian Christians have traditionally seen athletics as vanity. As we learned in church the other day, some still do. Victor says, though, that others are realizing that sports can be a great way to connect with people from outside the church, especially with men and boys.
Because Christianity was portrayed as only for the weak during the Communist years, males often will not approach anything that even appears like religion. Sports is one of the few things that can draw them in and help build the connection necessary for sharing the gospel.
Saturday evening we accepted the invitation to join the village youth at their weekly disco; the night before many of Lolys adults had gathered in the same small community center to hear what we had to say about Jesus. It was amusing to see the rooms solemn, pre-perestroika decor, swimming in the dizzying array of colored lights that sprayed from the shimmering disco ball.
We had to put some thought into whether or not to go to the dance tonight. Many of Russias more legalistic Christians see dancing as wrong, especially at a disco. We want to be respectful of these convictions, even if we disagree with them. And yet, it is also vital that we attempt to connect with nonbelievers. It is hard to know how to do both.
In Jesus day, many frowned on His hanging out with prostitutes, making wine, and attending dubious parties. Jesus never sinned, yet He desired to be close to sinners and was willing to meet them in their environment. Many within the Russian church (and the American church as well) are unwilling to do this. As a result, they have been largely unable to make any real connection with the vast majority of nonbelievers.
I know that we must never compromise with sin. There is never a need to do something we know is wrong just to make friends. And yet, as Jesus did, we must always be looking for opportunities to go to nonbelievers, to meet them on their turf, and not just demand that they come to ours.
Tonight at the disco I met some interesting characters. They were dressed much nicer than everyone else-designer pants and leather jackets in contrast to the old furs and army surplus worn by the locals. When they asked me to come outside to talk with them, Sasha whispered the disconcerting words, I do not think they want to beat you up.
That made me a little nervous. It turns out they are members of the Russian Mafia on their way to a nearby town to encourage payment of a delinquent loan. They had heard some Americans were in town and wanted to meet us. We had seen mafiosi in Moscow, but it was a little different to be talking to them. They asked if we would go drinking with them, but we declined. Doing so would not be the best witness to the kids around here, and, with the way they like to drink, I doubt it would have led to much meaningful interaction anyway.
It was kind of funny. When we told them we hadnt been drinking, they asked how we seemed to be having so much fun. I replied, Because we know Jesus, and He fills us with joy. It sounded like a line out of some cheesy gospel presentation, but it was as true as anything Ive ever said.
the next several days, we had several opportunities to speak to classes at Lolys
school. The day we left, the teachers had prepared a special dinner. Tatiana
and the other teachers beamed proudly as they watched us gawk at the feast they
had prepared. Before us lay deviled eggs, an entire sturgeon, sweet breads and
jam, a small jar of caviar, tea and sparkling wine-all precious items that had
been stored up for the long winter.
The meal began with a toast, each person telling a bit of their own history before raising a glass. Victor asked the teachers and all of us to share a little of our thoughts on God. The history teacher calmly but bluntly declared, I am an atheist and Communist and will never become a Christian, but even so, Im curious to hear what you believe.
We were especially excited about this opportunity, as, according to Alexander, the town of Loly did not have a single Christian and some of the teachers would be hearing the gospel for the first time tonight. We each shared our heart and Victor most of all. He gave his testimony with great passion. We could only understand snatches of what he was saying, but it seemed evident that God was speaking through him. Two of the ladies got up and left, apparently disinterested. A few minutes later, though, Matt noticed that tears were forming in the atheist history teachers eyes. Tatiana sat next to her, leaning forward, intent on every word Victor shared.
It is so much, so, so much to think of a God who loves us like this, the history teacher expressed. Why have we not been told these things before?
The meal finished, several more teachers said good-bye, thanking us for spending the evening with them. Tatiana and the history teacher, however, remained. We prayed with them and explained some of the first steps to following Christ. Victor also promised to talk to Pastor Willy from nearby Yemva about visiting them regularly in the future to encourage and teach them.
Later that night, Trey recalled in his journal, I was amazed at what powerful Good News we are blessed to know. I walked outside under the quiet stars in the deep snow to collect my thoughts. Yes, Jesus Christ is living and powerful and is here in Loly tonight!
Impact of a Backpack
It would be several hours before our ride to Yemva arrived. In the gym, Trey,
Matt, and Mike began to shoot baskets and play on the gymnastic equipment while
Jedd and Victor talked with Alexander in the little coachs office.
After seeing you play basketball, Alexander said to Jedd, I believe you could play for the regional team. You are a very good athlete.
Jedd thanked Alexander for the compliment but was hoping to confront the old coach with something else. I have had some success in sports, he began, but there is something I want to tell you, Alexander.
Alexander nodded and Jedd continued, Even if I was to have all the success in the world, it would not be enough. At some point, I would have to face the reality that even success cannot fill my heart.
Alexander seemed a bit unsure how to respond. He waited for Jedd to go on.
In high school, I was a very good athlete. I did very well. I expected to be a star in college, too. But when I got there, everyone was a great athlete. I spent most of my first year sitting on the bench. It was a very difficult time. He paused for a moment. Alexander seemed to be listening. But through that experience, I began to realize that sports just are not a good enough place to build your life on.
Alexander waited as Victor translated, but then fired back, That is because you werent good enough. If you had been a better player, you would have succeeded. You would have played in the NBA.
Maybe, but there are many, many men in the NBA who have won everything, been the best in the world, but you know what? At some point they say, That was great, but it is still not enough. I have everything the world offers, but I still feel empty.
That is hard to believe, replied Alexander.
It is true, and not only in sports. It is true of success in all areas: money, honor, fame, and power. They may be enjoyable for a time, but after a while, we realize that our heart has not been filled. I know businessmen and politicians and famous people who are extremely successful, but they are still some of the most miserable people in the world. They lack one thing. That one thing is Jesus.
It became clear to Alexander what Jedd was driving at. I do not need God. God is for old women and children. I am an athlete. I am strong.
Someday you will lose your strength, Alexander.
Maybe, but God is for the weak. I do not need Him now.
It is not weakness to admit that you have needs. We were created to fill our bodys hunger with food, to quench our thirst with water. We also were created to be in relationship with God. Without that relationship, we will never be complete.
I dont think so, stated Alexander with finality.
Alexander had been raised under Communism, steeped in atheism from birth, told time and time again that religion was nothing more than an opiate for the masses. Faith in God was for the weak, and no man, particularly one who prides himself on his strength, can easily admit weakness.
The conversation was over. Jedd moved out into the gym where the other guys were. Victor brought up another topic with Alexander, but kept looking for opportunities to challenge him further.
The four of us were discussing Jedds conversation when Victor joined us. He smiled in exasperation. Alexander does not want to admit that he might need anything. He thinks he is going to be strong forever.
Hmm, mused Matt. Is this the first time he has been challenged like this?
Like this, yes, I think so. But I think some Christians visited Loly once before. Tonight Alexander said to me, The last time you came, you people left me a JESUS film. Why didnt they leave a basketball instead, so Id have something I could use?
There seemed to be little more that we could do. It would not be long before our ride arrived, so we began putting the last of our things in our backpacks. Alexander came out of his office and began shooting baskets. Nice backpack, he said to Trey. It would make a good hunters backpack. Trey smiled and Alexander continued, Now, you guys want to play some horse before you go?
Everyone joined in the games of horse. Alexander and Jedd each won one. Trey appeared to be deep in thought. When eliminated from the third game, he went over to his backpack and began pulling things out. He did not stop until everything he had brought with him lay piled on the gym floor.
Alexander, I want to give you something, Trey announced. Sasha translated. Alexanders face held a quizzical look as Trey continued, I want to give you my backpack as a gift.
Alexander seemed to think Sasha had not translated correctly. He asked Sasha to repeat what he had said.
Trey continued, I hope you enjoy this gift. I want it to be a reminder to you of the great gift that God gave all of us: His Son, Jesus.
A broad smile creased Alexanders weathered face and his eyes sparkled merrily. He stammered to Victor in childlike Russian that revealed his excitement. I am hunter. This is my hunter backpack.
Trey helped him try it on and adjust the straps. The grizzled coach hopped all over the gym with it. He could hardly keep still. He disappeared into his office, and reappeared a moment later, his hands full of knickknacks, gadgets, and other little items. He handed Mike a small Communist youth banner. He passed Trey a little red drum. This drum is very old. It is used to call the pioneer youth to order, he explained, beaming. We protested that he did not need to give us anything, but he would not be dissuaded. Once he had emptied his load, he went back for more.
You like to hunt? he asked Jedd.
Well, Ive just done a little . . .
Alexander pushed an old pair of hunting gloves into Jedds hands. He turned to Matt. You like this hockey banner?
It is very nice.
It is yours, announced Alexander with gusto.
Alexander was still trying to pour gifts upon us when Igor arrived to pick us up. Heartfelt good-byes and thank-yous were exchanged as we moved out toward the two cars. We crammed our things inside, offered one last round of handshakes, and then squeezed in. Alexander was still smiling as we disappeared down the snow-covered road.
What you did was awesome, Trey, said Jedd.
Trey was glowing, but also serious. I pray that each time he puts on the pack, he will think of Christ.
It just shows how a single sacrificial act can have more impact than all the words in the world.
The Jeep purred on, sliding this way and that on the white road. We settled into a contented thoughtfulness. Loly would never be far from our minds.
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- ten -
Heart of the Gulag Region
life have we if we have not life together?
-T. S. ELIOT
An hours Jeep ride returned us to Yemva, the town where we had met the ex-cons in the rehab center a week before. The forest was thinner here, and open fields filled the spaces between homes, apartments, and factories. A lonely stand of birch trees shivered slightly in the moon glow, which lit the road as our Jeep came to a halt in front of a stark, two-story house on the outskirts of town.
Youll be living here the next two weeks, explained Igor. The internot where you were going to stay got some new kids this week, so there werent any beds for you. Our pastor said you could stay with his family. His name is Willy.
Trey slipped on the frozen walkway, barely catching his balance. Igor opened the door. Hurry in, he said, disappearing through the blanket hung inside the door to keep the warm air inside. Passing through the blanket, we entered a central room bathed in heat from an oven that covered the entire wall. We shed several layers of clothing.
A motherly woman with graying hair smiled warmly at us as we entered. You are welcome in our home. I am Luda.
Pastor Willy gazed over us with piercing black eyes. He shook our hands and introduced us to a twenty-one-year-old replica of himself-My son, Mitya.
The single-room living area was simple but complete. In one corner, the counter, cupboards, and long table made the kitchen. The extremely cold temperatures made running water impossible, but a sinklike container could be filled with water drawn from a nearby well. At the other end of the room, separated by a wardrobe protruding from the wall, was a sleeping area. The stairs to the second floor remained blocked off all winter, since the single wood stove could not produce enough heat to make it livable.
With several local families who had come to welcome us, we sat down at a long, wooden table. Luda set tea before us all, then a funnel cake and strawberry jam. Mitya brought out his guitar, and singing mixed with the conversation for several hours. It was not until much later, as the families began to say good night, that we took note of the homes three small beds and realized that sleeping arrangements would be quite snug. Trey, Mike, and Matt row-sham-bowed for whom had to sleep with long, wild-sleeping Jedd. Matt lost. Each pair shared one of the twins. Victor, Sasha, and Mitya squeezed into the queen.
Ready for lights out? called out Willy as he climbed in next to Luda on a makeshift bed they had constructed in the kitchen.
A sleepy da came from someone and the room went dark. In the silence, we could hear the faint tinkling of ice pieces being blown against the windows. Through the night, Victor periodically tapped Sasha to stop his snoring. Matt fought Jedd for the covers for hours before digging out his sleeping bag. Mike and Trey slept peacefully throughout the night.
Songs in the Night
For our first day in Yemva, Igor had arranged for us to speak in an orphanage for older kids, just behind the rehab center. A dozen children, eyes glowing, gathered round us. Their clothes had been worn in America once, back in the 1980s, the group of them together looking like a moving thrift-shop clothing rack. With their eyes gleaming up at us, they seemed much less hardened than children at some of the internots we had visited. We could not help but think this was due to their regular inter-action with Willys church.
After sharing and singing with a large group of kids at the internot, we had a volleyball game scheduled at the internots gym with a local womens team. It didnt go as bad as we expected. I think were improving a little. More important, it afforded an opportunity to share the gospel with the women on the other team after the match.
A girl we met our first night at the rehab center-Lena-played on our team. There is something special about her. It is not just beauty, although she is pretty. She just seems to have a special spirit about her, childlike and gentle, yet glowing. I think Jedd likes her most of all. He tries not to show it, but I can tell by the way he smiles when she looks at him.
we returned to Willy and Ludas for a late supper, several families from
the church also sat around the room. The gatherings-except those at the church-never
seemed to be planned; people just showed up at one house or another. Luda laid
steaming bowls of garlic-thick borscht before each of us. It tasted like something
for which the biblical Esau would have traded his birthright.
Hey, Sash, Jedd said. Tell Luda this is the best soup Ive had in my life.
Luda beamed at the compliment, pressing her lips together and nodding her head with a humble sort of pride.
Victor glanced up from his soup with a grave look on his face. I just remembered something, guys. There is something serious I need to tell you. The smiles faded from our faces. A call came for me today from Loly. He paused as if he did not want to continue. It was Tatiana. She says they are very angry at you all.
We looked at him with surprise. What could we have done? Victor could see our concern. A hint of laughter appeared in his eyes.
Yes, they are very mad. Tatiana said that when you left, you took their hearts with you, and they want them back.
Victors ear-to-ear grin mirrored our own. It brought us joy to think that we had brought such happiness to Loly. The feeling was definitely mutual.
Matt glanced around at the men and women and children who filled the room.
Only a few days into our stay in Yemva, we had already begun to see what an incredible Christian community they had here, from the weekly meetings at church to the informal evenings at homes. The marvelous thing was that they seemed to view us as every bit as much a part of it as those who lived there. Their community did not depend on ones location or familiarity, but simply on a shared love for Jesus Christ. It was clear these believers cared deeply for one another. They cared for us as well.
After several hours of conversation, Mitya and Matt brought out their guitars. Many of the great hymns have been translated into Russian, and we lost track of time singing back and forth: Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, A Mighty Fortress. Like warm waves, a deep happiness began to wash over us: coziness and comfort in the midst of an ice-locked land . . . Slavic voices, rich and beautiful . . . a deep history of suffering and joy . . . a sense of community that filled the air like the smell of a baking pie . . . the serenity of home and the adventure of faraway all at once . . . laughter from the children . . . a contentment older than the earth . . . It was nearly two in the morning before people began to think of bringing the evening to a close. Our hearts yearned for more, but our eyelids were sinking lower and lower. It was strange to us that children were still awake at this hour. It seems, however, that since the sun is only up for a handful of hours a day, the northerners are quite flexible with their sleeping patterns. Luda and another lady moved the dishes to the sink while Mitya drove two families home. We sat smiling, awash in warm joy.
Jedd shook his head. That was so wonderful--the singing and the family-ness of everyone. I dont think Ive ever felt as close to heaven as I did tonight.
Trey nodded. The Russian music opens to me a world of beauty Ive never known before. It reminds me how wonderful heaven will be-to be there together, worshiping in these ways.
The last of the friends said good-bye after 2:30 A.M. Though an icy wind piled snow against the house, inside all was cozy. Happy and content, we moved to our beds.
There is something inexplicably moving about worshiping and fellowshipping with Russian believers. I dont know what it is. Maybe its that their perseverance through pain and hardship pours out through their melodies. I can only describe it as the sound of a melancholy joyfulness, a ringing of peace in the midst of pain, or the sight of beauty in the dead of winter.
The following day, Mitya drove us to the Yemva train station to see Victor off
My wife wont feed me anymore if I dont get home soon, he joked.
His big eyes and gloved hand poked out from the train as it moved away. Keep up the good work! he called out before pulling back into the car.
In the Jeep, Mitya huddled in his green down jacket. He kept his eyes fixed on the bleached road. He knew a moments lapse of concentration when it was 30 below could prove disastrous. Even with the Jeeps heater blasting, our toes ached in our brittle sorrel boots. Jedd and Matt sat against the back wall of the Jeep, periodically scraping the buildup of ice from the windows.
It was the strangest thing, Jedd said as he scooted forward and put his elbows on his knees. I woke up really early this morning. The moment I popped awake, this thought occurred to me, like God just pushed it into my head. Do you know the verse that says, Love covers a multitude of sins?
Yeah, I know the one youre talking about, but Im not sure where it is, replied Matt.
Anyway, I was wondering how love could cover sin, since the Bible teaches that there is always a penalty for sin. I mean, we dont believe that sin just evaporates or gets brushed under the rug when were nice.
Like Romans says, The wages of sin is death. The price always has to be paid.
Jedd nodded. Exactly. So I was thinking that to understand this verse, we really need to understand exactly what sin is. We often talk about sin as missing the mark. Thats true in a sense, of course, but maybe its not the fullest understanding of what sin really is. It struck me that at its essence, sin is simply anything that breaks relationship-first with God, and second with others.
For example, if a chemist were to tell you that the definition of cyanide was chemicals A, B, and C, he would be right. But the main thing we need to understand is just that cyanide will kill you if you swallow it. Sin is missing the mark, but what we really need to understand is that sin causes death of relationship. That is why God hates sin so deeply-because He is so passionate about our love relationship with Him and with others.
And that also explains how love can cover sin: because love mends or heals the relationship between the sinner and the person being sinned against. For instance, if I stole Mikes Swiss Army watch and he found out, our relationship would be harmed. But if Mike loved me enough, even though he was mad at me for taking his watch, he would forgive me. Even though our relationship had been broken, it could be healed because of his love for me. The sin would be covered.
So then how are the wages of sin death? said Trey, joining in.
Because sin brings death to relationship. The fact that our bodies will someday die is part of it, but physical death is nothing compared to relational death. Adam and Eve eventually died because they ate the apple, but far more terrible was the fact that their pure communion with God was lost. Soon after, we saw the brokenness that resulted in human relationships when Cain killed Abel. You could go on and on describing the ways we see sins impact today, from Rwanda and the Middle East to school shootings and broken marriages in the U.S.
Matt pulled on his beard, pondering. That makes me think of 1 John. It says, Whoever hates his brother is a murderer. I always wondered about this verse. How am I a murderer if I just hate someone? But in hatred, I really do destroy life if we view things in the relational sense. John also wrote, If we love, we know that we have passed from death to life.
This is really amazing! Trey exclaimed, pausing for a second as he assigned words to his thoughts. The idea that sin is anything that breaks relationship changes how you see everything. Wow, do you guys understand how this makes it all so much clearer? It shows how all the commandments and guidelines in the Bible are not just a random list of rules that God picked to rob us of our fun; they are a map for living in true relationship with God and others.
Matt nodded enthusiastically. Exactly! And only love can heal these broken relationships. This isnt hard to see in our situation. If we are even going to make it through this trip, our love for one another must cover all the mistakes we constantly make. The gap between us and God, however, was so big that all of the human effort in the world could not cover it. To heal that broken relationship, it took the sacrifice of Love Himself. As we accept His love and try to emulate it, we enter into the realm of restored relationships that God intended for us in the first place.
The sages speak, said Mike, gently teasing.
This is good stuff, defended Matt.
Just joking. I think it is, too.
Matts Reflections-December 9
Sin is any thought or action that breaks relationships, either between humans or between humans and God. Stealing, murder, adultery, envy, jealousy, malice, etc., are all sins for this very reason-because these things damage, or even completely destroy, relationships. But if you have love, even if you sin, these relationships may be restored-for love covers a multitude of sins.
This is why the Bible paints pride as among the worst and most dangerous of all sins. Pride isolates; it makes one think he or she is better than others, placing oneself on a pedestal, separate from, and therefore not in relation with, God or all of humanity.
The good news is not merely that we can go to heaven; it is that our relationships may once again be made right. Our relationship with God and with humans is restored through Christs love. His sacrifice of Himself made it possible for us to reenter relationship with God. As He lives in us, and as we seek to live out all He taught, we will also experience the types of relationships with one another that God designed us for. What an amazing gift!
We made it back to the orphanage just in time to get recruited for another basketball
game. Surprisingly, Willy, Luda, Mitya, and some others from the church had
turned out for the game. Victor had told us that Willy, like many Russian Baptists,
frowned upon athletic activity. The family did not cheer or make any noise during
the contest, but they did follow with rapt interest. Perhaps it was the first
basketball game they had ever seen.
When the contest was over, Willy, Luda, and Mitya seemed even more fascinated as they observed that an audience stayed to hear us speak about Jesus.
While the rest of us headed from the gym to the rehab center for a midweek church service, Mike opted to return to Willy and Ludas house. He had pulled some muscles in his lower back during the game, and although he assured us he would be fine, we could tell he was in a good deal of pain. It was quite late when we finally left the center. For nearly two hours after the study, we had sung songs back and forth-English and Russian-with a group of the young people.
On the way home, Trey surprised Jedd with a blunt question. Youve really got something for that Lena girl, dont you?
Something flickered in Jedds eyes, but he merely shrugged. What makes you say that?
Even if I hadnt been your roommate for four years, Id still have a pretty good guess. The little comments over the past week-Doesnt she seem so sweet; Isnt she a great volleyball player. I know you were trying not to stare during the service, said Trey with a mischievous grin, but I caught you looking while we were praying.
So you had your eyes open, too, huh?
Just checkin on my old roomie. If that wasnt enough, the whole time we were singing tonight after the service you were talking with her.
Jedd grinned. There is something special about her.
I wasnt disagreeing with that.
Hey, I know its silly of me, but I have to admit that I am kind of enchanted by her. I dont want her to notice. It would only lead to hurt feelings. Still, as much as my logical side is telling me to repress it, my heart is not going along.
Trey offered a sympathetic smile. Astarozsh (careful), he said in Russian. I think shes pretty special, too, but dont do anything youd regret.
Of Life and Death
As often as we were asked, we spoke. Mitya called the next day saying something
about church family. So off we went, having little idea where. The
Jeeps engine growled to a start, heated air began to flow from the vents,
Mitya yanked on the gearshift, and we lurched down the dark road.
We piled out in front of an apartment building and passed from the semilit street into the dark stairway. Most of the numbers had worn off the doors, so we had to take a guess at which was 304. We knocked and, to our relief, the door opened to reveal a bright coatroom full of people we had met at church.
Dobre vecher! (good evening) boomed Jedd as he strode in.
The reply was less than enthusiastic. Dobre vecher, whispered a few.
Hmm, thought Jedd. They sure are not very friendly tonight.
A man pointed with open palm to an adjacent room. Jedd and Trey looked in. Six or seven people were sitting on the couches that lined both sides. Alone, in the center of the room, lay a man in a wooden box.
Jedd bit his lip and turned back to the people in the coatroom. His face tried to convey an Im sorry, I did not know someone died look. The people nodded at him solemnly. A few smiled faintly. Perhaps they understood. The daughter of the deceased, a middle-aged woman with a black handkerchief on her head, entered from the kitchen. Her eyes were puffy and red. Through Sasha, she requested that we sit on one of the couches near the coffin. The others in the room sat silently, alternatively gazing at the dead man and the carpet. A rough-hewn man with the look of a laborer sat like Rodins "The Thinker," breathing heavily. Occasionally, loud sighs broke the silence.
The dead man appeared to be in his sixties, his raven hair neatly combed, bushy eyebrows sticking out like small plants from his brow. Incense was burning, and pine branches lay piled around the coffin, but the smell of death could not be completely masked. The combination of odors and incense smoke made us feel lightheaded.
The minutes trickled by. From time to time, we looked at one another, asking, What are we supposed to do? with our eyes, but no one got up to leave. More than an hour later, Sasha, who had never entered the room in the first place, came in and motioned to us. We tried to hide our relief.
Why did you guys stay in there so long? whispered Sasha.
We thought we were supposed to, replied Trey with a hint of frustration. Why didnt you get us out earlier?
We entered the small kitchen. Mitya, Lena, and several other young people from the church were sitting on the floor, quietly conversing. They welcomed us, and we joined the circle. With Sashas help, Lena explained that Russians try to fill the bereaveds home after their loved one has died. The more people that come, the better. It means a lot to her that you are here.
Jedds Reflections-December 11
Being here in this place of death, I cant help thinking with some fear about Moms cancer. I do not know what Ill do if she doesnt recover. Oh God, please make her well.
This world holds so much pain. A loving community makes it more bearable to go through loss, but the ache is still there. There is just no brushing it away. Many people-especially Christians it seems-try to make the worlds pain seem not so bad. We throw out overused lines like, All things work together for good. And, Theyre in a better place now. Those things may be true, but they arent a magic cure-all. It seems to me that it is far better simply to weep with those who weep. That is what Jesus did. The shortest verse in the Bible says a lot about what our response to human suffering should be: Jesus wept.
The next morning, a funeral service was held in the deceaseds apartment.
People were packed, shoulder to shoulder, in the coatroom and in the room where
the body lay. A lid had been placed on the coffin, and fresh pine boughs brought
in, but the room smelled worse than the day before. The body had not been embalmed.
They sat us with the women and a few elderly men on the couches. Everyone else stood. People shuffled closer together as new arrivals continued to pour in. The service finally started with a prayer and a half-hour of singing. Pastor Willy delivered a short message and prayed once more. When the service was finished, we filed out the door and down the stairs in silence.
We all stood in the street, waiting. Everyone moved about to keep warm, but seemed to be trying not to look too energetic on such a sad day. Ice began to cake in our beards from our breath. Six men, mostly ex-cons from the center, carried the casket out and laid it on the back of a flatbed truck.
Moving forward slowly, we walked behind the truck, our heads down, crunching in the snow. At some unseen cue, the truck sped up and drove off and the procession stopped. We waited, our toes losing the last inklings of sensation. Those who had cars went back to retrieve them. Ice built in our beards with every breath; Matts took on the appearance of a white tumbleweed. As the cars pulled up, people climbed into the one nearest them. Two ex-cons joined us in the back of Mityas Jeep. Once inside, the monklike silence dissolved. The cons watched Mike with amusement as he beat his hands together to create some warmth.
A hefty one with close-cropped yellow hair laughed out loud. Have you ever felt it this cold?
Mike shivered. Not even close.
Are you starting to hate Russia yet?
Nope. I still love it.
The cars stopped near an arched gate on the edge of town where the pine forest led off into the distance. A black iron fence set off the cemetery. The graves were set between the snow-laden firs. Most plots were surrounded by waist-high fences, and many had permanent benches and even tables at which family members could sit, eat, and recollect. We were surprised to see that the great majority of the gravestones-even those erected during the Communist years-bore Orthodox crosses. It appeared that although the atheistic Communist state controlled almost every aspect of these peoples lives, it could not hold them at the end. Some graves, however, boldly displayed the crimson star of the Communist Party, a final fist shaken in the face of eternity.
A number of men produced shovels and began plying the frozen soil at the appointed spot. Others lowered the pine box to the ground from the bed of the truck. It is customary to take one last look at the deceased before burial, and the men solemnly pried the lid from the casket. The man had been dead for three days, his face beginning to bloat, and turn purple and green. Blood trickled from beneath bulging eyelids and filled the creases in his cheeks. They took a final picture of father and daughter and then replaced the lid. The daughter began to weep softly as they nailed it down.
The grave dug, the bearers carried the casket into the cemetery and laid it next to the open hole. All was silent for a moment, save for the sound of shiver-wracked breathing. Heatless rays of sunlight filtered through the trees and touched our clouds of breath with gold. Willy looked at each face before offering a final prayer.
Then four men stepped forward and ran two long clotheslines beneath the coffin, lifting the box over the hole and lowering it. The daughter let out a forlorn wail as the coffin sank into the ground. One by one, the people stepped forward, grasped a handful of the freshly dug soil, and tossed it into the grave. When everyone had done so, we stood back and watched as the men who had dug the grave began to refill it. The shovels of dirt thumped against the pine, and the daughter began to sob uncontrollably. A girl from the church who had been standing nearby wrapped her arms around her and steaming tears fell upon the girls neck.
When the shovelers had finished their work, women laid a cloth on the fresh mound and placed candies and meat-filled rolls they had made on top. The food was eaten slowly, thoughtfully. But as we ate, people began to talk quietly. The time of solemnity had passed. We could stop holding our breath.
People left in small groups. Willy was intent on remaining to the end, so the four of us climbed into the Jeep, which Mitya had running. We squeezed in as close to the vents as we could, wondering if there were still feet in our boots. We returned to the apartment for a traditional meal. A long table had replaced the casket and was covered in sumptuous dishes prepared by ladies in the church. The men ate first. When we had finished, we cleared our places and the table was reset for the women.
We gathered the following afternoon at Yemvas outdoor market. Mitya had
asked us to join him and one of the ex-cons in staffing the small table of Christian
literature the church always put out on market days. Matt stomped around in
a circle. As much as the pounding hurt, sensation seemed to disappear from his
feet every time he stopped moving.
Its our coldest day yet, remarked Mike. Negative forty-six.
Trey shook his head. Thats seventy-eight below freezing. You think Americans would do much shopping if our markets were this cold?
Im going to go in that building for a few minutes, said Matt. I cant feel my feet anymore.
Ill join you, followed Mike. My backs not doing too well. I wouldnt mind sitting for a minute.
Mike must be hurting pretty bad, commented Trey. Ive almost never heard him complain about anything.
Jedd did not seem to be listening. Trey studied him for a moment before asking, What you thinking about?
I said . . . Are you daydreaming about Lena?
Jedd smiled sheepishly but said nothing.
Wow. Lovely Lena again, huh? Ive never seen you like this.
Ive never seen myself like this, said Jedd. I feel like Im in junior high. Only in junior high I usually didnt get like this, so I guess Im going through junior high now.
Could you ever see yourself marrying her?
No . . . I dont know . . . I dont think so. Thats the stupid thing. There are a hundred reasons in my mind why I could not marry her, why even liking her is so foolish. Weve got different backgrounds, different lives, different expectations. We dont speak the same language. For gosh sakes, I never thought I-
Thats whats great about it. Youre always so logical about things. And here you are tipsy over something that is totally irrational. I might expect this out of a lot of people, but never you. Its kind of funny.
Yeah, I guess, said Jedd.
Maybe youll see her again tonight. I think well be going over to one of the believers houses for dinner with some of the ex-cons.
Jedd did not hear him. He was off in his own thoughts once again.
The pain in Mikes back was getting worse. He spent several days bedridden
at Willy and Ludas until we decided it would be best if he went back to
Moscow to recuperate. He limped onto the train and struggled down the empty
corridor, dragging his pack behind him. It would be nicer to recuperate in the
comforts of Moscow than in Yemvas Spartan accommodations. Even so, it
hurt to leave like this, to miss out on the rest of the experiences, to leave
the fellowship of the guys and the Yemva church.
Compartment 16, huh? I guess this is it. He jerked open the sliding door. Inside, three Russians lay fast asleep, leaving only a top bunk available. Trying not to awaken the sleeping strangers, Mike heaved his bulky backpack onto the ledge of the open bunk. A sharp pain shot through his lower back. He leaned against the bedrail in a state of despair. Half wanting to cry, he laughed quietly at the ridiculousness of the situation. Here he was at 7:00 A.M., twenty-seven hours north of Moscow, alone on a train without anyone to whom he could talk. Worst of all, the excruciating pain in his back made him wonder if he would ever make it up into his bunk.
Gathering his strength, he placed one hand on the bunks ledge and one on his neighbors. Slowly, he began to hoist himself like a gymnast on a set of parallel bars. Once at the level of the bunk, he hurled his bodys weight toward the bed. Grasping the bunks far edge, he grunted as he pulled his legs up behind him. He lay there motionless, panting.
Slowly his thoughts turned from his pain to his departure earlier in the day.
Mikes Reflections-December 16
Although my train arrived at dawn, many of my new friends from the church made it to the station to say good-bye. As frustrated as I felt, it lifted my spirits to see them there.
My body aches. I havent felt this bad in as long as I can remember. Even so, part of me wishes I could have stayed in Yemva . . . even stay there for the rest of my life. The rest of me wishes I was at home. Its been way too long since Ive talked to the love of my life. I miss her so much. Shes waiting for me at home.
Following dinner at Willy and Ludas, another group had gathered. An ex-con
and Matt played their guitars in a corner. Trey sat on the floor, drawing on
paper for a small crowd of children.
Mitya leaned over to Jedd. What kind of work do you want to do in your life?
I want to be a university teacher, a professor, but I do not know what subject. I like many things.
You believe that is what God wants you to do?
Yes. But if not, I want to do whatever He wants me to do.
That is good. I also want to do whatever God wants me to do.
Willy, overhearing the conversation, joined in. Have you considered being a missionary?
I dont think God has called me to that for now, but if He ever does, I am willing.
Sasha abandoned his bantering with one of the girls to help the communication. He translated as Willy continued, More than half of the serious Christians in Russia have left since the end of Communism. They all went to the United States.
I did not know that.
There are many towns in Russia without churches, maybe without a single believer at all. Willy, normally emotionless on the surface, spoke with passion. You know the verse about the harvest being ripe and the laborers being few? It could not be more true than in Russia today. So many people need God, but there are so few to tell them about Him.
Jedd responded, It may be that God will call me back here someday. It would be difficult to leave my family in America, but if this is where God wants me, this is where I want to be.
Think seriously about it, Jedd. I think you work well with the people here.
And he is learning the language very quickly, added Mitya with a grin. Jedd smiled.
There is need here, Jedd. When you are back in America, tell your friends. Tell them that we need people.
I will, Jedd promised.
Treys Reflections-December 14
Another wonderful evening with the Christian family here. I love how deeply intertwined the lives of the Yemva believers are. It is more than Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights, and occasional dinner parties. It is more than committees and church outings. Like people everywhere, the church members have their distinct jobs and homes. Yet they have chosen to allow their lives to be woven together in countless ways, big and small: a mechanic drives over to the center to help Mitya fix his Jeep. Mitya walks across town to fix a door hinge for a widow. Willy and Luda invite the lady who lost her father to stay at their house as long as she wants. When the lady returns home, a girl from the church stops by daily to clean and cook. A few believers give Igor what money they can spare since he is out of work. Groups end up gathering nearly every night at one house or another for no reason at all, talking, eating, laughing, and singing . . . often until past midnight!
Of course, their life together is not without problems and bickerings, but its the closest thing to true community we have ever seen. For me, it is a vision of what the church should be, what the church can be.
I think the main thing preventing Americans from experiencing the community they do here is our frantic activity. Without any margin of time or resources, all we can offer our brothers and sisters is a scheduled chunk of time on Sunday and Wednesday and a budgeted bit of tithe. I do not wish to live that way . . .
Jedd, Lena, Trey, Luba, Matt, Mitya, Sasha (left to right)
We would leave Yemva in the morning. As we entered the church for one last service,
sadness washed over us. Part of us wanted to sink our fingers into the town
and never leave. We each spoke briefly. We wanted to encourage our brothers
and sisters one last time to keep their focus on Jesus alone, building everything
else upon the foundation of a relationship with Him. More than anything, though,
we just wanted to tell them how very much we loved them. Our words most certainly
fell short. We hoped they could see it in our faces.
As always, when the meeting ended, no one left. Circles of conversation formed here and there. We joined a group of young people around the keyboard in front to continue singing. Back and forth we sang: Father, I Adore You, first in English, then in Russian; On Christ the Solid Rock and then Loobloo Muy Spasityel (I Love You My Savior). Children ran hither and thither, yelling and laughing.
The knowledge of our departure made every little detail of that last evening exceedingly precious: crushing embraces-and sometimes kisses-from the ex-cons; Willy behind the pulpit speaking bold words of exhortation; the passion on faces as the Russian believers sang out their hymns; Ludas motherly gaze, looking upon us with love and sadness; a burly ex-con spinning around with a little girl on his shoulders, holding on for dear life; a babushka bent in prayer with a young woman, their hands clasped in a knot.
Jedd sat down in back to watch it all. Two little children jumped up on him. Each straddled one of his legs, facing him. He bounced them up and down, and the children squealed with delight. Lena sat down next to them.
You are happy? she asked in Russian.
Yes, very happy. And very sad also. I do not want to leave.
I am happy and sad also, she said, tickling the children who refused to get off their horses.
Only one more, Jedd told the children. He delivered the promised ride, and they grudgingly dismounted. Turning to Lena, he said, I do not think there are many places like this in the world. I pray I can come again.
Me, too, she said.
Hey, Jedd, come here, shouted Trey from across the room. Zshula wants to take a picture with us. Zshula had accepted Jesus at a music academy where we had spoken. We were excited to see her there at the church.
One of Zshulas friends snapped a photo of her with the three of us. We pulled out our own cameras and asked if we could take one with Zshula. A group crowded in for the shot. The flashes did not stop for several minutes.
Trey laughed. Im going blind. Lets sing some more.
Jedd returned to where Lena still sat. She had been crying. Sasha joined them. What is wrong, Lena? Jedd asked.
She responded, but Jedd did not fully understand her reply. Sasha explained, Do you remember that boy from the school who became a Christian? He was here for the meeting.
Yes, I saw him.
Lena says his father just came in here a minute ago. He grabbed the boy by the arm and took him out. Lena followed them into the hall and asked the dad if something was wrong. He said to her, This is the first time and the last time this boy will ever come to church.
Jedd looked down. Tears dripped from Lenas cheeks to the floor. There was nothing they could do. The three prayed together for the boy before Trey again called Jedd up for more pictures.
It was nearly an hour after the service ended that things started to thin out. People moved into the hallway and pulled on their outerwear. A father buttoned his daughters red coat and tied a scarf around her neck. Warm hugs were exchanged all around. We are very glad you came, rumbled a big ex-con. Da svidanya (See you again), squeaked the little girl as she wrapped her arms around Treys neck.
Lena and her mother requested that we come over for chai one last time. We bundled up for the long walk to their apartment, accompanied by Luda.
The cold did not prevent us from enjoying the walk over. In fact, we hardly noticed it. We talked and joked merrily. Jedd and Lena tossed snowballs at each other over the rest of the group. A misfire caught Treys cap. He launched one into the back of Jedds jacket. Light shimmered through the icy windows of the homes along the road. Jedd moved a bit in front of the group. He was carefully rounding a snowball in his mittens when he heard the crunching of footsteps running up behind him. Danger was approaching. Without looking back, he let the well-packed sphere fly over his shoulder. Slowly he turned. Lena stood a few feet behind him. Her arms hung at her sides, snow dropping from her face. Jedd brushed the snow away and tried to apologize. She feigned anger for moment, but could not keep from smiling. They walked side by side, talking, the rest of the way home.
Once inside the apartment, we settled in the living room. Lena helped her mother prepare chai and thin Russian pancakes. Lenas mother called us into the kitchen, and we squeezed around the small table. Coming over for tea had turned into a full meal. We gave thanks and began to eat. Lenas father had been working late and returned during our meal.
So, you boys are leaving tomorrow? he boomed. Sasha translated.
We nodded. Da, da.
I wanted to give you some things before you left. He disappeared into the other room.
He returned and handed Jedd a long military knife in a leather sheath. You like it? he asked.
Very much, replied Jedd. It is very nice.
He pulled a switchblade from his pocket and handed it to Trey. Be careful, he warned. Trey pressed the release and the blade flashed out with such force that the knife flew from Treys hand onto the table. We laughed. Lenas father laughed the loudest of all.
Jedd, Lenas father continued, some of the men you played basketball against the other night are in my unit. They were very impressed with your playing. They were wondering if you played in the NBA. Jedd smiled and laughed as Sasha translated. They asked me if you were related to me.
Jedd turned to Matt and Trey. With a grin he whispered, Not yet.
Sasha gave Jedd a serious glance. Luda translated what you just said.
She understood what you said and repeated it to Lena and her mom.
Color flooded into Jedds face. The room seemed very hot. Lena turned her head and looked at the floor for a minute. She stood and moved quickly to the stove, busying herself with some task that did not need to be done. Trey glanced at Matt with an uh-oh look. Silence boomed.
Lena left the room. It was a frozen minute before life and sound crept back into the room.
Did they know I was kidding, Sasha? Jedd asked softly.
I dont know what they think, he replied.
Jedd was relieved when Luda suggested we ought to return home to pack. Luda said that Willy would probably be expecting us home soon. Lenas father told us that his military assistant could take us home. We moved into the entrance area and began donning our coats.
Ill go out and make sure the driver is ready, said Lenas father.
Lenas mother gave each of us a long hug. Her eyes were moist as she said, I hope very much it is not long before you come back to our home. She looked around her and called out, Lena, the boys are leaving. Come out and say good-bye.
Lena emerged from her bedroom. Her eyes were red and puffy. A few spots of moisture that she had not managed to wipe away glistened on her cheek. Da svidanya, she said, almost inaudibly. She gave us each a soft hug, but said nothing more. Trey moved out the door with Sasha while the others continued putting on their jackets.
The others began moving down the walk. We will be at the train station to say good-bye tomorrow morning, Lenas mother called out from the doorway.
Lenas father dropped his cigarette and crushed it. He gave directions to the driver and we all piled in. This man will pick you up in the morning and take you to the station as well. Just tell him what time you want him to be there.
Thank you for all the help, said Jedd.
Da svidanya, he said with a smile as he shut the door.
Back at Willy and Ludas we began packing our things. Although we could
tell she was tired, Luda insisted on making one last pot of borscht for us.
Jedd, wanting some time to think, went outside to chop wood. The night was relatively
warm, probably not far below zero degrees Fahrenheit, the stars gleaming crisp
and clear, like a pile of gems laid on black velvet. Trey came out a few minutes
later to join Jedd.
All right if I cut some wood, too? Trey asked as Jedd brought the blade down on a round.
Trey watched Jedd swing the ax a few times before saying more. Are you thinking about what happened tonight?
Im thinking I was stupid. I cant believe I said that. Ive been trying so hard not to send her any of the wrong messages. I know I may have a little bit, but I was really trying, and then with one stupid comment I blew everything.
Trey was quiet for a moment. I dont know if it is all that bad. You probably shouldnt have said that, but you had no idea they would catch it.
Jedd sank the ax in the stump and turned to Trey. I know. How did Luda translate that? I dont think shes said a word in English the whole time weve been here.
Maybe it was a lucky guess.
Yeah. Real lucky. You want to chop some?
Trey placed a new round on the block and brought the axe down on it. Jedd continued, From the beginning Ive felt so foolish about this whole thing. Its totally irrational. I did not have good enough reasons for it. I just liked her. But I did not want to drag her down by it. I do have feelings for her, but . . . I mean, were leaving here tomorrow. The whole world is our backyard. Shell probably be here the rest of her life. I just pray she forgets all this. Id like to see her marry Mitya some day. I dont want her thinking about some American guy if Mitya ever does want to marry her. Shoot, I just . . . I just cant believe I said that.
The door of the house opened and Matt called out, Time for borscht. Trey set the ax against the shed and they moved inside. Theres not much you can do about it now, Jedd. Dont let it kill you.
The morning came too early. We said little as we dressed and stuffed the last
of our belongings into our bags. A group of our friends were already at the
train station when we arrived: Lena and her mother, several young people from
the church, two girls from the internot, Zshula and a friend of hers, Igor and
Treys Reflections-December 18
It is hard to sort through how things can be so sad and so deeply happy all at once. Pain and joy are often thought of as being on opposite ends of the spectrum. The truth is, though, they sometimes seem to wrap around and touch each other. Sometimes the most poignant and exquisite moments include both pain and joy intertwined.
I long for the day when we will live forever in the presence of our Lord and with these newly met brothers and sisters.
The train had not yet come and the sun was not yet up. The low clouds hung heavy,
keeping the predawn light to a hazy gray. We brought everyone together for some
final pictures and said a last good-bye to each person.
Luda, you have been a wonderful mother to us during our time here, said Trey before embracing her. We will miss you very much, said Matt to Zshula and her friend. The girls from the internot clung to Jedds side, each squeezing one of his gloved hands tightly. He tried not to look at Lena. She stood by her mother in her long, black coat, tears trickling down her face. The falling snow landed on her beaver-pelt cap and did not melt.
The train pulled in for a two-minute stop. Jedd finally stepped toward Lena, biting his lip. She looked up at him.
I will not forget you, he stuttered in broken Russian.
I will not forget you, either, she replied. An impatient conductress was yelling at us to get on immediately. Jedd gave Lena a brief hug before moving toward the train with Matt and Trey.
We pulled ourselves on board and turned to say one last good-bye. The train began to creep forward. We waved and they waved back, calling out, Good-bye, good-bye. Come back to us soon.
Jedd heard none of that. He had finally let his gaze find Lena. Their eyes fixed upon each other. For the first time, he allowed himself to look deeply into her eyes; he felt he was swimming in them. He did not stop looking at her until she was a small black smudge, hazy in the falling snow. Icy wind whipped across his cheek. He shut the door and moved down the hall to our berth, falling onto the seat. The train continued to pick up speed until the snow outside was slashing by the windows like falling meteors.
You okay there, buddy? Trey said with a smile.
Jedd sat next to the window for more than an hour, deep in thought, wondering if he would ever recover.
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- eleven -
Waltzing through the West
From Moscow to the Mediterranean Sea
on in, said the large-eyed Austrian girl, smiling. Mother and Father
are expecting you.
Matt pushed open the oak door of the farmhouse and stepped out of the damp night into a bright entry hall. Set neatly by the door were two pairs of boots, the mud on them still wet from the morning pig feeding. The walls were decked with dozens of mounted antlers.
Does your father like to hunt, Martina? asked Mike.
All the Austrian farmers like to hunt. Those horns you see are from ibexes my grandfather and my father and my brother have gotten in the Alps not far from here.
An hour before, Martina and Lily-two Austrian girls of about our age whom Trey met some years before-had picked us up at the train station not far from Salzburg, Austria. We had traveled west from Moscow and planned to stay at the home of Martinas parents until New Years Day. Taking off our shoes, we moved into the homes great room. Handcrafted wood covered the walls. The room smelled of the pine burning in the wood stove.
A rosy-cheeked man entered the room and strode toward us. Gruss Gott! Gruss Gott! he boomed in German, crushing each of our hands in turn.
Trey translated as Martinas father rolled on. Welcome to our home! It is not since World War II that we have had Americans staying with us. The last group was a band of army officers who loved the chance to have a bath and sleep in a warm bed. They were very polite, those American soldiers.
Matt glanced around. This must be an old farmhouse.
Not so old. Only about two hundred years.
We smiled at one another. Europeans have a much different standard for what is considered old.
Would you like to come see the basement? asked Martinas father.
Perhaps tomorrow, if you dont mind, said Trey. Im feeling like I need some rest. Mike shot a sidelong glance at Trey. We were all a little tired, but it was not like him to pass up an opportunity to explore anything, even a basement. Trey had not seemed entirely himself since we left Moscow.
Martina began leading up the stairs. Give them a chance to rest, Papa. We can talk later. Theyve traveled a lot in the last few days.
We had indeed been on the move-our goal: to work our way from Russia to South Africa on trains and planes in roughly two weeks. The night train from Moscow brought us to St. Petersburg the morning after Christmas Day. Treys dads company kept several rooms on permanent retainer at the citys five-star Grand Hotel Europa, and since no one was using them the two days after Christmas, we were able to stay for free.
The plush St. Petersburg hotel contrasted sharply with our accommodations in Russias northland. Instead of feeble wooden structures, we saw towering marbled walls set with statues and gleaming chandeliers. No more drawing water from snow-covered wells or running to an ice-floored outhouse where pages of old magazines were used for toilet paper. Now, clad in thick robes, we could lounge in a bathroom complete with heated floors and an enormous tub where water flowed from polished brass faucets.
St. Petersburg, dubbed the Venice of the north, had plenty to impress out-of-towners. The Hermitage, a palace-turned-museum, contains enough masterpieces to keep an art aficionado enthralled for months. Elegant buildings run along St. Petersburgs system of canals, leading to well-tended parks, grand monuments, and imposing churches. Some say the beauty of her greatest cathedral, St. Isaacs, is second only to St. Peters Cathedral in Rome.
From St. Petersburg we flew to Budapest, Hungary. Our lodging there was simpler, but the city proved to be magnificent and equally rich. From there, a train took us the rest of the way to Austria with a pleasant ride through rolling, mist-wrapped hills where shoots of grass poked up from dark soil and occasional snow patches lingered from a recent storm.
The days of rapid travel and sightseeing had been fun, and we had a few more to go. Tonight, though, we could not have been happier to climb under our heavy down comforters in the old Austrian farmhouse.
As we were boarding the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, one of my worst nightmares came true. Dad helped carry my bags into our compartment, and before the other guys came aboard, he told me that he and Mom were planning on getting a divorce. Mom came in just as he was finishing and the ensuing conversation between them wasnt pretty . . . She was angry-even livid-that Dad had dropped this bombshell just minutes before I departed for four more months of travel.
I feel flat, unable to comprehend the enormity of this disaster . . . not just for me, but for Andy, too-he has to live at home through this. Ive expressed some of this to the guys, but I feel like I can hardly talk about it without crying. How do people just move on with their lives when their family gets torn apart?
New Years Waltz
Our time with Martina and Lily had allowed for enjoyable relaxation, including
a foray into the Austrian Alps. Trey tried to keep a smile on his face, but
he often slipped into an uncharacteristic quietness, thinking about his parents.
The end of our third day in Austria brought us to New Years Eve. Trimming our beards, we cleaned ourselves up as best we could. Following the traditional wienerwurst and goulash dinner, we headed with the girls and their families to the New Years Eve service at the nearby church.
Im surprised a little town like this has a church this big, stated Mike.
Lily smiled with a hint of pride. Yes. It is beautiful, isnt it?Our heads bent back as far as they could to gaze at the top of the building before us. Thick walls of stone shot up from the cobblestones at our feet, rising almost out of sight into the darkness above us.
Some American churches are pretty fancy, but our best dont compare even to the country churches in Europe, concluded Mike.
Just a few electric lights aided the candles that burned in every corner and down the center aisle. It smelled of burning wax. Large paintings depicting the life of Christ and stories from the Old Testament hung between the intricately worked stained-glass windows. The long sanctuary was packed. The seats were all taken when we arrived, so we stood with a large number of others in the back. The place was abuzz with hushed conversation.
Mike leaned over to Lily. There are a lot of people here. Do most people go to church?
Yes. Austrians are quite religious, especially compared to other Europeans. Most everyone attends church on Christmas, New Years, and Easter.
I didnt know that. To what extent would you say it impacts their lives?
Um, quite a bit at certain times of the year. Religion has always been a deep part of our tradition.
The religion-would you say there is a real belief in God?
Some, I think. I know that I believe.
What sort of things?
Well, you know, that it is good for people to be religious. It helps them live better lives. Martina and I even teach Sunday school.
It is lots of fun.
You teach kids how to follow Jesus?
We teach them to be good and polite and things. We play games and sing. To be honest, the only bit of the Bible Ive read is one of the Gospels for a literature class once.
It makes me sad to see that even in what are considered the most religious pockets of Europe, it seems that much of the general populace seems to view religion as little more than a good tradition, like an Easter egg hunt.
As best I can tell from history, the European churches-especially the Catholic, but more recently the Protestants as well-have frequently strayed into being more committed to ritual, tradition, and religious activities than to intimate relationship with God.
At least from the way I view things, this could very well be the reason why the vast majority of people in Europe have rejected the religion referred to by many here as Christianity. If I thought that the rituals and traditions and trying to do a good deed now and then were all there was to Christian faith, I probably wouldnt stick with it, either.
As the priests entered, the buzz died away, and the congregation worked its
way through a series of hymns and recitations. Then the lights in the sanctuary
dimmed, only candles remaining, their flickering light insufficient to fully
penetrate the darkness above us. The organ played mournfully as the priest read
the names of the parishioners who had died in the previous year.
Januar. Herr Dieter Heimler. Herr Friedrich Weiss. Fraulein Liesel Braumeister . . . A deep bell tolled once for each name. Frau Helga Bremen. Herr Peter Mueller . . . It was sobering.
As the lights came up, we sang another hymn. After Communion was served and a few more words said, the congregation was released, people pouring out of the sanctuary, talking merrily, ready to get on with their New Years revelry. Pockets of friends lingered here and there, their conversation punctuated by jovial laughter that sent thick clouds of steam into the crisp night air.
We were driven to a nearby farmhouse, its dining room walls covered with more
ibex antlers and a warm fire crackling in the stove. Joining a dozen of Martina
and Lilys friends around a long wooden table, we ate a second dinner of
lox salad followed by plates of raw meats, which we held over the open flames
of little stein kuchens until they were cooked. As the hours slipped by, the
cuckoo clock on the wall chirped ten times, then eleven.
Finally, the hostess-by now a bit tipsy from the punch-cried out, It is almost time for the New Year. Outside everyone. Outside!
As the small crowd filed out onto the driveway, someone set up a stereo near the door. A silky voice poured from the speakers in German.
Ein minut! shouted one of the girls.
From out beyond the misty fields we heard the fireworks and gunshots beginning. A firecracker exploded just behind the hostess, and she jumped forward, eyes wide. The young man who had lit it boomed with laughter and brought another string from a bag. When she re-covered, the hostess began chasing him toward the barn.
The radio announcer broke into our consciousness again. Funf, vier, drei, zwei, eins . . . Gutes Neues Jahr!
Everyone-frozen for a moment-began moving, hopping around. The men shook our hands. With the girls we exchanged two kisses, one on each cheek. Gutes Neues Jahr, each said, Gutes Neues Jahr.
Then another sound came from the radio: music, a waltz by Strauss.
This is it! exclaimed Lily. The New Years Waltz.
She grabbed Trey and Martina took Matt. The rest of the group was doing the same. Round and round, smaller circles within a larger circular rotation. It was a bit dizzying. Two of the young men continued to light firecrackers and hurl them in the air. Another ran inside and returned with a box of champagne bottles, which he began to pour into glasses. Jedd and Mike exchanged partners with Trey and Matt, and the dance continued.
Martina laughed. All over Austria they are doing this. Every New Years Eve everyone listens to this national radio and we all dance Strausss waltz.
Whhhoooohoooo! yelled Jedd. I love it!
It was after three when we finally climbed beneath our down comforters once again.
That was great, whispered Jedd, as loudly as he dared.
Yep, said Matt.
It was magical, added Trey.
What about you, Mike?
A faint snore was all that came from Mikes bed.
The next night we boarded a train in Austria to beat the sunrise to Rome. When
we arrived, we left our backpacks in the stations checked luggage
since we would be boarding another night train for Sicily that evening. Now
we waited in a hotel lobby for a friend of ours who was vacationing in Rome
with his parents. The four of us sat in pairs facing each other on plush red
chairs in the lobby. The room would have seemed extravagant, almost gaudy in
America. In Italy, it seemed to fit: intricate tapestries, marble statues, gold-rimmed
mirrors, and lots of crimson velvet.
We had all been particularly happy when Trey had checked our bank account balance from an ATM earlier in the day. A number of people had sent money to help with our expenses, and to our relief, the account now contained enough to get us through the rest of the trip.
A young man-nearly as tall as Jedd-with a wide, slightly tilted smile hopped down the stairs toward us.
Horse! exclaimed Trey, a bit too loud for the setting.
Hey, guys! replied the young man.
We greeted our old college friend, nicknamed Horse, with hugs.
How you doing, buddy? asked Mike.
Mighty fine. Mighty fine. Horse rubbed Mikes bald head. Nice do.
You like it? Matt and I shaved our heads just before we left Russia.
I bet youre driving girls crazy with that thick-beard-and-bald-head look.
Oh yeah. They would deny it, but you know they love it.
You guys took the night train down?
Yeah, said Trey. It worked out pretty nice. If you take a night train, you dont have to pay for a hotel. Good deal, huh?
If you can find a place to sleep on the train, complained Jedd. All the compartments were full, so I was on the floor of the intertrain compartment next to the bathroom all night. I was freezing.
Matt laughed. Mike and I werent freezing.
Nope, replied Mike. Matt and I were in a compartment with three classic Italian guys. The seats folded down to make this bed about as big as a queen-size. We were snoozing all night long.
Yeah, I bet.
Popes, Pizzas, and Piazzas
Our path through the streets of Rome took us first to St. Peters Cathedral,
said to be the grandest church in all the earth, one of the Seven Wonders of
the World. In front of the massive structure stretched a vast cobblestone piazza
the size of several football fields. Stone pillars, several stories high, encircled
the area, the tops of the pillars connected by a stone railing that supported
larger-than-life statues of saints from ages past. The cathedral had similar
columns and statues set in its immense facade. A statue of St. Peter, guarding
the entrance, held the keys to the kingdom in his outstretched hand.
Amazing, breathed Trey.
The inside was even more breathtaking. A sea of colored marble lay before us. Rising from it, massive pillars rose to support the expanse of roof and dome hundreds of feet above. Statues of the popes guarded the tombs where their bones lay. Each artwork was a masterpiece: sculptures of saints and angels; paintings, some the size of small houses; even the stonework and carved writing revealed the touch of a master. Gold gleamed everywhere. It was too much to take in.
We use the word awesome all the time, remarked Jedd. But this place really is. You feel totally awed . . . Its overwhelming.
You remember from history class how they paid for this place? posed Mike.
Yeah. They got partway done building it and then ran out of money. So they sent out salesmen to sell indulgences for sin-just put enough money in the churchs coffer, and you could be forgiven for just about anything.
Jedd smiled. That would get pretty expensive for me-having to pay cash for every sin.
Seriously, though. How can you get more opposite from the message of Jesus? God paid the penalty for our sins that we could never pay anyway and offers it to us as a gift. Then someone turns around and tries to sell it.
It was later in the day that we passed what is known as the Mameritime Prison. Narrow steps led beneath the street to a small stone cell in which both Peter and Paul, according to tradition, had been imprisoned.
Matt peered down the stone stairwell. Kind of a contrast with St. Peters, he remarked.
Mike nodded. Yeah. You see the true roots of the church here: poor, rough, and simple. To be honest, Id feel more comfortable worshiping down there than in the cathedral.
I know what you mean. I would say that I feel worshipful in St. Peters, but part of me wonders what causes the feeling. The awe I feel is almost more toward the church than toward God.
Mikes Reflections-January 2
When the Church is functioning as it should, it advances-as Jesus did-through bold sacrifices and selfless love. This was demonstrated so beautifully in the early church. Despite horrific persecution, their love and sacrifice shone brilliantly, even to those who sought to destroy them.
I remember a remarkable quote from the Roman emperor Julian, who led vicious attacks against the Church in the fourth century. Seeing the love of the Christians, he admitted in a letter, [Christian faith] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single [Christian] who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
Compare the impact of this selfless service to the image presented by supposed representatives of Jesus in other times, when people who claimed to be followers of Jesus apparently attempted to accomplish their goals through power (as in the Crusades), coercion (the Inquisition), the awing effect of wealth and grandeur, or other of the worlds tools.
This was never Jesus way. He was ultimately victorious, but only through humbling Himself to the very point of death. He resisted the pressure to transform the world by becoming a political King of the Jews. Instead, He changed the world by loving and apprenticing a few people. When the Church follows His example, transforming people through love, nothing could be more beautiful. When it does not, it often becomes absolutely despicable.
For lunch, we stopped by a small café, the proprietor taking delight
in expounding the virtues of each type of pizza that lay on large, square pans
behind his counter. We made our selections and took the slices outside. To stroll
through Rome is like no other experience in the world. Unless a newcomer feels
a desperate need to hit every important site, they are better off
just to wander. Around every corner, a visitor will stumble upon ancient ruins,
quiet piazzas, statue-covered bridges, marble fountains, or some little-known
church that would be a major tourist site if located in any other city of the
Eating pizza in Italy! reveled Trey, a piece of tomato sauce glistening in his beard. Id say this is as good as it gets.
The pizza is okay, replied Mike. Its kind of ironic that pizza in Italy doesnt taste as good as American pizza.
Its still pretty good.
Matt, a few paces ahead, stopped as he rounded the next corner. Wow, guys, look at this. A circular structure hundreds of feet across loomed before us: the Coliseum.
The inside was like a football stadium. A stone wall surrounded the arena. Behind the wall rose hundreds of rows of stadium seats, enough to accommodate thousands of onlookers. During the height of the Roman Empire, Roman citizens could attend the daily events at the Coliseum for free. Often, the entertainment included gladiators-men trained to fight and kill for sport. Other times, animals were pitted against each other: bears against lions, elephants versus hippos. The arena could even be filled with water and mock naval battles waged.
Today, the floor of the arena is gone, and one can look directly down into the stalls where lions and other beasts were held before the events. Reportedly, the animals were kept near starvation so as to guarantee a blood-feast in the arena. We knew that many Christians faced martyrs deaths in this place. During the worst years of persecution by the Roman emperors, even women and small children were turned out into the arena with the lions and other ravenous beasts. We took it in silently for a time before Trey spoke up.
It must have been crazy down there under the arena, waiting to be brought up to the lions.
Matt nodded soberly. Ive read historical accounts of it. Christians would be down there in their cell, praying together, hearing the lions growling. Soldiers came and marched them up and out into the sand of the arena where the crowds made fun of them until the lions were set loose to devour them.
And they knew that if they just denied Jesus, they would be spared, said Trey.
You wonder how many Christians today could go through with it, commented Mike.
Jedd followed, My faith gets a lot of strength from the stories of the early martyrs, especially the disciples. They knew Jesus. They were the ones claiming theyd seen Him risen from the dead. There is just no way they would have gone to such horrible deaths for something they just made up.
In college we had read the accounts of the disciples deaths in Foxes Book of Martyrs. All but one of them, history reports, were executed for their faith. Matthew was slain by the sword. Bartholomew was reportedly beaten to death with clubs. Peter, when led out to be crucified, asked that they crucify him upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. Andrew died over a period of three days, hung from an x-shaped cross. All except John faced similar deaths.
In every instance, the disciple endured the excruciating, life-ending pain without wavering from the claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and that they had personally seen Him risen from the dead.
Jedds Reflections-January 2
The lives of Jesus disciples are an incredible evidence to me for the truth of Christian faith. Here was a group of rough and ragged young men. By their own accounts, they were immature, slow to learn, and often self-focused.
Then, wham! Something rocked their lives in such a way that they were transformed into passionate, selfless world-changers. They professed that they had been changed by a man who had risen from the dead, proving to them that He was Lord of all. They were even willing to die for this claim.
I know many people have died for their convictions, even for mistaken convictions. But these men werent just convinced of things secondhand. They personally experienced the things they were claiming. Would they have accepted torture and death for something they knew was a lie? I find that hard to believe.
That night we boarded the train for Sicily. As we slept, it passed all the way
to the tip of Italys boot, then beyond, via ferry, to the island. For
two days we explored the winding streets, hillsides, and coffee shops of Taormina,
a small town set into a mountainside above the Mediterranean. Sapphire waters
glimmered directly below us, while the fresh sort of sunlight one usually finds
only in springtime poured down from above. In the distance, the volcano of Mount
Etna puffed white clouds into the deep blue sky.
Three days after we left, the volcano blew, wreaking havoc on the Sicilian countryside and consuming some homes that had been built foolishly close to the cone. By that time, though, another train had carried us back to Rome where we had boarded Egypt Air flight 107, bound for Cairo.
NEXT STOP: EGYPT AND SOUTHERN AFRICA! . . . CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING
Episodes to come:
Ramadan in Cairo
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