Friday, March 26, 2010

Christians in a God-forsaken Country / Христиане в медвежьем углу

The English above does not do the Russian equivalent justice. In the Russian language, the English phrase "God-forsaken" is equivalent to медвежий угол, which literally translates to "a bearish corner." Now, I do not understand the logic of this phrase in Russian; however, the fact that a bear is a national symbol of Russia seems to fit the present state of affairs. Quite accurately, Russia often feels like it is living in a "bearish corner," almost as if it has been in hiberation for too long. Yet, as I found out Wednesday night, the oppressive spirit that you feel clinging to you as you stroll around the city is not a grim combination of the pollution, incessant cigarrette smoke, sunless skies, and frowns on typical passerbys. Rather, this country has not put its hope in the eternal. They have either been put or have put themselves in the bearish corner.

The group consisted of Pastor Dave and his wife Hannah (UK); Sasha, Zhena, Sveta, and Nadya (Russia); Johann (South Africa); Kyra, Kristin, and I (US). Sveta, Kyra, Nadya, and Kristin are around my same age. Sasha and Zhena are around 40 years old. Johann has already finished seminary so he may be in his mid-twenties. Nevertheless, it was an international group of students, young and older professionals, and commmitted church planters. Nadya served as our brilliant translator, who could fluently switch back-and-forth from translating our English/incomplete Russian to quick, gentle Russian equivalents, and then the other direction.

For the three hours that we did ice-breakers, prayed together, and read Scripture together, I continually was amazed at how much I have missed being in Christian community. We even went around to each person and used two words to describe his or her gifts, presence, and/or character. Surprisingly, from the facts that we gave about ourselves previously in the night, it was not difficult to come up with an adequate description. An hour into meeting everyone, the combination of words that were used to describe me were determination and patience. Pastor Dave commented on the latter due to the willingness to remain strong despite being separated from my "other half." It brought tears to my eyes. As I write this, it brings more. I miss my future husband.

After talking with Kyra and Kristin, who are pursuing master's and bachelor's degrees in Russian, respectively, we realized that it could not be a coincidence that we are each the only follower of Christ in our different program groups (with some thirty to fifty students each). It was both encouraging and discouraging at the same time to come to that realization. We talked about how since arriving in Russia, we have felt the joy of the Lord more than ever before, almost as if He knew that we would need the extra support in the "bearish corner" of once "Holy Russia." After two months, these brothers and sisters in Christ were the first people that felt like a piece of home, even if we were from different corners of the globe, spoke many different languages, and had just gotten to know each other.

On the second floor of a reclusive apartment in the heart of the city, it felt like we were in the upper room as in the early church. Incidentally, that night we read from Acts about what the first church was like:

"And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all people, as every one had need. And they, continuing daily, with one accord in the church, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart." (Acts 2:44-46)

In the midst of reading depressing news articles related to the violence, bigotry, and polarity in the United States over the health care legislation and greater fractures in the Church (denominations are up to some 32,000 now), I ached for both the concept and reality of singleness of heart.

Shortly after I arrived home, Kristin sent me an encouraging message on Facebook: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Colossians 1:11-12)


The Meaning of спасибо/spasibo ("Thank You")

The origin of the word for "thank you" in Russian relates to why Russia really fascinates me. The old customs. The traditional, ancient lifestyles. The people (народ) themselves. The full integration of simple Christian facets in everyday living.

Spasibo (спасибо) comes from two words: spasi (спасать/спасти = to save; to rescue) and Bog (Бог = God). Although it is a very old remnant of when Russia was a wholly Christian nation, each time someone said thank you, the person was saying, "God save you" or "God will save you." The combination of heartfelt gratitute and deep appreciation for God's saving grace is an encouraging reminder, although long forgotten now among Russians, of why I love Russia.

In the Western Christian tradition, the week preceeding Easter is called Holy Week. In contrast, in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the week proceeding Easter is called Holy Week. Instead, Orthodox Christians celebrate "Suffering Week" leading up to Resurrection Sunday. In fact, the work for "Sunday" (Воскресенье) in Russian literally means "Resurrection" (Воскресение). As our professor explained the other day in class, our "Sunday" is a pagan tradition, whereas their "Resurrection" celebrates the life, death, and resurrection of Christ every week. I didn't have the heart to tell her that attending church on Sunday (a rare concept in the former atheist Soviet Union) celebrates this as well.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Father and Daughter / Отец и дочь

A little girl in a puffy pink jacket sits between her parents and rests her head on her father's shoulder on the metro. She seems restless. Lifting her fur-lined hood over her head, she nuzzles her father's arm as he sits stoicly with empty eyes. I contemplate her age as I assess the situation. Maybe eight, or ten years old. Either way, she is a precious child of God seeking her father's attention. Her mother seems distant from her child and even further away to her husband. The husband and wife have not looked at each other for the entirety of the metro ride--doors open, doors close, they remain.

The little girl in the pink jacket clutches her father's arm. He wrestles it away. She pulls her hood over her head and lays down in his lap. He does not move an inch. It is like he is cemented to the beige metro seat.

The little girl in the pink jacket suddenly sits up, reaches for her father's face, and attempts to rub noses. Silently, assuredly, swifty, he shakes his head away. She holds on more tightly and turns her head back and forth, trying to show a cute gesture of affection to her father. This time, he cannot brush it off. He forcefully holds her arms, tilts her facing forward, and rests her hands in her lap.

She gives up.

My heart breaks.

The little girl int he pack jacket turns to her mother, who blindly swishes the hair out of her daughter's eyes. Watching across the metro, I feel the exhaustion of the mother, the disappointment of the daughter, and the thirstiness of the father. Maybe he just needs a beer to relax. Or maybe that beer may be the start of an even more heartbreaking night.

Memories of my father and me overcome me with a sense of gratitute as I compare these sets of relationships. I remember how my siblings and I would "call who got to lay on Dad's arm" during a long flight on our family vacations. Oftentimes, my father would sacrifice his comfort and space as he was smothered by two children--one on each arm--as he sat in the middle airline seat. Even now, I consider him to be the actual embodiment of Atticus Finch from my favorite book of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird. And I am sure my siblings would agree--and even now, call who gets to sleep on his arms.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Problems / Проблемы

Quote #1: "Karamzin said that Russia only has two problems: fools and (bad) roads. If we fix these two problems, we will be the biggest and the best country in the world. But, we still have these two problems and will forever."

Our conversation professor Yulia shook her head as she spoke the words above. She lamented that after a few hundred years, nothing has really changed because the two problems still exist. When she discussed the "fools," she pointed upwards into the air. Later she explained that it was the people in charge--now in the "democratic" government--who were fools. When she discussed the "roads," she referred to how you shouldn't buy too expensive of a car in Russian because the streets will break it no matter what. I tend to believe her.

An anecdote from this previous weekend reflects this simultaneously ancient and modern problem. On Sunday morning, my friend and I ventured to the neighborhood around the Vladimirskaya metro station in order to attend Hope Church (Nadezhka Tserkov'), a Christian church I had found through the English-language newspaper The St. Petersburg Times. We gave ourselves ample time to find the location and arrive on time, but eventually gave up our search.

Why? Because when we finally saw the second-story stained glass windows with a cross on it, indicating the church, we could not find the door to enter. Several times we walked from the alleyway with its snow drifts, hall of mirror-like doors, and random shovelers. For over an hour, we walked from the alleyway doors, out onto the street, turned left at the intersection, and searched along the same building's walls for an entrance door.

During our final search in the alley (entranceway?), we asked a passerby where the church could be. (Translated from Russian.)

"Excuse me, do you know how to get to the church around here?"
Looking quizzically, "What church? There is the big yellow one down the street. It's big. You'll see it."
"No, not the Orthodox one."
"Then what kind of church?"

Sigh. I pointed to the second-story window with the stained glass cross. He appeared to be even more puzzled. Similarly, the problems in Russia are oftentimes just slightly above the natives' heads. Even if you can see the solution, point at it, and seek the path to it, you will not be able to achieve the goal because there are just too many absurd barriers that prevent it.

Eventually we gave up, and went to the international grocery store Lend to buy ingredients for burritos instead. Later on I e-mailed the pastors of the church to notify them that my friend and I attempted to attend church, but were unable to find an entrance. They apologized and invited me to a small group later on in the week.

Quote #2:"Turkish men love Russian women. And Ukrainian and Belorussian. Italian men, also. So Russian women go to Turkey and to Italy illegally. When they get caught, the men try to blackmail them, saying 'We know that you are illegal. You have to do whatever we say.' And well, you know what they're doing."

Our grammar professor Nina also shook her head as she spoke the words above. There was a smirk of disdain. A look of disapproval. A conveyance of "they got what they deserved." After all, they chose to go abroad; therefore, they must have "chosen" to be sentenced to sexual servitude.

The 2009 Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which issued by the State Department office in which I will be working this summer, listed Turkey as the first (but not necessarily primary) country to which Russian (and Ukrainian) women are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some quarter of a million people have been trafficked into Turkey within the past ten years, most of whom were from the former Soviet Union. Organized crime groups operating in Turkey, whether Turkish or Russian, reportedly earn up to $360 million per year in revenue from prostituted women and girls, or about $750,000 per woman. The women get nothing.

A link to reports from 2001 - 2009 can be found at:

Nina reminded us that while the West has had some 200 years to democratize, Russia has had only 20. She invited us to be patient with the country lest we fall into the same ideological trap that some Russian have in their desire to leave the former Soviet republic for a freer, more comfortable, and more progressive land. I understand her old-world mentality, even if I cannot and will not agree with the contemporary discriminations.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Unclean Woman

There are some five million people in the city of St. Petersburg. There are sixty-three stations in the metro system. Every day, some 3.43 million people utilize this transportation. A train arrives approximately every sixty seconds. There are at least ten cars to every train. I am not a statistician, and I gave up on math long ago, but imagine the (im)probability of the situation that ensued this afternoon. Truly one in a million...or billion.

Three friends and I walked down towards the far end of the metro station in order to enter a less crowded car. As the metro zoomed nearer, we stood normally, not anticipating anything abnormal for another venture into the city.

Двери открываются. We heard the familiar voice of the automated message tell us that the doors have opened. Двери закрываются. The doors shut forcefully as we find a seat.

I pick a seat near a mother and toddler. Across from me, there is another mother and toddler. How unusual, I thought. It is always such a blessing (and surprise) to see young children in Russia. But something does not seem right. The mother and child across from me begin to shift more towards the left. After a few seconds, they stand up and move to the other end of the train car.

My eyes squint and start to burn. Something in the air is irritating my eyes, my nose, my breathing. What is that? I turn to my friend next to me and comment, "It smells like a port-o-potty. What is that?" We do not know. Yet.

The mother and child next to me also begin to shift in their seats, noticeably uncomfortable as everyone else in this part of the car. I turn to her and ask her what that odor is. "
Пахнет чем?" She does not say a word. She nods her head in the direction of the woman across from me. I am shocked. Horrified. Saddened.

The smell intensified in the cabin each time the train sped off from a stop. The flowing air circulated the odor. I breathed out of my mouth as much as possible. It felt suffocating.

Двери открываются. The doors open. A sea of people flood into the car, searching for seats. A woman sits down next to this woman, whose face is completely stuffed into the top of her winter jacket, whose head is covered with a puffy hood, hiding her eyes, her face, her hair.

Двери закрываются. I watch the woman's face who has just sat down. Moments later, she wrinkles her nose, gets up, and moves to sit next to me. I am suffocating again. This time it is from the profound sadness welling up inside of me. I feel completely helpless.

Двери открываются. Not again. The doors open. People pack in like sardines. The crowd disperses away from the woman. One, two, three times I see people attempt to sit next to her in the three empty seats surrounding her (of a total six in one row). Two on one side, one on the other. My heart breaks, and I begin to pray, remembering the story of the Bleeding Woman.

Двери закрываются. An older woman walks down towards the empty sets from the end of the car. This time, the woman sits directly in-between the hooded woman and my friend even though there is a seat available two spots away from her. Nonetheless, she walks triumphantly over to the woman, whose bag is somewhat strewn over part of the seat. The older woman snatches the bottom and pushes it onto her neighbor's lap. She sits. Not two seconds later, she gets up, scowling.

The hooded woman clutched her bag with red and white knuckles. She lowered her head deeper and deeper into her coat. She puts her head to her bag on her knees. No one can see her eyes, her face, her hair. I pray harder as I stare at her black boots, turned inwards towards one another.

Oh Lord, You are the only One who can see her face. Even though we turn away and even move away, You move closer. Even though we close our eyes and we turn our faces, You see her. I imagine you sitting right next to her, holding her hands, looking into her eyes, speaking her language in a prayer. Somehow, God, show her that you love her.

A few minutes later, she looks up. I see her face. The piercing green eyes, similar to those of the famous Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic. She looks around to those who have moved away. She shifts her boots. She lowers her head to her knees. When the trail jerks back and forth, she lets it shuffle her in her seat.

I think, What was in those eyes? Vengeance? Sorrow? Suffering? I have no idea, and I am ashamed and saddened as I continue to pray for this woman. After all, she may be unclean on the outside like the gray-black slush of the streets, but she may also have a clean heart as white as fresh snow on the frozen Neva River.

Двери открываются.
Двери закрываются.

The Bleeding Woman (Mark 5:24-34)

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?"

"You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?' "

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "
Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Black ice / гололедица

Warning #1:
The Russians have a single word to describe "black ice"

This morning as I ventured out into the warm morning (some 30 degrees!), I stumbled...quite literally...over how to get to the metro. Although the metro stop is only a few blocks away, there are a number of significant road blocks to get there. First, with the warming weather lately, the snow has begun to melt; however, overnight, it freezes again. Second, workers have yet to remove any of the old snow, so there is now a foot of snow on the "sidewalk" with several more inches of slush/ice on top. Third, none of the roads from my new home to the metro are paved in the least.

Warning #2: The natives were slipping, too

As I continued to geisha-walk through the streets, I became overheated due to a combination of the warmer weather and my heightened sense of panic. Every five to ten seconds, my arms would flail, my feet would skid underneath me, and my heart would start racing. Somehow, I managed to not fall during the entire trek...minus one incident.

Clutching my binder of worksheets from class, I attempted to cross from the icy "sidewalk" (where people can walk, but sometimes cars drive) to the more ridden-path of the "street" (where cars can drive, but sometimes people walk). Even with a 2-inch incline from one side to another, I attempted to slide out of control, almost hitting a car. Papers went flying. My binder slid under part of the car. The wind carried away a paper as I struggled to run after it on the icy ground. Fortunately, a man stopped to help me pick up one of the sheets. Unfortunately, he picked up the only English one, marking me not only as someone who cannot walk in the streets, but also as a foreigner, which usually go hand-in-hand anyways.

Warning #3: The rain boots are sold out

Nina, our Russian grammar teacher, explained to us that all day yesterday she was looking for rain boots at various shops in town, but could not find them anywhere, a tribute to the Soviet days apparently. Thankfully Mike will be able to bring me some rain boots so my feet are not soaking wet after walking outside every day!