It’s now just a little over 36 hours since I arrived home from an amazing adventure to spend some time and hopefully leak a little bit of Jesus into the lives of a group of teenage orphans in the city of Ivanovo in north-central Russia. Even now it’s difficult to articulate the experience of being a foreigner in a country and culture that seems so different from my own in so many ways. As I wrote in my previous blog entries from Russia last week (you can check them out here and here), it is a land of contradictions, and contradictions are by their very nature hard to explain.
But if there was one overriding thing I took out of the experience, it was a deeper appreciation for the idea that people are people, no matter where they are. Certainly that’s a concept we all get on an intellectual level, but experiencing it firsthand has driven it home in ways I didn’t expect, and at the same time has given me a deeper and more profound appreciation for the universality of the gospel.
I think one story from just before we boarded our flight for home might help illustrate the point. Our group of four had been driven from our hotel in St. Petersburg to the airport at about 5:30 in the morning, early enough to clear security and make our 7:40 jump to Moscow, from where our trans-Atlantic flight to New York would depart. We walked into the terminal as our driver (who understood English well and spoke enough to communicate) pulled away from the curb.
After an initial security check inside the door, we discovered to our dismay that we were not only in the wrong terminal, but that there were no signs in English anywhere to help us. My friend Brooke, who is a 6-time veteran of these trips, managed to track down a security guard and somehow communicate our situation. The guard took us back out of the building and flagged down a taxi to take us to the international terminal.
Of course, the taxi driver understood about as much English as we did Russian. And on top of that, he didn’t have enough room in his cab for all four of us and our luggage. Nevertheless, we managed to negotiate a fare (500 rubles, or roughly $15) and an agreement that he would shuttle Brooke’s dad, Doug, and his wife, Ramona, then come back for Brooke and I.
Once we got in the cab, we sat in silence for about 5 minutes, simultaneously glad to have worked our way out of a potentially tough spot and still anxious that we weren’t entirely sure of what was going on. Suddenly, the driver started speaking to me. I obviously had no idea what he was saying, but as he repeated himself I managed to pick up something about “Russia” and the word for “good” (thanks to our awesome interpreters!), and guessed that he was asking if our visit had been enjoyable. I answered in the affirmative (“Da, da, da!”), and he responded, saying something about “London.” Again, I guessed he was asking if we were going to London, to which I replied, “Nyet, New York.”
“Ah,” he said, “New York Islanders!”
And there we had it. A piece of common ground. Our cabbie was a hockey fan!
“Nyet,” I replied. “Pittsburgh Penguins. Evgeni Malkin!” Recognizing the name of one of his national hockey heroes, he began to roll off the names of several Russian, American and Canadian hockey greats, and declared himself to be a hockey historian (luckily the Russian word for “historian” sounded enough like the English word that we understood what he meant). We laughed and joked about different teams and rivalries for the final few minutes of the taxi ride.
Then, as we pulled up to the drop-off curb, he said something that put our whole trip into perspective. I’m not honestly sure exactly how I understood him, with only a few basic words of Russian in my vocabulary. But it was crystal clear what he was saying:
“You know, Russians and Americans used to be like this,” he said, bumping his fists together to indicate an acrimonious relationship. “But now, friends.” I don’t remember for sure in my anxious and sleep-deprived condition, but I could swear he said “friends” in English. He held his hands together and shook them, and then reached for my hand to shake.
We’re all the same.
People everywhere desire to be in relationship with one another. For the most part, we don’t want to be enemies. And when stereotypes and misinformation are wiped away, we find that it is simply good to be friends.
I met some amazing people during my stay in Russia. And even though I was only there for a week and a half, I can say without reservation that not only did they become friends, but that we have kindled deep and meaningful relationships that transcend the distance between us.
The heart of the gospel is the good news that God loves us and opens himself to a relationship with him through Jesus. And more often than not, that relationship with him is played out in our relationships with one another. The more we know and love other people, the more we are able to know and love God.
I will have much more to write about our days in Ivanovo and the work we did there, but for today I simply want to let that truth sink in.
Ultimately, it’s not religion or moral codes or our argumentative interpretations of the Bible or even how many “souls” we “win for Jesus” that take the day.
It’s hanging out with kids in a mall, playing ping-pong in a cramped room, cramming too many people into a tiny kitchen around a makeshift dinner table to share a meal together, showing pictures from home and talking hockey in a language that you don’t understand that overcomes the hurts and barriers of the world and makes us all one.
To simply know and be known, to love and be loved, is the power that can change the world.
And if we learn to pay attention, we can see it happening.