So, after experiencing Russia first as a pagan and then as a capitalist, I went back as a missionary.
We lived in St. Petersburg in a crumbling building that was used as a foster home for troubled boys. They had been shipped out to primitive “summer camps.”
I ended up in a room with five other women. There were three ancient, rickety bunk beds with mattresses that were three inches thick. For once, I didn’t fight for the top bunk. Whenever my friend, who is more agile and athletic than I am, climbed up, the whole structure shook as though it would topple over any minute.
But there was plenty of entertainment. The boys had left charming pictures on the mattresses for us… skulls and crossbones drawn in indelible marker. Russian obscenities. And, boys being boys, they had left other souvenirs as well. Messages written in nose matter decorated the walls inches away from our faces.
And they’d left their pets behind. We awoke the first morning to discover our bodies covered in tiny red welts. Bedbugs.
Of course there was no temperature control, so we left the window open for air. Even that far north, the heat can be oppressive in the summer. Swarms of mosquitoes flew in off the swampy Gulf of Finland. Once, something even worse flew in.
We were all tested in some way. I was tested in every area that elicits my gag reflex.
I suffer from ornithophobia. It probably goes back to childhood, when a mother bird went after my cat, and then me. Add the viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at an impressionable age, and you’ve got a full-blown phobia. Birds hate me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been dumped on. I can’t get near them without panicking.
But when the bird flew in our open window, I wasn’t the only one screaming. I have repressed the details, but after some brave soul chased him down and escorted him back out, I plopped down on my bottom bunk. Heart racing, I collapsed back on the hard pillow. When I had collected myself, I sat up and smoothed my hair back. Smoothed that juicy white bird poop all through my hair.
Like I said, I’ve blocked out as much as I can. But I‘m sure I must have hightailed it to the claustrophobia-inducing 2x2 closet that served as the one shower/bath for 20 people. It was right off the main hall, so it was not unusual to bump into a male member of the team while streaking back to your room in a towel.
The toilet situation was similar, leading to weeks of constipation for anyone who happened to be anally retentive.
Such was our temporary home. But it was nothing compared to the orphanage where we worked every day. Each morning, we boarded a bus and drove to the nearby city of Pushkin. (Formerly Tsarskoe Selo, the home of the last Romanovs.)
The first day, we entered tentatively, not certain what to expect. I remember it as being dark, the air heavy with aromas of overflowing bathrooms and antiseptic and boiling onions.
The kids were as tentative as we were, checking us out. Yet another pack of rich do-gooders from America there for a temporary visit.
The orphanage was for kids with special needs. The majority had a living parent, but all had been entrusted to the State. Our Russian co-worker and resident angel, Sasha, explained that there was a cultural shame in Russia attached to having a child who was not “normal.” Basically, their parents had abandoned them.
A gang of older, tougher-looking kids followed us around from a distance, talking about us and laughing among themselves. Pretending to be much tougher than they were.
I had gulped down a large bottle of water on the bus, so it was soon necessary to locate a bathroom. One of the tough kids, a girl with short hair dressed in boy clothes, was enlisted to escort me. We roamed down long, smelly halls until we reached the primary source of the smell. The floor was covered in inches-deep liquid. Not thinking, I did what I normally do. Concentrated on the squatting. When I stood back up, the bottom of my pants legs were soaked up to mid-calf.
When I came out of the stall, my escort died laughing. So I laughed, too, dripping in six-inches of someone else’s urine. To cheer me up, she indicated that she wanted to show me something. She disappeared, then ran back in with her pet. A very large white rat. She wanted me to hold it.
I took a picture instead.
God’s sense of humor just astounds me sometimes.
Internally, I echoed St. Theresa’s familiar words, “Oh, Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”
This is the point:
Each of us on that trip was forced outside of our personal comfort zone. Our “ME” zone.
And in the process, we discovered exquisite joy.
In losing ourselves, we found ourselves.
In The Weakest Link, I mentioned that we performed a Bible story for the kids. We went from one classroom to the next every day. Over and over again, I read the parable of the prodigal son until the words of that most beautiful story were engraved upon my soul.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
In addition to bringing needed supplies and hands-on love, it was our ‘mission’ to help those abandoned, damaged children understand how very much their real Father loves them. Hopefully, we did. But in the sharing, we came to understand on a much deeper level how much we are loved as well.
How much I am loved.
The conditions on that trip were the worst I’ve ever personally experienced.
But we cried when we left.
After our return, we were asked to share our stories with the church. I showed them the electric curlers I took. I will never forget the testimony of my friend, the other ‘unlikely’ one that almost dropped out when I did.
She lived in the finest mansion in town. A mansion that has been in magazines. Her husband was a very wealthy man. No expense was spared. Her lifestyle of luxury was one that few can imagine. But she is the opposite of a Beverly Hills housewife.
My friend proved to be indispensable on the trip. She did things that none of the rest of us could do. She dealt creatively with several unpleasant issues.
As she recounted her experience, tears welled up in her eyes. Then she said something that seemed a little shocking under the circumstances: “I have never been that happy in my life. Never.”
I realized then, in a fresh way, that it is possible to be happy in a hovel and miserable in a mansion.
Having everything doesn’t make you happy. Fulfilling your life’s purpose does.
I want to thank those of you who are still with me for allowing me the privilege of sharing these Russia stories, and in doing so to remind myself of the lessons I learned there.
Because I’m struggling right now. Circumstances are hard.
It is vital to hold on to the memorial stones of remembrance. Reminders of how God has been sufficient in the past.
Everything is preparation. Everything.
I am grateful that God has showed me before now that when I am weakest, He is strongest.
When I think things are impossible, He makes them possible.
In re-telling these stories I have been reminded that the more I forget about my own comfort, happiness, and well-being in serving others, the more outrageous joy I will experience. The more I get over myself, the more God can use me. The more I pour myself out in service to others, the more I will be filled. The more I lose myself, my desires, my selfishness… the more I find my true calling. My peace. My mission.
My raison d’etre.
All of life is a mission field.
What is your mission?
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (I John 3:16)
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”(Luke 15:31-32)
(In spite of how I’ve described this trip, our church has sent other groups on missions that make this look one look like a vacation at the Russian Ritz Carlton. To the Amazon, for instance. Good thing I didn't get a sign about that one.)