I’ve never left the country before. I had never even made it across the border to Canada or Mexico. So, naturally, the question was posed, “Why Russia?”
I guess it does seem a strange destination for a person’s first venture outside of her national boundaries. Maybe a trip down to Cancun, or up to Nova Scotia would have made more sense. But I don’t often do things for the sake of making sense. I do things for the sake of following a path traced out by God’s own finger. And it just so happens to be that a trip to Russia has been on my mind and on my heart for a very long time.
I blame Billy Joel for placing the first inkling of a curiosity about that strange and mysterious land hiding behind the Iron Curtain in my head. It was 1989, I was twelve years old and in the seventh grade, and Mr. Joel released his eleventh studio album and became a permanent fixture in my life. Hidden on the B side of the Storm Front album, was a gem of a song called Leningrad.
As I listened to the story of Billy’s encounter with a circus clown named Viktor (whom he had met after a performing a concert in the Soviet Union in 1987), I began to realize that maybe the world wasn’t as black and white as it seemed. Just as Billy and Viktor would discover how much they had in common despite being raised as enemies, I was beginning to see the world from a new perspective.
Within a year of that 1989 musical revelation, the Berlin Wall fell. Two Germanys became one. The images of crowds of young men and women climbing over the wall seemed a far contrast from those old videos I had watched in history class of desperate men and women fleeing through barbed wire and being gunned down by armed guards. This was a new world. This was a promising world. Gunfire had given way to concerts. Barbed wire had given way to hammers and chisels that chipped away at the things that divide and opened up brand new possibilities for peace and unity.
And by the time I was finishing up my junior high school career, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Who were we to be afraid of, now? If the Soviet Union was no more, who was going to point their nuclear weapons at the Kanawha Valley? Who were going to be the villains in our movies?
And so it just happened to be that I began high school in a new era. I would get my first kiss, take my first driving lesson, and hold my first job in a world that was completely different from anything my parents or grandparents had known. Their world had been locked in a stalemate of an armaments race no one could possibly win. Their world had been divided by a wall of concrete and an imaginary curtain of iron that was cold and callous from either side. But my world was wide open.
And then, a dozen years ago, an early twenty-something version of me stopped by a bulletin board in my church and thumbed through the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission flyers on display. Each one seemed intriguing. Each one seemed like a terrific experience. And each one seemed out of my grasp… but one jumped out at me. One just sort of rose up from its thumbtacked position and slapped me in the face and said, “This one is for you!” It was announcing a Christmas-time trip to Russia… and although I would drop the flyer back into its place and walk away, God had taken hold of my heart.
What Billy Joel had started, God was going to finish.
It took a while… but I finally couldn’t ignore God’s call to get up and go any longer. Between God, Billy Joel, and the Berlin Wall, it was just meant to be: I went to Russia.