Mission Revisited October 14, 2013


We put a big laminated world map up on the wall next to our table, which Elena and Roman love to look at and talk about. They’re really interested by the huge green country on the right side of the map: Russia, and like to ask me questions about my mission. We decided to invite some friends and acquaintances over so I could tell some of my stories to more of an audience than just Jenny and the kids. A written version of some of the stories follows, although my spoken remarks differed significantly. Here are the slides–use the space bar or arrow keys to navigate.

It was three weeks before Christmas, four weeks before Y2K, and I had just arrived in Moscow, Russia. On our first night, the Mission President took me and the other new missionary to Red Square. I’m sure he gave us good advice about life in Russia and what we, as missionaries, were supposed to do, but all I remember is the vastness of Red Square and the grandeur of the buildings along its perimeter–the Kremlin, the State History Museum, GUM, and St. Basil’s Cathedral.

When I first arrived, I was in the unusual position of speaking Russian much better than I understood it. I had studied the language during my first two years of college, then started to figure it out during nine weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Utah. But there is no way to prepare to understand the language when it’s spoken at speed and without an English accent. On my second or third week, I was asked to speak at our Sunday church meeting. I must have said something about how I studied mathematics and computer science, because an older woman came up to me after the meeting, very excitedly telling me about something–I didn’t really understand what–while dragging me to the phone, because she wanted me to talk to her close friend, someone she had wanted to introduce our church to for a long time. In her mind, I was the perfect person to do this, because her friend’s son was a noted programmer: Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris. I’m afraid that my ability to understand over the phone was even worse than my face-to-face skills, so I was not the perfect person, at that time, to teach her friend about the church.

What was it that I was trying to do in Russia, barely knowing the language? Occasionally we were asked what kind of hubris we must have, to presume to come to Russia with our Western religion and try to turn the people from their proud tradition, their Orthodox faith. I don’t think I ever expressed myself as well as I would have liked, so now I’ll say what I tried to say back then. I believed then, and still believe now, that this church is true. I also believe that it is good; that following its teachings makes me a better individual, my family stronger, my community healthier. In a city of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, surely there are some who have spiritual needs that are not being met. I–and all missionaries–just want to find those people and help them be happier and better. The world is a big place, each person has the right to find spiritual fulfillment, and I wanted to help those who were seeking. Based on the number of times we heard “no” every day, it was safe to say that any imperialistic tendencies were done away with pretty quickly; there was no worry that we were going to repeat the baptism of Kiev any time soon. Along the way, we could try to do good for many people, even those who would not end up following what we were teaching–there is much loneliness and suffering in the world, and Russia has more than its fair share–and not enough people who try to relieve that suffering.

Which brings me back to my difficulty in understanding people in those early days. We were meeting regularly with Sasha, who just seemed so lonely. I think he had been through a divorce and let us teach him just so he would have some company. Even after I started to understand most people, I still didn’t quite get him because of what must have been a speech impediment. There was this one turn of phrase he repeated over and over, seemingly at the beginning of every sentence: “BOOM TALK GREET” was all I got out of it for many weeks. I don’t know if there were any lasting positive effects of our meeting with Sasha, but I hope so, because when I finally figured out that he was saying “budem tak govorit”, i.e. “let’s say that…”, I knew I had made progress.

How were we supposed to go about finding the people that wanted to hear from us? In the USA, Mormon missionaries are famous for knocking on doors, but early on in my mission I had pretty bad experiences with doing that, and our Mission President once pointed out that during the time of the USSR, unannounced men wearing suits who showed up at your door were always bad news. One of my associates thought big. When I arrived, he was stationed right in the center of Moscow, and had crazy ideas about canvassing the biggest businesses and offering to teach English, or going right into the State Duma (i.e. the equivalent of the Houses of Parliament) and trying to set up meetings with the legislators. I think he had the good sense to run these ideas by the mission leadership before trying anything too provocative or audacious, and I never what resulted from those efforts. (Incidentally, he’s still thinking big, and has started an airline out in California.) And so what it came down to was walking the streets and parks, wearing out our shoes, trying to overcome our lack of language skills and fear of rejection, talking to as many people as possible.

After six months, I was transferred from Moscow to Yaroslavl, an ancient city on the Volga river about four hours to the north east. There were only a handful of church members out there at the time; we held Sunday services in an apartment living room. Our church wasn’t even oficially chartered. One warm summer afternoon, my companion and I were walking down a street busy with foot traffic, when the most unusual thing happened: a young man about the same age as us separated himself from the rowdy group he was with–we probably wouldn’t have approached a group that large, especially since they probably all had open beers in their hands–and asked us what we were up to. He was genuinely interested, so we gave him a brief explanation about who we were and asked if he would like a copy of the Book of Mormon. He said no, probably with the excuse that he didn’t have anywhere to put it at the moment, but invited us to deliver it to his home sometime and gave us his address and phone number.

One thing led to another, we tried to call to make an appointment several times but couldn’t get a hold of him. As happened so often, he and his wife were living with her parents and who knows how many other people in an apartment that was way too small for all of them. Days turned into weeks, and then we had a training meeting where it was recommended that we clean out our old contacts, free ourselves from the burden of trying to get in touch with people who very well might have fake numbered us, etc. In spite of that, I decided we should give Sergei one more try. I don’t remember if we called or just stopped by, but all of a sudden it was us and him on his doorstep; he couldn’t invite us in because of the family situation, and we gave him the Book of Mormon we had promised. When we followed up, it was amazing. He had read a good chunk of it, as if it was a novel (which nobody every does). He had found what he was looking for, and was waiting for us to ask him if he wanted to be baptized and join our church. I know it wasn’t easy for him, there was tension with his wife and in-laws, and joining a church doesn’t on the surface make it any easier to find a job that pays enough for bus fare. That was the first time that I saw this faith, which had always been a part of my life, transform someone else’s life.

While I was in Yaroslavl, I got to hear firsthand accounts of what life had been like during the last days of the USSR and the first period afterwards. We were teaching a teenage girl named Olga, and while her mother was very favorable towards us teaching her daughter, and even towards her daughter joining the church, which she eventually did, she wasn’t interested in having us teach her. She worked at a psychiatric hospital, where their shifts were 24 hours at a time. When we asked why she didn’t want to know more, she probably said something about how she was old and set in her ways, but that she wanted her daughter to be happy. They were so kind to us (for a missionary, kindness is often measured in food), and made sure that we weren’t left out of any celebratory occasion. It was at one (or possibly more) of these that we heard more about their family’s history. Along with possibly the grossest dish I have ever, “Selyodka pod shuboi”, literally “Herring in a Fur Coat,” which I always managed to avoid eating, she or one of her friends would bring out a special beverage–which may have been some sort of home distilled beverage. The children and the missionaries, of course, abstained, but under the influence, she really opened up. The fall of the Soviet Union was a traumatic event, we Westerners have no cultural reference for it. All of a suddden, the entire system that you lived and worked within the constraints of had disappeared, and nobody knew what came next. There are jokes along the lines of: before the fall, people couldn’t get food because there was no food, after the fall, there was plenty of food, but nobody had any money! Olga’s mother shared this experience so painfully when she described how she, as a mother with two young children, just wanted to feed her family, and the only answer anyone would give her was “you have a mighty fine three bedroom apartment; you could always sell it for something smaller.”

Someone else later it to me like this: at the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in theory each person got an equal share of the wealth and industry of the entire country. (This matches what Wikipedia says.) In theory, the voucher could be redeemed for a fair share of whatever industry the individual wanted to contribute to. In practice, the vouchers were sold by the ordinary people to whomever could give them enough money to buy bread, and thus the oligarchy re-established itself in a short period of tie.

Somehow Olga’s family hung on, kept the one thing they had, that apartment, and made it through, but I got the sense that those times had hardened her, set her in her ways, and was the fundamental thing that kept her from wanting to know more.

I wasn’t ready to leave Yaroslavl, but as a missionary, you go where you are directed. The week of Christmas, I was sent to what others described to me as the most desolate and destitute spot in the whole mission: The Sormovo region of Nizhnii Novgorod, a factory city further down the Volga river. Our apartment there, on Stanislavsky street, cost the princely sum of $45 per month, and even though we ran the risk of blowing the whole place up every time we took a shower, and the kitchen was set up so that if you touched the faucet and the refrigerator door at the same time, you would get a shock, I think it might have been one of the nicer buildings in the area. It was there that I encountered abject poverty: the Alexandrovs, immigrants from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, who had nothing and sent their daughter to beg in the streets. I have nothing to say, no moral prescriptions, other than to want so badly to help them, and to know that there was nothing we could do that would help.

In Sormovo I had a Russian companion, Peter Semyonov. He was having a hard time while we were together, but I tried my best to listen to him, work with him, and go out and get on with what we were trying to do. One time he told me “I know you’re trying your best to take care of me, feed me, etc., but all of this Western food is just too much. Sometimes I just want to eat shproty straight from the can.” That day, I found out that there was something worse-smelling than herring in a fur coat. When all else failed, we turned to the therapeutic exercise of walking the streets and paths of Sormovo, frozen and nearly deserted. On an especially down day, when I had almost no hopes, and had already been walking for hours, we crossed paths with an unusually friendly man. He and his family were Baptists, he said, not looking for a new religion, but he recognized is as fellow believers and invited us to come meet his family later that week. We did, and their warm family home was wonderfully warm, different from many that we visited, even though I suspect that their financial situation was no better than anyone elses, and perhaps worse given how many children they had. We shared our message about the Book of Mormon, and they shared with us how much their faith meant to them. We invited them to come to church activities–suggested that their older children might be interested in the youth activities on Wednesday nights. When we left, I told my companion “I don’t expect that those people will join our church, but I feel that we all uplifted each other this evening.” It wasn’t until two years later, when I visited Russia for vacation, that I heard anything more. The children had started to attend the activities, and liked it so much that they eventually invited the missionaries to teach them the doctrine. One thing led to another, and eventually everyone in their family converted. I feel bad that such a stalwart family, a pillar of whatever faith community they attend, left a church that probably needed them. But, to get back to the beginning, each of us should have our spiritual needs met, and I am not upset that this family joined the church that I had helped to introduce.

I could go on for hours and hours. I’ve shared just a few stories about the people that I knew and focused on the thing that I was there to do as a missionary: find and teach those who had spiritual needs. I have even more stories about everyday life, and about what it was like just to live, to have more personal freedom than I had ever experienced up to that point, stories about how to get locked out of an apartment and end up buying the most expensive apple preserves in all of Russia, and of making bad real estate deals. I’ll save those for another time, or at least I won’t keep us from some refreshments and conversation while I tell those stories only to those who might be interested.

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