In the middle of winter during my junior year of college, I moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. Why I thought it would be a good idea to live in northern Russia during the cold winter and early spring months escapes me, but I went out of a deep love of the Russian people and language. While I had prepared to study abroad for years, the spiritual anguish I experienced while in the tsar’s city was nothing I could have ever predicted.
In a group of some thirty American students, I was the only Christian. Some didn’t grow up with any particular religious traditions. Others went to Mass on Christmas and Easter, if they remembered. One classmate, who would turn out to be my only friend in the program, was Jewish, but self-identified as more culturally than religiously Jewish. Eventually, the group learned that I identified as a Christian. From then on, I knew they were observing my behavior more closely.
During a vodka-infused dinner one night, the conversation turned to religion. A roommate declared how on her campus, “Bible-thumpers” would literally speak on soapboxes in the middle of campus about sin and salvation. They would pass out Bibles to students scurrying to class. My roommate proudly declared that “they tried to give me a Bible once. I told them to take their Scripture and shove it up their ass. They didn’t try to give me any book anymore!”
Bozhe moi, my God. I had to look away for them to not see my jaw literally drop. I hadn’t seen that coming. The statement was so matter-of-fact it felt like steel wool was scraping my ear drums. In the week to follow, I would quietly wake up to read my Russian-English parallelnaya Bibliya. Huddled in the dank kitchenette, tea kettle heating to purify the contaminated water for a cup of black tea, I would read the book of Job, then Lamentations, then Psalms to end with something lighter.
Then the days turned to grayscale.
I moved into a homestay with a plump Russian lady with jet-black hair and fuchsia lips. Only one other person in my program decided on homestay, meaning that all others were back in the Soviet-era university dormitory, enjoying group dinners of attempted borsht and the Russian beer, Baltika.
Without a cell phone or reliable internet access, connecting with the other students after class became near impossible. They’d return to their dorms, and I would scuffle through the gray slush onto a bus back to my house mom’s apartment.
The routine got old. And lonely.
While I could Skype with my fiance and family and friends, there were several hours due to the time difference when they would be sleeping and I would be home from classes. Those were the hours most fraught with anxiety and depression. Those were also the hours I most diligently searched for others like me -- Christians, those searching for something more, those open to real rather than superficial conversations, oh heck, even those not wanting to get wasted at dangerous Russian nightclubs every night.
One afternoon, I found an advertisement for a Christian church in the city. It was a bilingual English-Russian church. They had a website. They had an email.
I sent a message within a matter of minutes.
The next Sunday morning, alone and freezing despite the hand warmers, I ventured alone to the church, aptly named Nadezhda, Hope.
But I got lost. “Do you know you where the tserkov’ is?” I asked a passerby. The disgruntled man pointed down the street to the grand Orthodox cathedral, not even open for services anymore, the one that the Soviets destroyed all the icons in and used to store grain in the winter. “No, I mean the non-Orthodox tskerkov’ on Akademicheskaya road?” Shaking his head, confused, “What do you mean non-Orthodox church?” Nevermind. Thank you for your time. Goodbye.
Almost an hour after the service should’ve started, I headed home without finding the church. A few days later, I received an email back from the British expat pastor. Turns out that I was half a block away, but they couldn’t advertise their location on the street. They didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention from an increasingly hostile militsiya to foreigners, especially to foreign missionaries.
The next week I found the non-Orthodox tserkov’. My soul collapsed within me, sighing with relief that I had found a temporary tribe in the midst of a debilitating Russian winter.
And then they began to speak in tongues and heal people. Having grown up Catholic and despite attending an evangelical summer camp as a teen, I had never, ever experienced the charismatic child of Protestantism -- Pentecostalism.
Yet I kept going to the tserkov’.
I still read Job.
I remained depressed and lonely.
Then one morning I awoke slowly, blinded. The usual lack of contacts wasn’t the culprit of my disability this morning, though. A blood-orange, steadily rising orb ascended in the gray skies of dawn, awakening me to a new day, a day of hope.
Before this morning, I hadn’t seen the sun in two weeks. Others had warned us about it, the dreaded and aptly-named SAD -- seasonal affective disorder. “I grew up with harsh winters in Chicago,” I’d proudly remind myself, “I’ll be fine.” Looking back, I was more trying to quell my inner chaos than confidently assert my endurance.
I closed my tired eyes not to fall back asleep, but to take the emanating warmth in with every deep breath. Breath in, spasi breath out, bo. Spasibo, thank you, literally means “God saves.” And in some mysterious, holy way, I felt the presence of God’s Spirit do just that by whispering, ever so gently and lovingly, This is for you, my beloved.
And I knew it was true. Even if others on their early-morning commutes were seeing the same vermilion hue, rising slowly through the dull smog, this special moment was just for me. It was God’s love-song in the heavens.
A month later, we started the two-day trip home to the States. I could hardly contain my excitement to be home, to release the anxiety and depression that had plagued me every single day of my time in my adopted country. Exiting the airport, I took a deep breath outside the terminal, the exhaust of the nearby busses and taxis filling my lungs. “Fresh air at last!” I exclaimed. I had told my parents about the poor air quality, the wheezing masses of people in the streets, but until then, they hadn’t fully understood the detrimental effects of my time abroad. And that was just a physical symptom.
A few days later, we had a coming home party. They asked how it was, multiple exclamation points embedded in their wide-eyed question. All I could muster was “It was interesting. It was worth it, but it was interesting.” No one wants to hear the grit, the 90 percent of my time abroad. They want to hear the glory, the 10 percent of visiting magnificent sky-blue palaces, majestic foundations, and ornate operas and ballets. Those were beautiful experiences, but they aren’t what I remember most.
I remember the piercing loneliness.
I remember the anxiety of taking public transportation alone.
I remember the suffocating darkness.
I remember almost passing out on a crowded, over-heated train and accepting the realization that if I passed out, I'd more likely be robbed than helped.
Isn’t that what the Christian life is like, too? That the majority of the time, it is hard. Dirt hard. We struggle to understand Jesus’s near impossible calling for us to simultaneously seek love and truth. We cover over our spiritual poverty with fancy new items and relationships, and for us introverts, books. We distance ourselves from those living in dire physical poverty both in our neighborhoods and around the world because it is hard. It’s hard to acknowledge privilege. And it’s even harder to relinquish it.
I understand why. Feeling anxious and depressed and downcast about the world’s problems isn’t fun. Fighting to alleviate that darkness isn’t glamorous -- ask any anti-slavery or anti-poverty or anti-anything unjust what it’s like, day-in, day-out, and you will get a very different picture than those glossy prints in Christmas giving catalogues.
Deep down, we know that as followers of Christ, we must lay down our privilege and pick up our cross. We must grow comfortable with being uncomfortable and uncomfortable with being comfortable. If bitter cold Russian winters with agonizing loneliness taught me anything, it’s that we aren’t meant to do this alone. We are meant for community, even if they speak another language, maybe literally another tongue, and even if it means living in a God-forsaken country.
How to Join the Synchroblog This Week
During the week of August 27-September 1, write a post for your blog:
- Write a blog post sharing a personal story about a challenge you faced as a follower of Jesus.
- At the bottom of your post, link to the synchroblog landing page: http://wp.me/PewoB-SN so that others can share their own Hazardous Faith Stories.
- Add your post to the link up section at the bottom of the My Hazardous Faith Story landing page on Monday-Saturday. Don’t forget to read and comment on at least one other post!