I am always glad to get requests to address a particular issue, topic or question. Usually these questions are about why or how to move to Russia. I recently received a request from a friend back in America, however, to write a blog fully explaining something I had posted on Facebook. It was a picture of our young friend Maxim from Belarus. Maxim is in military training and members of his unit were given dogs to train for use by the military. He named his new comrade-in-arms, a German Shepherd, “Halsi.” The dog was female, and he wanted to name the dog after me so he made up the feminine form of my name. I felt so honored by him for doing that! So this blog is in response to my friend’s request for more background on my contacts in Belarus. As I thought about it, our experience with Maxim did play a contributing role in our decision to move to Russia—although we didn’t think about it then.
There are a lot of apparent ironies or coincidences in life. One such coincidence was when we lived in America one of Oksana’s American friends introduced her to Anna, another Russian lady, who lived not far from us and who had married an American. Anna and Oksana became friends quickly. Then one day Oksana asked me if I knew Robert, who was Anna’s husband. When she said his last name I realized who she was talking about. Here was the irony: Robert had been one of my students several years back when I taught in the university in S.C. He had taken me for 5 semesters of Greek and several other courses. We began getting together with them frequently and even went to the beach with them on vacation one summer.
I think it was in the summer of 2012 that Anna brought over Nastya. She was about 7 years old. Anna explained that Nastya was from Belarus. She lived in the area that was hit hard by the radiation that the winds blew in from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The health officials said that if the children could get out of that radiated area for at least 6 weeks a year and have access to clean water and food, it would be extremely beneficial for their bodies. The church Anna and Robert attended started a “mission” for those children. Families volunteered to keep a child from Belarus for 6 weeks in their home during the summers. Several others in the church who were not able to host children donated to cover travel and other expenses. The host families also organized Bible studies and recreational activities for the children. They also received free medical examinations. Anna and Robert kept Nastya each summer.
I’ll never forget my first meeting with Nastya. Anna introduced us, and I told Nastya in Russian I was glad to meet her and glad she had come to our home. Nastya immediately started laughing loudly. I assumed I had really screwed up the Russian pronunciation. Both Oksana and Anna said, “No, your Russian was fine.” Anna quietly asked Nastya why she laughed. She responded that she had met many Americans, but she had never heard one speak Russian. It seemed weird to her, and it made her laugh.
Later Robert and Anna asked us to consider and pray about something. Nastya had an older brother Maxim. He was about 13 at the time. He had never been able to come to America. Most of the families participating in the program preferred to have girls in their homes. They currently had no one who volunteered to keep a young teenage boy. We responded we didn’t need to think or pray about it. Of course we would keep him.
Maxim was the same age as my step-son Roman. He immediately became a part of our family. He was well-mannered and seemed to feel comfortable with us. While it was Maxim’s first trip to America and he knew no English at all, we found out he told the other kids that he felt completely relaxed in our home. He said Oksana was his American-Russian mother. He could talk to her in Russian about anything. Oksana’s father was born in Belarus and her grandmother and other relatives still live there so there was also that connection. Maxim also told the kids that “Mr. Hal” had short conversations in Russian with him and told them how hard I tried to communicate with him. Roman and Maxim got along great as well and so did Gabriel. While the other kids loved their “sponsors,” the ones who did not know much English said it was sometimes awkward not being able to talk with them or watch TV with them because of the language barrier. Maxim enjoyed being able to talk with us freely. [Note: Russian is the first language for the majority of people in Belarus, although many speak both Belarussian and Russian.]
The second year Maxim and the other kids came was during a complicated and difficult period in our lives. Of course, I had a full time job, and Oksana was 7 months pregnant with Marina Grace. My dad had dementia which was making it harder for my mom to take care of him. Then he got pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital. During that time his dementia got very bad. He was hallucinating. The doctors told us his body was not able to fight the pneumonia; the end was in sight. Eventually he was moved from the hospital to hospice. At the same time our house had even more residents from Belarus. Robert and Anna had moved to another city in S.C. too far away to participate in the program, so we hosted both Maxim and Nastya. Then the family who was hosting Yulia, the group’s Belarussian interpreter, had some problems, so Yulia also came to stay with us. Somehow the visit went very well even though my dad passed away during their time with us. I was close to my dad and miss him, of course, but he was really suffering physically, mentally and emotionally, so I was relieved when his suffering was over.
Oksana took on the teaching responsibilities with the group that Anna had previously carried. She did a LOT of studying. Oksana was raised in an atheist society, and she knew how religion was sometimes portrayed in such a culture. She wanted to present the material carefully and coherently so the group would understand exactly what Christianity teaches. The young people responded very well to Oksana’s teaching. Her long hours of study paid off.
The other kids in the group started coming to our house more often. We had rented Russian TV through our satellite provider while they were there. It wasn’t that the kids wanted to get away from the other host families. They just liked to come over to our house so they could speak Russian and feel they were in “a home away from home.” I remember one night when quite a few of the teenagers were at our place. The TV was tuned in to Russian programming. No one was really watching it, but they liked having it on. The house was full of laughter. We were eating snacks, joking and having such a great time. It was so good to watch those young people from that devastated area of the world enjoying life and getting to laugh. Even little Gabriel thoroughly enjoyed the teenagers being in our home. All the Russian he knew at that point consisted of two phrases: “What are you doing?” and “I don’t understand.” He just kept repeating those phrases no matter what they said to him, smiling proudly as he said them. We all had good laughs over that.
We also went on other outings. My older son and his family came up for a party at a nearby public pool. They also joined us, my mother, and my brother and his family for a lunch at a nearby restaurant one Sunday. Our “backdoor” neighbors had a pool so we went over there with Maxim and Nastya at least a couple of times. Additionally, several of the host families would have everyone over to their homes for cookouts, pool parties, birthday parties, etc. We sensed a special bond with the other host families. We had a wonderful time, and we all were so sad when they had to leave.
That was the last year the church hosted the children. Our leader of the Belarus project was a wonderful, dedicated layman in the church. He spent countless hours on planning and paperwork. He had been to Belarus, and he and his wife even adopted a daughter from there. So we and the other host families were quite surprised and disappointed when he told us the Missions Pastor had informed him that was the last year the kids would come since the church mission would focus elsewhere. I had already begun attending the nearby Orthodox Church for Vespers on Saturdays, however, and we began going there. After Marina Grace was born we decided to become catechumens, and a year later we were fully accepted into Orthodoxy.
We have kept up with Maxim over the years since we last saw him. He tried to come visit us in Russia last summer, but his superiors at the military school did not permit it. I’m quite sure that the fact that all members of our family are American citizens had something to do with it. Maxim also lets us know how Nastya is doing. Yulia has continued interpreting and traveling to America through another church that continues the ministry.
Another coincidence is that Robert and Anna moved from South Carolina to her hometown of Arkhangelsk, Russia this past June. They came here for a very enjoyable three day visit last week. As I sat with my former student from that university half way around the world, thinking about how both of us are now living in Russia, I concluded this qualifies for what my priest in S.C. would call a “DIVINE coincidence.”
As I have already mentioned, one of the main questions I receive from my blog readers concerns how and why we came to Russia. I’ve already tried to address those questions as carefully and fully as possible in previous blogs so I won’t repeat them. Nevertheless, as I thought about Maxim and our two years as a host family, I don’t think until now I realized there was a “Belarus factor” in our eventual move.
When we moved from Russia to S.C. in 2008, both Oksana and I thought we’d settle down and live out our lives there like “average Americans.” She settled in very comfortably since she has an outgoing personality and speaks English so well. I was the one who had trouble readjusting. My home culture had changed. More significantly, I had changed. It was a very difficult experience for me since I now saw things in America differently after having lived 3 years in Russia.
It was during that last summer with those kids in our home that I realized that we were and will always be a “bi-cultural” family. We really do live “between two worlds” no matter where we reside. After they left I made some contacts about how we could perhaps get involved full time in a similar program. I contacted the American Belarussian Relief Organization in N.C., but I was never able to get any real responses to my questions and concerns. No doors were open for full time involvement. Eventually, I stopped trying.
Nevertheless, the seed was planted in my mind that maybe we were not destined to live life there in our small town in South Carolina. It was just a seed. I don’t mean I consciously thought about or reflected upon moving to Russia at that time. I just knew there was fulfillment in connecting with people outside my homeland. I can’t really explain it fully or with complete clarity. Don’t get me wrong: I know people with whom I went to high school who have lived their whole lives in that same small town, and many of them have had a tremendous impact for good in that community. I just began to sense that wasn’t the destiny for my family.
When we did decide to leave America it didn’t happen as I would have predicted back right after the Belarus kids left for home. As I said, I had already realized that my home culture was changing in ways I would not have thought possible. When Marina Grace was born that fall, I wondered what would be considered values and virtues in America as she grew up. I had discovered some things had never been as they seemed on the political front. I found out I had been deceived by elected leaders I had trusted. After coming back from living in Russia, I felt more and more a stranger in my own land. We still had wonderful American friends, and we loved our church. I had gotten much more comfortable at my job, and we were doing better financially. But America was changing, and I was changing. Thomas Wolfe kept whispering in my head, “You can’t go home again.”
I have written many times about these frustrations and how they impacted our decision to move to Russia. Now, however, I think our pilgrimage began with the joy we sensed as we watched those Belarus kids enjoy their American visits and their time in our home. I had lived in Russia for three years before, but I never felt a connection the way I did with those young people. I wasn’t their English teacher or “the American” as I had been in our years in St. Petersburg. I was, well, one of them to some degree. So later when we started to think we may need to move to Russia I believe my mind was open to what was best for our family in part because of what we had experienced during those two summers.
There is no perfect culture, no perfect world in this life. Life is, to some degree, a struggle no matter where you live. But as I stared at Maxim’s picture with his uniform on and his faithful dog “Halsi” at his side, I knew I had made a difference in that young man’s life. And now I realize he had made a difference in mine as well.