This post was written by a dear friend and great colleague from Arkansas. She teaches at a well-respected school and has become a star in her field of late. She teaches courses in AP European and World History, and has offered her expertise on topics related to the teaching of history at national conferences. We are in conversations about writing a paper on point of view and the teaching of world history for future conferences. In reading this post, note her unique experience in Eastern Europe at a time in which the question of stability was a question mark. When Ronald Reagan famously challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, in June 1987 at Berlin, to “tear this wall down”, just about nobody could have guessed that the wall that separated two armies, two cultures and, more tragically, one people would indeed be brought down very soon, on 9 November 1989.
Tomorrow, the 20th anniversary of the fall[ing] of the Berlin Wall will be celebrated. It is amazing how quickly our world has shifted from fighting the communists to now fighting the terrorists. In 1989, I was 14 years old, and quite oblivious to the major changes occurring in the world around me. However, it would become much more real to me. In the summer of 1992, I was asked to go on a mission trip to the newly transformed Russia. We were going to spread the Good News to the “godless” people of the newly freed Russia. Our group consisted of four adults and eight other students. I spent countless hours memorizing the verses we were asked to learn so we could share the gospel effectively. It sounded like a great plan and I was incredibly excited to see what changes God could make in the hearts and lives of these people.
The morning our plane was to leave, the newspaper presses were shut down in Moscow. Panicked, we secured a row-boat and a fisherman in Helsinki that agreed to help us get out if the borders were to be closed while on our trip. So, armed with verses and $200.00 cash for the boatman in Helsinki, we were off. We arrived in St. Petersburg, though the signs and most maps still referred to it as Leningrad. As our plan descended, I quickly noticed the difference communism makes on a country. Large pieces of planes and debris were scattered along the run way, and soldiers were strategically placed around the runway. As we deplaned, we were required to walk through a maze of 10-12 feet high concrete walls- so as to confuse- I was told. We emerged into a world that looked like time forgot. Modernization that occurred after 1950 seemed to be nonexistent. We were greeted by our Russian guide, and I was quickly told two things: quit smiling and don’t look people in the eyes. I was informed, “if you want to look Russian, you should behave as though you have the weight of the world on your shoulders”.
Our job was to meet up with other young students our age, and share the gospel. I learned very quickly that this was going to be more difficult that any of us had realized. Everyone could understand the concept of hell—they had lived that. Yet, few could grasp the concept of heaven. How can one accept and love God without being able to understand his rewards? Conversion is not as was not as easy as I thought.
As so often happens, it was the people who changed me- not me that changed the people. The last two nights that we were in St. Petersburg were spent in the homes of the friends we had made. We were traveling on the subway with all of our gear. I happened to look up to see a young girl holding a small bouquet of flowers. I saw her, and smiled at her. She immediately looked away, and I found myself embarrassed for breaking one of the rules I was told from the beginning. In an attempt to make amends, I offered the little girl some gum. She beamed and then took her mother’s entire bouquet to give to me. We all laughed. Quickly I remembered I had small gifts in my bag, nothing of any real value- crayons and coloring books, small toys, etc. I offered those to the young girl. Her mother wept. I was later told the value of those small gifts were immeasurable in their current economy. We then dumped out our bags, and began passing out all we had with us. Jeans, tampons, house slippers. Things that were so commonplace to us were virtually impossible to get for many.
I returned home from my trip virtually empty-handed. We all did. We went on a journey to try to change the lives of others, but yet, it was we who were changed. I learned that the communists that I met were people with big hearts with huge needs. I also learned that something as important as salvation cannot be quickly shared after merely learning a few verses. Often it takes much more- an understanding of people’s lives- their past and their present condition. These life lessons could not have been replicated in any classroom or experienced through reading a book. They came as a result of seeing the world as it changed. What an amazing gift to learn these things at the tender age of 17.
So, on this anniversary of the “fall of communism”, I must take pause. It is important to evaluate where we were as a society. Where are we now? I hope we might be able to say that twenty years later, if I could go back to those who were newly freed, their ideas of hope have been fulfilled. Maybe now, they can understand heaven.