Wow! It’s been a long couple of weeks! We leave for Russia in only 17 days! Getting that close makes me reminisce on the last 8 years. This trip will be…a lot of trips for me…but it is not me I travel for. I travel for the kids that I have friendships with and love, even when I haven’t seen them for years. I recently cleaned up my office at work, and if you know anything about me, you know I love (and am possibly addicted) to art. Today I brought in one of my favorite photos from the last 8 years. It normally hangs at home, but today…today, I felt it needed to be at work. Several months ago, on a different blog, I posted this story, and today I feel it needs to find its home on sojourner4jesus. It’s l-o-n-g, but it is a story that is a large chunk of why my heart became so attached to Russia over the years, and why it is firmly planted in my heart now.
How I fell in love…
…I wasn’t planning on it. And I certainly wasn’t planning on the surprises God had in store for me. But sometimes, isn’t that the best part? When something is entirely orchestrated by God that it is absolutely perfect and suited to your gifts and characteristics?
It all came together in a moment when an amazing woman, Pam Jackson, walked into a Sunday school class I was teaching. She came armed…with her photos of a trip she taken to a Russian orphanage, and was ready to share a multitude of stories about orphans that the Russian government labels as damaged and outcast, only because they have no one to take care of them.
The beginning of our conversation was my humoring Pam, because I had all of my paperwork ready to send off to teach English in China. I was leaving the country, not staying in this country to go on a mission trip to Russia. Then on top of that, God hadn’t called me to Russia. He’d called me to Africa, then to China.
However, that was ‘my’ plan, not the Savior I serve, which is how I ended up in a strange country, with a strange language, with people from WCC I didn’t know, weird food and falling I love…
It was our first day at Kurlovo orphanage and I was intrigued. I’d never been to an orphanage before. There were so many kids everywhere, and it smelled like cabbage mixed with a strange concoction of body odor and dirty feet in every room. But the caregivers and the kids were ecstatic we were there. The bizarre language jabbered all around us, but I understood only what the accented translator relayed.
You could tell that the kids shared clothes based on what shirt matched pants another was wearing. It was insufferably hot, which I thought was incredibly odd for such a cold country. And there was tea…tons and tons of tea. We had it when we got there, at lunch, tea time, when we looked like we were cold, then again at dinner. I felt like I was floating by the end of the day. But every encounter we had with the Russians was marked by an astonishing amount of hospitality. They are very generous to their guests and very concerned about your well-being while you are with them.
Walking through that door for the first time was like stepping into a different life for me. I had done mission trips before, but this was different…it was dealing personally with the life of a child. But even though kids weren’t really my thing at the time, I was ready for whatever God put in front of me.
As the orphanage director took us on a tour of the building. A disheveled looking boy, no taller than my waist, kept popping into every single room that we entered. He had faded bruises on his face, never-been-brushed hair and clothes that had been through the woods a few too many times. I noticed him first, and shared a smile with him. Then after a couple of rooms it became a joke among the Americans, ‘where will he show up next?’
Alyosha’s story started coming out over those first few days. He had only been in the orphanage for a couple of months. His dad had died at some point, but to a 9 year old, how long ago was incomprehensible. He had been taken away from his mom because they had been living on the streets of Russia. They had lived on the streets for most his young life, and while we were there the staff was having problems with Alyosha. He could not read or write and since he was a street kid, he was stealing and fighting with everyone. Those were his survival tactics…everything he had ever known.
I will never forget one of our last days, I was talking with Olga, his caregiver, specifically about Alyosha and she shared that up until a few days ago they thought he had been running away. What they learned, however, was he was only running away part of the time. The rest he was searching out a place to hide and sleep at sunset just as he would have done while living on the streets. Someplace dark and protected where he could stay warm. He was sleeping under desks, beds, snuggled in corners – just places to be ‘safe’ for the night. They couldn’t even get him to sleep in a bed, because it was so foreign to him.
As the week progressed, it’s hard to explain what happened between Alyosha and me. But then again, love is hard to explain. There was just something about him, and about the way he seemed to choose me and want to be around me. Even then, almost 8 years ago, I would have heartily admitted that he was a holy terror with legs, but at the same time I saw an amazing goodness and potential in him. I saw a 9-year-old boy who was craving to be loved, cared for and accepted. Sometimes he had a glint in his eyes that I knew he was thinking of doing something ornery; he would always carry that ‘street kid’ mentality.
But the adventures we went on over those years are the best memories. He would grab my hand and ask in Russian, ‘Are you ready?’ And I would say, ‘We need my translator.’ And he would reply, ‘No, you know enough.’ One of the things I loved about him then is that he was fearless. The best way to describe our ‘Alyosha Adventures’ would be to compare then to the Family Circus cartoons when the mom calls Billy inside and he takes the craziest, over, under, longest route to come home. But for those adventures time, distance or route didn’t matter as long as it was time counted being with him. One of my photos from our adventures is still one of my all-time favorite photos I’ve taken in Russia.
His antics became known to the whole team over the years, I once took a photo of a brick wall with a hole busted through it and one of our team members said, ‘Look, Alyosha came through that wall.’ He also became very protective. I was ‘his’ sponsor, ‘his’ American friend. Sometimes it was hard to balance, because I was there for all of the kids. But there was no denying the connection he and I had.
Alyosha filled a hole in my heart, it wasn’t even a hole I knew I had, but he has firmly kept hold of it even though we are traveling to a new orphanage now. I haven’t seen him since I traveled in 2007 before the orphanage closed, the Russian governments’ choice, but he was so hurt the last time I left…I don’t blame him, I was hurt too and went through some serious conversations with God before I worked through it. Alyosha and I are so similar in some ways, compartmentalizing the areas of our life and closing them off if it hurts too much, like not wanting to say good-bye or showing cracks in the veneer. I had seen him twice a year for almost 5 years, become a part of his life, and then was torn out of it.
I had discovered a new kind of love. It’s the love that flourishes in God’s mission field in Russia, Africa or in your own neighborhood. It’s the love that multiplied as the disciples spread out to new cultures after Jesus’ death. It teaches me that the breath I take, I take with the love and grace I receive from Christ and with the life I choose to live I represent, ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:34-35)
Given the choice, I would never take back those trips, those years or the time I spent in Kurlovo. In time, the hurt will disappear, and he will remember that someone loved him unconditionally as she was loved unconditionally by her Savior. And I pray that the God I serve covers him in wisdom, love and an understanding that I will never forget or stop loving him. After all, he was the first person I ever truly fell in love with…
‘Til next time…