Eileen, would you ever consider going to Russia – to do mission work?
Surely you jest, I may have replied, snorting.
No really. See that couple there in the corner? They’re getting a team together to move over this summer. I can introduce you if you want. . .
I wasn’t in the mood to meet anybody. Not that day.
We were at Taco Bell in a west Texas college town and Laurie, a friend and colleague had invited me to lunch to get off campus. The day before, I’d gotten the bad news. I was one of 70 faculty members whose contracts would not be renewed for the next academic year.
I thought I had my career all planned out and now this new twist. In our department, I was uniquely qualified in at least one vital area and therefore irreplaceable, I figured. Surely I was the least vulnerable to the impending cutback. Wrong, wrong, a thousand times w-r-o-n-g.
I poked my plastic fork through the fog and into my chicken enchilada. Within less than 24 hours, life had become surreal.
I don’t recall directly answering Laurie’s question about going to Russia. But Monday, it was 15 years since our conversation. And here I am, in Russia for nine years as of Tuesday.
* * *
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 I hardly noticed. I was in graduate school and unaware of life outside the ivory towers. I hardly knew who was president during those years. Or if we even had one.
Then as the Soviet Union was opening in the early 1990s, I had finished graduate school and moved on to a faculty appointment. (Well, lah-dee-dah!) And like you, I was hearing more about the USSR and about folks traveling to or from.
First was my landlady’s niece, Martha, who was going to Russia to meet scores of people who were enrolled in her Bible correspondence courses.
And then there was Andrey, a graduate student from Moscow who had just arrived at our university. One Sunday morning at church somebody pointed him out to me. I spied on him from the corner of my eye, surreptitiously gathering details about his haircut, his shoes, his clothes. Not that I was distracted during the sermon because I can still recall the topic. It was about God. It was about God and Jesus, I’m quite confident of that. But I remember clearly that Andrey was extremely tall and that his haircut was a bit choppy, done by his mother, perhaps, with more love than skill. Other than that, he didn’t strike me as particularly dangerous.
But where I heard the most about Russia was when I was in Dallas. Occasionally I would be in town for a meeting and I would stay the weekend and worship with Prestoncrest congregation, my home church. Prentice Meador, the pulpit minister was making regular trips to Russia and came back with stories about believers in Moscow and Rostov and Kiev, places I could hardly imagine. I floated for weeks afterward, just thinking about God was at work in the Soviet Union.
One spring, another Martha, a long-time friend from the singles group, accompanied Prentice and the whole entourage to Rostov. That impressed me so. I remember the mixture of awe and jealousy I felt hearing about her trip. Martha was a teacher too but the chance of my pulling together funds to make such a trip was remote. In fact, it was out of the question.
I decided to let others handle Russia. I was immersed in my professional dream, that of nurturing pre-service home economics teachers – now called family and consumer sciences – at a Christian university. My teaching experience was vast and diverse and I was excited about returning to my alma mater with a noble mission.
The only thing is that dreams and reality tend to collide. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Those were difficult years in the economy as the national recession of the early 1990s followed directly on Texas oil bust of the 1980s. Many universities faced declining enrollments and our own department was struggling for survival. All that can lead to unhealthy dynamics among those involved.
But now that would be someone else’s problem because I was one of the elect, yeah, one of the 70 chosen for the exodus. And I needed to be thinking about where I was going next.
* * * * *
I did know that after lunch, I would be going back to my office, my mind bubbling with ideas. But first things first. I dug a small mirror out of my desk drawer, propped it up on the file cabinet and began fiddling with my hair to see how it would look pulled back into a bun.
What in the world am I going to do with my hair in Russia?
I wondered to myself, fast forwarding in a major leap of logic. Surely no one there will know how to give perms.
The moment is forever etched on my memory because at that instant a student reporter appeared in my doorway and asked for an interview.