Walking in Russian Shoes
On my most recent trip to Russia, I conducted an in-depth interview with a dynamic national Christian. For the purposes of this editorial I'll call him Viktor. A young evangelical who is planting churches in the Moscow area, his tales of struggle with the established church, as well as with city authorities, impressed me. His major complaint about Westerners was the number who come to see him every week and the amount of time it takes to meet with them and orient them to life in Russia.
During that interview, he also told me about his plans to visit the United States. I gave him my card and offered to set up meetings with him when he came to town. He promised to call me should he ever visit. Viktor made good on that promise. It was wonderful to see him again. When we first met in the U.S., I told him about some people with whom he could meet and agreed to arrange meetings. After that initial meeting, I spent several hours on the phone explaining to people who this man was and arranging a schedule of meetings for him. Most people were happy to make time in their schedules for him; only a few declined.
Then came three days of driving Viktor from office to office, making introductions at each office, and at times, attempting to mediate the different styles of communications between the Russian visitor and the Americans he was visiting. As the time of his visit drew to a close, though, I realized that what I had been doing for him is precisely what many of Moscow's Christians have been doing for months now with foreign missionaries, pastors, teachers, students, and other guests.
Every minute of this work was a joy for me. I believe in this man's work and gladly devote my life to helping him and others like him in that part of the world. Setting aside my regular work plans for him was never in question and was never a difficulty. If those few days were to become weeks or even months, someone else would have to do my normal work or it wouldn't get done.
Learning what life is like for citizens of another country is not easy. Even seasoned missionaries who have spent years in lands other than their homeland struggle to understand what it feels like from the other person's point of view. Life gave me a free and valuable lesson in what it's like to walk in the shoes of Russian Christians who work with foreign guests.
As an American, I would think nothing of telling a guest that a meeting had to end because of a previous commitment, and there would be no insult in the statement. We dismiss people for other appointments, not to mention ministry activities. For better or worse, Russians are more polite than many of their Western guests. On Russian soil, a host would rarely make such a statement to a guest for fear of being impolite. Often Western visitors never realize the difficulties they impose.
How many ministries have been hurt, how many Christians sidetracked, how many lives untouched because Christians in formerly communist lands were politely taking care of foreign guests who had come to help them do ministry? For those of us who work there as foreign guests, we would do well to sensitize ourselves to how much of their time we are taking up--and how much of the time we spend with them is about our own needs compared with the needs of the people of Russia.
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© 1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies