Olga seemed old at the time, hobbled over by years of labor and sorrow. But it might be that I was just young, thirteen at the time, and everyone seemed old to me. I remember the darkness of her apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia: the natural light streaming through the gaps in the curtains, the dusty red walls, the simple decor, and the table full of food.
When she got up to check the hot water on the stove, my sister and I noticed the flies buzzing around the food: cakes and treats, her best baking. I ate it anyway, not because of any mature understanding of hospitality but because I was hungry enough to eat.
My father had been traveling to Russia since the Soviet Union fell, starting the first radio program in Russia since the collapse. He wanted his daughters to see where he'd been traveling, to meet the people who had moved him so much.
Through a translator, Olga told us about her life. How her father had been stolen away in the night when she was a girl, then her husband too had disappeared, then her son killed in war. The secret police had stolen so many of the family members of people we'd met. There were tales of the famous horror of the Russian breadlines that stretched out for miles down the sidewalk, when food was scarce.
I don't remember my dad talking much to us afterwards about the high rises we visited on the outskirts of town or the Russian children's hospital where kids with broken bones were forced to spend months in a room they shared with dozens of other children, only because their parents couldn't afford to cart them back and forth to the doctor or care for them at home.
At Olga's house and in the other places we visited, I learned that suffering was a common experience that didn't deplete one's ability to offer the best of what they had. My dad visited Russia several months out of the year, becoming more and more comfortable blending into the culture he'd fallen in love with, befriending and learning from the people he met. But he never offered us an "us and them narrative," or told us how blessed we were compared to them and weren't we wonderful for helping them? I could tell that his Russian friends didn't need him because he was wealthy, they loved him because he spent time with them and wanted to share his faith with them. Even though we missed him when he left, I also knew from an early age that it was our father who needed to be with the Russian people.
In Russia, I learned that we all need each other.
This piece is part of a blog linkup to celebrate with my friend Amy Peterson this week (and for many weeks to come); Her book, Dangerous Territory, was just released and is available now to buy on Amazon. I read an early copy and can't wait to have the actual book in my hands so I can read it again.
Amy's story will be a familiar one to many of you who grew up with a longing to save the world. Amy grew up in church, steeped in missionary biographies. These biographies inspired her to enter the mission field. But her journey to change the world was more painful than she thought and lead her back to unexpected places and to a new view of her place in the world.
I'm not doing it justice: Just go buy it, read it, and give it away as a gift!