Babushka in the spirit

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Is the future written? Is our life’s path decided or do we have a say in it? For most of us, being at the right place matters, we are always at odds of whether we are where we should be.

But there are times in life when you know that you know that you are at the right place. One of those times for me happened in the summer of 2010, when a trip to a small town in the middle of European Russia changed my life. It is definitely one of the ‘wow’ moments of my life and that is why it’s fresh in my memory as I write it seven years later.

First of all babushka is grandma in Russian. Russian grandmas have to be some of sweetest people you can ever meet. They somehow have food to feed you even if you have just met on a train. They will always have winter coats or boots to offer you when you visit their home. They are always concerned and are unafraid of speaking their mind.

A typical babushka has witnessed the world war two (or lived through it as a child), the perestroika, the collapse of the USSR, multiple recessions and the rise of the new Russia. She has lived through Stalin, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and now Putin. Trust me, Trump isn’t her faintest worry. She is tougher than Siberian winter, sculptured by experience and taught by circumstances. Life has thrown at her the good, the bad and the ugly but still left her with enough hope to face the future.

This story is about my encounter with one such babushka in a town called Cherepovets during a church mission trip; an encounter with a smiling, jovial babushka on a wheel chair that left a permanent mark on me.

We had gone on a weekend long mission trip to Vologda, Cherepovets and some other small towns in Vologda state. It was probably one of my most exciting times being in Russia because I felt that I had experienced the true Russia. Venturing into rural Russia on dusty summer days made me understand that the spirit of a country is never experienced in its major cities but in the grassroots. It is also experienced in homes; a Russian may not smile at you in the streets but when he invites you to his home, he will honour you and probably change your opinion about them.

In Vologda I slept at Andrei’s place. He was one of the members of the church there. He and his wife had a child, about a year old. Andrei’s home is probably one of warmest homes that my feet have stepped into.  I was treated very well the two nights I spent with them, but what makes a home warm is much more than food and a cosy bed. It is openness, vulnerability, friendship ………… it is communication.

Andrei poured his heart to me, told me how he had been to jail and then to rehab three times. How he failed so much in life he didn’t see any hope for the future. How he took his wife through hell. How he finally gave his life to Christ and found purpose on earth. How he now reaches out to alcoholics and criminals. How he still struggles but now knows who to call upon.

If I had ever doubted whether the gospel of Jesus is real, I had just been reassured.

Black is conspicuous, especially when that is the colour on you in a town that has never seen a black man. On the Sunday during the mission trip, I was partnered with a Russian friend to go to a home church in Sokol, a small town deeper into Vologda state. The church, with about 8 members met in the home of one of the members. They were very excited to have us and we just encouraged them and shared testimonies.

The kids couldn’t take their eyes off me, often moving closer to feel my skin and hair to which I gladly obliged. One kid ran to the mum telling her that my palm was dirty since it is brown.

After the meeting we went into the town to buy condensed milk (apparently the best condensed milk in the whole of Russia came from that town). We got out of the car with my Russian friend and walked past an open air market towards the town’s only supermarket. The market literally came to a standstill. Everyone stopped to look at the black man. It was surreal, some shouted greetings, others questions, and others just stood there shocked. I have never received so much attention in my life.

In Russia, you kind of get used to having attention on you especially outside the big towns but this was quite intense. I was scared at some point but the people turned out to be kind, neither abusive nor violent.

We bought our milk and headed back to Cherepovets for an afternoon church service at the church that had invited us. It would be our final activity before heading back to St. Petersburg that evening.

And that’s where I met the babushka.

The church, with at least 100 members was meeting in a kind of a makeshift tent, often used in summer because of the heat and the freedom of being outdoors. As we arrived the service was just beginning. Outside the tent near the entrance sat this grandma in a wheelchair. She was smiling ear to ear as she welcomed us into the church.

I leaned in to greet her. She took my hand into hers, put the other hand to cover it as she greeted me, asking for my name. She then asked me where I came from and I said Kenya. Looking up straight into my eyes and without letting go off my hands, she said ‘Did you, growing up in Kenya, ever think that you would reach a place like this, our town?’ My answer was a plain no. She went on ‘Look at what the Lord has done.’

She said a few other words and ushered me into the service.

Some of the most important words in my life had just been uttered but I was not aware of it at that point. The excitement of the mission plus being the first black man to ‘discover’ a small town in Russia could have clouded my mind, or so I excuse myself now. It’s only about a year later that I really comprehended the depth of the words that the lovely babushka uttered to me.

You see, growing up in Kitale and going to school in West Pokot doesn’t sound like a recipe enough to find yourself evangelising in Russian to Russians in the middle of God knows where. It is not in the script, it can’t even be made up. It is stranger than fiction. It is only possible because of ‘what the Lord has done.’

A year later I came back home for the holidays after about 5 years of being in Russia. One day at home I sat alone on a bench in the compound, hearing the wind, birds singing, cows mooing, sheep playing, branches swaying, random people speaking on the road; I was just savouring the feeling of being at home.

My two youngest brothers were playing football using lifundo, a ball made of plastic bags, old clothes and rope. As I watched them play, the words of that babushka came back to me. And that is when I fully realised what those words meant.

Do these boys have an idea what God has planned for them in future? I wondered. The places they will visit, the people they will meet, the things they will accomplish; do they have an idea what God has in store for them?

As I pictured myself in their age and in their shoes literally playing with that ball, I realized that the babushka was not speaking her own words. It was God reminding me through her that it is Him who had taken me that far.

It changed my life. It changed my perspective of things. Knowing that where I am today is not a result of my goodness but His grace. It gives me peace, it gives me direction. I now know that the most important thing in life is to seek his will and to be where he wants me to be. That is where my effectiveness is highest, my effort is least, and my fulfilment is greatest. That is also where my obedience is non-negotiable.

Far is not geographical, lest you think it takes a visa. Far is circumstantial, it is directional, it is being where you believe God wants you to be doing what you believe God wants you to do. It is living a purposeful life.

You don’t have to go to the rest of the world when your domain is Jerusalem.

So, will you hold on to the pen tight to make sure only you chart your own course or will you let His hand guide your hand in drawing the map? To be where he wants us to be, our hands have to be flexible.

I realize that more and more I have to let my hand to be mastered, that eventually I have to hand over the pen and let Him write my future.

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