Monday, May 23, 2011

Women’s Stories – Another from Russia

1. The Foundation of a Loving Family

S. was quite young when her father died, leaving behind a wife and two children. Maybe that’s why the family pulled together as much as they did.

“My mother was trying to provide. But we had everything by her help, as much as or even more than in a complete family. I was with my grandparents a lot. We were loved very much and raised happily.

“Looking at my grandparents I feel inside myself a great feeling that being moral is very important. My grandparents were Muslim, real Muslims, and read namaz [say the ritual prayers]. They were full-hearted about it. Their children, my mother's generation, only knew the rules and did not follow everything like the parents did. They were not as conservative.

“My grandfather was the head of the family. All important questions, for example financial questions, he was the giver of the right to do everything or not. A woman was to do what he would recommend, to give a life to his order. Daily house life, everything about it. But personally in our family we never faced a situation where a woman would be forced to do something or pushed to do things.

“My grandfather loved my grandmother very much. My grandmother is loved by everyone in the family. Now she is 90 years old. Sometimes older people may be like challenged to know what to do, to be wise about today, but she is still wise. She amazes me. She still has authority above all her children. We honor her so much. Every word she would say we follow her; we want to honor her completely. That is how it happened in our family, that's what I have to say.”

The family continues to live close to one another, in the same apartment building in fact. Grandma comes over for lunch every day.

2. Only God Can Help My Brother

So many Christians, whether living in the West or in the East, seem to believe that Muslim family life is all about abuse and repression. So I was glad to hear about the strong foundation S. felt she had from being raised in a traditional but fairly healthy family.

I did have a hunch that might be more to her story, though, and as our conversation continued S. told us that she was a Christian, a believer in Jesus, and that it happened that she was the first in her family to choose that direction. Ah; this must be why our friend (a Christian leader) had suggested we talk to S. and had set up the interview with us.

Like many of the believers we met on this trip, the one thing S. was really happy to talk about was what God had done in her life. Rather humbling. I'd come hoping to hear more about Islam and culture and how relationships work in this culture, but I kept meeting believers from various backgrounds who wanted to tell me how Jesus had changed their lives! We wondered how S. had become a Christian and how her close-knit family had responded. As the story unfolded, we found out.  

S. told us God had allowed her to go through a situation where she was brokenhearted. And coming from a loving family played a significant role in what happened next. Was S. was broken over was a tragic situation in the life of one of one of her family members.

“My brother had some problems and begin to drink. In the beginning it helped him go away from his problems, but the troubles in the end grew to be a disease he could not bear.

“It was so unhappy for me to see him die inside. I tried all I could, took him to hospitals and set up meetings for him, everything medical that can be done, I learned about and tried it all. I did not want the thought that he would die from what he was doing.

“One day a strange thought came into my mind: Only God can help my brother. So I went on the Internet and typed in, ‘cure alcoholics with God.’ The computer said, ‘Did you mean…’ and gave suggestions. The first one was ‘Christian Rehabilitation Center for the Alcohol Addicted.’

3. Intimacy, Independence, and the Internet

Amazing, isn’t it, the way people all over the world turn to the Internet with their deepest and most intimate questions or struggles? This came up several times during my time in Russia. In one of the most helpful interviews we had a pastor told us explained that they are trying to encourage the people in their church to be outward-looking, even from the beginning, to share what God is doing in their hearts.

“This is one of our problems: we are not a culture of communicating, relating to each other. What is easy for a European, to talk to and look at each other, maybe it's natural for you too but we don't have it in Russia.”

He attributed this reticence to Communism. His church has attracted a lot of young people and they are encouraging them to be active in social media and share what they are learning in those environments.  

I’d been emailing with a friend back in the States who said, “The Russians are a mysterious people, eh? And the effects of 70 years of Communism are still ingrained in their souls. Soviet Communism didn't just happen there by chance; it was fertile ground for it to take root.”

In a way, I’d been able to relate to the Russians and “Russified” people we’d met better than I can with people from some other cultures. When I’ve been in places where friendship means sitting around with uneducated women, drinking tea and gossiping for hours, I quickly feel restless. With many of the Russians we met I felt much more at home and among people like me. Yet I wasn’t sure if I liked the characteristics we had in common.

The pastor had suggested another factor that gets in the way of communication and community:

“Our city is quite wealthy. There is some pride because of that. It makes our work difficult, because people come to Christ often when they are more desperate in some way. People here are busy with themselves. In the postmodern world, individualism is risen high up. The Western world will see the fruits of that. When there is money, you have individualism. People start to think only of themselves. We have to fight with that here. Even these rich people, they know they are vulnerable inside and do need Jesus as well.”

I hadn’t made these connections before. When you put together the independence and individualism that come from wealth with the mistrust and fear of being controlled that come from the (perhaps inevitable) excesses of Communism, well, that’s quite a lot to overcome. My own independence and individualism, mistrust and fear of being controlled... they may have different roots but similar fruit. So ministries using media and the Internet may have a significant part to play both in places like this wealthy Russian city and in the world in which I live, too.

4. A Journey in Faith

S. did not tell us a great deal more about how her brother was set free from alcoholism, but she did tell  us about her own journey toward God and the stages she went through in sharing that with others in her family. So I’ll close with her words.

“I called and they asked me to come in, myself, to meet with them, so I came to the city. It happened that some people who worked with this program had just become missionaries in my town and even lived in the same building. I started to communicate with those missionaries. I saw their faith and deep connection to what they believed in. They were not perfect. I saw them do some wrong things. But they had great faith in the God they worshiped. I decided to keep this connection; maybe inside I wanted to believe as they did.

“They gave me a sermon video to watch and while I watched it I don't know but inside I had a feeling, God exists. The sermon was about the inheritance you have to give your children. Not just material things like money but their inheritance is what you give them in spirituality. Before, I had thought money was what it was important for children to receive, but then I understood it was not the only thing the generations after you would receive. I realized I didn't know anything about God.

“I understood faith was not only traditional things like sitting down for a big meal with my family, not just religious rules you have to do, not things on the outside but something that comes from inside. I wanted to have that inside. My heart opened to it, and I started to learn things. What I had was not enough; I wanted to see more sermons, and read a lot. It was like my spirit came out of a trap and wanted nourishment of faith and knowledge of faith.

“I would go to my brother and try to give him the literature but he would not accept it. Then I had a vision and saw my mother and brother standing beside me shoulder to shoulder worshiping God; this did not happen in the physical world, but I took it as what God showed me to keep me thinking about it, to remember and keep going.

“I would try to put videos on the table, give them literature, bring up the ideas in conversations, and this seemed to make it worse. Conversations became strained. But I called out, ‘God, you said, “the whole household will believe”! I give my whole family to you; this is what you promised.’

“I was depressed when I saw my brother. But because I prayed and believed now I was changed, smiling, cheerful in life no matter what happened, because of God, and I think that is what they saw. So I decide I would believe and pray and pray, not try to touch them on the topic of Christianity but just believe and pray.

“Then one day I was going to a Sunday service when I heard the words: Go and take your mother with you. So I went back and called her. She's disabled and lives in same apartment with my brother. All he was going through influenced her as well and she too was fading and dying inside. This time I said, ‘Come with me today,’ and without saying anything she gathered up her things and came with me. Before she would always say ‘No, I cannot, we are Muslim; we don't do that.’

“But that Sunday she came, and while she was there she went through her whole life [saw it pass before her eyes?]. She believed in God and repented. I realized that's what happened to her on that day.

“With time, my brother saw she had changed. She was showing God's love to him and had become a happy person. She would not nag him, her attitude was different. Sometime later he said, ‘I want your God.’

“It was tough to tell my grandmother," she added. 

Ah yes, remember the grandmother? The beloved, devoutly Muslim grandmother? 

"For a while we did not tell her so we would not hurt her feelings, but she did not make a [fuss]." 

I've found this true in other Muslim communities and families as well. The bonds of love and loyalty can often stretch more than you might thing. Societies in which people are completely ostracized from their families for turning to Jesus are quite rare.

"My greatest desire is to see my whole family to become Christians," said S. "It is my special idea. I really want it to happen.”

See also: Women's Stories: A Central Asian Immigrant

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