A little more than a year ago, we went to the airport to see our son, Danny, off to Russia as a missionary for the LDS Church. He has been living since then in the city of Rostov Na Donu (Rostov on the Don).
Positioned on the Don River, 25 miles from where it empties into the Sea of Azov (a body of water about the size of West Virginia on the north side of the Black Sea), Rostov has a population of over a million people and is one of Russia's most important industrial centers. It possesses a large river port, a rail center and has one of the largest farm-machinery plants in Europe. Founded in 1780, Rostov developed briskly as a trading center due of its strategic geographic location in the underbelly of Russia's heartland.During World War II, German forces occupied Rostov after a long and bitter battle in 1942. A year later it was retaken by Soviet forces. Currently, the breakaway republic of Chechnya, of which we have been so aware the past two years, is only a few hundred miles south of Rostov. Fighting between Russian troops and Chechen rebels has not endangered the Rostov region.
In his letters, Danny shares with us everything from the weather, which is currently cold and muddy, to his feelings about his missionary work. Two weeks ago, however, we received a letter that was a bit more special than usual. On reflection, I think it might because it intimates a process Danny seems to be going through, expressed in the way he suddenly is seeing the world, and more particularly in the way he is beginning to see other people.
I hope you won't mind if I share a part of it:
April 3, '96: Dear Family. Just one year ago today (if I remember right) was when I left the airport. Time has really gone by quickly. I remember showing you my discussions in Russian and everyone was surprised at how strange the language was and that I could understand it. I didn't understand a thing. I've really learned a lot here in Russia. I wish I could explain what it is really like here. The hardest part is because, although there is a definite Russian people, every person is different and I can't class them all together.
Across from our apartment in a dilapidated but somehow new nine-story apartment building, an old woman plays the accordion from the balcony where only her head is visible. It was really strange to hear it and then she started to sing a folk song that sounded ancient, especially from her fourth-story cement and scrap metal balcony. The kids are playing games not far away on the gravel soccer field scattered and littered by all the trash that won't fit in the old rusted garbage boxes. I look around and see that things are really tough, but the children are playing, people are walking, and all to the sound of an accordion's ancient song.
It is very visible in every apartment building, road, sidewalk and transport that this country lived under a strong iron hand for a long time, but somehow people are still here and finding happiness. They often talk of how they are a people used to suffering or even created for political experiment. In the wake of such a huge suppression, I sometimes feel like I can do very little to help. But like it is hard to explain "the people" without describing individuals, that is often the only way we can really help make a difference for one person and hope that he will pass it on."
When we travel to places different from those we have known all our lives, we receive an opportunity to experience other peoples' worlds - people we would never otherwise have been aware of, people with differing perspectives, whose lives go on regardless of our own. That exposure can be humbling or intimidating, depending on how we choose to perceive it.
In each of our lives there is, at one point or another, an old woman playing an accordion. How we respond to her music affects our capacity to step beyond ourselves. If, in that moment, we hear the soul of the music, we will have found what lies at the heart of all true religion.