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Idahoans adjust to Russia

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LEWISTON, Idaho — Mark Harris has spent the past eight years thousands of miles from his hometown searching for a spiritual hunger among the Russian people.

Sparked by a deep passion to work with a people whose religious beliefs had been violently suppressed for more than 70 years, Harris took his wife, Delisa, and daughter, Elizabeth, to Russia in 1993 to pursue his dream of doing missionary work.

"The thing that attracted me to persecuted believers is that you tend to find a lot more spiritual hunger when there is a lot of deprivation and persecution," says Harris, a Lewiston native and graduate of the University of Idaho. "It's an ideal situation for people who like to teach and train and help others."

But once in Russia, not everything was as Harris or his family had expected. Harris became disillusioned during the first couple of years of his missionary work because of the enormous Western influence of money and goods that had flooded the Russian culture.

There were still a lot of needs, but the physical needs began to take over the spiritual needs of the country.

Harris was doing work for two interdenominational organizations. One involved a pastor training program and the other evangelism. For his daughter, now 18, adjusting to a new culture was a long, difficult process that often left her feeling lonely.

"When I first arrived, I remember everything being so dirty, gray and dark," says Elizabeth, who was 10 at the time they moved.

By far the most isolating feature of their new home was the difficult Russian language, with its complex grammar and seemingly incomprehensible Cyrillic alphabet.

"You have to learn the language by absorbing it and speaking it every day," Mark Harris says. "Part of the problem early on was that our Russian friends wanted to learn English. They wanted to speak English all the time."

It took several years, but by the time Elizabeth began to get a handle on the language and make friends, she started to enjoy the experience of living in Russia.

"Even the things I hadn't liked before I began to enjoy, like the Moscow subway. It's great because you can go anywhere in the city and you don't have to have a car and its really cheap and efficient."

When they first arrived in Moscow, a city of more than 9 million, Elizabeth remembers being shocked by all the people.

"Now I like being alone in a big crowd."

And despite the vast differences in the U.S. and Russian cultures, neither Elizabeth nor Mark Harris have had much difficulty traveling between the two.

"You learn to have two consciousness," Mark Harris says. "Once in the states, you shift like pushing a button and you live like an American.

Elizabeth agrees.

"In Russia, I'd wait in lines at the store, and it doesn't bother me at all," she says. "But when I'm here and have to wait in line, I get impatient."

Mark Harris is a solidly built 45 years old. His dark hair and goatee give him the look of a native Russian. He was in Lewiston this spring to visit his mother and pick up his daughter, who has spent the past year studying at Lewis-Clark State College.

Harris' mother says she was not surprised when she found out her son was headed to Russia to do missionary work.

"He's kind of an adventurous soul," says Donna Harris, who still lives in the same unassuming house along 11th Avenue where her son and his five brothers and sisters grew up.

She admits Russia made her a little nervous.

"If I had been able to chose, I would have said, 'Let's look someplace else,' " Donna Harris says.

Mark Harris attended the University of Idaho on a baseball scholarship and graduated with a degree in accounting in 1977. He then took an accounting job in Portland, Ore.

"When I graduated from the University of Idaho, I took a summer and traveled in Europe. It was that trip that I began to expand my horizon and think about the unlimited possibilities."

He worked as an accountant for several years before becoming disillusioned with the corporate grind. He returned to school to study the New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, where he met his wife.

Delisa Harris, who is Chinese-American, had already done some missionary work in Taiwan before meeting Mark. They married in 1981 and Elizabeth was born in 1982.

This spring, the Harrises were moving from Russia to England, where Mark Harris will start a new job with the Barnabas Fund, a Christian organization working in predominantly Islamic countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia and Lebanon. The Barnabas Fund is designed to help Christian groups get the resources they need to sustain themselves under often hostile conditions.

"People aren't aware how difficult it is for Christians to live in these countries that have such heavy restrictions on religion," says Mark Harris, energized by the opportunity to work with people who put their lives on the line because of their Christian beliefs.

Elizabeth will attend Bible college in England. While both will miss certain things about Russia, Russian customer service won't be one of them.

"In America, people tend to be really friendly on the surface," Mark Harris says. "So when you go out in public, you're going out in a basically friendly place.

"In Russia, it's just the opposite. You go out in public and it's an unfriendly place. But in contrast, once in their homes, Russians tend to be more caring and hospitable than Americans," he says. "That is probably one thing that I will miss. That level of friendship."