Friday, March 23, 2012

Welcome to Russia! Welcome to Siberia!

In the summer of 1994 I received my mission call to serve as a full-time missionary in the Russia Novosibirsk Mission.  I remember reading the letter out loud to my parents in our home in Duchesne, Utah.  My voice caught as I read the word Russia.  For years I had hoped for the opportunity to serve in Russia, even studying the language for a couple of years in high school while living in Pensacola, Florida.  While in Pensacola our Regional Representative spoke to the Young Men, promising us that some of there would serve our missions in Russian.  That was in 1988 or 1989.  The Regional Representative that gave the talk was Richard Chapple, a professor of Russian at Florida State University.  He would go on to become the second mission president in Moscow, serving at the same time I was in Siberia.

My call wasn’t just to Russia it was to Siberia.  The literal translation of Novosibirsk is New Siberian City.  Novosibirsk is located right in the middle of the vast expanse of Russia, one day’s train ride east of the Ural Mountains that separate Europe from Asia.  The Russia Novosibirsk Mission was new when I received my call.  It had broken off from the Russia Moscow Mission about the same time I submitted my application to be a missionary. 

At the end of my amazing two months at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, I flew off to the great cold unknown with a few fellow missionaries.  I was lucky enough to be accompanied by Elder Davis, Sister Watkins and Sister Naegle.  Very early in the morning on December 16, 1994 we landed in Novosibirsk.  Looking out the window of our Lufthansa flight as we came in for the landing I was shocked to see the runway covered in snow and ice.  Somehow the plane managed to stop before sliding off the runway as I had expected.

My excitement to be in Russia disappeared almost completely as our aircraft taxied toward the terminal and came to a stop.  I stepped off the plane into a frozen Siberian night.  I noticed a few young men in heavy winter coats and blue shapkas holding automatic rifles.  They didn’t seem too happy to be outside in the cold as our welcoming committee.  Quickly we were shepherded onto a bus with ice on the floor.  The bus drove toward the terminal as I stood holding onto the ice-cold rail.

Once off the bus we were shown into a hallway with a few more guys with guns hanging out.  We slowly made our way in a line up to a very grumpy Russian guy looking at and then stamping passports.  Once your passport was stamped you went through a door.  When my turn came he glared at my passport, then back at me, then back at my passport.  He mumbled something to me and then looked at me as if expecting an answer.  After over 24 hours of travel and a very limited understanding of the Russian language, I gave my best shrug combined with a look of budding terror on my face.  Disgusted with me he stamped my passport, handed it to me and gestured toward the door. 

Not wanting to risk being detained for any reason, I bolted through the door tripping as I fell through.  I landed on a large pile of luggage.  Looking around I realized that my fellow travelers were looking for their own luggage.  Pretty quickly I found mine, lying open with some of my clothing pulled out.  Apparently it had passed inspection.  On my knees, I stuffed everything back in and sat on it so I could zip it shut again.  Once I had it all ready to go I stood up looking for where to go next.  It was then that I heard the sweet sound of President Sherwood’s voice as he called out “Elder, Elder.”  Looking up I saw him on the floor above motioning for me to meet him in the next room.

Novosibirsk Winter

The drive from the airport to the mission home seemed a bit surreal, made so by the combination of being in a foreign place and extreme exhaustion.  I remember feeling comforted by seeing a STOP sign that looked just like the ones at home.  When we arrived at the mission home we were allowed to sleep for a few hours before getting up for a quick orientation meeting.  Before breakfast I remember looking out the window onto the city square below.  As I looked at the snow and ice on the roads and sidewalks, at the people in winter coats and shapkas, at the buildings and at the sky I felt an overwhelming presence of grey. 

As lunch finished up our trainers arrived to take us away.  My first memory of Elder Wetzel was looking up to find his face.  I’m not sure how tall he is, but he’s got me my about half a foot.  At some point that day we dropped my stuff off at our apartment, then we took off to buy me some new winter boots.  We bought them a little large so that they would fit with thick wool socks that we would purchase later.  With my new boots on I took off literally running trying to keep up with his long stride, which was driven faster because we were late for an appointment.  I’m not sure how many miles we walked that afternoon, but it was more than I had walked in months and I did it while trying to keep up with boots that were too large.

We had two or three meetings that day.  I have no idea what was said or the names of any of the people with whom we met.  During each visit we removed our boots before entering the apartment.  In one apartment I remember breaking into a sweat as they had one or two strong place heaters on in the living room.  My layers that protected me on the cold street were not helpful in the confined space.  At each visit I did my best to smile through a fatigue induced haze compounded by my inability to understand anything that was spoken.

River Ob. I have a picture of me by this bridge my second or third day in country.

As the day ended, in the dark, because the sun went down around four in the afternoon, I was happy to be heading back to our own apartment and to go to bed.  Entering the apartment I took my first good look at it.  It was a run down affair with the bathroom right off the entrance with one main room where our beds and chairs were located and a tiny kitchen.  We were on the ground floor looking out into a courtyard with other apartment buildings.  It was in one of the famous Krushchev five story buildings.  The apartment was not particularly clean and I didn’t do much over the next couple of months to make it cleaner.

That was an exciting apartment where the landlady liked to pound on the door at all times of the day and night, drunk wondering why we were in her apartment.  Once or twice during those two months the police stopped by to check our passports and visas.

Anyway, there I was at the end of my first day in Russia trying to comprehend all the experiences of the past 30-40 hours.  As exhaustion started to overtake me, I leaned down to pull my socks off.  Pulling on the first one, it strangely felt stuck to the back of my foot.  Being the gentle, careful person I am, I yanked it hard and screamed.  I had developed a large blister on my heel because of my oversized boots without the wool socks.  The blister had popped and the blood and scab had attached to my sock.  Once I had the second one off, removed much more carefully I crawled into my new bed with the blanket stuffed into a sheet.  While I was thinking how it was one of the most comfortable beds I had ever been in I drifted off to sleep.

I remember my dream that night.  I was safely backed at the MTC, telling them I thought I ought to stay for another couple of months.  No longer was I in a hurry to get to Russia.  Then someone started to yell at me over and over again.  I’m not sure how long it took me but eventually I opened my eyes to find the good Elder Wetzel standing on his bed with the light on yelling at me and laughing.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to go home.  It was the beginning of what I thought would be a very long and uncomfortable two years.

- Jarad Van Wagoner

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Stories from Russia: My Most Recent Trip (and Hopefully Not My Last)!

I love Russia.  I love the place, in all its vastness.  I love the people.  I love the history.  I love the culture.  Recently I’ve found myself missing the Russian experience, thinking back on previous trips and my two years there as a missionary.  Every year I read a handful of books, both non-fiction and fiction, that deal with the country.  Russian domestic and foreign politics grab my attention on a regular basis.

As part of my effort to assuage my pains of nostalgia, I feel compelled to write down some of my memorable and favorite experiences from Russia.  Most of these will be humorous in nature, although on occasion I may decide to write about the more profound.

Rather than start from the beginning, I think I’ll share some experiences from my last visit.  In February of 2010 I went on a work trip for the Air Force Academy.  For this trip I was lucky enough to travel with a good friend and colleague Brett Huyser.  Our trip took us to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev.  The purpose was to visit with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and to look at semester abroad options for cadets.

A quick word or two about Brett is in order.  Brett is a graduate of the Air Force Academy.  While there he played offensive line for the football team and went onto play a few seasons in the arena league.  He is big and tall, kind of difficult to look past in public.  In terms of language, he studied Chinese at the Academy and after graduation.  He went to Russia with me with no skills in the language, relying on me to keep him safe and well fed.

Our visit to Moscow was largely uneventful, although we made the most of it.  We flew into Domodedovo Airport, the same one that would be the target of a suicide bomber just year later where at least 35 people were killed.  On the way out we found a willing taxi driver to take us to our hotel near the center of the city. 

Following a quick dinner at the famous Yolki Palki restaurant chain, we walked over the Big Stone Bridge to the walls of the Kremlin and took an evening stroll around Red Square.  For a February night, it wasn’t too cold, actually kind of pleasant.  We didn’t spend much time out that evening, but we did manage to get a picture of Brett appearing to take care of some business next to a historical and cultural landmark that shall remain unnamed.  The highlight of the evening, for me, was introducing Brett to the wonders of a Russian Shokoladnitsa, a chocolate house.  The selection of cocoa or a true hot chocolate is always challenging, especially on a cool night.  I believe that night I went with the hot cocoa and a tasteful chocolate pastry.

St. Basils Cathedral on Red Square

The next day we made a quick trip to the U.S. Embassy.  It took us longer to get in than our actual visit lasted.  Our visit was limited to the embassy annex.  Before our late night train trip to St. Petersburg, we ran back over to Red Square for a tour of the National History Museum.  Some of our time, back on the square, was spent browsing the souvenir kiosks.  They had some nice port-a-potties behind some of the kiosks, with the name brand Toi-Toi written in Anglicized letters.  Both Brett and I made use of the facilities.  (This fact will be relevant later in the story.)  Of course, on our way off Red Square we stopped by the shokoladnitsa one more time.

Our ride on the express train to St. Petersburg was smooth even though a train along the same route had been derailed with a bomb just a few months prior, killing 25 people.  As luck would have it our late night arrival into St. Petersburg coincided with the coldest winter in over 20 years and neither of us were prepared.  Luckily we were in a nice hotel right on Nevsky Prospekt.

The next day was bitterly cold and uncomfortable as we visited St. Petersburg State University and the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute.  On the way to our first stop, with the temperature at -25 degrees Celsius and a strong wind, we had to stop to buy Brett a souvenir scarf to keep him alive.  At the end of the day, in the afternoon, we found another shokoladnitsa.  This one was even more amazing than the one on Red Square. 

As we entered the shokoladnitsa the three or four young girls working there immediately appeared nervous or excited that two foreigners had just walked through the door on a cold winter day.  I tried to reassure them, using my excellent Russian skills, that serving us would not be a problem.  When I opened my mouth, however, it was too cold to make much more of a sound than a low moan.  One of them, using her broken English, told us to sit and to please wait just a few minutes.  Just as we sat down a young, pretty Russian girl, perhaps 19 or 20 years old came bursting through the door.  The others quickly grabbed her, pulled her behind the counter and whispered to her pointing to us.  My initial assumption that I shared with Brett was that their English-speaking colleague had just arrived. 

After hanging up her coat and putting on her apron, she skipped over to our table with a huge smile.  Expecting her to speak English, I was surprised when she asked us in Russian where we were from.  I confirmed we were from the States and we told in which states we grew up.  Once she took our order she came back to ask us more questions.  She quickly guessed, based on our haircuts and demeanor, that we were associated with the military.  While sitting there she shared the story of her boyfriend who had just gone into the Russian Army and some of her fears and concerns.

Once our drinks (real hot chocolate for me this time, the melted down drinking chocolate) and desserts arrived, she continued to check in on us, mothering over us because we shared the burden of military service with loved one.  It was a very pleasant end to a cold day.

This trip was also memorable because it occurred during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  I had a great time watching the Olympics from the Russian perspective.  That evening in my hotel room I became a fan of the Russian Women’s Curling Team.  It was fun to watch them compete while listening to the commentary on the local stations.

Russian Women's Olympic Curling Team

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Leaving our hotel that night for dinner, I fell behind Brett for a moment or two.  Looking up I noticed he had a lady standing next to him at the intersection speaking with him.  I hurried up to make sure everything was okay.  As I reached them another lady joined us.  In thickly accented English they were asking if we had plans for the night.  Brett, always quick to catch on, looked back and forth between the two of them and laughed, quickly discouraging them from continuing their sales pitch.

That evening I took Brett out for some Georgian cuisine.  It’s hard to beat a meal of kharcho (walnut and beef soup), khachapuri (cheese bread with beans or egg on top), and kebabs.  National and cultural cuisines are a highlight of traveling, or can be if you get the good stuff.

Our next day was free for some local exploring.  Feeling brave we decided to walk the length of Nevskii Prospekt from our hotel to the Hermitage Museum.  Once again it was bitterly cold…bitterly cold.  We stopped in a few stores on the way to capture a bit of warmth.  Eventually we reached the courtyard in front of the Hermitage.  It was a big, wide-open space unprotected from the gusting wind.  The distance, perhaps just over a hundred yards was daunting given the conditions, but we pressed on heads down and shoulders hunched.  As we reached the stairs of the Hermitage we were amused to find a gentleman selling shapkas, the famous Russian fur hats.  Had he been on the far side of the courtyard where we began our walk, we may have purchased one.

Stepping into the entrance of the Hermitage, feeling the warmth was amazing after the cold walk.  Originally our plan was to spend a couple of hours at the Hermitage, catching a few highlights, before heading back out to see some other sites.  It was so nice to be in the warmth that we spent over four hours in the museum, checking out as much as possible before stepping back out into the cold.    

Leaving the Hermitage, we put our heads down and walked the couple of miles toward our hotel as quickly as we could.  I looked up as we were approaching our hotel and noticed that we were in front of our shokoladnitsa.  Tapping Brett on the shoulder I pointed it out and we dived through the door.  We must have looked like frozen fish.  Our friend, the young lady from the day before, was on duty.  Seeing us she leapt into action.  She sat us in front of a heater, turning the vents toward us.  Helping us take off our coats, she offered each of us a wool blanket.  We were quick to accept the offer.  At that point, I wish we had asked someone to take a picture of us, huddled up in blanket, looking cold and miserable in a Russian shokoladnitsa with our young Russian mother looking over us.

From St. Petersburg we flew to Kiev, Ukraine to visit with our cadets attending the Nova Mova Language School.  Over three year period I had become great friends with Gela and Andriy, the two owners and administrators of the school.  While at the school we celebrated Soviet Army Day with them, receiving a nice t-shirt and the highlight for Brett, kisses from each of the wonderful ladies that work at the school.  Brett wanted to tell them that the American tradition involved a second round of kisses.

Independence Square--Kiev, Ukraine.  This is the view from our hotel.

Our last night in Kiev, we went into a shopping center to visit another shokoladnitsa.  Brett moved ahead of me saying he needed to find a restroom.  I asked if he needed help, but he said he was fine on his own. 

He walked directly ahead to a young man working at one of the stores, and with perfect confidence, he asked, “Toi-Toi?  Toi-Toi?” 

Based on the brand name of the outhouses in on Red Square in Moscow he had assumed the Russian word for toilet was toi-toi.  The young man, looking confused stared at Brett for a few seconds before realizing he was asking for the bathroom, quickly pointed, feeding Brett’s perception that he was using the language correctly.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pandering to Hate, Bigotry and Intolerance

Yesterday, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum was introduced by Dennis Terry, pastor of the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church.  As part of his introduction the pastor blasted non-Christians and others, essentially inviting them to leave America if they didn’t agree with him.  Throughout this election cycle we’ve seen a few of the other candidates introduced or endorsed by those who use inflammatory or derogatory language in regards to those who don’t share their religious beliefs.  The use of divisive rhetoric and its acceptance by candidates, while not new to American politics, is not helpful and should be denounced.

America was founded by a group of people who were largely Christian.  Our values and ethics have been shaped by those Christian values.  In turn, I believe it was a correct understanding and application of these Christian values that caused us to create a form of national government that protects religious thought and worship.  Many of our state governments do the same.  In Virginia, following victory in the Revolutionary War, Baptists were persecuted legally for not adhering to the tenets of the Anglican Church.  Men of character and value, such as James Madison put their reputations on the line to insure that the Baptists would no longer face arrest, incarcerations and persecution for their beliefs.  Efforts to protect these newer religious groups contributed to the inclusion of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

 I would like to make two points that I feel are important to this discussion.   First, many of those who vigorously wave the First Amendment at what they see as an encroaching government, are often quick to deny the same right to those who believe differently.  For instance, Pastor Terry invites the non-Christians to leave the United States while claiming that they should have the right to pray wherever they may want.  What’s good for the goose must not be good for the gander?  Second, while the rhetoric of some these figures doesn’t equate to government intervention in the exercise of religion, they attempt to accomplish the same thing through social pressure.  Often bigotry is exercised purposefully in an attempt to discredit another viewpoint or person in order to shape the dialogue and its outcome.  While it may not be illegal, it doesn’t mean it’s right.  If many of these groups were to look back in their history, they would see where they faced similar threats.

With that said, I believe that, short of calling for violence or the loss of equal rights, these groups have every right to say what they think about those of different religious persuasions.  The protection of the freedom of conscience must be preserved.  People should be allowed to debate their beliefs.  Unfortunately, many feel that their faith can only be strengthened and preserved by attacking those of others.  They fail to realize that we can disagree on a variety of issues in a way that maintains respect for the individual.  I can remain firm in my own convictions and let people know of those convictions without condemning them as social pariahs.  In my experience, we tend to be more convincing in our religious dialogue when we focus on shared values and beliefs while pointing to the advantages of the beliefs we don’t share. 

Returning to the political side of this issue, I’m truly disappointed that so many of our political candidates will pander for votes to the point that they are willing to allow the use of hate, bigotry, and intolerance to work in their favor.  Rick Santorum and the others, who have allowed this to happen, are running for the office of President of the United States.  The President is charged to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  When a candidate shows he is willing to sell out to hatred and bigotry, I lose my faith that they will be able to be a President to Americans of all religious persuasions. 

“We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.”
-       Joseph Smith

- Jarad Van Wagoner

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Christianity: A Mormon's Perspective

My parents are converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  From the time I was five years old I’ve been taught what I consider some fundamental truths about Jesus Christ and my relationship with Him.  Some of the basic doctrine can be wrapped up in what we consider to be Articles of Faith.  Here are three of them.

“We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”

“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”

“We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

I believe the words of the Savior and his servants as recorded in the New Testament.

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”  Gospel of St. Matthew 1:23

“Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”  Gospel of St. John 14:6

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Gospel of St. John 3:16

I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  I believe that He is my Savior, that he paid the price for my sins and that only through His grace can I be saved.  I believe that Jesus Christ knows and loves me personally, the same as He does the rest of God’s children.  I believe the words He spoke in His Sermon on the Mount.  I believe He would have me love and serve others as He did.

I consider myself a Christian.  I strive, albeit imperfectly, to follow His teachings and example.

There are some who would deny me of that privilege, of calling myself a Christian.  Going back in history others began to call members of my faith Mormons, because of our belief in an additional scripture known as The Book of Mormon.  In many cases the use of the term was meant to be derogatory, but the name stuck and was often used even by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

Today there are some professors of Christianity who seek to deny others and me the validity of our Christian faith.  They feel that some of the differences between our beliefs disqualify my Christianity.  Based on my beliefs stated above, I don’t necessarily understand how they reached such a conclusion.  I do, however, respect their right to decide that the differences between us are too much for them to consider us brothers or sisters in Christ.  If my definition of Christian doesn't match with theirs, I'm fine.  I still consider myself a Christian and my opinion will have more weight in how I lead my life than theirs.

When someone tells me I’m not a Christian or I hear or read of others making that claim, I usually smile and try to explain politely what I believe about Jesus Christ.  When given the opportunity I will share scriptures from the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the words of men I consider to be living prophets.  For example I may share some of the following:

“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”  2 Nephi 25:26 (Book of Mormon)

“I am Jesus Christ: I came by the will of the Father, and I do his will.”  Doctrine and Covenants 19:24

“We solemnly testify that His life, which is central to all human history, neither began in Bethlehem nor concluded on Calvary.  He was the Firstborn of the Father, the Only Begotten Son in the flesh, the Redeemer of the World.”  The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles

If I’m not able to convince them of my Christianity, I move on with my faith still intact.  My beliefs and personal testimony are not impacted by the efforts of others to define my faith for me.  I understand and accept that we may have irreconcilable differences in religious beliefs.  I believe that many those who may not feel I qualify believe so for honest reasons.  

I do feel sadness and disappointment when others use those differences in an attempt to bolster the strength or position of their own faith or to diminish mine; or in an attempt to diminish my value and ability to contribute in the world at large.   For some reason their personal faith seems based in part on their attempts to define the faith of others.  If they can state that so and so is not a Christian, then that must result in them being a Christian.  These people use these differences to limit what those who are different from them can do in society.  They seem to demand conformity in exchange for the right to participate fully.

While faith and religious beliefs, when observed, do affect a persons values and decisions, it is important to note that among the different religious creeds most share the same basic values.  It’s interesting that in these conversations, many will say that you can’t trust someone who believes this or that, highlighting that it falls outside of their belief system.  These same people often forget how outlandish and fanciful their own beliefs might sound to an outsider, perhaps causing their own judgment to be called into question.  Each faith system brings it’s own eccentricities and peculiarities, but they also bring value and a desire for the common good.

I recognize and embrace that my faith has some tenets that are not accepted in mainstream Christianity.  I embrace being considered different for those beliefs.  It causes me no heartache to recognize those differences.  I hold firmly to the idea that my beliefs, all of them including the quirky ones, contribute to my set of values.  Looking around at other Christians and other belief systems, I often find that our values match up very nicely.  We value an honest and virtuous life.  We value our family.  We value our country.  We value hard work and service.  We value our neighbors and communities.

I am not opposed to spirited religious discussions.  Learning what another believes is exciting.  I have no problem with expressing why I may disagree with someone on an issue.  I have no problem if they disagree with me.  These types of conversations can be had without diminishing the value and integrity of the participants. 

The Prophet Joseph Smith said the following:

“Go in all meekness, in sobriety, and teach Jesus Christ and him crucified; not to contend with others on account of their faith, or systems of religion, but pursue a steady course.”

He also wrote this:

“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

I am a Christian.  My faith prompts me to love and accept others, even if they don’t accept all that I believe.  My faith prompts me to value each individual, to serve others and to uplift others.  My beliefs are not meant to result in contention, but in greater understanding, greater acceptance, and greater love.

- Jarad Van Wagoner

 See Also: