Eighteen years ago this week I arrived in Siberia as a brand new missionary. The comfort of the Missionary Training Center was nearly 6,000 miles away. Those first days were hard, really hard. At this time of year the sun rises in Novosibirsk around ten o'clock in the morning and goes down around five o'clock in the evening. Temperatures ranged from -20 degrees Celsius during the day to something even colder during the night. Newly arrived in a foreign place at the beginning of a two-year sojourn, I felt a bit overwhelmed.
As I struggled through each of those first days I wondered what it would take for all of it to feel normal. With Christmas only days away homesickness started to settle in more deeply. At some point we decided as a district to go Christmas caroling. None of us were certain the last time, if ever, someone had sang Christmas carols in public in Novosibirsk. With our Russian hymnals in hand four of us set out looking for places to sing. Besides myself our group consisted of my companion from Helena, Montana, our district leader from Finland, and his companion who also was from Utah.
Culturally, Russians tend to be very closed off in public situations. The sudden appearance of four foreigners, singing what we're likely unfamiliar songs, had an interesting impact on those passing by us. We sang for a time outside a store and then, in an effort to be a little warmer, we moved into one of the Metro hallways. Some people, unsure how to react to us, simply put their head down and walked by, pretending that we didn't exist. Others looked at us with obvious disapproval. A small handful gave us a short smile.
There in the Metro, as we were singing "Silent Night" in Russian (Тихая ночь, дивная ночь), I looked around at my fellow missionaries. Despite the unfamiliar surroundings and despite the unwelcoming reactions of those passing by, I saw on their faces a sense of peace and love. The same feelings came over me. I felt my frozen cheeks surrounded by a large, wool scarf and covered by a fur shapka, break out into a smile of joy.
That same week we attended the branch Christmas party. We were joined by new Saints in celebrating the birth of our Savior. Together we sang the beautiful Christmas carols in a new language, a language that I would come to love. After two weeks of eating unfamiliar foods I was rewarded with a meal consisting of a small beef steak and mashed potatoes. Outside of the companionship of fellow believers, I don't think the Lord could have given me a better gift than that meal.
Celebrating Christmas that year, in 1994, I received the assurance from the Lord that I was doing his work in the right place. A small gathering of Saints showed me the promises the Lord had in store for those in Novosibirsk. My perception changed from wondering if I could survive two years in Siberia to that of considering the possibilities of what I could do, experience, give, and learn during that time. I thank the Lord for the tender mercies offered me in that season as the celebration of His Son's birth brought me the comfort I so desperately needed.