Speaking from the Heart in Russia

by Madison U. Sowell

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    An almost sinister darkness stretched across the earth as our Aeroflot Soviet Airlines flight cautiously circled Leningrad Airport. Modestly dressed stewardesses offered the passengers—including the members of our travel study tour—caramels as a novel approach to air sickness prevention. The precautionary step, however, did little to curtail our rising anxiety. True, we were about to encounter Russia’s cultural center. We were also preparing to disembark in a land long-closed to missionaries of all faiths—a discouraging thought, but also an exhilarating challenge. After all, we were a group of member missionaries! Below us was a country whose government served as a people’s religion and whose onetime churches often functioned as public museums. But I, for one, suppressed my missionary zeal for the moment; the weak flavor of the caramel was annoying rather than calming. We were forbidden to take photographs either from the plane or at the airport. The near-midnight hour ensured our compliance with the ominous request.

    On the ground, guards who did not greet or smile directed us to the port of entry. Warmly bundled, heavyset matriarchs—possibly two of the countless World War II widows employed or provided for by the Soviet government—examined our health immunization booklets as they questioned us in broken English. Young, clean-cut, and expressionless customs officers in immaculate uniforms scrutinized our passports and required visas. Finally, a sanguine, gruff-voiced man conducted the luggage inspection and allowed us to enter the main terminal. The contemplation of visiting a land of such rich heritage—a land once ruled by all-powerful czars and czarinas—began to compensate for temporary inconveniences. Since we were in the country, what could cut our stay short? I did not answer my question because I was wondering what we should do next. Not even our tour director knew in which hotels we would be staying in Russia. We, like our friends and relatives at home, only knew which cities we would be in on which days. The Soviet nation’s single travel agency had promised to announce our lodging when the time was right. I began to wonder when that would be. My mind traveled to another question: When would elders dare to bear witness of the restored gospel in such a carefully regimented and seemingly cold country. At that tired point in time I could hardly fathom that our small group had its own role to play in sharing the gospel. I momentarily forgot that “the weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones.”

    Then our stylish and smiling blond guide, whom I’ll call Tanya, welcomed us with the first warmth we had felt in the Soviet Union. She was assigned to us for our sojourn in her country. She announced where we would stay, what we would see, and when we would leave. We were almost completely dependent upon Tanya. She accompanied us to Leningrad’s best lodging—a modest 13-story building serviced by one small elevator and named, unimaginatively but appropriately, the Hotel Russia. The rooms were small but adequate.

    The next day the city tour began. After breakfast we boarded the sight-seeing bus. Our group spokesman explained to the attractive guide our desire to start each morning excursion with prayer. She looked puzzled at first, and I became uneasy. Then she consented to the unprecedented request. Our prayer was the second peculiarity Tanya had noticed about our group; the first had been our abstinence from coffee and tea at the morning meal. Her curiosity was aroused.

    After the simple prayer of thanksgiving, we were off to witness the grandiose and unforgettable sights of Russia’s second largest city—the Winter Palace, stormed in the October 1917 Revolution; the Hermitage Art Museum, with over 30 Rembrandts among its priceless opere d’arte; the Peter and Paul Fortress, where Leningrad was founded and the author Dostoevsky was imprisoned. But in the city of 4 million souls only 19 churches were “functioning,” as Tanya described those places where people were still permitted to worship: Fifteen Russian Orthodox churches, one Catholic cathedral, one Jewish synagogue, one Baptist meetinghouse, and one Moslem mosque. The only religious edifices we were shown, however, had been converted into museums by the government.

    On Sunday we traveled to Moscow by air. One lady in our group sat beside our amiable and, as we were discovering, open-minded guide. She explained to her the Latter-day Saint concept of family salvation, the role of Joseph Smith in restoring Christ’s church in this dispensation, and the history and purpose of the Book of Mormon. Tanya admitted knowing the story of Christ’s birth and death and seemed pleased to know what we Mormons believed in. She stated that the Soviet hope, in her opinion, was to prepare a better world for the next generation. She also confided how much she enjoyed our daily group prayers; she felt our group was much more united and loving because of them. That afternoon, when our “group missionary” shared her proselyting results with us, I was thankful we had not hesitated to pray that first morning in the bus.

    In the evening many of us had hoped to attend Moscow’s renowned Bolshoi Theatre, but no tickets were available. Our disappointment was acute. Our tour director suggested, instead, a short sacrament service in one of the hotel rooms. He had paper cups and bread; two or three others had pocket-size songbooks; another could direct music. So the meeting was planned.

    Meanwhile, our prize member-missionary was planning also. She received permission from the director to invite Tanya to the service. Our guide refused at first, protesting that she would be out of place. But before long, at the loving encouragement of several tour members, Tanya acquiesced. Suddenly two fears formed inside me: that her presence would make us overly self-conscious and that she might report us to her superiors, who could force us to leave the Soviet Union early. Where did these heretofore hidden apprehensions come from? Tools of Satan or warnings from the Lord? I dismissed the fears, but still I was grateful to have no speaking part in the service.

    At 9:00 P.M. we assembled in a hotel room overlooking the sluggish Moscow River. The city appeared—no doubt somewhat deceptively—to be slumbering. The humid room and the late hour seemed more conducive to yawns than to spiritual experiences. Then a sister eagerly spoke out in the warm room: “After the sacrament has been passed, may we hear the testimony of our most recent convert?” As adrenaline forced my heart to pound faster and faster, the Spirit tried to convince me of the excellent opportunity I—the recipient of the sister’s request—would have to bear testimony in Tanya’s presence. In my mind I hastily concluded, as I saw our director agree with the suggestion, that I should not, above all, become emotional or very personal. Tanya, if true to her communist heritage, would relate best to the things of the mind, not to those of the heart.

    After we had partaken of the Lord’s Supper—a ceremony certainly foreign to Tanya’s upbringing—I felt quite calm and in complete control of my emotions. As I rose to speak, I felt prompted to read one of my favorite scriptures, Doctrine and Covenants 59:21 [D&C 59:21]: “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.” As I read in that hotel room in Moscow, my heart told my head what to do. I began to confess the Lord’s hand in various events in my life, even my father’s passing when I was only eight years old. Because of his death my mother and I moved from a small Arkansas town to a large city where I found and embraced the restored church. From that time, six years earlier, my life had been changed. I knew why I was here on the earth and where I was going.

    The meeting took on a very personal tone; tears were shed. As I concluded I suddenly saw the Lord’s hand in our not being able to attend the Bolshoi Theatre that evening. The Lord wanted us to be in that meeting, remembering him and what he has done for us and sharing our spirits and his with Tanya. Perhaps that would be her only exposure to the restored gospel in this life.

    After the service our Russian guide, a sister, and I walked to the elevator. During the meeting Tanya had sat quietly and perfectly attentive; she was still pensive. I hoped she had not been offended. She asked us if Mormons would dare speak from the heart in larger groups. (She wrongly assumed that our tour group consisted of longtime acquaintances and intimate friends.) Briefly I explained to her the purpose of monthly testimony meetings; I told her of men and women and boys and girls who would stand in front of two and three hundred people and bear their testimonies of the gospel with fervor and love. She marveled and stated with sobriety that her Soviet people were afraid to open their hearts with each other. Most masked their true feelings almost completely when in groups. She warmly thanked us for our sincerity. I believed she wished it for her people.

    The sister standing with us asked Tanya if she would like a copy of the Book of Mormon. She quickly replied she would, but noted that a mailed copy would never reach her. Oh how I wished I had brought one with me! The sister’s eyes gleamed as she revealed that she had one packed in her suitcase for just such an occasion. We were all three delighted. Tanya only requested that we not give it to her where anyone might see her accept it. A couple of days later the sister deftly slipped the book, wrapped in a newspaper and signed by the members of the tour, into Tanya’s purse. Our guide acknowledged the gift with a quick smile and a knowing nod of the head.

    Soon afterwards we left the USSR for Afghanistan, but we also left someone touched because we shared something dear to us with her. At best we planted a seed that will someday burgeon to bring one, or even many, into the Lord’s kingdom; at least we did not hide our light under a bushel simply because we were confronted on many sides by spiritual darkness.

    Photo by Madison U. Sowell