This I know

If you are thousands of miles from home in a country where everyone speaks a different language from your own, you can feel lonely and yes, maybe a tad homesick. Late in the summer of 1995 I found myself in Ekaterinburg, a large, industrial city in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Ekaterinburg lies near the border between Europe and Asia, 10 time zones away from my home in North Carolina. It’s not quite as far east as Siberia, but as one of my Russian hosts joked, “You can see it from here.”

I was there with Harry Amana, my faculty colleague at the University of North Carolina, at the invitation of Boris Lozovsky, the imaginative director of the journalism department at Ekaterinburg’s Ural State University. The Cold War now ended, Professor Lozovsky sought to update his curriculum and show students and local news media professionals how a free press operates. So he approached an American journalism school with an excellent reputation and created this faculty exchange program.

For two weeks, Harry and I and eventually two other colleagues met with and lectured classes of students, held discussions with faculty and visited with newspaper editors and television news producers in the city. Our hosts, English-speaking, eager to please us and make us feel at home, took us on museum visits and to concerts and an opera and on one unexpected and memorable excursion.

On A chilly Sunday morning, this host picked us up outside our hotel, squeezed us into his little car and drove us to a deserted downtown neighborhood, parked and led us through the front doors of what appeared to be a dingy, large office building. Grinning, he nudged us across a lobby and pushed open a large wooden door leading to a crowded auditorium. Someone was playing hymns on a piano. Heads turned as we hesitatingly entered and made our way to seats near the front. Clearly we were outsiders. For one thing, Harry is African American and stands well over six feet tall. By his appearance alone, he had become an object of curiosity everywhere we had traveled in this all-white city.

A small flag standing on a table in front of the small stage displayed the flame and cross, symbol of the United Methodist church. We were in a Protestant worship service. Everything stopped, and someone in charge invited us to come up front and speak to the group. Apparently, they had been alerted that two American professors would visit and worship with them. Harry nudged me, and I found myself facing this room full of smiling Russians, wondering what I should say. I managed to identify myself and Harry and briefly explain the nature of our journalism project, then gratefully returned to my seat.

Then a woman invited children to come forward and join her for a brief Bible lesson. Several responded, and when she finished her little talk and the children were returning to their seats, the congregation began singing “Jesus Loves me, this I know . . .” in English. Suddenly, I felt at home, surrounded by loving friends. I tried to join in the singing, but my tears made singing difficult.

Years later, as I was on tour in Europe with the multiracial gospel choir United Voices of Praise, we in the choir would end our concerts by moving into the audience, holding the hands of strangers and singing together “We are one. Hallelujah!” Everyone responded, grasping our hands and singing with us. Our languages, our cultures, our politics might be different, but we are one human family. That Russian congregation singing that simple song that is so familiar to children and grownups alike in nations everywhere, reminded me of that truth.

 

 

 

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