Those of us fortunate enough to travel internationally quickly realize that people are much the same the world over. Certainly we see and appreciate cultural and language differences, but so much of who we are at our centers as humans, the ways our hearts and minds direct us, is the same.
We love and value our immediate families, our siblings, spouses, and extended families. We adore our children and educate them, gently discipline them, protect them and defend them. We work hard, we share, are kind to strangers as well as neighbors. We are generous to visitors. We laugh, and we weep. Folks are folks.
Several choir tours and extended trips to western Europe have showed my dear bride and me all of this and more in Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and islands in the Pacific, but one particular visit to eastern Russia brought this truth home to me with such force that it brought me to tears.
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Boris Lozovsky, director of the journalism program at Urals State University in Ekaterinburg, knew that he needed to change his curriculum. His students and faculty needed to learn how news media function in an environment where they are not controlled by the state. Armed with an International Media Fund grant, he approached the journalism school at the University of North Carolina because of its reputation as one of the nation’s strongest programs. Along with several of my colleagues, I became part of a team that traveled to Ekaterinburg in 1996 to share some of our knowledge with Lozovsky’s faculty and students.
Ekaterinburg lies in Ural Mountains near the Europe-Asia border, 10 time zones east of my home in Chapel Hill, N.C. It’s not quite in Siberia, but locals like to joke, “You can see it from here.”
One of our hosts, eager to please, picked up my colleague and me outside our hotel on a Sunday morning and drove us to an ordinary-looking gray office building downtown. Grinning, he led us to a small auditorium off the lobby, and we opened its door to discover a church service in progress. Heads turned to regard these strangers who had just entered. A small flag standing on a table in the front of the room featured a familiar cross and flame, telling us that this was a United Methodist service.
One can’t hide at a moment like this, so we meekly took seats near the front, and the service proceeded. We rose to our feet later to be introduced and to say a few words of greeting and explain our reasons for being in Ekaterinburg. When it came time for the children’s lesson, several little ones came down the aisle and sat before a woman who told them a Bible story and led them in a prayer, all this in Russian, of course. As the children returned the their seats, everyone in the congregation began singing the familiar “Jesus loves me, this I know . . .” in English.
That’s when I lost it. I became overwhelmed with the realization that we are all one family. Earlier experiences in other places with other people had demonstrated our common humanity to me many times before, but at this moment, in this place, farther away from home than I had ever been before, I found myself suddenly surrounded by strangers, now friends, who were singing a song I first learned as a child. And the tears came. Through the years I have relived this scene many times and cherished its precious memory.
It is true. We are one people. All of us.