Remember that nice college student, Masha, who helped me buy some baby clothes my first full day with Veeka? Well, she invited me to come visit her parents for the weekend. They live about 2 hours away by bus about an hour south of Rudny. On a map, find Kostenai, then follow the Togol river SW til you get to Lisakovsk, a small town of 60,000.
I stayed in a small 2-bedroom apartment with Masha, 18, her sister, Dareen, 3, and her parents: Gulnara and Sergey. Masha’s fiance, Sergei, picked us up at the station. The place is typical 1960s-era Soviet tenement city; drab, drab, drab, except for a few buildings with some splashes of color. There was another sister, Dasha, who’d be 17 now had she not died in 2002 of an inoperable brain tumor. I spent much of Saturday evening going over family photos with Gulnara, who showed me what Dasha – a local beauty queen – had looked like. The saddest one was of Dasha standing forlornly by a bridge in Moscow just after she’d gotten news from doctors there that her condition was hopeless. The family sent her there on a 3-day train ride in a last-ditch attempt to try to find treatment for her. I told Gulnara I had an aunt who had died at about the same age in the 1930s.
Anyway, Gulnara fixed a goose in honor of my coming and invited quite a few of the church members to come meet me.
Sunday morning, we repaired to another building a few blocks away where about 40 adults and lots of kids were gathered for a very passable evangelical/charismatic Christian assembly. The guy who founded the church, Don Wallis, is a Canadian who 18 years ago came to Kazakhstan to sell thrashers. For those of you not familiar with farm equipment, thrashers have something to do with harvesting early wheat – it’s great for climates like northern Kazakhstan and midwestern Canada where the growing season is short and the winters set in in September. Don knew all this, growing up in Saskatchewan. His family is now in Vancouver.
After the service, the church members all gathered around a long table with a samovar (large urn-type container that dispenses hot tea) in the middle and many plates of sweets. Apparently this is a Russian custom. Then Don took me around to show me the new church he’s building in the middle of town. We talked for several hours about how he came here to set up a factory for these thrashers (he has something like a national patent on them but the locals, he says, don’t really honor patents) and ended up founding a church. What he has done is convert a lot of the men who work in his factory; as a result last Sunday, a lot of the folks in there were young men. Most churches in Russia are filled with women. That is certainly true of “Blagodat,” the Kazakh church I visited the Sunday before.
It really helps that Don is Canadian – he said there is a lot of anti-American feeling around – not for any particular reason, really. He was telling me that because of the oil industry in the western part of the country on the Caspian sea, money is pouring into Kazakhstan and the economy is very healthy so more people are having kids and spending. But it will take awhile to get a lot of the Communist Party mentality out of these folks; a mentality he said has really emasculated the men. I’ve noticed too a certain fatalism here; a reluctance to be ambitious or stand apart from the crowd.
I was in awe of what Don has done here in terms of changing peoples’ lives. He had fascinating anecdotes about how he’s had to teach these folks what a work ethic is, what it means to show up for work (and church) on time, what it means to service the products you sell, how one works with local Party bosses to get protection from the Mafia types who want to do you in, all the info about the church scene in Kazakhstan; who is successful and who is not – it was a great afternoon. I guess that is what it takes: if you want to influence a country, you have to basically plant yourself in one city and make a difference there. He’s helped several local businesses get started and this new church he’s building incorporates a lot of the local culture – ie a place for the babushkas to sit and a place for the old men to sit and drink tea in the courtyard every morning. And a spiral staircase – a real innovation here.
Am including 2 photos: one of Don preaching with Julie, his interpreter; the other, from the left, is the worship band. Sergey is on the far left; Masha is the woman in the middle and her fiance, Sergei, is on the far right. Being there was like a lovely dream and it got me out of the dreary routine here.