It is no secret that I love Compassion International. Sponsoring a child has been such a great experience for our family. Our kids love to talk about our sponsored child, Jonri, and what he’s doing. We love to receive letters in the mail with a picture he’s drawn. And there is no sweeter prayer than that of our four year old daughter: “Deaw Dod. Pwease be wif Jonwi an helwp him know about You.”
Let’s all say it together…Awwwwwww.
So when I received an email today from the Compassion team asking if I would join with others to tell my own story of how I was impacted as a youth and how the praise and love poured into me by an adult has shaped me into who I am, I quickly jumped at the chance. First the premise:
Wess Stafford, President of Compassion, shares the “Tell Us Your Story” idea here. You can read his words and his encouragement, or you can watch the video. The basic idea of it is that all of us have been impacted in some way or another by someone in our past. Whether positive or negative, we are all a product of our youth. So what or who shaped you? Who are you today and what led you to that point?
In thinking back to the many adults who have poured into my life in the past, I realized how deeply blessed I have been and how much encouragement I received in my formative years. But when I thought about who I am today and what weighs most heavily on my heart, one specific incident came to mind that forever altered and shaped who I have become. Here is my story:
“You have a real knack for languages,” he told me as I sipped my cup of hot tea. I was freezing….the kind of cold where you can no longer feel your extremeties. We were in a pizza parlor in Red Square, right in the heart of Moscow. I was fifteen.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean you hear the sounds really well and you repeat them perfectly. You should study russian. You could come live with Helen and I.”
Five years later, I did just that.
Sergei Petrochenko was the interpreter for the squirrley group that made up our missions team on my first trip to the former USSR. I shared with you how I wound up taking that trip and the man responsible for it here. Gary Varner is another person I can quickly point to who spoke wisdom and grace into my life as a youth and drastically shaped who I am today.
Sergei and his wife Helen were young and adorable and I shared an immediate connection with them. Maybe it was because I took such an interest in their language. Perhaps it was because the moment I stepped off the plane I fell in love with their country. It’s likely because when God Himself knit me together He placed a special place in my heart for that area of the world. It was ordained from the beginning of time.
As Sergei and I stood and ate pizza, a dirty, wild looking man approached our table. He held out dirt encrusted hands and mumbled something in russian. I looked at Sergei who studied him closely then gestured his hands toward our unfinished pizza. The man mumbled Spaseeba, grabbed two slices and quickly exited the building. I looked curiously back at Sergei who for a solid week had engrained in all of our heads never to feed someone who came begging.
“Why did you give him food?” I asked.
“Because he needed it,” Sergei replied matter of factly, taking another sip of his tea.
“How did you know?”
“He had russian eyes,” Sergei replied. And that was the end of the conversation. It is a brief moment in my life that I have never forgotten.
Fast forward five years. I am twenty years old and I am spending a semester in Kiev, Ukraine with Helen and Sergei studying russian. It turns out Sergei was right. I did have a knack for languages and I had fallen in love with the nuances of russian. It was during my four month stint in Kiev that I experienced another defining moment…and this moment was a direct result of the pizza parlor conversation with Sergei five years earlier.
I was on a taxi bus when I noticed an old man laying in a busy street. He was close to the sidewalk, but fully on the road and he looked injured. I tossed money at the cab driver and jumped out of the van, dodging cars as I dashed across the street. I knelt down in front of the man, who smelled of liquor and had a deep gash on his forehead.
Pomogeetya, Podjalusta, he wept. Help me.
I pulled off my scarf and pressed it to his head and began yelling for help. And people just passed me by. They looked right at me as they walked by on the sidewalk. Two younger men laughed at me as they passed. I heard one of them say to the other, “Stupid American. He’s drunk.”
But as I looked into his eyes, I knew there was more to the story. This wasn’t a man who stumbled in a drunken stupor into the road. He had the “russian eyes” that Sergei had mentioned. Eyes that conveyed a true sense of need, of pain, of desperation. Yes, by the smell I could tell he had been drinking, butsomehow I knew that wasn’t what caused his fall.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, someone stopped and offered help. In my broken russian I told the story as an ambulance drove up to us. They loaded the man into the back of the truck and whisked him away…I never even knew his name. The man who helped me shook my hand and introduced himself. Pavel. He spoke english.
“The man was robbed. He said he was in the street for much time. Why did you stop?”
I shrugged and offered the only explanation I had – “He had russian eyes.”
He looked at me for a moment, nodded, then turned and walked away.
I have the distinct blessing of having been poured into by many, many people over my lifetime. A few names of the people who have impacted me: Gary Varner, Robert Burkhart, Mrs. Baumbach, my high school Liturature teacher who told me I had a gift with words, Richard and Candy Martin, the list could go on and on…
But Sergei Petrochenko’s words when I was fifteen set me on a path that God created me for from time’s inception. Because of Sergei’s words my children are learning russian, my husband and I are praying about how we can have an impact in Russia as a family, how we can minister to orphans, if we should even adopt an orphan. The last time I heard from Sergei was December 30, 1998. After I came back to the States he and Helen divorced and I lost track of him. How my heart longs to see him again. How I yearn to show him the impact he had in my life…to introduce him to my children and let them show off their language. I hold out hope in my heart that God has that reunion planned for someday…
Words have a powerful and life altering effect. They can change a life for the worse…but, as in my case, also for the better.
How were you impacted as a youth by the words of an adult? If you feel so inclined, please share your story. I would really love to hear it.