“I Remember ‘Mama’”
Dedication and Eulogy to
Yevdyeniya Yakovlyevna Gulyaeva
1922? -- 1999, Leningrad
“Mama” said she felt she should pray for my safety before I left her apartment in
Leningrad’s Vyborgskaya district late that cold, blustery November night. So she pounded
the sign of the Orthodox cross on my back with her two fingers and thumb bunched
together, as though driving it into my coat as I headed out the banging doors of their grim
apartment building. I made my way through the back alleys to the trolley line and took it
to Ploshchad Muzhestvo where I grabbed the southbound subway train at the Metro
Something seemed wrong that night, like I shouldn’t have left the shelter of their Stalinst-
era apartment. Somehow she had made into a home, in spite of its bare light bulbs
hanging in mid-ceiling and odd furniture that never seemed to fit in their cramped two
rooms. I had just visited Yevdyeniya and her husband and son for an evening of
conversation and tea (lots of tea). I was billeted at a larger, but void-of-people apartment
in Vasiliyostrovskaya, a good hour away on the Metro. It was a blustery night but the
snow still hadn’t arrived that late in the autumn.
I came up from the subway and got on the rickety streetcar to ride to my stop at ulica
Shevchenkaya. About three stops before mine, the half dozen passengers and I were
startled when a black Maria (one of those dreaded cars often used by the KGB) screeched
to a halt by the front doors of the streetcar and four burly bears charged in and dragged a
fellow from off the hard wooden bench, out the doors and into the small car in one
motion. In typical Russian fashion, no one visibly or verbally reacted.
The trolley driver closed the doors and we resumed the rattling, rough trip down the
cobblestone street toward the Baltic side of the island. I got off at my stop with my ever-
present black briefcase in hand -- the one that had carried a lot of hard currency, Bibles
and medicines into many countries from Russia to Red China over the years. I proceeded
toward the nondescript gloomy building I called “home” for that week, although I hadn’t
been able to sleep, much less rest, there since I had arrived. The folks who normally
stayed there had gone for the weekend to Viipuri, the phone in the apartment was out of
order, and the heat was erratic. I just wanted to get to bed and meet Tom McDonald the
next day at the airport who would be flying in from Salt Lake City to meet up with me.
Once I turned the corner onto deserted ulica Shevchenkaya, I was aware of someone a
hundred meters or so behind me as I approached my building and could see the shadow
of a figure rapidly moving up behind me. I was about to be mugged, so I suddenly turned
on my heels and stared the fellow down. He stopped dead in his tracks and appeared to
have a knife in his jacket pocket. He looked more frightened than I was and I realized he
was looking toward me but not focused on me. He was about 15 feet away but appeared
to be looking at someone standing between us! (This is an honest account and one of
those miraculous moments I’ll never forget). He mumbled something in Russian about
looking for an address. I motioned back to him in American Sign Language as though I
were deaf (partly true) rather than answer him in Russian and have him detect an
American accent -- a dead giveaway for a walking hard currency ATM. He looked terrified
(I didn’t think my sign language was that bad!) and ran off. Whatever Mama had prayed
before I left her apartment made me realize that God does, indeed, hear women when
they pray, even when it’s in a mixture of Russian and Old Church Slavonic.
I had a restless night that night in that cold, sterile apartment and met Tom at the
Leningrad airport the next evening. I told him that I had no peace about taking him to
Vasiliyostrovkaya with me and decided to ask Mama if her invitation was still open to us
to stay there. I phoned her from the airport and she was delighted, said she’d arrange to
have an extra bed from a neighbor and to “come home” while she heated up some
The following three days were full of warm hugs, smooches, black bread, tea and warm
conversation. Some of it was fascinating as she related how she had survived the Stalinist
era, made her way from Siberia on cold, wartime trains to Leningrad right after the 900-
day Nazi siege of the city and she had never left it since. She had joined the Communist
Party during that time, yet was a devout Christian believer.
I finally had the courage to ask her how she could be a Party member and a believer. She
said it was the only way she could feed and clothe her family in those dismal days of
Soviet stagnation. In a situational ethics bind here, I decided that, to this day, I have no
comment, but I know that the decent food she was putting on the table every day in her
cramped but warm kitchen was coming from her daily trips to the special stores where
only Party members could shop. (So much for a “classless workers’ paradise.” Some
Soviet citizens were just “more equal” than others).
Life with Mama each time I visited the Soviet Union was always a refuge in a place that
was without hope and utterly draining. She adopted me, and I her. This visit with Tom in
tow would be the last time I would ever stay there. I now realize that she needed Tom and
me to stay there as much as we needed her to provide a nest for us. She gave freely, even
shared some chocolate that she referred to as “mayo zoloto” (“my gold”) her son had
brought back from Holland a year before. (That one bar had lasted a year! and is probably
still sitting in the same spot on the shelf next to the matches above her gas range with
two burners. The chocolate and the matches were two real luxuries in Russia so she kept
those treasures next to each other.)
Mama died sometime toward the end of 1999. I just got her son’s letter from Russia
telling me so, and then news that his father died last week in a veteran’s hospital of
alcoholism. He was probably still wearing his military jacket, covered in medals, from the
Great War for the Motherland.
Their apartment building looked like all of the other gray, blocky buildings around it, like
a prison cell block -- but was still one of the better ones near Muzhestva. We were never
cold and never lacked for hot water, even though worms came out of the faucet in her
bathtub when you opened the tap for cold.
I can still see her at the banging wooden doors to the outside, standing with her big coat,
rubber boots, babushka on her head, and setting her shopping bags down at either side
while bowing and crossing herself three times before venturing out on Leningrad’s snowy
streets. I can remember her smiling, not intentionally showing her stainless steel teeth,
while she clenched her fist at her husband telling him to stay in the other room until he
sobered up. He always obeyed -- we saw little of him.
Somehow our cultures never clashed. We adopted each other but we could just have
easily have judged each others’ religion, politics and hygiene. But I cried when I got the
news she died because she, in her way, demonstrated the gospel of taking in a stranger,
putting out her very best and that there was a spark of something more than just Slavic
This babushka knew how to love and she appreciated the smallest gesture. If I picked up
a spray of roses for ten rubles from a street vendor at Lenin Prospekt and carted them
home on the Metro, she was like a schoolgirl who was being romanced. Some friends in
Ukraine had given me a knitted toilet seat cover as a farewell gift one time when I was
leaving Kiev for Leningrad. I didn’t want to cart it home on the plane, so I gave it to Mama
when I got to Leningrad. She was so excited about it, I’m still laughing when I remember
how she never used it (they had no toilet seat lid) but rather hung it on the living room
wall -- as a conversation piece, I guess. Well, it must have been. I’m still talking about it
Now, here’s the preachy part of my message this month:
Every one of us needs a “Mama” in our lives. I prefer to call them spiritual mothers.
Whether it’s for a refuge from the dangerous streets or spiritual warfare, spiritual mothers
in the Body of Christ are those who not only know how to train up the younger women in
the Faith, but also how to teach the young men to become men of God. It was not just my
pastor, Claude Elderkin in Providence, Rhode Island some 35+ years ago who was my
spiritual father, but it was some elderly Black ladies in my early Christian days who also
spoke faith, confidence and encouragement to me when I needed it most.
We know that God hears women when they pray, especially the older women. These are
the spiritual mothers. Every congregation needs at least one and someone who will pray
for the pastor in particular.
Now, if you think I’m just talking about some phenomenon in the evangelical or
Pentecostal church realms, I’m not. One of the most Godly women I knew, who was a
spiritual mother to her parish, was in the small, neighborhood Anglican Church I attended
in Toronto. I later found out that this elderly spinster was responsible for many
seminarians having made it through to the priesthood over several decades because she
used to pray for and invest in their lives.
There’s an ongoing squabble about the role of women in the ministry. I won’t get into that
fray; I’ll just say that the examples of Dorothy in Toronto, Mama in Leningrad and
countless others I’ve seen in my 39 years as a Christian tells me that no man will ever be
able to do what such women have been anointed to do in God’s Kingdom. His Realm is
big enough for us all.
Now, you find your gift -- and use it!