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February 2000

While I usually separate a eulogy from a sermon, this month they’re one and the same. That’s because Yevdyeniya Yakovlyevna was someone we might have overlooked on any street in Russia -- just another babushka waddling her way across Prospekt Mira. But hers was one of those lives that intersected mine at crucial times in my life and when I got word from her son in Russia last week that she had died, I decided to write about her.

She could take you from a dreary world of Soviet-era Breshnev (she could have been his sister if we went by looks) and effortlessly demonstrated the role of a Christian believer. My eulogy had me both laughing and filling up as I wrote it this Sunday morning because, while what I wrote may make you wonder where I’m headed with what is supposed to be a sermon, it doesn’t change the fact that ‘Mama’ was one of God’s examples that breaks the Western Christian mold and mode of thinking. Everyone needs a spiritual mother; in Leningrad, she was mine.

“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 station.

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 borshch.

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 hospitality.

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 here!

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!

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