Monday, November 10, 2014

Penza: AKA Real Russia

Countless times I have been informed that Moscow and St Petersburg are not "real Russia." I would think to myself: Not real Russia?! Everyone is speaking Russian. I see Kvass, Red Square, and Soviet-style buildings everywhere. How is this not 'real Russia'? It is the capital for goodness-sake!"

If you can't tell--It was FREEZING!
It wasn't until I traveled to Penza, Russia (approximately 640 km south-east of Moscow) did this start to make sense to me. My husband, Drew, served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Russia and he lived in Penza for almost a year. Drew really wanted to visit his friends in the city and I, naturally, wanted to see where my husband had spent half of his mission. One hot (87 degrees!) 14-hour train ride later, it seemed that we had arrived in different country; Penza is an incredibly small city of 500,000 when compared to the Moscow metropolis that contains roughly 11 million citizens. At the train station, we were greeted by one of Penza's own, Alexey. His quick humor and warm-nature kept us laughing and comfortable our entire stay, not too mention full! He and his wife gave us ample--if not too much--food during our stay. Let's just say, I left Penza a pound or two heavier than when I arrived.  We toured the city with our native friend and he told us stories of the corruption and poverty that the good people of Penza have endured. He complained about how tax money was rarely used to fix the roads or to make sidewalks nicer. "If there is one thing that Russia will never run out of, it is crappy roads and stupid people!" he exclaimed. The obvious poverty in certain areas of the city, the elderly I saw preforming hard labor, and stories of people we met touched me in such a powerful way. Real Russia, as it turns out, has a huge population and stray cats and dogs. Also, to be "real Russia" apparently it is necessary to see babushki (old Russian women) sitting around complaining about their pensions. It is true that we do not know how blessed we are in America until we see the heart-breaking effects of poverty.

We were able to meet with many church members during the days we were in Penza. Although my understanding of the Russian language is pitiful, I felt great love for these people because I understood the language of the Spirit when they spoke. One man in particular, Sasha, after only minutes of being introduced to me, asked if he could bear his testimony with me. Drew acted like a translator as this sweet man told me of the powerful experiences he has had with the Spirit and the Book of Mormon. I was touched to the point of tears. The members I met lived their lives in ways that showed me, a stranger, that their testimonies were the most precious things they owned. They willing shouted from the rooftops the glorious message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When we entered the train station to board our departing train, we were surprised by an older woman who immediately ran to Drew and hugged him with tears flooding down her face. It was later explained to me that she was Valentine, a woman my husband had taught and baptized on his mission. Her love for him was evident. She told me how much it meant to her that he and his companion, Steven Bolt, were persistent in testifying of the restored church to her. She told me that they should up to her house every evening almost completely frozen just to teach her.

The Spirit testified to me so strongly about missionary work while I was in Penza. Drew and I were trekking through snow/ice/slush and the freezing cold one night when I realized the great sacrifice he (and thousands of others) have made by going on a mission. Missionary work is profoundly beautiful and Christ-like. My admiration of all returned missionaries grew as I contemplated the arduous nature of missionary work. The sacrifice of time, comfort, home, and many other things in the pursuit of bringing the world His truth. A more noble cause I cannot think of.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to hear the testimonies of people all around the world. I know that Heavenly Father loves His children and that His gospel is spreading quickly because of the blessings it brings into our lives. Jesus Christ is our Savior and the joy that comes with this knowledge is to be shared with everyone. Penza opened my eyes to both the hardships Russian people endure but also the powerful testimonies of Russian Latter-Day Saints.

1 comment:

  1. I remember having some of the same feelings visiting the peopLe Jeff taught in Costa Rica. I felt love for them and even more love for Jeff. Costa Rica is the opposite in terms of weather but I couldn't imagine traipsing around in that humid heat. I love reading about your adventures. It takes me away from fighting kids and poopy diapers. Ha ha...