My story of my first taste of cross-cultural-worker life goes like this:
I grew up in California and had friends of different races and cultures; I then went to Russia as a response to God’s calling. I had a very hard time even accepting the calling, so I thought that God would take it easy on me once I got here. That, however, was not the case. My very first lesson began as I touched ground in the city of Saratov, where I was the only black girl in the entire city. I was excited, ready for adventure, and on my way to a cross-cultural life in Russia. Most of the people in Saratov had never seen a black person before in real life; they would literally stop whatever they were doing and unabashedly stare. Many people would come up to me and start touching my skin or hair, asking me if they were real. Most were amazed at how white my teeth looked. Some people would run after me, asking me if I knew Michael Jackson or Tupac. For me, it was unreal.
I realized that I was now in a place where I was constantly being watched, and there was no place to hide! At the same time, we had enrolled at the university and were studying Russian, meeting new students, and sharing life with them. I had no problems meeting people there and getting to know the students. There were ten of us, young people all serving with Cru. We loved God and we loved the people of Russia. Like warriors, we marched into the city, ready to share this love of God with Russian students.
My problem became how to deal with people on the street. The rest of my team was white and at the time did not really understand enough Russian to hear what was being said to me as we travelled on the trams and trolleybuses. Sometimes good things were said to me. I was also given many free things by people who were glad to see me and who were not afraid of my different skin color. A couple times I was even on TV, although no one had asked for my permission to be filmed.
On the other hand, I had to listen to people laugh at me and verbally abuse me every single day. On my way to the market or school, I could see children with their mothers staring at me in fear as if I was going to eat them. That was hard. There were a couple instances where I was physically attacked. Other than pushing them away, I chose not to retaliate. I know it was God who held me back, because I do not consider myself weak in the physical sense and could have defended myself against the attacker each time, except for one little thing. If I had retaliated, it would have given the skinhead group a reason to fight back, and that would have been a bad thing for me.
So, what was my first lesson? It was the lesson of love. I always thought that I loved people. I get along well with people, but this was such a severe situation. Two months into our time in Russia, I realized that I hated the people on the street. I had perfected my “death look,” which I gave to people who laughed at me or called me awful things. As the days went by, life became harder. I could not understand why God had chosen to send a single black girl to Russia as a cross-cultural worker, to be tortured by the Russians!
Then came the night when I was supposed to go to a team meeting but could not leave the house. I sat on my bed, dejected. I did not want to face people on the street again. The streets had been my battle-ground every single day for months, and I told God that I wanted out. What if I gave someone a death look on the street, and then later they walked into a meeting as I was saying the words “Jesus is love”? I was realizing that the love that I thought I had for people was really just tolerance.
Back home, in California, it was not hard to “love” people, because no one was laughing at my skin color or verbally abusing me on the street. God’s answer came to me, “Tolu, the reason I have you here is so that when people look at you, they will see Me inside of you. I want you to stand out, and I want them to look at you!” He then reminded me of instances when people had come up to me and told me that they saw a light inside of me. I never really knew what to say in those instances, but it was interesting that God was pointing that out to me now.
If I was going to stay in Russia, I had to have heart surgery. That night, God asked me to give Him my heart. I gladly surrendered it, not sure what He was going to do with it. What God did was amazing! I can say that it was God who did it, because I remember how, in my own strength; I had tried to love Russians and had failed miserably. After that night, I began to see a change in my attitude toward people on the street. God helped me put my pride aside and actually look at the people. When they came up to me and asked me questions, I could genuinely smile and answer their questions—and invite them to events. I could pray for those who were making fun of me. I know that God planted my heart in this country, because even when I am back in California my heart hurts that I am so far away from this people. I know that I did not make that happen—it was all God. Even though my first year in this country was horrible and I would never want to repeat it, it was worth it. God used it to teach me what it means to love people with His perfect love.
Question to consider: How has God given you a “heart transplant” in the country in which you serve?