It was nothing short of a miracle that there was a church—a Protestant church—at the end of my street. I hadn’t been in Yelabuga, Russia, for two weeks, yet I already felt crushed by the loneliness and spiritual darkness that hung heavy over the city. The Fulbright program had catapulted me and my idealism into the Islamic Republic of Tatarstan, where so far, nothing had turned out as I’d hoped. On other trips to Russia, friendships had materialized seamlessly, host families had shown their love through daily force-feeding (“you can keep your figure in America—here, you eat!”), and the consonantal waltzes of the language had been the joyful soundtrack to each budding day. But in Tatarstan, the welcome had been quiet and cold, and, at the ripe old age of 22, I’d been thrown into teaching a full university course load with no teaching experience.
But God, it seemed, had answered my prayer. In a city filled with mosques and Orthodox churches, he had planted me just a two-minute walk from a place that represented home, where I would certainly find the community I ached for. That first Sunday, smiling wide, I stood up among the congregation and told them that they were the answer to my prayer.
All was well—for that one Sunday. Soon, though, the pastor started to make me uncomfortable. One Sunday, I decided to visit a colleague’s countryside home. While I was en route, the pastor called, asking why I hadn’t been at service. I brushed it off, wanting to believe that he was simply protective of the poor American who clearly couldn’t tell up from down. But soon, more signs of manipulation manifested, and over the course of the next few weeks, I realized that this man held an unhealthy control over the congregation.
One Sunday, he told me I had to be at an upcoming church event. He used the Russian word dolzhna, which denotes duty, “mustness,” and his own authority. It was anything but a casual “You have to be there; it’s going to be great!”
“Why do I have to be there?” I pushed back, repeating his dolzhna.
Authority in his piercing eyes, he repeated, “You have to be there. The Lord has a word for you.” I shivered at his tone, at his words. It finally made sense why most Russians view Protestant churches as cults.
What didn’t make sense was how this seeming answer to prayer now appeared to be a joke with a cruel punchline. Didn’t God want me to find a church? Didn’t he want me to live in Christian community?
The Saturday of the event, genuine fear filled me. It might have been an overreaction, but as a young single woman in the middle of nowhere Russia, I felt my radar for danger was perpetually heightened. He knew where I lived, and I didn’t want him to find me. I needed to get out.
I called Annie, a Fulbright teacher who lived an hour away and told her I was coming. Now Annie…she was the exact opposite of me. I was a passionate follower of Jesus, while she approached faith with a smug flippancy. Having grown up in the deep South, she’d seen enough hypocrisy and stupidity to believe that believers were either counterfeits or brainwashed. I prayed for a husband who’d be a spiritual leader, while she was a feminist of feminists, viewing men with the same ironic indulgence that she did Christianity. Still, I sensed that with her, I would be safe.
I wasn’t disappointed. Annie welcomed me with a solid calmness, a generous listener as my words streamed out. Annie and I became each other’s lifelines for the next eight months. When I couldn’t handle the loneliness of my crumbling Soviet-era dormitory, she made me lentil soup and gave me somewhere to sleep. When she fell on the ice and hurt her hip, I was at the pharmacy, using my best Russian to procure the pain reliever we’d never heard of, and that worked a bit too much like a charm. I was saddened by her cynical view of men, of sexuality, of Christianity, and she was amused at my seemingly naïve convictions about Jesus and eternal life. But always, we listened to each other.
For nine months, I barely interacted with any believers. If you were raised in the church, you know this is a “no-no.” Not living in Christian community is always a bad thing, right? But God had something different for me during this strange Tatarstani season. My faith became more rooted, my words bolder, and my ability to see nuance sharper. I grew in my ability to love someone different from myself, and I grew in trusting God because there, he was the only one I could trust.
As believers in a Western context, we often view living a faithful Christian life as though it’s a formula, as if attending services plus ministry plus community will propel us onto a linear trajectory to sanctification. And when we fail to live up to this standard, we feel guilty. All of these things are important, for sure. But what I learned in Tatarstan is that sometimes, God asks you to live your life in a way that others might question. Believers back home might have been concerned about my lack of church involvement, while Annie thought I was a naïve, if endearing fool. But in that unique season, I learned that I needed to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and lean into the reality that God had placed before me.
For most of us, the pandemic has thrown off the spiritual disciplines of even the most structured and steady. Small groups have dissolved, church is a Facebook livestream, and new needs have arisen in your family that call for the last vestiges of your time and energy (distance learning, anyone?). And since March, many of us have been feeling guilty about this. I know I’ve struggled with “Christian COVID guilt.” I’m currently without the church community I desire and feel called away from a ministry I served in before the pandemic. I’ve definitely questioned whether the changes in my life have revealed lack of initiative or lack of endurance as a Christian.
But as I reflect on my time in Tatarstan, I’ve come to this conclusion: I think God is simply doing something I didn’t expect, and I can lean into another unconventional season without fear or guilt. I can trust that just like he did in Russia, he will continue to sanctify me and sculpt me more and more into the image of his Son, and that his unexpected work will lead to unexpected joy and beauty. So instead of submitting to the “shoulds” and striving to achieve the Platonic ideal of a “Christian woman,” let’s give ourselves over to God’s leading in this season with the joyful knowledge that what we don’t expect is often just what we need.