“Khristos voskres” (Christ is risen). One person after another greeted me with these words as I climbed the stairs of the little, wooden church in Akademgorodok, a tiny town at the end of the man-made Ob Sea, bejeweling the Siberian steppe 45 minutes south of the city of Novosibirsk. The intertwining snow-covered birch and kedr (Siberian pine) trees created an illusion of a land of fantasy, made more so in the late evenings by the moon reflecting off the naked silver-white birch bark onto the dark red-brown trunks and evergreen branches of the pines. This was not yet the inhospitable taiga; it was somewhat south for that, but nonetheless the birch and kedr trees stood closely side-by-side like brothers-in-arms against a hostile white and cold universe.
“Voistinu voskres” (truly, He is risen). If my words of response rang hollow, there was a reason. They came from the lips of a bona fide atheist, convinced that religious congregations were delusional. Certainly, they contained well-meaning folks, ones often with great compassion, but nonetheless, in my opinion at that time, delusional. Raised in a so-called Christian home and an attendee, but not engaged participant, in Methodist and Baptist churches in my early years, I found no sense in the sermons of the ministers who were often more interested in tangible things than in holy deeds, no examples set by the deacons who were often bedding the wives of their friends, and no love of God in the raspberry-bush switches wielded by my parents that demanded their few ounces of blood every Sunday before we marched into church as a model family. God, to me, was a fantasy, created by evil-doers to make themselves feel better. When given a chance at the age of 16 to preach the Youth Sunday sermon, the topic of which was “The Christian Home,” I pointed out all of these things, to the great discomfort of the congregation. I concluded that sermon with the suggestion that considerable thought be given to the advantages of raising a child without hypocrisy, i.e. in an atheistic environment. From where came the audacity of a child to make such statements from a pulpit? I don’t really know. Perhaps I envied the lives of my peers who were not abused each and every day and in resentment needed to point out something wrong with their lives, too. Perhaps I had expected the church community to step in and rescue my siblings and me from our physical and sexual tormentors and blamed the people in the community when no one stepped forward. Perhaps the rage in which I was raised crimson-colored all the emotions of my childhood. In any event, that sermon ended my churchgoing days. My family had been asked to leave the church, and I had not been punished in any way. I suspect that my parents had feared that after such a sermon, were they to have hurt me as a result, I would have flounced into church with that announcement as well, completely destroying their reputations. Or perhaps their sense of the awfulness of what I had done paralyzed them into inaction. In any event, there being no other church within reasonable travel distance, I had spent the rest of my growing-up and adult years in the atheistic environment I had exalted.
My parents never lost their faith as a result of their excommunication, but they never again talked much about it in front of me. We no longer were forced to say grace at meals. Bibles disappeared from our bedsides onto the crowded bookshelves in our library. Although they never mentioned anything to me, looking back, I imagine that my parents felt that something became very broken in their lives that Sunday morning. At the core of their lives festered a desperate need to be respected by the community, perhaps fostered by childhoods in which neither had experienced much respect. Dad’s unusually high level of intelligence brought him only a sense of disappointment and failure when, in order to support his parents and five younger siblings during the Great Depression, he had to leave school in eighth grade and take a job as a shoe cutter, a trade he plied, along with farming, his entire life. Ma had always been the little doll of her family, if my great-aunt’s assessment is accurate, but had found herself rejected and ridiculed by classmates while her brother, who was in the same class, served as class president. As adults, my parents became community leaders, my father serving on the school board and my mother becoming actively involved in one social cause after another, looking for approbation from peers long ago grown up. We children suffered their anger when we failed to make up for their dissatisfaction with their own lives and their sense of underachievement, Dad intellectually and Ma socially. Their church activities provided them the lifeline with which they had clung to the community respect that they so desperately desired. I had cut that lifeline with one sermon.
As for me, I felt that something got fixed in my life that morning. No more hypocrisy. No more pretending to be a pew-filling, perfect family. No more Sunday morning races when I would refuse to get dressed for church, Dad would want to beat me into compliance, and I would run. As young as the age of eight, I could outrun Dad. I could also run far. Neighbors passing by enroute to church pretended not to see the two of us running—around the front yard, across the street, through the tall grass, and into the nearby woods, my long hair flying straight back into the wind and my father flailing a switch, usually broken off from a raspberry bush with healthy thorns for ripping flesh. I could feel the wind brushing past my face, the adrenalin coursing through my veins from fear of the whip and nerve endings on fire with the thrill of the race, my legs fueled by competing thoughts: the stubbornness to do what I wanted, the fear of a dire outcome should I slow down or stumble long enough to be caught, and exhilaration at the thought that just perhaps I could run away from all of it, from the switchings, from the name calling, from the hypocrisy of pretending that we were the picture-perfect family, and especially from pretending to love and obey a God who for me did not exist and whom my parents used as a threat. Only when my father lost the switch and was too spent to care any more about hitting me would I run home. Running back into the “burning house,” as my future brother-in-law would later call it, was the only option that ever entered my head for any neighbor in New England of those days would have brought me back to my parents. Having run home, I always ended up in church. There, sitting in a pew, watching Dad and Ma acting in a devout manner and being viewed by the church community as ideal parents, my anger toward them would reach a full but quiet zenith. After the church service concluded, my parents would accept the sympathetic comments of my friends’ parents, especially those who happened to catch a glimpse of our Sunday morning marathons. These people would knowingly smile, nod, and assent as to how difficult I must be to raise—and my rising anger and frustration at the unfairness of it all made me want to run again—far away from my parents, the church, and the complacent people in the church pews. I resented being abused, and I trapped the church and its people in the web of angry emotions that encompassed my teenage years. I never asked how others in my family felt about being alienated from the church. I did not care. I had been freed.
Until now. Now I was about to address another church congregation. It was the first time in 30 years I would speak to such a gathering.
Uttering the expected words of greeting as I mounted the steps to the vestibule of the church was not uncomfortable. They were, after all, meaningless to me. While I would have preferred another form of greeting, I had somehow managed to end up at this impressively humble Russian Orthodox Church on Easter morning. So, the greetings were to be anticipated.
As I reached the top of the stairs, a priest extended his hand. As I had been taught in advance to do, I kissed it. The priest smiled and said, “There is no need to follow our customs. I have been told that you are an atheist. I’m Father Grigoriy, and I am very happy to meet you at long last. I do need, though, to find some way to introduce you to the congregation. I have given this some thought and wonder if I may introduce you as a Good Samaritan?”
I knew the parable. Is there anyone who does not? It was one that we learned at school and at church although all too infrequently had I seen the people who thought it a wonderful story follow the example themselves.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"I agreed with Father Grigoriy that my introduction as a Good Samaritan would be appropriate. Apparently, others had passed through this remote village in Siberia, had even met young Aleksandr Ivanovich, affectionately referred to as Shura, a teenage artist dying from complications of spina bifida (a congenital malformation in which the spine does not fully close during the first six weeks of gestation). These passers-through had expressed a desire to help him, but for whatever reason had not done so or simply had not been able to do so. they did nothing. They were like the beaten man’s countrymen who passed him by. Perhaps they thought they could not help. Perhaps they initially thought that they could help but ultimately could not. Most were from Russia, and Russia in the early 1990s, just emerging from 70 years of a failed experiment in communism, was an impoverished nation — except, of course, for the oligarchy and the mafia (often an intermixed group) that held the purse strings and power in the new “democracy.” Others were from foreign countries, and perhaps the complicated immigration laws gave them pause. The only fact that matters, though, is that they did not help, and not helping, regardless of circumstances, in my opinion at that time and now, is a choice. One can choose to pass by those who need help with the excuse that one does not have the needed resources, whether those be money, time, or skills, or one can stop and try to help, looking for the resources when they may not be in hand. I chose to stop. And now here I was at Shura’s church with him to share his recently rescued life with his neighbors on the day known as the Resurrection.
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
In reply, Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.
So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
On wobbling prostheses, which he had not yet learned to control completely, and clinging to the railing, Shura, the pride of this tiny community, had triumphantly followed me up the stairs of the wooden church, his church. There he had been raised in a faith that carried him through the torments of childhood, the agony of waxing and waning hope that he would be able to come to the United States for treatment as he lay dying in a Siberian hospital, and the difficult decision, with which he was required to concur prior to surgery at Virginia State Hospital, to amputate both gangrenous legs and replace them with prostheses. It had been the kind of life that could challenge the faith of a saint. Yet, he was but a teenage boy, one with resilient faith that God would find someone to help him.
And now we both stood in front of a hushed crowd of Russian Orthodox believers. Father Grigoriy had just introduced me as the Good Samaritan who had rescued their Shura, the young man they loved and for whom they had despaired and now hoped. The crowd looked at me in eager anticipation. What was an atheist to say to this expectant gathering of believers?
Shura represented a significant challenge to anyone who chose to stop. Already a teenager, he had been hospitalized over and over at the local hospital in Akademgorodok. Well-educated by his mother, he had never been able to attend school, but he did play with the neighborhood children, many of whom taunted him for his inability to walk, to combat which he would resort to fisticuffs, developing a strong sense of self-determination and just a tinge of pugilism. The sac that contained the end of his spine had never been repaired, and his legs, which would eventually have to be amputated, were constantly threatening his life with gangrene. At the same time, he was a talented artist. At the age of 12, he had already had his first exhibit at Dom uchenykh, (the famous, government-supported House of Scientists that was part of the Academy of Sciences). By the age of 15, he had published both his art and his poetry, had had yet another exhibit at the House of Scientists, and had appeared in a television documentary about his unique talent and life. Also by the age of 15, it was clear that he would not survive without better medical assistance.
The question as to why I was the one who should help him is fairly clear. Who better to provide that assistance than a mother of another spina bifida child, who knew how to care for such children at home and also knew doctors who could help? Who better to pry a visa out of the U. S. Embassy in Moscow than a former State Department language program supervisor who had trained many of the diplomats working at the embassy? Who better to provide assistance to a speaker of Russian than someone who spoke Russian? Who better to help a child of the cold Siberian winter assimilate into California sunshine than a grown child of the cold Maine winters living in California? Who better to help a child from the wooded steppe than an American researcher who had lived and worked in the same steppe, loved the steppe and its people, and knew its literature and its culture? The number of instances of coincidence between what was needed and what I had learned or experienced in my life up until that point was truly amazing. Or was it so amazing?
Looking back, I cannot dispute the contention that my life has been filled with what I called amazing coincidences and what others called miracles. Some even say that coincidences are those times that God chooses to remain anonymous. That God was willing to use an atheist to help create miracles is a miracle in itself. Why God would so bless an atheist only the Almighty knows. How it was done was on the wings of serendipity—the ride of a lifetime.
Standing nervously in front of the expectant gathering at the little wooden church in Akademgorodok on that Easter morning after Shura’s first surgeries, I should not have worried about what to say. The minute I began to speak, an awed “ona govorit po-russki” (“she speaks Russian”) ran through the crowd. My ability to use the language effortlessly, thanks to earning my Ph.D. in Russia, along with my willingness to stop and help rescue Shura, predisposed all standing there to like me, regardless of whether or not I shared their faith. I shared their language and their love—of things Russian, of this young man, of Siberia—and that was enough.
So, I told them the story of Shura in America. To me, it was a great story of serendipity. To them, it was a story of a great miracle. Over time, I have come to realize that it is both.
This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).