There are moments or seasons that strip us of everything. We are left without disguise, even to ourselves. It can truly seem like it is the end, and as far as our efforts, it in fact may be. These times are places of extremity, where we go beyond where we have been before. Places often of fear, uncertainty, great risks. Perhaps one of the truly frightening things about them is that we do not plan for or can prepare for them. They just happen, and we face them in naked vulnerability. Ways that we have disguised ourselves to others or ourselves are stripped away, sometimes in an instant. What remains?
Last year I wrote a post on the lead up to an outreach to the Soviet Union and Mongolia I was leading in August 1980. I had intended to write this part 2 in the weeks after, but then got Covid-19 and started an extremity experience of another kind. This post will be the follow up to that one, giving the story of what happened after we left with a new itinerary on August 19, 1980. If you haven’t read it, you may want to do so before going on: Ever feel your hopes have been crushed?
As I wrote in the last post on the trip, it was certainly a time of being taken to the end of my 21 year old self, a very young leader taking a team of five to Asia where none of us had ever been. As you read, we needed more money for the new version of the itinerary that had us departing on August 19. On that final morning, our team gathered at the Youth With a Mission (YWAM) office in Tacoma, Washington, still needing the news that our visas for the Soviet Union had been granted and the rest of the money provided. We faced the very real possibility that what happened in July would happen again: the cancelling of our trip and an even deeper humbling to what we had already experienced.
But this morning would be different. Our travel agency had heard from the Soviet Embassy, and they would have our visas waiting for us in Niigata on the west coast of Japan before we flew into Siberia. In the YWAM office we received two phone calls that the rest of our money had come in, and in Seattle-Tacoma airport a bit later the person who took us there gave us money to be used for food on the trip. We were on our way! We even received money from a missionary we met on the airplane to Japan who had worked many years in Vietnam before the war ended.
We arrived in Tokyo, sleeping in the airport as our flight to Niigata would only leave many hours later. Though everything was so strange and different, we were living on adrenaline and the sense of adventure. Late that following morning we boarded the flight and arrived without event in Niigata, about three hours before our connecting flight was to leave for Kamchatka, Siberia, where we were to take the Trans-Siberian railroad to Irkutsk and then by plane to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia.
And now things got even more interesting. We had been told by our travel agent that our Russian visas would be waiting at the Japan Airlines desk in the airport. But as we began to check in, the airline agent told us there were no visas waiting for us. This was a once a week flight, and there was nothing they could do to help us. We would need to go back to Tokyo and go to the Russian embassy ourselves. We pleaded and pleaded, telling this man we did not have money to take a train back to Tokyo, not to mention a flight, and that we were willing to go into the Soviet Union even if we were detained for seven days until the next flight! We wanted that badly to get into a place we had prepared and prayed months for. But that of course was not going to happen.
We left the desk and gathered as a very dejected team. We kept trying right up to the agent telling us that the plane had already left. What do we do now? I was the leader, and had no idea what to do. It was a Friday early evening, and the airport was beginning to close due to being a smaller one with less flights. The other team members went off alone, some in tears, to pray or think. I was left standing with the luggage, feeling like the worst leader in the world. And one that had to do something!
As I prayed in my extremity, my only thought was things could not get worse. And then a heavy rain started outside. We had been told by the airport police we would need now to leave the airport, and had nowhere to go as the local United States consulate had not answered the phone and the train to Tokyo was only the next morning which we did not have money for. As a 21 year old young leader, with the normal insecurities and fears, I had now reached the stage of being beyond hope. I remember looking outside at the rain, the security police around me ready to move us all on. Nowhere to go, no one in those days to help in the pre-cell phone era.
Taken beyond myself. Crying out to a God who seemed really silent. Not knowing which way to turn. Ever been there? It would not be my last time in life, but perhaps was to this day one of the most extreme.
And then I noticed the Japan Airlines man who had tried to help us walking towards me. In his very limited English, he had been very kind but letting us know there was nothing he could do. Now he called us all together, and communicated somehow that he was loading us and our luggage into a van and taking us to his house for the night! We were shocked and didn’t want to receive this incredible gift of unexpected hospitality, but had no other options. When we reached his home, his gracious wife (we had no idea what she really thought of these five young Americans coming into her house for the evening!) prepared us a wonderful dinner.
We went to bed not knowing what the next morning would hold, but upon rising this dear man came to us with five train tickets to Tokyo and some food money for the trip. He made it clear he didn’t expect to be paid back, but with a sense of faith and hope I let him know that we would be back for the flight in a week and would repay him all of it. When we got to Tokyo we went to the YWAM base there, and their hospitality that week was restful and healing. We ended up getting our Russian visas and made it back to Niigata for the next week’s flight. I remember coming back into the airport to check in, seeing Mr. Sen again with a big smile, and paying him back with money we had seen come in miraculously that week. We had also gotten him a Gospel of John in Japanese and tried to communicate what we felt God had done for us and our deep thanks.
A few hours later we were on the ground in Siberia, waiting to take the Trans-Siberian railroad. There were still many adventures ahead in the next three weeks in the Soviet Union and Mongolia, but those stories are for another time.
Needless to say, the experiences of faith and hope (and beyond hope) of July and August 1980 have marked me ever since. We never know what these extremes of life are preparing us for in the future. For me, it would be just two years later, on August 19th 1982, that I would lead a pioneering team for YWAM into Kolkata, India. So many dark and difficult times in those early years there would find me remembering the 1980 adventure, and keep up hope. God had not forgotten me in Niigata, and he would not forget me in Kolkata.
What are you going through in this season? What darkness, what extremity? What place beyond yourself that you never thought you could survive? These are places not meant to destroy us completely, but to strip away the false selves and false masks. To find true self, true life, true hope beyond hope, on the other side.