As part of my university degree, I had to spend four months in St. Petersburg, Russia. The memory of those months will remain deeply imprinted on my mind, as they allowed me to experience the love of brothers and sisters and the wonderful grace and mercy of God.
Those four months seemed the longest and hardest months of my life. Looking back, I am glad that I had that experience, although I hated it at the time. Before I left for Russia, I knew that I would have a long and difficult time ahead, with a different language and culture. Most importantly, the absence of church members meant that it would be a test of my faith. The thought scared me—I didn't know whether I could sustain four months without spiritual support. But thank God for assuring me in my prayers, confirming that He would not leave me alone.
My first glimpse of God's assurance was through a Russian lady. This lady had been in Edinburgh (Scotland) for a couple of days and was supposed to return to London. Somehow she missed the last train to London. Not knowing what to do, with nowhere to stay, she wandered in the streets of Edinburgh. Amazingly she ended up at a church brother's take-away shop and asked him for help. The brother called my aunt, and later that evening, my cousins took the Russian lady to their home. They gave her food and offered her a room for the night. The next morning before this lady left for London, she exchanged addresses with my cousins. She told them that I should contact her once I went over to St. Petersburg. When I learned of this incident, I knew that it was God's providence.
Why did this lady from St. Petersburg appear in Edinburgh? Why did she miss the last train to London? And why, of all the take-away shops on that busy street, did she enter the one belonging to our church brother?
I was deeply moved because I realized that God had answered my prayers. He was reassuring me that He would be with me to hold my hand and lead the way. He would not leave me alone. I was much comforted by this incident. Later I managed to meet with this lady in Russia and enjoyed her hospitality. We have become good friends and I hope that one day, she too will be able to experience the love of God. Truly, God had opened a way.
The second incident that I would like to share demonstrates the importance of prayer. After some time in Russia, I felt alone and depressed. The weather was not improving; I was not getting anywhere with the language. My faith was dwindling. I felt so weak that prayer was an arduous task. On many occasions I did not feel like praying even though my heart reminded me that I had to. Once, when my cousin called, I told her how difficult it was to get myself to pray and how lonely I felt. She reminded me that I should always pray no matter how weak I felt. If we do not even take that first step to pray, how will God help us? For Him to draw near to us, we have to first reach out to Him.
After that call, I prayed for God's forgiveness and help — I could not do it alone. I desperately needed God, the only one who could help me. I realized then the importance of prayer. If I stopped, I would lose all contact with God. This would then inevitably lead to the death of my spiritual life. I did not want that to happen — I could not let it. Not after all that God had done for me. I owed Him that much at least.
Another incident that helped me in my struggling faith was a card I received from a sister. On hearing of my unhappiness and loneliness she wrote: "I just wanted to cheer you up and let you know that a lot of people are thinking about you and praying for you."
As I read this, tears welled up in my eyes. I was very touched, yet deeply ashamed. Brothers and sisters out there were praying for me! But I couldn't even find the strength to pray. It was so comforting to learn that members still remember me. They have left an indelible impression in my heart and have enabled me to understand the importance of intercessory prayers.
Finally, an incident proved that God was guiding me to the very end. On June 25th—the day I was leaving for home—my director checked my passport to see that my visa was in order. We were traveling on the coach to the airport when he looked at me gravely and asked, "Where is your visa?"
I looked at him and replied, "Is that not it?" pointing to a stamp in my passport.
He shook his head and said, "No, the visa is on a piece of paper. It's all over now. I can't believe this is happening. You can't leave today. There's no way." I stared at him and started to cry. I was horrified. It was like a nightmare come true.
"Is there no way that I can leave the country today?" I sobbed.
"No chance." Apparently what had happened was that when I first arrived, the police had taken my passport and visa but had not returned the visa to me. For the next forty-five minutes, I cried all the way to the airport while my director and two classmates tried in vain to find a solution. The only way was to postpone my journey home. The thoughts of having to stay in Russia alone without my classmates for another day or two sent shivers up my spine. I could not stay a minute longer.
Once at the airport, my director told me not to take my luggage, as it was pointless. I felt as if I was breaking down and that the whole world was against me. The director contacted the immigration officer at the airport to see what could be done. Initially, the officer was not hopeful, but after some discussion, he agreed to see if there was anything he could do. Meanwhile, my director was shoving me through customs because I was late already. However, I could not check in yet because the officer had taken away my passport. By this time, the check-in counter was closing. The staff asked me why I wasn't checking in so I explained that the officer had taken away my passport to process my visa. They started to question me: What officer? What did he look like? Why did he take your passport?
All kinds of scenarios flashed through my mind. I thought, "Oh great! I've given my passport to a hoaxer. Now I'm well and truly stuck here." However, the staff reassured me that I would get my passport back. Another ten minutes later the officer came back with my passport and visa. I hurriedly checked in and successfully went through passport control. I was going home!
They say that it is only with hindsight that we understand God's will. No, I did not enjoy my time in Russia, but looking back on it now, I am glad I had that experience as it enabled me to strengthen my faith in God. I now truly understand that wherever I go, God will always be my Guide and at my side. He will never leave me alone, guiding my every step to the heavenly kingdom. I know that I am always indebted to Him for showing me such great love and proving to me that He is with me all the way. May all glory be unto God.