Lost in Odesa
I’ve never been so lost as in the summer of 1999. Brent (a doctoral student) and I visited Odesa, Ukraine to teach classes on pastoral counseling at two local seminaries. Nestled on the shore of the Black Sea, Ukraine’s third largest city carries both stunning beauty and deep sadness fostered by years of communist control.
On the first night of our visit, we strolled downhill to Taras Shevchenko Park where we wandered through large, open spaces as we shared good conversation. We gazed out over the sea and wondered aloud about the history of this strategic port city. As the sky began to darken, we decided to head back up the hill toward the apartment that was to be our temporary home for the week.
The thing about walking home in a foreign city where the street signs are in Russian and people on the street speak either Russian or Ukraine is that it’s easier to get lost than one might think, and oh so hard to be found. A helpless feeling settled in as Brent and I wandered aimlessly looking for an apartment we could no longer locate on a street we could neither find nor pronounce.
Our missionary host had slipped a piece of paper in my jacket pocket as Brent and I left the door earlier that evening, mentioning that anyone in Odesa would be happy to serve as a cab driver if we just waved a hand in the air. So eventually we did—two American males embarrassed to be lost and sheepish about asking directions—but lost enough to swallow our pride and get the help we needed.
Sure enough, we raised our hand and the first car in the vicinity stopped. The driver looked at that sliver of paper that presumably had an address in Russian and drove 15 minutes to get us back home, stopping twice to ask people on the streets where our lost street might be located. Clearly, we had wandered far in the wrong direction. Eventually, he found the street and the apartment as dark settled in for the night. We offered our driver some hryvnia—a bit more than our host had suggested because we were a bit more grateful than anyone might have anticipated—smiled at this kind stranger, said Spasibo (thank you, in Russian), and walked gratefully through the door of a missionary’s apartment that suddenly felt like the safest place on earth. We were lost, and then we were found.
As I write this reflection almost 23 years later, I sense the lostness of that dear driver and his family and friends as their beloved city is about to be bombed and attacked by the same authoritarian regime that held their country captive from 1922 to 1991. My heart aches for the people of that beautiful city, for all the sorrow they have known, and for all that is barreling toward them this day.
As for me, I still get lost sometimes, and hope for the grace of others to help me find my way back home. Every now and then I glimpse a cruelty that takes my breath away and reminds me how harsh this world can be.
Tonight I am praying for courage amidst the harshest cruelty Odesa has known for decades, that somehow whispers of grace and gratitude might land in that war-torn land from across the oceans and the years, offering hope for a better day.