It was the Soviet Union, when Ukraine and Russia were the same country, and Christianity was second class, or even worse. Foreign visitors to church were rare. Actually, visitors of any ilk were rare because going to church was, according to propaganda, backwards at best, ignorant and embarrassing.
So, I found myself in Ukraine, my first time in Odessa, well before Odessa Theological Seminary was permitted to exist as an institution of higher learning. People hand-copied the Bible or portions of it. The Christian faith could close doors on academic careers and careers in general. If you went too far, you could be sent to labor camps or admitted against your will to a psychiatric hospital. To believe in a god you could not see was crazy, irrational. The Soviets had documentation that Christians drank blood and sacrificed children.
To me, however, Ukraine was a sort of garden. Things grew there. The people were welcoming, friendly even. It was refreshingly agrarian.
On an earlier visit to Russia, when I expressed interest in visiting Ukraine, a Russian acquaintance shrugged me off. “Ukrainians are just silly,” she said. “There really isn’t a good translation for what I mean.” Don’t waste your time. Looking back, it seems like an eerie premonition of the war we call a conflict raging now under Vladimir Putin.
In the Soviet Union, going church was a highlight of any visit to either country. I still remember the people I met, the choirs, the long impassioned prayers, the recitation of poetry as part of worship, three or sometimes four sermons, including greetings from guests like me from America, women with scarves on their heads praying, weeping, praying more, men in buttoned suits and big ties, and eyes weary of manual labor jobs eating up their days; then trying to teach from the Bible with almost no training or resources.
We gave our greetings from our church and Christians in America. I probably mentioned College Church specifically.
As I looked out at the congregation, I saw in the front row, a young man in a suit sitting next to a young woman in what looked to be a wedding gown. They sat through the multi-sermon, multi-hour service. At the end of the service, the pastor called them to the pulpit. They both stood up with some friends and family, and they were married. A Russian-German man who was traveling with me explained afterwards that this was the way Christians married there. Instead of the focus of the marriage at a Soviet wedding palace, with flowers placed before a statue of Lenin after the ceremony, Christian weddings were part of church services.
The worship service that morning was closer the three hours than two. But the wedding part of the service was probably only ten or 15 minutes. After the service, the man who stood up with the groom (I guess they have “best man” tradition like us) came up and invited us to the wedding reception/party. He said that it would be an honor for them to have us with them at the celebration. We went. We ate amazing food the women of the church prepared. It felt like we became part of the wedding party. We were included in the wedding photos. We ate more. We gave them greetings and best wishes for their new life together. They told us that God had brought us there from across the globe to witness their wedding and be a part of the service. They had a special place for us to sit. We kept eating—the food never stopped. This went on for hours. And the cakes over there are so very different from ours.
At a certain point, I wandered away from the festivities and walked in a cherry orchard. The sweet cherries were hanging from the trees. I remembered trips to Cherry Valley (California) when I was a boy and eating all the cherries I could at the pick-your-own orchards. Suddenly, there I was with sweet, ripe cherries dangling from trees in Ukraine, and I couldn’t help but wonder at God. It was really amazing that he had brought me to this place.
The Christians there saw that truth better than I ever could. God brought us to the wedding, and that made us special people to them. I will likely never see the wedding couple again until heaven.
But I rejoice that wedding feast in Ukraine and the bride and groom and all of the wedding guests will join me at another wedding feast that the Lamb has prepared for us in heaven; a feast that as the bride of Christ we will enjoy forever with him.