Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Locked Hearts in the Land of Plenty

There are men in Ukraine who can leave this country without getting married, proposing, or having so much fun they believed it impossible to do either of the previous two.

There are men -- and nineteen or twenty year-old men at that -- who did not busy themselves with the thought of Ukrainian blondinkas when they were flying into Borispol International.

There are men who believe marriage is essential, one of the main reasons for being on earth, but not the reason to be in Ukraine.

In Kharkov, there are maybe thirty of these men. Mormon Missionaries.

"The leaders of our church tell us to 'lock our hearts' while we're here," Elder Larson told me this evening, after I'd attended one of the seven weekly free English lessons offered to Kharkovidians at one of the church's many properties in the city.

Before locking their hearts for their two-year mission, the young men coming to Ukraine (Mormons can serve a mission between the ages of 19 and 26) attend an eleven week training session in Utah. For eight hours a day, they study the Russian language, but while their book instructs them a little bit on how to use a phone or catch a train, it primarily prepares them to preach the gospel.

"When I first came here," Elder Larson said, "I could go up to people and say, 'We're representatives of our church and I'd like to talk to you about the Book of Mormon,' but then they'd start talking and I wouldn't understand a thing."

Because most Missionaries can initially preach the gospel better than they can order a pizza, each new-comer is paired with a Missionary who has already been "in-country" for an extended period of time.

Together, they go out, door to door, all over town, their daily mission to speak to as many people as possible. But even if they are told not to date while on their Mission, that doesn't stop people from trying to penetrate their defenses.

"I've had babas (old women) say, 'I don't want to speak to you about your church, but here, meet my grandaughter.'"

Polite that these young men are, the young women are often invited to English lessons.

Today, at a Mormon Church on Chernyshevskovo Street, there were two English classes on offer, one for beginners, the other for those more advanced.

I approached one of the Elders in the classroom for advanced English speakers, saying I was looking for Elders Larson and Howard, whom I'd previously run into no less than seven times around town. I'd promised to help out one night after they'd let me jump ahead of them in line at the train station to catch the afternoon electrichyesky to Belgorod one afternoon.

"They should be back in thirty minutes," the young man said, "but why don't you stick around. This is the advanced class. It sounds like you belong here."

"I'd hope so," I said. "I'm American."

Twenty-eight people attended the hour-long session, most of them in their twenties or late teens. Two 19-year-old church elders ran the discussion group, splitting us up into groups of five or six and assigning each group a separate holiday. My group got the Fourth of July. We were asked to speak about it to the class as a whole after ten minutes of discussion.

"Excuse me very much," the man next to me said, leaning in with his cigarette breath, "but at Liberty Station, they are having fireworks?"

"The Statue of Liberty?"

"The Statue of Liberty," he said. "Yes."

I nodded. "Great displays of fireworks at the Statue of Liberty. Very impressive."

Of the four Ukrainians in my group, two knew women who'd married a foreigner. One woman knew an old college girlfriend who had been living in Manteca, California for five years now, where she had recently started working as a teacher.

"She's happily married?" I asked.

"Oh yes," she said. "She comes to Kharkov once a year, and this year, her husband also came." With a sly smile, she suggested there were some problems with this, as his last name was French. But we had reached a conversational impasse. Either she couldn't explain or I couldn't understand.

"LeConte?" I said.

She nodded. Again that sly smile.

"I see," I said.

Cigarette Breath leaned in once more, this time with a face I knew well. It was tensed up until the words came out. I know because I wear the same face everyday, before releasing the imperfect Russian words going through my head and hoping they gain a favorable response.

"I know five living in the United States," he said.

"These are women living in the states?"

This confused him. He gave me a blank stare. His teeth were uneven, the tops blackened and sharp.

I revert to yes-no questions at times like this. "Do you know women in the United States who have married an American man?"

"I have five brothers," he said. "Or no, cousins." I nodded, and we somehow got to talking about one of these brothers-cousins-women, who had married a Spaniard but then left him and taken up with a Swede, or no, married a Spaniard living in Sweden.

"They met on the newspapers," he said.

I should have understood but didn't. I repeated what he said.

"She reads his plea, and they write letters."

"On the newspapers!" I nodded. Of course. It had to be an old mail-order bride catalogue or something similar, something from the pre-internet age, because this brother-cousin-woman had married ten years ago, and was now already divorced and loving her new life Sweden.

"I do not want to go to America," Cigarette Breath said, with an apologetic bounce of his eyebrows. "I have an apartment. It is worth $100,000."

He smiled. I nodded and agreed this was a good thing. We talked some more about Independence Day. I mentioned convertibles on parade, beauty queens riding high on the back seat. "They wave like this," I said, doing my best Queen of England. "And then we have barbecues, of course. You know barbecues?"

"We have them now," one man said. "In our stores. They are round."

I agreed they were, and spoke of the many types of meats we cooked. The man familiar with the American barbecue translated the words into Russian so the others could follow along.

"Big poultry?" Cigarette Breath said. "You cook this?"

I looked at him.

He said, "Your nation's bird."

I shook my head. He regrouped.

"You will go into the forest for Independence Day?" he asked.

"No. Not so much," I said. "More a park. We're not a forest-going people like you are. Do you know what a gazebo is?"

After our session, I found Elders Larson and Howard --or Staryeishiny Larson and Howard, as they're known in Russian -- and spoke with them in the hallway near the beginner's classroom. While we spoke, one of the elders asked a passing Ukrainian man of about twenty if he knew anyone who'd married an American -- three girls, he said, before breaking off into a discussion with the two young women facing him, one of whom, before leaving with him out the front door, said she wanted to marry an American too.

But not the Mormons. In addition to the front door introductions of babushkas, they must face down those offered to them by the members of the church in Ukraine, who often want the Missionaries to marry a daughter or grand-daughter and take them home at the end of their two-year stay.

"We don't want to do that," Elder Larson said, "because then we'll be taking away the future of Ukraine -- the growth of the church here. We want to build up the church in Ukraine, and to do that there's got to be a strong youth movement."

Not everyone can do that, though. We are all of us sinners, The Good Book says, and some Missionaries unlock their hearts before getting that exit stamp at Borispol. Sometimes, a missionary is transferred to another city in order to refocus his attention. Once in thirteen years, a young man was sent home for not living up to the church's moral standards.

Then there are those who have come back, including one missionary whose two-year term concluded just four months ago. Within a month, he was on a flight back -- for a young woman. His fellows missionaries gave him a little ribbing for this, Elder Larson said.

"We say, 'If you have time for a girl, you probably weren't preaching the gospel as much as you should have been.'"
Like me, Elder Larson had seen a lot of American men in Ukraine, meeting almost all of them in the internet cafe.

"A lot of them don't come here for marriage," he said. "They come here for the girls -- lots of girls."

At the beginning of our conversation, Elder Howard was arguing the finer points of scripture with a Ukrainian who had an almost lawyerly command of English. Now he joined our talk, the three of us left alone in the hall, and the near grin he had on his face, the unblinking attention he gave me, it all suggested he either had me figured out -- a funny boy journalist here to ridicule them -- or else was half-embarrassed to say what he believed. Already he'd told me that they believed their church had prophets, and that when they sent in their request for a mission, it was these men who divined where the Lord wanted them to be. I think I'd passed a test when I'd gotten through that without a smirk. Now, as I asked him what his church would tell some of these men coming here, he gave that look again and tested me with this:

"We believe the sex act is a sacred gift that should only be shared within the bonds of marriage. It's not a toy. It's a sacred gift that God's entrusted with us -- the god-like gift of creation."

After nine months here, the Mormons were like a dish of peach sherbert between courses of a rich meal. A nice way to cleanse the palette.

I left them in the hall, thanking them for the interview, our goodbyes a little awkward, as they shared a look between them as I started away. Should we? They didn't. I walked home without even the offer of a book.

1 Comment:

don said...

Great post. I recently made an entry on my blog about missionaries. LDS is a subject that I've had an interest in as many in my family are LDS and I live in a place where there it is popular. I've gone to SLC to ski race at Park City in recent years.

I was cycling with a woman from Russia but I met her here. I find your blog interesting and I enjoy it.