Big Life with Ray Waters Neal Campbell no

In 1996, I made my first trip to Russia. With quite a bit of nervousness, I bordered a plane and flew to Helsinki, Finland then traveled by boat to Tallin, Estonia. There I hooked up with a couple of other guys from America who were going to be spending the next three weeks with me. One of the men was a journalist for a Christian newspaper, and the other guy was a humanitarian aid worker. We would be traveling in a late 1960’s military jeep and would be giving the vehicle to a church group upon our arrival in Russia.

The bumpy ride across the small Baltic country was exhilarating. Because I was the youngest, I volunteered to sit in the back of the jeep with the luggage. When we came to the Russian border, I was genuinely excited. The soldiers asked us to allow them to look through our bags. Fortunately, the humanitarian aid worker with us understood Russian, and he told them that would be ok.

As I was standing behind the jeep, the journalist came up to me and said he needed to tell me something. He said, “Ray, I think we might be in some trouble.”

OK, put your self in my shoes for just a moment. There are men all around me with submachine guns. There is a tower just off of the road where more soldiers are watching the border. And this guy I don’t know well is telling me ‘we might be in some trouble”.

He continued. “I have a loaded gun in that trunk.” He was speaking of the next piece of luggage about to be inspected.

I immediately felt myself growing a little faint. I remembered reading about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident who had written The Gulag Archipelago. Was I about to be arrested because of my traveling companions foolishness? I couldn’t run – so I did the only thing left to do. I prayed. I do not know if I have ever offered a more direct prayer in my life. “God, I am sorry this man I am traveling with is an idiot. Please, please, please don’t let the soldiers find his gun. And Lord, if they do find his gun, please let them know that it is his gun and that I would not/did not bring a loaded gun into Russia.” Well, you get the idea. It was very heartfelt, and I was petrified.

When the soldier opened the trunk to inspect it, I felt sweat running down the side of my face. My mind was jumping all over the place. There was an element of the ordeal that seemed like a movie with the soldiers all smoking their cigarettes and speaking in their native tongue. Almost simultaneous with that thought came the picture of me doing hard labor in Siberia. And in between the random thoughts and the sweat, I kept praying.

Then a funny thing happened. A jar of honey was in the trunk. The journalist had brought it to give to our Russian host family. On the bumpy ride across Estonia, the jar had broken. The soldier pulled his hand out of the trunk in disgust, wiping the sticky substance from his fingers. With that, he waved for us to put our bags back in the jeep and to cross into Russia. The gun was taped to a can of beans packed a couple of inches away from the honey.

Things worked out, and I am grateful. But I have never forgotten how close I came to the gulag. Thank God for a broken glass of honey.

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