That was 30 years ago…I wonder what’s next?
Charles David Kelley
On Saturday October 31, 2015 I will return to Latvia for my umpteenth time. I quit counting the trips in 2007 when the number hit one hundred. As I prepare for this trip I find myself thinking of my first trip. It was exactly half of my life ago. I was 30 years old, going to Latvia for what I thought would be a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. My purpose was to learn about the land on my mother’s side of the family, visit relatives and possibly speak in a church or two.
I wrote about one highlight in my book Surprised by the Father’s Plan. I re-read the story today and I am still amazed at what happened. So will you.
I picked up my suitcase with clammy hands and moved another step forward. The cold gray concrete slabs of the Leningrad airport sent a chill through my bones. Another step forward. I was surrounded by other Latvian-Americans and their assorted luggage, but as one mass we were concentrated on the narrow lanes before us that each converged into a one-on-one stare-down with a hard-eyed Soviet customs officer.
I was part of a group guided by Intourist, the tourist arm of the KGB. We were all Americans with Latvian roots, and I had the unmistakable impression that the Soviet guards would do anything to show their power.
I am an American, I recited internally. I am an American . . . surely they won’t harm me. But we were all Americans here, including the elderly woman trembling in front of me. Suddenly she was whisked away, strip-searched, and interrogated. I waited. When she returned to the line, she was in a state of shock. The guards continued overturning each suitcase, meticulously searching for contraband.
My grandfather’s stories flashed before my mind as I took another step closer to the inquisitors. Men, women, and children herded into cattle cars and left to die in the heat of a Latvian summer. Mass graves in the deep forests. Imprisonment and exile. Interrogation at the Communist headquarters. The flames of his city as he fled with his family on a German cargo ship, a smoked ham strapped on his back. He had paid such a price for his escape. Was I now to throw it all away?
When I had entered the Soviet Union two weeks earlier, I had been forced by a high-ranking KBG customs officers to sign a statement that I would take all of the Christian literature I was carrying with me out of the country again when I left. But I had been deeply touched by the commitment, oppression, and deprivation of the Christians I had met with in Latvia, and I had left the Bibles and other theological materials with several pastors in Riga. And now I was leaving with empty hands.
Ahead of us a guard ripped the film out of a woman’s camera and threw the exposed roll on the floor. My grandfather’s warning back in California echoed in my mind: Chuck, be careful. They will seize any opportunity to take Charles Singer’s grandson and arrest him. They can no longer touch me, but you are walking into their hands. The line lurched forward again.
As I gripped my suitcase and moved another step closer, I repeatedly prayed the prayer made famous by Brother Andrew in his Bible-smuggling adventures into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: “Lord, in the New Testament it says that you made blind eyes to see. Today, Lord, I ask you to make seeing eyes blind.”
Too soon I was at the head of the line. The hardened customs official in the dark gray uniform looked at my rumpled suit and my suitcase at my side. I reached out my passport and travel documents, but she ignored them. “Next!” she called, already reaching for the documents of my mother behind me. I looked around dumbly. “Next, next!” she said impatiently, clearly motioning me on.
With a start, I realized I was free to leave now, free to board the plane that would carry me home from this first introduction to the country of my mother and grandparents and my youthful imaginings. I had walked the bridge of my grandfather’s sufferings back to the land of his birth, and now God was providing the bridge back to my own home. It was a story that had begun long before my birth, and, after what I had just experienced in these last two weeks, I was certain that it was far from over.
* * * * *
That was 30 years ago. I was right in that it was far from over. I wonder what’s next?
Surprised by the Father’s Plan was written in 2005 by Charles David Kelley and Kristen Zetsche and published by Bridge Media Group. It is available in both hardback and CD audio formats. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to order.