Not many years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the university where I work asked us to host four teenage girls from Novosibirsk, Russia in our home. My Russian was far from perfect, but one of the young ladies spoke a little English, and between the two of us we were able to communicate.
After a fun filled Americanized evening consisting of pizza, pop, Ding-Dongs, and Twinkies, we sat down for our family’s nightly scripture reading. As we did, the girls started talking excitedly and rapidly in Russian so I was only able to catch snatches of their conversation.
One of them, speaking to the others, pointed to the book I held and ask them if they thought it was a Bible. The others shrugged and said they didn’t know.
“I doubt it could really be a Bible,” one girl replied.
“Why don’t you ask him?” the girls asked of the girl that knew a bit of English.
She shook her head and seemed concerned that it might offend me. Having learned from a Russian friend about their government’s anti religious views, I was afraid that our reading might, in turn, offend them. In my broken Russian I told them that it was indeed a Bible and we read from it as a family every night. I told them further, that if it bothered them they didn’t need to join us.
Instead of being offended the girls swarmed around me. “Can we touch it?” one girl asked.
I held it out to them and they excitedly took it, and carefully leafed through its pages. My wife asked me about their excitement and what was going on and I said I wasn’t sure. After the girls had spent some time with it, I was finally able to get them to explain their enthusiasm.
They said that since Novosibirsk was a scientific city, the citizens had received a lot of privileges. However, they were also the first to be expected to live the Communistic ideas. That included abolishing anything religious. Though they weren’t born when it happened, their older relatives talked of the “purging day” when all religious things, especially Bibles and other such books, were burned.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall, religious freedom was beginning to flourish, but getting hold of anything was really hard. Most people especially wanted to read a Bible. Some of the older generation had read from one in their youth, and hungered to do so again, while the younger generation had an unsatiable curiosity about it.
“But,” the one girl continued on in Russian, “we only know of two Bibles left in the whole city.”
I thought I misunderstood. In a city of almost 1.5 million there surely had to be more than two Bibles, but the girls insisted that if there were more they were hidden. One girl said the Bible’s owners rented them out, but only if a person deposited 100,000 rubles ($3000), and then paid 1000 rubles ($30) per week in rent.
The girls spent a long time looking through the Bible, and when they finished, we did our nightly reading. As everyone went to bed, I considered the freedoms I take so much for granted, including the fact that a person can read whatever they like, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, or anything else.
As I considered what a privilege that is, I decided to do something about it. I called my Russian teacher and asked if he knew where I could purchase a Russian Bible. He said he had one I could buy. I immediately went to his house and bought it.
The next day my family presented it to the girls, making them promise not to use it to gain money, but only to share. They said they would, and carefully packed it into their luggage. The girl that knew a little English then turned to me and smiled as she spoke.
“Now, Novosibirsk have three Bibles.”
And, as for me, each Fourth of July I think about their visit, and it makes me more grateful for freedoms that I take for granted each day.