I felt like I had walked onto the set of a documentary. Over the years we had watched many, many documentaries on Siberian people groups. So many, that they all seemed to blur together. Someone from an urban western culture sets out to discover the people who live in the coldest inhabited place on earth, or another of the extreme definitions that this land encompasses. He goes first to the city and is severely warned and given heavy winter clothing. Then someone takes him on a harrowing journey inland till they meet up with a nomadic reindeer herding tribe. Around them are tents, and herds of animals, some restrained and some wandering around free. And this was where I was now standing. Young adults were practicing their lasso roping skills. Children were running after one another in the snow. Older adults were watching it all happening. There were a couple other vehicles but not nearly enough that they could have brought all these people to the clearing beside the frozen river. But their were enough deer. Had they really all come on reindeer? The abundance of sleds indicated that was probably the case.
We were one day early, coming up from our apartment in the closest city. It had taken us most of a day’s travel on icy roads that even someone who grew up in Canada found unnerving. The reindeer races started the next day but we had without invitation wandered down to the grounds anyway hoping we might be able to meet someone.
I had felt like an outsider many times before. We had been in Russia nearly 10 years at this point and although you should always be on the lookout for cultural differences we were now familiar with most of them. With the Russian population that is. The indigenous population is different again. I knew many Evenki people and was studying their language and culture. But, I have never felt like an outsider as sharply as I did at that moment.
They saw us arrive no doubt, and nobody was bothered when we walked closer to watch the roping game. Mostly they ignored us. We weren’t expected or particularly welcome. They weren’t threatened by us, but they weren’t interested either.
The next day everything was different. Evenki culture was on display, and for sale. A huge area on the frozen river had been cleared for car parking and visiting tourists (mostly Russians) were greeted with fire-roasted meat, dried berries, warm mittens and reindeer fur boots. All of course, at prices that included their authenticity as the main selling point. The tents (more than the day before) were now better decorated and a stage with a sound system had been set up front and centre. This was a cultural festival! The races were run on circuits up and down the river, start and finish clearly marked. We dressed the kids and ourselves in all our warmest gear. Not because it was colder than we were used to (-25 or -30?) but because we expected to be outside for most of the day.
The races were announced from the loud speakers, nearly unintelligibly, in Russian. Prizes were also given for the most beautiful tent and finest traditional costumes. Speeches were given, administrations thanked and those with position given their due.
It was a fun and engaging event. We stayed as long as we could muster, getting all the appropriate photos and experiences, including reindeer rides for the kids. I enjoyed it. But I couldn’t help but think that the “real thing” had been the day before.
I wonder if that’s what church feels like for some people? A big show put on for the sake of outsiders. We put a lot of effort into the atmosphere of the day, making sure everyone feels welcome and finds something they enjoy. All of our best skills are on display. No expense is spared. All of the right people speak and are properly acknowledged.
But what if that’s not really what the people want? Ok, maybe it is what some of them want. But, it’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be seen the day before. I would much preferred to have been invited inside one of those beautiful tents, maybe a cup of tea and a genuine conversation. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to listen and understand. I wanted relationship.
The closest I got that day to genuine friendship was when I managed to barter for the frozen, fresh side of reindeer meat I bought. I impressed the family by using what I had learned of their Evenki language rather than relying on the Russian language we shared in common.
There were other meetings, other festivals, other relationships when we did get to know Evenki people in a genuine way. But this wasn’t one of them.
Sometimes the best parts of church actually happen after church. Who is it in your life that you are wanting to share the message of Jesus with? May I suggest that a cup of tea and a real conversation give you a much better starting point than the best polished and practiced church event. I’m not even saying those things are not good! I think they serve a purpose. The Evenki people are worth celebrating with a specatular cultural event. And no less the gospel. But the best accomplishment of these events is when they open opportunities for relationship, they are not of themselves relational.
It’s not easy to let outsiders in. It takes as much courage on the part of the established community as it does on the approaching outsider. But, the risk is worth it. We have so much to learn from each other.
Melody Kube, along with her husband Paul and 3 children have recently returned to Australia after 12 years in mission in Siberian Russia. She works with Traverse, helping local churches find their potential in all geographies of Mission. She blogs about Nomadism and the Bible and the big picture of World Missions. Currently living in Melbourne’s outer east and dreaming of a country life.