By the second week of our Craftsbury/Greensboro trip, most of us were tired of the same rhythms. Most of our days had been painfully alike: wake up, leave to ski at the venue at 10am, wax skis afterwards, jog in the afternoons, make dinner, and have meetings about marketing our team and our grouprev fundraiser. This last piece particularly had some of us feeling a bit overwhelmed and so Becca, who was clearly annoyed at the obsession, instituted a mandatory movie-watching the night before the race. The movie was “Pitch Perfect,” a rom-com centered on the college acapella scene. It was a fantastic!
I mention this episode because it was weirdly connected to a young man I sat next to on the airplane on my way to Minneapolis several days later. I had noticed him already in the airport and picked him out as the inevitable person who I would come into contact with again throughout my travels. Sure enough I saw him standing two people in front of me as we boarded the airplane. He was tall and thin, about my age, and filled with a strange energy. He would smile to himself every few moments and then put on a serious expression when he noticed the other passengers, like a child trying to keep a secret. It was very strange and even disconcerting to see someone with this demeanor in the sterile passageways of an international airport.
It just happened that my seat was right next to his. I was determined to figure out what he was all about and struck up a conversation with him. I learned that he was on his way to meet a friend for a road trip from Minneapolis all of the way down to Mississippi, then back around the East Coast to Minneapolis. Innocent enough, I thought to myself. I told him a little about myself–how I was on my way to the American Birkebeiner, what being a professional skier entailed, how I made money, etc.–and he seemed interested. He had noticed I was carrying a guitar and asked me if I was a musician. I said no, and for some strange reason started telling him about Pitch Perfect, the movie we had watched in Craftsbury, maybe since it was vaguely related to music. I noticed, however, that when I mentioned the movie he became strangely silent. I pressed him on this and he somewhat sheepishly told me why: he was a Mennonite and out of tradition Mennonites did not watch TV, nor, for that matter did they listen to music with instruments (“We believe the proper way to praise God is just with your own voice.”). So, that explained the mystery of the strange air he emanated, and also perhaps why he seemed not to fit in with his surroundings: someone who doesn’t watch TV surely wouldn’t enjoy the constant screen flashes of an airport. I was curious about his faith, however, and asked him more. He explained it rationally and sincerely but without proselytizing or, as far as I could tell, without judging me the infidel. And when he learned I had an interest in Russia, he proceeded to tell me a story that blew my mind and made me want to join his faith:
“My brother was one year into a two-year mission trip in Samara, in the South of Russia. Over the months he learned the language and became quite fluent in Russian, and invited me and father [yes he called his dad “father” when talking to strangers] to visit him in Samara. I had been traveling in Europe at the time, and paid a few hundred dollars for a visa and was able to get into the city, while my father flew in from his home in a small town in Alberta. My brother met us at the international airport and showed us town. He delighted in being in control of the situation by virtue of his knowing the language, and took us around to all of the missionary activities he was involved in. After a few days, we set off for a village outside of town–a Mennonite village which was a rarity in the largely Orthodox Russia. Historically, the village had been settled there near the end of the 18th century after the Tsarina Catherine issued an edict inviting all Europeans to settle in the Russian Empire and even offered exemption from military service, as Mennonites are devoted pacifists. In this village we were astonished to meet Mennonite villagers who shared our last name, Weib. How could it be, we thought, that someone could be related to us in this hinterland of hinterlands? Father was furious that he didn’t know more Russian and couldn’t communicate with these hosts and was at his wits end trying to confirm common ancestry. Now, as you may know, there was once Mennonite language called Plautdietsch, a German dialect that was once passed down through the generations as the Mennonites spread across the earth, and though my father didn’t know the language, his father had taught them many hymns and lullabies in the forgotten tongue. Father remembered one of these songs and started singing an ancient lullaby of which he didn’t know the meaning. And to our astonishment, our hosts joined in perfectly! What more did we need to prove a common ancestry!?”
I too was amazed with the story and at my seat-mate’s delightful retelling of it. The story, the coincidence of it–or perhaps the inevitability of it–was somehow familiar, and I was struck with the realization of how being part of a community makes it easy to connect to people across the world.