Kudos to my wonderful family for managing to hide from me and trick me into thinking that the one thing I most wanted for my 50th birthday was not going to happen – a surprise party.
The ruse was laid well. We all went out Friday afternoon to a mysterious spot in the south of the city and waited to meet someone. I was already thinking, “maybe the party will be at someone else’s place.” But then Arseny showed up. I’d never met Arseny. In fact, I’d never met an Arseny. I remember Arsenio Hall, but that was as close as it got for me. Turned out he was a rather unusual tour guide – one who takes people to the underbelly of the city. And by gum, it was an interesting tour! We wandered through some interesting parts of late 19th Century and early 20th Century industrial Petersburg. His passion was for teaching people how industry and the working class helped to shape the history of this great city.
The tour culminated in a place we’d never heard of, though it was a monumental complex – an abandoned rubber factory that had for many years employed tens of thousands of people. It was like walking through ancient ruins, but not so ancient. Nonetheless there was a beauty to it. We found old galoshes they used to make. Kerith found some drafting plans that he took home. We found a movie crew filming some super hero. There was an abandoned church built right into the middle of it to give them some semblance of meaning. Otherwise the conditions were so bad that they died in their forties. By the end of its life in the 1970’s the Soviet government was letting it put along with no purpose or profit. They were actually paying people to make rubber shoes in one room only to be ground down in the next and sent back to the first – all in the name of full employment.
We were exhausted from the long walk, but I agreed to grab a few extra things on the way home for dinner. Diana had set a crock pot with my special request for the day, and I could hardly wait to dig in. But when I walked in the living room, I was indeed, and completely surprised. About 30 Russian friends and people I had trained over the years had planned something that would cause my crock pot to have to wait for another day.
Of course there was a ton of food. But the highlight was something I hadn’t even expected when I had dreamed of this day: Diana had gone to a bunch of people from my past and asked them to prepare a video message for me. Lydia had knocked herself out in preparing it. Not only was it very moving to see and experience, but I later found out what an impact it had had on all the people there, to get to have more insight into the ancient history of this man who had so deeply invested in their lives.
At the end Sveta, my right hand in ministry, presented me with an album that she and others had prepared from testimonies and blessings from scores of people from over the years. Of course I will still be reading and re-reading that one when I can’t walk anymore one day. She, and my boys also knocked themselves out all that month before (I later learned, preparing the materials, inviting people, organizing, etc.). To say I was blown away by the outpouring of love would be insulting the magnitude of everyone’s gift to me.
I sat my family down that night and told them why this was so special to me and why I was so grateful. Gifts will pass. Cake will pass. Activity even usually comes to nothing. But the investment you make in people, in relationships, in legacy, that is the only thing that counts. My riches were put on display that evening in a way that will probably never happen again for the rest of my life. I don’t know how long God will grant us to stay in this amazing city. I hope for much longer, but I don’t know. But I will never have the longevity that my father had, that he also got to celebrate in a surprise party that practically the whole town was involved in, when he turned 80, three years before he died. For me to have been given something approaching that gift was a blessing I’ll never forget.