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6. We Went Through Fire and Water

But You led us to a place of abundance. (Psalm 66:12)

I ached for her. 

She was so innocent and they were so cruel. My training prepared me to face these hostile Communist government officials. Hers did not. After all, she was just a Grandmother on a visit to meet her newborn grandson. 

My Mother’s visit to Warsaw had gone well. Well...mostly. She was out of her comfort zone, yet worked cheerfully to help run Grand Central Station in and out of our home. She was not accustomed to standing in line for milk at the store, so she left that to others. 

And, unexpectedly, a buried personal pain surfaced for her, as raw wounds were laid bare again. In World War II she sacrificed the life of her oldest brother to free this nation from the Nazis, and now Poland was in the hands of the Communists. A painful memory stared her in the face each morning she awoke, a lesson, not out of a history book, but out of her own life. 

All too quickly the visit ended. The morning of departure was bitter sweet. She was ready to go, but she was not ready to leave. Her presence brought such joy and comfort. I, especially, would miss her when she left. Austria and Switzerland were next on her itinerary, and the plans were fixed.

Hugs, suitcases, more hugs - all international missionaries know the scenario. Finally the car was loaded. She waved to the little ones standing on the porch until the car turned the corner and they were out of sight. Over cobblestone streets Larry and I drove our Precious Cargo to the airport.

Will you take the mail? The loaded question posed to her the night before her departure definitely held an agenda. Taking the mail meant taking a risk. Our small clandestine missionary team was growing, and we secretly shuttled each other’s uncensored correspondence to family and churches when any one of us left the borders of this totalitarian state. If caught transporting such contraband, there would be consequences. 

She bravely agreed to be a currier, knowing this bundle would add tension to her departure. The stack of letters was hidden in her suitcase in hopes of N E V E R being unearthed. If the letters were found, each person with a letter in the stack would be incriminated.

Airport procedures in this oppressive society were never pleasant. Lines at check-in were endless, and only served to intensify frayed emotions. Finally, we said our last good-byes as she was cleared to proceed to Exit Customs. We hoped it would only be a formality. We were wrong.

Exit Customs was in a confining concrete room with long tables. This staged a theatrical-like scene allowing anyone in the departure hall to gawk. One by one passengers were questioned, documents were examined, and suitcases were investigated. If all went well, you were dismissed to repack your bags and board your plane.  'Routine' was the desired outcome for all travelers leaving Communist Poland.

In a matter of minutes, it became evident my Mother’s departure was not to be ‘Routine’ or quick. The look on her face was one I recognized - a look of desperation that said, “I am helpless. What should I do??” In this stark customs facility these powerful Communist officials wielded an authority over my Mother that was far beyond her ability to navigate.

What had gone wrong? 

A language misunderstanding to the interview question, “How much money are you carrying?” gave an answer they did not like. So, she was singled out for further scrutiny. Her lovely pale blue pants suit spoke American and she became their target.

What about the mail? 

It was discovered. In the suitcase inspection, the bundle of letters was found.
Heaven and earth stood still while the uniformed military official s l o w l y turned the string-tied stack over and over under the examination of his powerful, decision making gaze. What if's were screaming in my head.

What could I do?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Helplessness is a power all to itself, and in my helplessness I cried out in desperation to the only Power that could intervene. “Oh God, please blind the eyes of this official. Please remove any interest he has in the bundle in his hands. Please release my Mother from the grip of this situation. Please, God, set her free to leave.”

Intervention is God’s Specialty, and intervene He did. With the speed of a glacier, the official put the letters down, and my Mother placed them back into her American Tourister. With a sneer and a wave of his hand, the Customs Official gave my Mother the final souvenir of her trip, a rubber stamp on a piece of paper granting her permission to leave the country. 

The Austrian Air flight was about to leave without her, so she hastily shoved all her personal effects back into her luggage. Across the hall we feebly waved one final farewell. We were weak with relief. I have never been so glad to see my Mother go! 

This entire episode was cruel and unnecessary. However, my Mother was only briefly subjected to a treatment an entire population had to face on a daily basis: demeaning, dehumanizing intimidation. It would be 1989 before there would be a Change, before a Grandmother could visit without harshness and harassment for taking the mail.

A life lesson was woven for me that day, dark threads in the tapestry of a sweeping mural: God specializes in Protection, yet God’s Protection may still include pain.