Saturday, February 4, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Charity

The administrative center of the Altai region
Masha, still a teen, was an aspiring singer in the Siberian region of Altai.  Blessed with an exquisite voice, she was training at an arts college in her hometown for a life in opera.  Late after class one night, she boarded a bus for the ride home, as was her custom. When she got off at her stop, an assailant stabbed her back, severed her spinal cord, and killed her dream.  Masha would never walk again.

In the rehabilitation center, she cried incessantly, certain her life was over.  She wanted to end her agony by throwing herself out a window, but lacked the physical strength.  Scarce accommodations exist for the integration of the physically challenged in Russia, and without a wheelchair, Masha was homebound.  The radio was her companion, and one day offered escape via an advertisement for the State Specialized Institute of the Arts in Moscow, Russia’s premier college for the handicapped.  Tuition-free, it was a shred of hope, and with her talent, she was readily admitted.
As a Russian paralyzed from the waist down, Masha had no realistic expectation of ever marrying. But a young man named Sasha had dreams which led him to the institute, too.   An accordionist from Ukraine, a car accident damaged his eyes and left him legally blind as a child.  At the school he met Masha, who lived on his dormitory floor and crossed his path in the communal kitchen. 
By Alexei Borovinskiy, a painter with brittle bone disease
Masha used a wheelchair and was dating Sasha by the time our director Hope met them in 1998.  Hope’s friend Mikhail was a fan of flamenco guitar, so he took her to meet Andrei, a student guitarist who’d lost both legs in a train accident. No one at the college had money, so they survived on mashed potatoes, bread, and tea in their shared kitchen.  At such a meal, Andrei introduced his floor mates Masha and Sasha to Hope and Mikhail. Despite the meager fare, Hope had a grand time as they sang around their mounds of potatoes, and the visits became thrice-weekly diversions from her emotionally draining orphanage work. With half the students studying performance arts, and the rest visual arts, all kinds of impromptu performances enlivened these gatherings. Faith, Hope’s free-spirited translator and a pianist herself, found the scene fascinating, and began joining Hope and Mikhail. To help the painters support themselves, Hope and Faith bought their work, selling it in America under the name Russian Fine Art.  They bought everything their friends produced, including paintings they disliked.  Faith refused to throw pieces out, not that it mattered; she could convince anyone to buy when she shared the stories of the artists behind them.
The Lenkom Theater
At one gathering, Masha appalled the group with the story of her humiliation at the Lenkom Theater, one of the most prestigious venues in Russia.  To celebrate her sister’s visit, Masha had splurged on tickets, only to be turned away from the performance by an usher who called her an “invalid.”  Protesting was useless, and she was wheeled out, tickets in hand. All the students felt this affront vicariously, and in a show of solidarity, signed a screed Masha penned the theater.  Hope volunteered to deliver it, thinking she as an American might wield more clout. There, she spoke with the manager, a man curiously named Koreetsa, the Russian word for “chicken.”  Withering in the face of Hope’s inventive threats, Chicken began to eat crow, finally offering Masha and Sasha complimentary tickets to every show the rest of the season. That night at the institute, the students washed down their potatoes with champagne.  They were still celebrating when the phone rang; it was Chicken, calling to apologize.  
Sometime later, the Moscow health department condemned the dormitory, forbidding schools of higher learning from providing lodging.  This decree thoughtlessly disregarded the needs of the disabled students for whom close proximity to classes was crucial.  With nowhere to go, Masha and Sasha readied a cardboard box for life on the street. Hope feared they wouldn’t survive a Moscow winter, so she and Faith drove them around apartment hunting.  While lack of elevators ruled out many possibilities, they finally found a suitable flat; Hope helped with the rent. 
Masha and Sasha graduated, unemployed, married, and with no means of support.  Having overcome monumental struggles, they now despaired, but Hope believed fervently in them and their talent. To encourage, she took them to see a puppet maker at his workshop, then to Pizza Hut for an announcement. After years of potatoes, the two relished their pizza as if they were dining at the Ritz-Carlton, but the best part awaited. At dinner, Hope delivered a rousing speech, professing her confidence in them and urging them to stay positive and persevere under all circumstances.  So sure was she that if they had funds to start a mobile puppet theater, they could get their own gigs and take care of themselves, that there at the Pizza Hut, she pledged the seed money for the venture. Hearing this validation from an American, Masha burst into tears, overcome at the offer to help them start something all their own.
Masha and Sasha seized Hope’s generosity and had a portable stage built, also purchasing costumes, puppets, microphones, and speakers. As their business grew, they became the premier puppeteers in Moscow, and bought one room of a two-room apartment; eventually, they purchased the second room also, and remodeled everything for wheelchair accessibility. Hope remained in Russia another year or so, and on her birthday and every single holiday Masha would call with profuse thanksgiving for changing their lives.  Hope lost track of how often they expressed their gratitude, but guessed 100 times wouldn’t come close.  Of everyone Hope helped in Russia, Masha and Sasha shone for their thankfulness.   
Just a few days before a Moscow Lighthouse Project trip, Hope told me about Masha, Sasha, and their puppet theater; she is typically tight-lipped about what she’s done for others, so I had never heard their story.  Now, I longed to meet them, but their renown had made them difficult to book on short notice.  Faith asked anyway, and given the chance to help Hope and her orphans, they were delighted to squeeze us into their schedule. 

The day of the performance, our hotel graciously accommodated us by removing the furniture from the common area, even dismantling a table, to fit the theater and our crowd of 31 into the room.  As Faith translated, Sasha wedded his prowess on accordion with Masha’s precious puppets for a most jolly match.  Masha sold the show with her sweet smile, and amazed me at how much I could enjoy a spectacle geared toward those three decades my junior.  All Hope had promised was true; the performance itself was a treat, but knowing it was my friend who allowed them to put their God-given talents to use made the show priceless. When the festivity ended, they awed me with their skill in micro-engineering; the stage and props packed remarkably into cases without the waste of even a square inch.   
With her bubbly, can-do attitude, Masha would never call her life difficult, even as it took a path far divergent from the one she’d plotted as a Siberian teen.  Newspapers have told their story, and they are revered in the puppet world, showcasing their talents throughout Russia in the homes of elites.  And though she has not taken a step since that terrible Altai night, Masha and Sasha get around more than most. Sasha’s vision precludes him from driving, but Masha drives a hand control-equipped vehicle.  Their show has taken them to South Korea, Austria, and Germany; with their skills, they could easily emigrate, but they remain Russian to the core.  Their lone regret is being childless; even as orphanages burgeon with waiting children, Russia still denies families with disabilities the right to adopt. 
Masha and Sasha, with Faith and a friend
Masha has leaned on her Christian faith, and on Sasha, who so devotedly provides all her care. Every day in Russia, people like them, without friends like Hope, hold out grimy paper cups to passersby at metro entrances or under bridges, to scratch out whatever existence they can.  In a society which would have marginalized them without any pang of conscience, Hope has watched them rise from rags to riches, and is nearly as proud as they are of where their skills have taken them.  
After they triumphed over so many challenges, Hope couldn’t help but believe in the pair; she says it would have been a waste, and wrong, not to help them.  Living in Russia, devoting her life to orphan care, she found it wasn’t only her orphans who needed her.  There was enough pain to keep an army of saints hopping, and when she opened her eyes, she saw it everywhere.  She gave gladly whenever she could, because everyone was needy.  Knowing one day she would leave Russia, she felt deeply responsible to brighten the days of those desperate ones who’d have to stay. In ten years there, she never found reason for personal depression, because too many people genuinely needed her help.
Hope was repaid with the knowledge she’d made a difference in the lives of two people most of Russia would have ignored, and in other, smaller, ways. On a dozen happy nights, Faith hosted musical evenings at her own apartment and thoughtfully prepared special meals so their friends wouldn’t have to eat mashed potatoes again. Hope’s coworkers would come; occasionally, even adopting families might attend. Faith’s piano playing, Andrei’s flamenco guitar, and “disabled” people sharing gifts few others had bothered to see engendered a most memorable way to pass an evening. 
But Faith and Hope saw those gifts, and cherished them.

Below, Masha and Sasha perform for our orphans.