There are always surprises that occur during our trip overseas. Sometimes we see unusual buildings or incredible natural scenery that we had not expected to see. Sometimes we face a difficult problem, maybe a misunderstanding because of language, and a stranger steps up and kindly assists us in finding a solution. But most often, we meet someone, either by introduction from a mutual acquaintance, or perhaps by coincidence, and that new acquaintance significantly enhances the satisfaction and enjoyment of our travel. Meeting Ablai Iispaevj, our translator for the Almaty fair proved to be just such an occurrence.
I actually met Ablai at his high school October 17th where we held a mini-fair that Friday. He continued his assignment on Saturday afternoon during the main fair held at the hotel. On Friday, as soon as he removed his jacket, I noticed he was wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars tee shirt. I asked him about how he came into possession of a shirt with Jacksonville on it, and if that had influenced his choice of requesting to work with us.
He replied that his sister had brought him the shirt as a souvenir when she worked at a camp in Jacksonville, Florida last summer. Subsequently, he had done some research and determined that we were actually from Alabama, but that he decided to wear the shirt with Jacksonville on it anyway. I then inquired as to how his sister had known about the camp and then was selected to work in Florida, given that Almaty is practically a world away, in more ways than one.
His reply surprised me! He said that her church had helped her find that summer job. His next comment approached incredulity. He said, “We belong to a Baptist church here in Almaty.” How likely is it that a life-time Baptist, the son of a Baptist pastor who served in that capacity for more than 50 years, would have the sort of encounter I had in Kazakhstan!
I then asked if his parents were also Christians. He said his mother was Turkish and a Muslim, and his father was an atheist. His sister had become friends with members of this house church which she now attends, and he too had decided to make a similar decision. I said that since we believe that all Christians are members of the same family, it was good to meet him. “Oh,” he said, “my brother in Christ” and gave me a hug.
The next day when Denise accompanied me to the fair, I introduced Ablai to his “sister” as well. He is planning to attend a community college in Jacksonville, Florida next year, but after helping us sell Jacksonville State to all these students visiting our table, he suggested that he might end up in Alabama for his last two years. I encouraged him to think about that and promised our unqualified assistance.
When I asked if his sister were still in Florida, he replied that she was engaged and had returned this fall to get married next spring. “Is she marrying an American”? I asked. “No,” he said, “she is marrying a Kazakh that she met at church.”
Kazakhstan is 75% Muslim and most of the 20% who identify as Christian are Russian Orthodox. How fortunate we felt we were to make this improbable connection with Ablai, to have the possibility of seeing him in the near future and perhaps getting to know him better in a very different place and under very different circumstances. Furthermore, learning we shared a fundamental belief will enable us to build a deeper friendship and common understanding.
When the time came for us to pack away our materials and prepare to leave Saturday afternoon, I thought of something attributed to C.S. Lewis that I had read way back in 1985. I remember the date because I read the book in London when we had the Samford students there for a semester abroad that fall. A person had come from the U.S. to study with Lewis for a couple of years and prepared for his return home. At the train station, Lewis told him, “Christians never have to say good-bye, just I’ll see you later.” I told Ablai, “I’ll see you later.”