Updated: Mar 21
Three days ago a mobster turned off my water. Now I am standing in his office below my apartment on Deribosovskya Street in Odessa, Ukraine. I am a foreigner; he is on his home turf. I am scared; he is angry. Peter, who works for him, is outside looking for someone who speaks English to interpret. Finally, I decide that I will go find an interpreter, as I could not handle being alone with hard-face in his office.
Just as I walked out, I saw Elana talking to a girl who was bilingual—which was clear because she was talking to Elana. You have to understand that at that time, almost no Ukrainians spoke English. It is more common today, fourteen years later, but in 1998 it was rare. And this girl recognized Elana from a picture someone else had shown her. The fact that someone I had never met was speaking English in front of the store at the moment I was desperate for an interpreter seemed providential. I drafted her and we re-entered together.
The first thing hard-face said to me as if he had set his machine gun to rapid-fire, was, “I am suing you, I am having you thrown out of your apartment and I will not turn your water back on.”
Okay, here we go… How do I reason with this monster… I told him I was very sorry for closing the door on the old lady. I explained to him that people I didn’t know or understand would come to my door routinely and yell at me. Still, I confessed to him, it was wrong of me to treat the woman as I did.
He responded, “In America, you would be sued.”
I said, “Actually, in America, we would settle out of court.” I told him that I was more than willing to pay for any damages. In the end, it turned out that there were no damages; he was just seeking to intimidate me.
More than anything, I think he was angry at how I treated the Babushka. After I apologized a few more times, he seemed to lighten up. It was quite amazing to see the man who I have been referring to as hard-face literally soften before my eyes. He agreed to turn my water back on, but warned me that if it happened again, “I will send my militia to have you thrown out!”
Of course, he couldn’t really have done that, but he seemed believable to me at the time. Hence I was very careful to make sure that the duct tape keeping the hose from my washing machine pointed into the bathtub was secure on a daily basis. I felt like my life depended on that duct tape sticking!
He instructed Peter to turn on my water, which he did. After three days with no water, I was really looking forward to a hot shower, but before I could take one, the city turned off the water! This is something they would do every now and then for reasons I still don’t know. When I turned on my water, nothing came out!
I learned a very valuable lesson through the ordeal. Of course, the obvious one is be nice to old ladies. But I also learned how to stand against intimidation. Through prayer, we can change things. The moment I both humbled myself and made it clear to him that I wasn't going to back down, is when he softened. Most bullies will back off when they see that you are not afraid. Don’t get me wrong; I was still nervous. But I chose to go to him and resolve the situation, when everything in me wanted to pack my bags and return to Mafia-less Gaithersburg, MD.
Indeed, at the end of that week, we were flying home for a month, and I was sorely tempted to just say, “Why in the world should I return this place!? I am staying in the US!” Had we done that, we never would have planted the Berdichev congregation—a Messianic congregation in central Ukraine that is thriving fourteen years later. At the time, I had no idea that the Lord would have us plant the congregation, but I have to believe that hard-face was sent to scare us off. Thank God, we overcame.
Over the next several years I would have to deal with police in Hungary, crooked customs agents at the Odessa airport, machine-gun-toting border guards, making Aliyah, and simply living life as a leader, having to deal with all sorts of intimidating situations. Thanks to hard-face, I was better equipped, understanding that if God be for me, then who can be against me?
*Originally published September 6, 2012