When President Nixon went to Yalta in 1973 (in what is present day Ukraine), I flew the White House staff and secret service on my Air Force plane. Of course the senior staff and the President flew on Air Force One. The trip presented significant challenges because we did not even have maps inside Russian air space. In addition, the rest of the world expressed altitude in feet and speed in knots. They, however, used meters for altitude and meters per second for wind speed. Though the rest of the world used English for air traffic control, they only spoke Russian. Before leaving Frankfurt, Germany, we had to pick up a Russian military navigator and radio operator. It was, shall we say, “sporting.” Air traffic controllers give rapid fire instructions. The Russian ones did, too, but the instructions had to be translated from Russian to English and then from metrics to feet and knots.
After a while, we got the hang of communicating this way and were finally on approach into Sempheropol Airport not too far from Kiev. Things were proceeding normally along the approach. The radio operator sat in the jump seat between the co-pilot and me. He spent the entire time during the descent talking over his shoulder with the Russian navigator who was devouring a Time magazine. As we got lower and lower in altitude-and closer to landing-I could see the airport. Since the fuzzy Xerox copy of the map the Russians had brought only had one airport within a hundred miles, I was confident that we had gotten to the right place.
The flaps and gear had been lowered and we were almost at the boundary of the field just about to cross the runway threshold when the Russian radio operator broke off his conversation with his partner and turned around. With a look of absolute terror on his face he started screaming, “Niet! Niet!” and making the shape of a gun with his fingers shouted at me, “Boom! Boom!”
I added power, raised the landing gear and started a go-around. With no small amount of passion I pointed at the map and said, “Look, there is only one airport for a hundred miles. This has to be the airport.” He held his fingers to his lips and said, “Shhhhh,” and pointed straight ahead where there was another runway a few miles away. Flying low over the runway, we could see lines of Russian Bear bombers on the tarmac. Obviously, we had almost landed at an “unmapped” Russian military airfield.
We landed in a few minutes in Sempheropol without further incident, but with our hearts pounding at the thought of there being an international incident. Happily, there wasn’t, but we spent the entire time there highly conscious of the tensions between our countries. We were constantly monitored during the trip-always by two people. They not only watched us, but they also watched each other.
On the second day, we were driving in a small bus from our hotel to a reception, and drove by a theater with a sign in Russian that read “Kosmos Cinema.” I pointed to it and said to the co-pilot, look, that’s the ‘World Theater.'”
In a flash, our interpreter jumped from her seat in the front of the bus and ran back to me and said, “On your entry forms you all said that you didn’t speak Russian. How can you read that?”
I was startled, but said, “I can read Greek and the letters are a combination of English and Greek letters. I thought that was a reasonable translation of Kosmos Cinema.”
“Why did you learn Greek?” she asked.
“To understand the Bible better,” I replied.
She looked nervously at the other “guide” (guard) and then dropped her voice to a tiny whisper and said, “I have read ‘The Cross and the Switchblade.'”
From then, we tried to steal a moment of conversation here and there in which she talked about being a Christian, despite the persecution that would come if it became known. She told us of the great joy that the “underground church” experienced in the Soviet Republics, even though there was great suffering for the faith. When I asked her about how they could be joyful in such circumstances, she replied, “the truth shall set you free.” She went on to say that those in her small underground church pray for us in the West. They pray that we will be given the gift of persecution because they know that persecution grows faith.
As we were on the plane getting ready to leave, she was there alone for a minute. With no microphones or others to monitor, we spoke about the faith. I asked her if I could give her a Bible. “No,” she replied. “If I got caught with a Bible, I would be sent to prison. But I would so dearly love to have a Bible.”
Then I had an idea. “Could I give you my prayer book? It is the one that was given to me as a boy. It has the Gospels in it, some Old Testament readings, and the Psalms.”
“Certainly,” she replied, “A gift from you that is a personal memento would not get me into trouble.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out the red leather Book of Common Prayer that I had received when I was twelve (long before I met the Lord). Just as I handed it to her, the KGB officers in suits boarded the plane and saw me giving it to her. My heart felt like it absolutely stopped dead, but she was incredible. Rather than try to hide it, she turned to the KGB officers and held up the red book, “Look,” she said, “This American pilot has had such a wonderful time in the U.S.S.R., he has given me one of his favorite mementoes from when he was a boy!”
The lead KGB guy stopped in his tracks and then came over to me. He had a very different sense of personal space and was only about two inches in front of my face. He reached out and took me by the shoulders and then kissed me on both cheeks. He stepped back and then reached to his lapel of his dark gray suit. On the lapel was a medal. He unpinned it and handed it to me. He said, “This is my Order of Lennin. It is the best memento I can give as you have shared this important book from your boyhood.”
Amazingly, they were all smiles and told all the other people who were gathered around about the “mementos” that had been exchanged. How perfect that a communist medal was “traded” for so much Scripture.
I have often thought about that experience. When circumstances bind and tears are near, I have remembered the little band in the underground church that prays for us. I have wondered how deeply I might be asked to drink from a cup of suffering and if I could have the same joy and faith that they demonstrated. The witness of Scripture is that His grace is sufficient for whatever I face. He is sufficient for you as well.
We are called, not to mediocrity, but to greatness for the Lord. He will help us accomplish everything He calls us to do. The important thing is that I never forget Him, and never settle for less than what He wants. The same is true for all of us.