“And…while I was drunk,” Stas* confessed, “I may have said some odd things to your neighbor as I made my way back to your apartment door. I don’t remember exactly.”
Our family (my wife Jamie and I, our four kids, luggage, and all) had just returned home from a ministry trip we took to Kyzyl, Tuva during the New Year’s break. Stas is a twenty-four-year-old Tuvan brother in Christ we let stay in our apartment while we were gone. He had been living as a guest in Krasnoyarsk for the last three months while he received medical care in the city. Sometimes he’d stay with us, sleeping on our living room couch, and sometimes he’d stay with another family. We and the other family both thought that Stas would really appreciate having some space to himself for a week and a half while we were gone. Much to our surprise though – and Stas’, too – he instead felt swallowed up by loneliness and painful memories. This led to him making some very poor choices and falling into some old habits.
As soon as we walked in the door, we could see from his face that he was very troubled. He had a look that said, “I need to talk to you about something important.” We quickly dropped our bags and got the kids settled.
We first met Stas ten years ago when he was fourteen, just beginning life on his own in Kyzyl, the capital of the Republic of Tuva. Even though he was just a teenager, he had plans. He had moved there, found a temporary home with Christian roommates, and wanted to go to cooking school so he could work as a chef.
We were newcomers, struggling to speak simple sentences in Russian, but we understood enough of the language to pick up the basics of his story. He was from a Tuvan village and didn’t know his father. He used to have two sisters, but they both committed suicide. His mother was still alive and lived back in the village. She was an alcoholic, and life with her had become almost unbearable. But despite all of this, Stas had found hope for his own life – Jesus. The church had become his new family.
We were overjoyed to see him again when he came to Krasnoyarsk, now a grown man and still walking with the Lord! Besides the pleasure of finally being able to talk freely with him in Russian, it was a huge privilege to be trusted as old friends. Spending time with him has allowed us to learn so much more about Stas’s world, his family, culture, and his struggles.
He comes from a culture where shame (or losing face) is a big deal. In the missions world these are called honor-shame cultures. There are many situations where not following the lead of the group will cause personal shame. That temptation can be very heavy for believers like Stas whose social friends or family members are alcoholics. He has an extensive network of relatives still living, but most of his elders are practicing Shamanists or Buddhists, and they bluntly blame him for his family’s misfortune. “Where is your God, this Jesus? If you had followed our traditions, none of this would have happened to your mother and sisters. You brought this on yourself.” His cousins, about whom he cares deeply – praying that they will turn from their own harmful addictions and abusive relationships, and find healing in Christ – overwhelm him with their needs and pressure him to fall into their own bad habits.
Being part of an honor-shame culture can make it difficult for a person to confess sin, and that’s why we saw Stas’ confession to us as a good sign. We saw how hard it was for him to tell us about his poor choices, but he was willing to confess his sin and make things right even though it was difficult; evidence of God’s work in his life.
The days and weeks that followed brought ample opportunities for discipleship. In our discipling and counseling, we always base our conversations on the Word of God and find advice and direction there. Sadly, many of the things that we heard Stas reciting to us were counsel that others from church have told him in the past that were not biblical. He’s been told that he was born with the susceptibility to alcoholism, therefore he will inevitably continue in that pattern of sin. Others have said that there is no hope because people who struggle with alcohol will always fall back into sin. But neither of those statements is supported by the Bible.