Sometimes God’s idea of “success” is that we suffer well.
I went to Kazakhstan fully aware of that fact, plus a few others provided by the travel advisory on the State Department’s website.
Extremist tactics, including the use of suicide bombers, were used for the first time in Kazakhstan in 2011. Because of increased security at official U.S. facilities, terrorists may also target “soft” civilian targets such as commercial or residential areas, clubs and restaurants, places of worship, hotels, schools, outdoor recreation events, resorts, beaches, maritime facilities, and aircraft.
Regarding crime against tourists:
The most common crimes foreign tourists encounter are purse snatching, pick pocketing, assaults, and robberies. Be wary of persons representing themselves as police or other local officials. It is not uncommon for U.S. citizens to become victims of harassment and extortion by impostors, genuine law enforcement, and other officials.
Yes, that list of criminals includes “genuine law enforcement and other officials.” And just to underscore that possibility:
Corruption by public officials, including law enforcement, has been reported frequently, especially at the airport in Almaty. Some foreigners have been told by customs or border guard officials that they must pay a $50-$500 fine for violating an undisclosed local regulation, despite the fact that the foreign citizen has fully complied with local laws. Some U.S. citizens have reportedly been asked to pay a large fine upon exiting Kazakhstan. When encountering such irregularities, U.S. citizens are advised to seek clarification from supervisory airport officials or contact the U.S. Embassy in Astana or Consulate General in Almaty before paying.
Well, at least this problem is mostly confined to one specific city.
Which just happens to be the city we went to.
Oh, and then there was that other small matter. My plans to speak at the conference and a church:
U.S. citizens have been fined and deported from Kazakhstan for addressing a congregation, leading prayers, and performing religious music without proper religious worker registration.
The good news? It’s not illegal to tell one’s story or share one’s experience. The bad news? I can’t tell my story or share my experience without putting God and scripture right in the big middle of it.
And if all that wasn’t enough to produce anxiety, my bank informed me that I wouldn’t be able to use my ATM card in Kazakhstan.
Why? I asked.
Because it’s a “high risk” country.
“High risk” for what? I asked.
This being the reality, those of us going prepared our hearts and minds for the possibility that God might allow us — or, let’s just say it, intend for us — to suffer. Meanwhile, we recruited an army of prayer warriors to surround us with prayer. We also asked the Lord to give our team unity, wisdom, and peace, and to show us how to embody His grace should we encounter injury or injustice.
And then we went, with sober but willing hearts. And everywhere we went, there was no mistaking that God had gone before us and was with us, covering, protecting, hiding, and providing. Every day, in new and wonderful ways, we were amazed by the evidence of God’s favor and keeping.
Every morning I woke up wondering if this would be the day something hard or bad or, at the very least, uncomfortable would happen. And every day, as I’ve hopefully revealed in my previous stories, the proof of God’s power and mighty purposes increased.
It was without a doubt one of the most humbling, faith-building, awe-inspiring experiences of my entire life.
And then it was time to go home.
Since we had to leave our hotel around 1:30 AM, we decided not to sleep that night. We arrived at the Almaty airport on time, received our boarding passes, made it through passport control without incident — grace upon grace — and had nothing more to do than to stand around (all the chairs were taken) and wait for our 4:30 AM departure.
And that’s when it happened.
Knowing I still had 700 tenge (about $4.66), and wanting to purchase some water for the flight, I made my way to a bar area in the corner of the large, open terminal, and located a case of water bottles against the wall. I didn’t see a price, but they were small — probably about 12 ounces — and not cold. Guessing a bottle would cost a couple hundred tenge, I carried one to the bar and placed it on the counter.
I purposefully didn’t say a single word, but the girl behind the counter sized me up as American anyway. She looked at my small water bottle and said, “600 tenge.”
I hesitated. I knew that was way too much, but I didn’t want to make a scene, and I certainly didn’t want to attract the attention of any “corrupt officials.” I was tired and thirsty, and I wasn’t going to have any use for tenge after I left the country anyway. So I handed her my only bills, a 500 and a 200.
She put them in her cash drawer, then reached over to a candy dish beside her, selected a snickers bar the size of a small tootsie roll, and offered it to me.
I still hadn’t spoken a word, and I didn’t take the candy. I just looked at her with a confused expression.
She pushed it closer, pasted a condescending smile on her face, and with a heavy accent said, “No change.”
I raised an eyebrow. Then shook my head.
“No change,” she said again, more firmly.
Granted, the 100 tenge she owed me was only about 66 cents. But I knew she’d already over-charged me for the water, and now she was flat out stealing from me.
I realized in that moment I shouldn’t have attempted this transaction alone. If Catherine had been with me, she would have known what to do. But she was halfway across the terminal, oblivious to my situation.
I also realized I’d gotten comfortable. Lazy. Things had gone so smoothly and so remarkably well, I’d let down my guard.
I took the snickers bar from her hand and turned to leave.
Behind me I heard a sarcastically sweet, “Thank you!” and I’m ashamed to say I turned back and shot her a dirty look.
So much for offering grace.
But the truth is, I wasn’t feeling any grace. And when I told Catherine and the rest of the team, they felt as indignant as I did. And then, when one of them found the same water bottles in a vending machine for 300 tenge, our sense of offense increased.
No, it wasn’t a lot of money. That wasn’t what bothered me. It was the open disrespect and disregard for fairness. It was brazen dishonesty, without secrecy or shame. I imagined her bragging to her supervisor about how easily she had cheated the clueless American. I felt the sting of her resentment toward everything she assumed I represented, and I also felt bad for reinforcing her stereotypes with my unkind reaction.
The whole thing left me feeling nettled and unsettled, and I was amazed by how much it continued to upset me, especially given all the marvelous things I’d just seen God do over the past ten days.
After I got home, I was sorting through the stuff in my backpack and I found the snickers bar. It instantly rekindled annoyance, and I almost tossed it in the trash, but something stopped me. As I stared at the tiny treat I’d essentially purchased for $2.66 against my will, I realized it represented something far more important than being ripped off by a young Kazakh woman with a blond pony tail and a resentful smirk in the Almaty airport.
It actually represented the exact opposite. It magnified the supernatural covering and protection our entire team had experienced from the moment we arrived in Almaty to the very last moments before we left. It was a peek into what might have been, had God not hidden us under the shadow of His almighty wing. It was a reminder that we are kept from so many dangers and abuses we never even know exist — guarded by His power, surrounded with His angels, guided like heedless sheep through a minefield of lurking evils, our Good Shepherd allowing only those things to touch us that He intends to use for our good and His glory.
That snickers bar became a picture of God’s goodness, and it remains on my desk, a daily reminder that He is doing much more than I ever imagine.
But that’s not all.
Last week I had lunch with my friend, Joan, and she wanted to hear all about my time in Kazakhstan. When I told her the story about the snickers bar and how it came to represent God’s protection, she said something that made me realize for the bazillionth time how desperately I need God’s people in my life to help me see deeper and more clearly into His ways.
She said, “Oh, I thought you were going to say something completely different. I thought you were going to say that the snickers bar would be a constant reminder to pray for that girl. It was like she handed you her calling card with her name on it and said, ‘Please pray for me every day.’ And isn’t it amazing? She has no idea that cheating you actually meant she will now be an object of intercession, your prayers releasing God’s power into her life.”
Bam! Nothing like going straight from smug to humbled, convicted, and repentant. And deeply grateful.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s beautiful. I should be praying for her. Obviously, I took a much more selfish meaning from it, but from now on that little snickers bar will mean both things to me. Thank you.”
And just like that, we come to the end of the Kazakhstan stories.
Only it’s not the end. Because there’s a precious little flock of God’s beautiful children who live there day after day, pouring out their lives for the gospel, praying, serving, preaching, loving, and believing to one day see their dear neighbors among the multitudes from every tribe and nation worshiping around the throne.
And maybe they will also see a girl with a blond pony tail there. A girl who once cheated an American out of 400 tenge at the Almaty airport, but for some reason she couldn’t explain, she had a change of heart, and now she loves Jesus and wants nothing more than to love and worship Him forever.
It could happen.
After what I’ve seen God do? I would even say it probably will.
* * *
Dear friends, will you join me in praying for that girl?
And please pray for these precious brothers and sisters, tirelessly loving Jesus in a difficult place:
Please also pray for Arman and Marina Arenbayev, serving the Almugal Church in Almaty;
and Azim Janbakievs and his family, serving their sister church in the city;
and the faithful members of their congregations.
Thank you so very much, dear, dear praying friends.
And now, for one last appeal (share as you feel led):
It’s not too late to donate to this beautiful
and worthy work in Kazakhstan.
Gifts received before September will help
cover summer projects.
Donations can be made by check or credit card.
Please send checks to:
Include a separate note indicating the gift is for
“A Friend at All Times, Kazakhstan Young Life”
This category is not available for online giving at Orphanos,
but you can give by credit card at the phone number provided above.
Any amount is greatly appreciated.
Your gifts are tax deductible.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section.
(With all my heart.)