By Virginia Holmstrom. This is the third in a series about the Republic of Georgia.
In January 2013 I had traveled with other American Baptist women to the Republic of Georgia, my first visit to this small former Soviet-block country nestled just east of the Black Sea, with Russia to its north and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey sharing its southern border. While there, the leader of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, had invited me to consider returning in 2014 with some American Baptist clergy and lay women for an experimental spiritual pilgrimage with Georgian Baptist women . . . Yes, I’m quite sure he said “women.” We agreed to plan a pilgrimage and see what would happen. I returned to the U.S. and began to arrange for six American Baptist women—three of them clergy, three of them laity—to travel to Georgia for a two-week spiritual pilgrimage with six Georgian Baptist women—three clergywomen, three laywomen. Or so I thought.
On June 20, 2014, we six American pilgrims—three clergy and three lay—collected our suitcases from the baggage carousel at the Tbilisi, Georgia, international airport at 3:30 in the morning and began looking for our Georgian counterparts who had come to meet our plane. One, two, three, four women and a few men, too. Hmmm. Obviously we would meet the rest of the Georgian pilgrims later that day, I assumed. We were whisked away in a couple of cars to check in at the Baptist-owned accommodations where we would live while in Tbilisi.
That afternoon, Bishop Rusudan (the first female Baptist bishop in Georgia and, in fact, the only female bishop of any religious body in the entire country) came to fetch us for a short tour of Tbilisi. A young Baptist man accompanied her. Again I wondered, when will we meet our Georgian Baptist counterparts for our pilgrimage? We spent the afternoon with Rusudan and Davit, walking the cobblestone streets of the old part of the city, marveling at the views from the high observation points, and near the end of the warm afternoon of lovely fellowship with our two new Georgian friends, we stopped for ice-cream and conversation filled with laughter before we hurried off to the Peace Cathedral Baptist Church for Friday night Bible study group.
Early the next morning, three Georgian Baptist men in their 20s arrived at Beteli Centre to travel with us six American women by train to the resort city of Batumi, far on the western edge of Georgia along the Black Sea’s coast, for two days and nights to meet women in the Muslim community there. (The Baptists and the Muslims in Georgia have forged friendships; both are minority groups that face intolerance by the predominant Orthodox society and culture in Georgia.) Going to meet with Muslim women was a perfect venture for us American Baptist women, because we want to encourage and empower Christian women in the U.S. to initiate friendships with Muslim neighbors in their communities. When we arrived in Batumi, we were whisked from the train station to a restaurant to dine at a long table with our Muslim hosts . . . all men. The Georgians—Baptist and Muslim menfolk—sat at one end of the table and chatted in Georgian, and we six American Baptist women sat at the other end of the table feeling more than a tiny bit excluded and wondering how and why our visions of journeying with six Georgian Baptist women were seemingly evaporating before our eyes. We wouldn’t even meet any Georgian Muslim women until 10:30 that night when we were delivered to our host families’ homes for dinner.
Each of us Americans wrestled with the assumptions we had come with, and very slowly began to open our eyes to what God was doing in spite of our one-track expectations.
By the end of our 12 days in Georgia, we had met dozens of Georgians and we knew one another by first name. We were dinner guests in the homes of Baptists and enjoyed new friendships around outside picnic tables. We spent quality time with various groups of women talking about issues that matter to women and girls and we also had wonderful conversations with the menfolk, too. We were guests of the most warm and generous hospitality I have ever experienced anywhere. Our Facebook friends lists grew longer each day. Language differences didn’t matter so much; we could communicate in ways beyond words.
The American pilgrims returned to the States on July 2, 2014. We’re still noticing things that God had done among us in Georgia. Some insights will be a long time coming. As we ponder our experiences and share stories about our Georgian friendships, we are noticing that God was present all the while, even when we could not see past our own needs.
Journeying with God is like that. Tomorrow when you awake, declare your day to be a spiritual pilgrimage with God. Then see what happens! But don’t expect to see it all that same day.