Moscow, Russia: 1993 - The train, a pair of ancient diesel locomotives pulling a long line of pre-WWII looking freight, passenger and coal cars, pulled out of Tallinn, Estonia late in the evening. My companions and I had been in the air, on the sea, and on the road for several days and were looking forward to this leg of the trip being a time of rest.
The "first class" rail car we were riding in was, in my estimation anyway, far from classy. The cabin windows were bolted shut, the vent system didn't work properly, and the bathroom down the corridor (which was upstream from my compartment) was more like an indoor outhouse than a modern lavatory.
The only respite for a claustrophobic like myself was to stand in the narrow passageway, pull down the one window that could still be opened, and stick my head out to get some fresh air. I saw most of rail line scenery from Tallinn to Moscow with my jowls flapping in the breeze like a Rotweiller on the passenger side of a pickup truck.
That first night was almost enough to send us packing back to Helsinki, Finland. But I finally fell to sleep somewhere south of St. Petersburg. When I awoke, we were sitting still in the middle of a remote train yard somewhere west of Moscow. As I pulled back the curtain to see why we were stopped, a sinking feeling came upon me.
All around us were old train engines and a variety of rail cars. Most of the rail cars reminded me of those shown in movies when "enemies of the state" are being carted off to wherever it is they take such folks. They looked to me like leftovers from the days when Hitler and his bunch were sending the Jews to concentration camps, or when Stalin and his stooges were carting Russians off to the gulag and forced labor camps.
But this wasn't Germany. And it wasn't Russia. And this was 1993 - not 1940 something.
Through the haze of fatigue and half-sleep I watched as scenes of indescribable atrocities ran like a ghostly home movie through my mind. The fog and diesel smoke mingled in the darkness, lit only by the lights of the trains and a depot somewhere across innumerable tracks. The scene was straight out of black and white cinematic slow-motion. I kept expecting the doors (or were they gates?) of those cars to open slowly and for droves of people to spill out onto the oily cinders between the tracks.
Just as I was about to run from the cabin to the window in the passageway to get some fresh air, a hand closed firmly on my shoulder. I almost jumped out of that skinny little window, and nearly did jump out of my skin.
"I think this would be a good time for us to pray," I heard a voice in the darkness say.
It was my friend, Pastor John. He, too, had noticed that we were stopped. He had taken a moment to look out from his berth in the cabin next door. Like me, he had felt the spiritual darkness of this place. But -- in the midst of that darkness - he had also remembered that we had been sent here with a message of light.
As we prayed, the train lurched forward and we began to move eastward again. And inside that oppressive compartment, gliding through such a dark place, our minds were filled with hope and a renewed sense of compassion for those who lived in this place, and for those waiting for us at our destination.