From a small city church in Russian Siberia to one of America’s largest cathedrals in San Francisco, our batiushka (endearing term for priest) is about to finally complete his mission and strengthen a Cross-Pacific relationship that began in the middle of this past century. The story is bound up with one of America’s most beloved saints, Archbishop John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who after establishing St. Tikhon’s Orphanage in China, fled Shanghai in 1949 when the flood of communism spilled into that ancient land as well. The saint fled first to a storm-ridden island in the Philippines and then to San Francisco in 1962. What concerns our Siberian pastor is that many other Russians fled with the Archbishop from his home city of Kyakhta, an important trade center on the northern border with Mongolia. To mark this connection between the mother city and the place of these emigrants’ exile, batiushka has brought a copy of the icon Mother of God, Surety of Sinners, all the way from its original home in Kyakhta to the San Francisco Cathedral “Joy of All Who Sorrow” on Geary Boulevard.
I have personally helped carry the 13 X 24 inch icon through airport security and onto Kodiak Island where it rested for a while on the relics of St. Herman of Alaska. Now as I see batiushka serve in the grand cathedral, I am reminded once more of the gravity and universality of our Christian faith. Here in an enormous cathedral on the other side of the planet, he does not even skip a beat. But with the common slavonic language and Russian rubrics, he opens the royal doors and begins the service like he owns the place and has served here for decades. This grand ediface built by St. John to the glory of God and for the love of His Church resounds with our friend’s deep bass voice and reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven knows no bounds of race or ethnicity.
Our batiushka like my wife comes from Buryatia and both are often mistaken for some nationality other than Russian because of their distinctly Asian features. Everywhere we have gone on this pilgrimage from the living room of a village elder in Kodiak, all the way to the most significant Russian Orthodox Cathedral on the West Coast, this Siberian missionary has told the story of his conversion to Christ from communism with great warmth and simplicity. Besides serving in one of Kyakhta’s churches, he runs a halfway house for those recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. When able to take time off, he often travels on some pilgrimage to Orthodox holy sites, preferably on bicycle. While he was unable this time to take his bike, his interaction with each place we met was just as intimate. Like a paparazzi, he took pictures of fruit stands and locals right alongside of cathedrals and important dignitaries, and every spare moment was spent feverishly copying notes for what hopefully will become a published travelogue to entice other Russki Polomniki (Russian Pilgrims) to come to the land of St. Herman, Fr. Seraphim Rose, and Archbishop John Maximovitch. He has already published one of his travelogues to Serbia and Mount Athos in Russian.
But this journey has been especially important. For one hardly thinks of America when the topic of Orthodox Christian holy sites arises. And in this city of San Francisco, known for its free love and tolerance for every soul-destroying behavior imaginable, we make today another way to remember this city by the bay. The Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral which was a harbor for the storm-tossed people of the Russian diaspora who fled the ravages of godless communism receives today another icon symbolizing relief and refuge. The Kyakhtski Icon of the Mother of God, Surety of Sinners, is a bright and shining beacon of consolation for every immigrant flung far from his/her motherland: For indeed she is the intercessor for the offended, and feeder of the hungry, consolation of travellers, harbour of the storm-tossed, visitation of the sick, protection and intercessor for the infirm, staff of old age, the Mother of God on high. And now she is the Joy of All Who Sorrow in a neighborhood near you, a bayside, easy-going American city with an immigrant heritage not forgotten. Wondrous is God in his saints!