I recently was reminded of a song which I first heard 32 years ago when visiting the Soviet Union. The song is called, “May There Always be Sunshine”. It is a Soviet-era song which has become a children’s song across the world. It was even included in the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. I remember hearing it then and feeling like I was in a time warp.

I went to the USSR on a school field trip. Living in West Berlin at the time, this wasn’t that big of a deal. We spent several days in Moscow, where, from our historic hotel across from Red Square, we shopped at the famous GUM department store, photographed St. Basil’s Cathedral more times than traditional-film cameras deserved and avoided the long lines at Lenin’s tomb. We saw dancing bears at the circus, went to a ballet, and wondered, constantly, if we were important enough to be followed by the KGB. We weren’t … but it was fun to think that we were.

Following our time in Moscow, we boarded another flight and flew into Tiblisi, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Georgia is where Stalin was born and, in February of 1988 with the thawing of the Cold War underway, they took us to see the last remaining statue of Stalin in the USSR. Needless to say, I could have done without that photo opp.

They took us to a school as well, and that is where we heard the welcoming song and were presented with bread and salt, a traditional Eastern European welcome symbolizing unity and goodness (the bread), and prosperity and security (the salt). A large group of students performed a ribbon dance, and I still have and cherish a small Matryoshka Doll which a shy girl handed to me before skittering away, giggling.

It was an amazing thing to experience such a welcome by people we had been raised to view as our enemies. The song they sang — in English, no less — comes back to me in random moments and I can’t help but feel a little amused by its lyrics. “May there always be sunshine / may there always be blue skies / may there always be mother / may there always be me”. It was, I have since learned, a song to promote peace. “May we not blow each other up in a horrible nuclear war,” I think, was the general idea.

After the visit to the school we went to see the ruins of a tiny church. I tried to do some research to figure out the name and the current state of the church, but I haven’t been able to discover it. Tiblisi has seen civil war and chaos since I was there, and it could be the church isn’t even standing any longer, which would be sad since the church was, as I recall, one of the oldest in Georgia. Though the Soviets did not encourage church attendance, they still celebrated the fact that Christianity had been in Russia for 1,000 years, showing us the ruins as a proud part of their history.

My relationship with God was a little rocky at that point in my life, but as I entered the church where grass rather than tile carpeted the floor and the roofless dome opened to the heavens, something about that ancient place of worship broke through my rebellious heart. It started to snow gently on my upturned face, and as I stood there surrounded by classmates, I began to pray. I was a pilgrim, brought not through dusty roads and byways, but through parties and ruined reputations. I promised God that I would change. And he, being God, helped me to do so.

May there always be sunshine. May there always be repentant hearts. May there always be broken places we can go where God undeservedly meets us. May there always be seekers after his truth.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” Isaiah 55:6 NIV

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is gcodon@gmail.com.