When Beth Rhodes spent two months as an intern in Moscow back in 2004, she had no idea how much it would impact her life. Although she is a born and raised Snellvillian, her life became very international once she graduated from Toccoa Falls College in 2005.
Rhodes has always had a passion for and interest in different cultures and languages. It made sense that she pursued a degree in international studies. For her thesis, she was required to do a study on a particular group of people. She chose Russians. The summer before she graduated, she had the privilege to teach English in Moscow for two months.
“I fell in love with the culture,” she said. “I made a lot of good friends there.”
After graduating in 2005, she made the decision to return to Moscow for another six months. She was dating Tim Rhodes, the man who would become her husband. He came to visit her for two weeks, and he felt the same love for the culture as Beth did after she showed him around.
“The day I got back,” she said, “he proposed.”
Welcoming New Americans
Before Rhodes left for Russia, she spoke with the director of World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency in the Atlanta area. On her return, she began working for the agency as a case manager. Her job was to create a file for each newly arrived refugee family or individual; arrange their apartment, furniture and other basic necessities; pick them up from the airport; and then help them adjust to their new lives.
“World Relief was their lifeline for the first six months,” she said, “and helped them survive and adjust to a new culture.”
She remembers a woman she picked up at the airport from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Everything was foreign and new to her, including cars and seat belts. She entered the car backwards and wrapped the seat belt around her neck. On the other extreme was an Iraqi family.
“We think of refugees as coming from nothing,” Rhodes said, “and that they should be amazed by America and grateful for being here. But a lot of them come from wealth we can't imagine.”
The Iraqi family she discussed came from a lifestyle she could not even fathom in terms of wealth and power.
“They really had their world turned completely upside down,” she said, “and had a hard time adjusting. But, they did it with a lot of grace. To go from a place of being in power and financial security, to coming to America, and here I am doling out their $200 a month and telling them how to spend their money.”
Becoming a Foreigner
Her work with World Relief instilled a love for the broken and marginalized. Despite her success and inspirational experiences with the organization, she and Tim still felt drawn to Russia and its people.
“Even before we got married,” she said, “we thought about possibly going to Russia. It was just one of those dreams you talk about.”
After a year of marriage, they began looking at employment with the International Mission Board (IMB), a Christian missionary organization. The IMB was cutting its budget, and Rhodes duo did not believe they would make it through the process. However, after a six-month process and many prayers, they were accepted.
In January of 2009, they were sent for training in Virginia, followed by a new adventure in Moscow. As a newly married couple, the isolation without any sort of support system was difficult at times. They barely spoke the language and had no contacts in the area.
“We got to see each other in situations that we had never been in before,” she said. “It made us a lot closer as a couple.”
Their main focus in Moscow was building relationships and teaching English. On a typical day, they would take classes in Russian, meet with people at small cafes, and host English classes. Sometimes they would teach kids' clubs, while at other times they would host movie nights in their one-bedroom apartment. They often had 30 guests on those nights.
“We couldn't always all see the TV,” she laughed, “but they came for the company and to just sit around and talk.”
Moscow is Eastern Orthodox, and the Rhodes are evangelical Protestant. Many philosophical conversations took place in their small kitchen, and strong bonds were formed during the time they were there.
Baby Makes Three
While in Moscow, the Rhodes had an unexpected surprise: Beth was going to have a baby.
“Having him there was not a part of the plan at all,” she said, “but I feel like I got to see a side of the culture that few people get to experience.”
There were many things that shocked her, like the superstitions surrounding pregnancy.
“Most people think you don't take your newborn out for the first 40 days,” she said, “because they receive their souls at 40 days.”
It was also considered bad luck to tell anyone about your pregnancy. No one would comment on it, or “something bad would happen.”
Another cultural quirk was that it is considered rude not to answer your cell phone in Moscow.
"While I was in active labor," she shared, "my doctor answered the phone six times. She would tell the people on the other end, 'No, I'm not busy!'"
They returned to the United States two years later. They struggled with a little bit of culture shock, after being so fully immersed in another culture.
The biggest difference in worldviews that she observed was that we Americans tend to see ourselves as masters of our own destiny, while Russians tend to believe more in fate, and in dealing with the hand you are dealt.
“We expect things to be perfect,” she said. “In many other parts of the world, things are far from perfect, and no one expects them to be.
"Here in America we feel like we have a lot of control over what happens to us and what other people do. In Moscow, no one really feels like they have control over much at all. Here, we feel like if we do things just right, nothing bad will happen to us."
Her plans for the future are wide open. She has considered returning to World Relief once her son, Liam, is in school, or possibly making another overseas move. Wherever she goes, her compassion for people and curiosity for the world will continue to serve her.