A Peaceful Mission on a Restored Battleship

I am happy to introduce Sharon Leaf to our Expat Chat community!

Sharon is a writer and radio talk show host who reminds us that “Life is what we are alive to.  It is not length but breadth … be alive to … goodness, kindness, purity, love, history, poetry, music, flowers, stars, the written word, God, and eternal hope.”

We connected via Facebook and Twitter through our mutual love of adventure and travel and have shared a virtual friendship over the past few years. She is a fascinating woman who has chosen, many times, to follow her heart and participate in humanitarian missions around the world. A woman of great faith, she is an inspiration to me and countless others.

Her first novel, Lady and the Sea, is based on her true story of sailing on a restored WWII Battleship to Sochi, Russia in order to pick up Russian Jews and transport them to Israel.

This is what Sharon had to share with Expat Chat:

~You cannot discover new oceans until you are willing to lose sight of the shore~

It was a hot July morning in 1995 when the WWII ship, MS Restoration, entered the Haifa Harbor.  The crew stood on deck gazing at our final destination when an Israeli gunboat abruptly surrounded us with two soldiers aiming their deck-mounted machine guns at our ship.  I suddenly felt as if I were starring in one of those movies that had you paralyzed in your seat. My mind raced as I gazed up at my husband—the man who had brought me on this unpredictable journey—and wondered how we had arrived at this moment.  I had dealt with my fears—or so I thought.  The ship, the crew, and our special passengers—the Russian Jews—had finally reached our destination.  After fourteen months living on board the old ship, there would be no more troubled waters, no more hurricanes, no more delays.  We were home free—or so we thought.

My stomach churned as our Captain was demanded to stop the Restoration dead in the water.  For a moment I thought about my seventy-year-old father and what he had told me after his close call in the China Sea during the war. “At that moment, Sharon, I saw my whole life pass before me.”  Feeling light headed as the Israeli soldiers glared at us through their high-tech binoculars, I knew this was my moment…

…I inherited my love to travel from my father.  My first journey was in 1963 when I was seventeen.  My parents allowed me to take the Greyhound Bus—alone—from Los Angeles to South Carolina to spend the summer with relatives.  Then in 1984 when my marriage of sixteen years ended in divorce, my girlfriend and I traveled from California to Canada in her Volkswagen van with our twelve-year-old sons.  I loved the open road, and I had once dreamed of traveling the world.  But now divorced with two kids at home, it would remain only a dream until 1987. A week after I turned forty-one, I met my prince charming.  We were married a year later, and after the fall of Communism in 1991, my journeys took a new direction.

Our friends in Sweden invited us to join them for a two-week trip to help teach in the new Christian schools in Estonia and Russia.  I was struck with a big dose of fear.  My mind said, You? Go to Russia?  Are you crazy?   But then my heart pounded, Don’t let fear rule you!   I took a deep breath of faith, then blew out every ounce of fear.  In the dead of winter, I was on my way to my first international journey!

From Stockholm to Tallinn, from Leningrad to Moscow, I was like a little girl in a candy store, soaking in new traditions, unfamiliar languages, delicious foods, snow-covered countrysides, and best of all, meeting warm and loving people along the way.

Surprisingly, upon our return home, we felt God calling us to attend an international Bible college in the university town of Uppsala, Sweden.  I tried reasoning away these unfamiliar thoughts.  We can’t leave our jobs, our ministry, our family, our home for a year!  But then one night as I struggled for sleep, a thought a came…Isn’t this your dream?  I smiled as peace and faith, swept over my tired body.

So in the summer of ’91 we leased our home, sold the cars, resigned our jobs, left our safe shore, and dived in to a new ocean.

Our year in Sweden was full of learning, from books to museums, but it was the people who taught us a valuable lesson when they reached out to help the two Americans who had moved to their country.  I’m grateful to the Swedish woman who took me shopping at the centrum market and showed me that mayonnaise came in a tube instead of a jar.  Later that evening after Rob brushed his teeth, he informed me that Swedish toothpaste was yummy…tasted like mayonnaise.  Oops.

After graduation Rob and I toured Israel, then we joined a mission team in St. Petersburg to live for a month on the former youth Communist propaganda train to distribute humanitarian aid throughout Siberia.  There we were—twenty-five Russians, twenty-five Swedes, and the two Americans.  English was the main language through interpreters, but there were moments when I had to flee to our tiny cabin to escape the constant blending of Russian, Swedish, and Swenglish (a humorous combination of Swedish and English) to keep my head from spinning off.  And heaven forbid if I left the train without my day’s supply of toilet paper tucked in my pockets!  It was on those days when I learned the value of used newspapers, which most hospitals, orphanages, and homes supplied upon request.

The kindness of the Russian people we met throughout Siberia erased my doubts of traveling in the once-feared country.  Knowing them made every inconvenience fade.

After a year away from family and friends, I couldn’t wait to touch American soil and return to home-sweet-home.  There would always be short trips, but to live abroad again?  Never.

Two years later, a flyer crossed our paths asking for volunteers to work on a WWII ship that was moored in Seattle, Washington, whose sole purpose would be to rescue Russian Jews from the Black Sea to Israel.  I buried the flyer under a pile of magazines.  I didn’t want anything to upset my comfortable lifestyle, much less live on an old troop transporter ship the government had stored in mothballs after the war.  She had only 48 running days, so there was no guarantee that she could even make the journey from Seattle to Stockholm, much less sail to the Black Sea and Israel.

But could this dangerous assignment mean an adventure of a lifetime?  I guess this is where faith must kick in…again, I told myself.  My mind kept saying, No, don’t go! but my heart always responded, You must go.  In spite of my fear of water and the unknown condition of the ship, my heart won.  Once again, we packed up, leased the house, quit jobs, sold cars, and said farewell to our safe shore.  God had new oceans awaiting us.

As we sailed the seven seas on the Restoration’s maiden voyage, it didn’t take this lady long to fall in love with the coming-of-age Lady Resti, as I soon nicknamed her.  However, it was sometimes a stretch to love-thy-neighbor while living in such close quarters…a cabin large enough for a bed and four gym-size lockers, sharing dining experiences three times a day with a thirty-plus crew in a small troop mess that often smelled like engine oil.  I often asked myself while faithfully cleaning stained toilets and hairy showers, what am I doing here?  Then a still, small voice would always whisper, You are here for a purpose.

Fourteen months on board the Restoration taught me life’s simple lessons.  To name a few: You don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.  Instead of criticizing people for doing and saying such silly things (why do Swedes serve pancakes and green pea soup for lunch?), take time to learn and understand their customs and where they are coming from.  Practice patience towards those you would rather judge (why is she staring at me?  What is her problem?) And one of the most important lessons I learned was that no matter how small or boring or unthankful your task, it is a very big and exciting and thankful event in God’s eyes.  I remind myself of this as I faithfully clean my own toilets and showers.

You’re probably wondering why I had to live on a WWII ship for a year to learn these simple lessons.  I asked myself that question more than once until one night while we were sailing across the Black Sea.  As I gazed up at the stars, I suddenly realized that God had chosen me to be a small part of His big plan to help bring His people home to Israel in these last days. From that moment, I felt honored and privileged to be on this journey.

The Titanic was called the ship of dreams.  The Restoration was the ship of miracles. Miracles showed up on the gangplank every day…food, ship parts, bedding for bunk beds in the holds below for the Russian Jews, donations for fuel…the list goes on.  But the greatest miracle of all was our changed hearts.  Living on the Restoration truly restored everyone’s faith in God, in human kindness, in relationships, and twenty years later, He is still restoring faith for forgotten dreams….

…As I stood on the deck of the miracle ship Restoration in the Haifa Harbor, recalling my life, especially these past fourteen months, I knew that we would make it safely to shore.

Read Lady and the Sea for my complete story about a special mission to transport Russian Jews from Sochi, Russia to Haifa, Israel.  Until then, I wish you smooth sailing and oceans of blessings … and enjoy the journey!

Since turning forty, Sharon Leaf has traveled to over fifteen countries, including living in Sweden while attending Bible college, traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and volunteering on a WWII ship, whose sole purpose was to transport Russian Jews to Israel. She received a degree in theology at sixty, proving that it’s never too late to fulfill another dream. Sharon lives in South Carolina with her husband. You can follow her on Facebook and find her at www.sharonleaf.com

You can listen to Sharon on the Gate Beautiful Blog Talk Radio Show.