When he opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, the first thing I looked for was the knife. He had short-cropped hair, gray street clothes, a long scar on his right cheek bone. And tattoos. His body was awash in ink. The hands that toyed with the knobs on the dash had skulls on every finger. Russian script meandered around his neck. And in that language I did not know, he began questioning me. My three-week teaching stint in Novosibirsk, Siberia, was about halfway over. A group of young men studying for the ministry met with me for a few hours every day to learn the little I knew of biblical interpretation. God help them. I was barely older than they were, younger than a couple of them. A wife, a three-year-old daughter, and a soon-to-be-born son awaited me back in Oklahoma. If I made it back.
I had seen the oncoming van. The tires, screaming their black and burning song, foretold the crash. The van, and the half a dozen men in it, hammered my side of the car. By the time we pulled off the side of the road, they had spilled out and surrounded our vehicle. To a man, they looked like they’d just returned from job interviews with the mafia. And been hired. Taking a deep breath, the driver told me, “Stay in the car,” and the lamb stepped out into the pack of wolves. No need to consult my handy-dandy Russian-to-English dictionary to translate the cursing, anger, and threats that erupted as the group ringed round my friend.
Then the driver’s side door opened. And the tattooed stranger sat down. He looked at me, and smiled a crooked smile. And I looked for the knife that never appeared. I figured he was one of the guys from the van; he looked cut from the same cloth. But if there was a storm around us, he was the eye of it. There was no anger or accusation in his tone as he chatted on with me about God knows what. I knew how to say, “I don’t speak Russian,” in Russian, which he must have taken as a cue to speak even more. And so began one of the most memorable conversations I've ever had. He asked me countless questions in Russian, I told him all about myself and my family in English, neither of us having the foggiest idea what the other was saying. And all the while his skulled fingers twisted and turned the car’s controls.
I’m not sure how much time elapsed—five, ten, fifteen minutes. And then he was gone. The door opened, he got out, and my driver got back in. He’d had enough cash on him to pacify the men. “Who was that in the car?” he asked. “I don’t know. I assumed he’d been from the van.” “No, he wasn’t one of them.” “Then I don’t know where he came from.” And we drove on, safe and alive.
To this day, when I read in Hebrews about entertaining angels unaware, my mind goes back to a car wreck in Siberia, in which no one was hurt, to the furious young men, who laid no hand on my friend, and to a stranger who showed such concern and curiosity about me. And I wonder if angels, sometimes, have tattoos.