October 24, 2013

Dateline Moscow

My cell phone rang as I was counting out rubles to pay for my car insurance at the state insurance company on a recent Friday afternoon.

“Andy?” an unfamiliar female voice asked. Upon hearing it was me, she continued, “I need an urgent answer from you. You are invited to a closed-door meeting with United Nations secretary-general Ban
Ki-moon during his visit to Moscow on Sunday. Can you attend?”

* * *

I arrived 45 minutes early at the sprawling, gated headquarters of RIA Novosti, the Russian state news organization. After passing through security, I made my way to a conference center, one of several buildings in the complex, and asked the woman at the entrance for directions to the meeting with Mr. Ban. She led me to a room with five armchairs lined up along a backdrop of large television screens. The nameplate on the small table beside one armchair read “Ban Ki-moon.”

On the opposite side of the room stood a tier of upholstered chairs numbering about eight across and rising six or seven rows toward the ceiling. Seeing the first three rows were nearly empty, I sat down in the second row.

My escort stopped me. “No, sit in the last two rows. These are reserved,” she said.

Two seats remained vacant in the last row, and I took one of them.

I looked at my watch: 20 minutes to go. I pulled out my cell phone to do some online homework about Mr. Ban.

What I read impressed me. Born in a small South Korean farming village in 1944, Ban won an essay contest as a student that allowed him to travel to the United States and meet President John F. Kennedy. The experience left such an impression on him that, when asked by a journalist what career he wanted to pursue as an adult, he declared, “Diplomacy.”

Ban joined the South Korean foreign service after graduation and worked his way up the ladder, holding the post of ambassador in several countries before becoming foreign minister in 2004 and the head of the United Nations in 2007. He was unanimously elected to a second five-year term at the U.N. in 2011.

A woman at the bottom of the bleacher interrupted my reading. “There’s been a mistake. Please come with me.”

“Excuse me, Andy?” A woman at the bottom of the bleacher interrupted my reading. “There’s been a mistake. Please come with me.”

I followed the woman down the corridor to another room. This one contained a square-shaped table surrounded by about 25 chairs. In front of each chair was a set of silverware, a linen napkin, and a collection of china plates heaped with Russian stuffed pies, various cheeses, deli meats, and salads. Each place setting also had its own glass goblet filled with fresh strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, and blackberries, and a nameplate.

The woman took me to the setting with a nameplate bearing my name.

“This is a private luncheon with Mr. Ban,” she told me. “Everything said will be off the record. Thank you for coming.”

Before I could sit down, a server appeared at my side. “Coffee, tea?”

As I marveled at my unexpected surroundings for the next 90 minutes, Jesus’ words rang in my ears: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.

“But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:8-11).