Now that I’ve spent some time relating some general thoughts about my impressions from my recent journey to Russia (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series as well as my original poem, “Ivanovo, my love” if you need to catch up), I’d like to get down a little more today into the nuts and bolts of the purpose behind the trip.
I traveled with a group representing Orphan’s Tree, an organization devoted to helping teenage orphans transition out of the dependency of the orphanage system and into life as independent, productive members of the community.
Our group’s particular task was to spend time at a “ministry center” in Ivanovo, a former textile city located about 200 miles northeast of Moscow with a population of about half a million people. Ivanovo is home to several technical schools, where most of the kids from the orphanage in Komsomolsk (a small village about 30 miles west of Ivanovo) end up attending and learning various trades once they reach their 15th or 16th birthday.
There are two primary challenges to the teenagers who “graduate” from the orphanage. First, because care in the orphanage is primarily custodial in nature, kids are raised with a high level of dependency for every aspect of their lives. The orphanage provides food, shelter, and basic education; but there is little to no training in what we would call “life skills.” Second, Russian culture historically has placed a low value on orphans. They are often at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, when it comes to opportunities. And while such cultural attitudes seem to be changing, there is still an uphill struggle for these kids to find a place for themselves in their communities.
The purpose of the ministry centers like the one my group visited in Ivanovo is to serve as sort of a transition point to help former orphanage residents develop the skills they need to survive and thrive in their culture and economy. They are able to learn things like computer skills, how to manage a household budget, how to cope with childcare issues (many of the girls become mothers at a fairly young age), how to find a job, how to navigate governmental systems, etc. The ministry centers also provide psychological and social work types of services as well as advocacy and, in some cases, mentoring and tutoring.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the ministry centers provide a space where these young people can learn to form authentic, trusting relationships with others. And therein lies the need for teams like ours from America to visit and spend time with them. While we did participate in some direct programming activities, we were mostly there just to hang out, make friends, and (although it sounds cliché), demonstrate God’s love for them by being a loving, genuine presence in their lives.
It’s one thing–and a very important one–to have people from your own culture express love and care for you in a broader culture where you are generally undervalued. But it is a powerful testament to the big-ness of the gospel to have people from a foreign land travel almost 6,000 miles just to be with you for a week.
The point of all this is to help break the cycle of dependency orphans experience. Without the life skills training offered by the ministry centers and the opportunity for authentic relational encounters with people from both inside and outside of their cultural “comfort zone,” there is a very real danger that former orphans will fall into lives of other types of dependency ranging from addiction to human trafficking. When that happens, orphans inevitably produce more orphans, and the cycle of abandonment and dependency perpetuates.
These young people deserve to know they are valued. They deserve to know they have options. They deserve to learn how to make good choices. They deserve to love and be loved.
Of course, God’s mission is never a one-way endeavor. Again, I know it’s cliché, but I am certain I got as much or more out of being with the amazing people of Russia than I could possibly have given. From the kids and staff in the ministry center to our incredible interpreters (and new best friends!) Tanja, Anya, Alex, Sasha and Valya, I was blessed to have the privilege to just be in their presence, to learn from them, and to sense God doing a new thing in my own life through them.
I still have much more to share about this incredible experience. I hope you will keep reading as I continue to post my thoughts and impressions. But meanwhile, if you feel compelled to become a part of this story in any way, I would urge you to support the work of Orphan’s Tree. If you need to learn more, please visit their website or contact me via the e-mail link on the Contact page.