In May 2013 I spent 10 days with a group representing Orphan’s Tree visiting a ministry center serving teenage orphans in the city of Ivanovo in north-central Russia. While I recounted my experiences and observations on The Awesomeness Conspiracy blog page, I have re-posted all of the blog entries in chronological order here to make it easier to access and follow the entire series. Each title is linked to the original blog post so you can read and add comments.
This morning I was awakened before 6am by the sound of a Russian road crew working to patch a semi-paved street outside my hotel window. It gave me my first bit of free time since arriving in Ivanovo to write a brief report on this trip for you faithful followers of The Awesomeness Conspiracy. It also gave me a chance to reflect on the contradictions that so far for me have defined my experience in Russia.
Our team of four arrived here late Sunday evening after an exhausting 24 hours-plus of travel from Pittsburgh via New York and Moscow. Since coming to Ivanovo we’ve spent most of our time in a tiny ministry center run by Orphan’s Tree where young families and teenage orphans come every afternoon. I’ll spend much more time on the specific work of the ministry center in a later post. The rest of our time has been spent visiting local sites like a huge textile center (Ivanovo was once the textile capital of Russia) that I can best describe as a sort of outlet mall for all things fabric, and one of the technical schools where many of the students from the ministry center attend. I’ll write more about that remarkable experience in a future post as well.
What strikes me most about our visit so far and our host city is the overwhelming sense of contradiction in almost everything. Russia is not a “third world” country by any means. In most places, if it weren’t for all the signs being in Cyrillic, Ivanovo looks very similar to most American cities…there are shopping malls, restaurants, museums, churches, hotels, markets, and everything else you’d expect in a city of roughly 400,000.
What’s interesting is that there’s really no separation between commercial and residential areas. Modern architecture sits side-by-side with blighted buildings. Paved streets are lined by dirt sidewalks. Just across from our hotel is a 10-story tenement building overlooking a lovely riverfront park with an ultra-modern shopping mall right next door.
Then there is the contradiction of this whole trip. To most people, the idea of a “mission trip” means going to a place mired in extreme poverty and trying to “fix” infrastructure, economic conditions, etc.
For us, though, the poverty we’re dealing with is more of the emotional variety. The teenagers & young adults that come to the ministry center mostly grew up in orphanages, where their lives were largely managed for them. Now they find themselves in a world where they have no skills for the basics of relationship building and trust necessary to survive and thrive in their culture. Last night we took about 10 boys ranging from 15-22 years old to the mall where we played air hockey and ate McDonald’s in the food court. Something American teenagers utterly take for granted was like a trip to Disneyland for my new young Russian friends.
We still have three days in Ivanovo, and I can already tell it won’t be nearly enough time to spend with these amazing people. I can only hope they’re receiving even a small portion of what they’ve already given me.
I’ve been blessed to spend the past five days in one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever seen among some of the most incredible and beautiful people I’ve ever known. This poem is for each of them and all of them and the city that gave them to me.
She contradicts herself at every turn.
One minute smiling, full of light,
The next a shadow of days gone by
or maybe ones
that never were.
So young and stunning,
so old and wrinkled.
So new and sparkling and brimming
So ancient and weary
for a time
when the whole world was hers
and bowed and curtsied in her presence.
Everything about her is full of power
But under it all is a life
that her children are living
and sometimes she can barely see.
Dancing, twirling, jumping, winking
at each new suitor
in his shiny clothes
their blood racing, hurtling out of control
like a river that can’t wait
to get off its mountain
and rush headlong
into the waiting sea.
While every fiber of her being,
every muscle and tendon and ligament
aches and groans,
remembering a time
when she knew
how to love with a love
that heroes write about
and sing songs to the heavens.
A love that dances and twirls and jumps and winks
everyone she meets
like her first friend
or her last lover.
Smiling, full of light.
Young and stunning and old and beautiful,
while her children dance
to give her life.
It’s now just a little over 36 hours since I arrived home from an amazing adventure to spend some time and hopefully leak a little bit of Jesus into the lives of a group of teenage orphans in the city of Ivanovo in north-central Russia. Even now it’s difficult to articulate the experience of being a foreigner in a country and culture that seems so different from my own in so many ways. As I wrote in my previous blog entries from Russia last week (you can check them out here and here), it is a land of contradictions, and contradictions are by their very nature hard to explain.
But if there was one overriding thing I took out of the experience, it was a deeper appreciation for the idea that people are people, no matter where they are. Certainly that’s a concept we all get on an intellectual level, but experiencing it firsthand has driven it home in ways I didn’t expect, and at the same time has given me a deeper and more profound appreciation for the universality of the gospel.
I think one story from just before we boarded our flight for home might help illustrate the point. Our group of four had been driven from our hotel in St. Petersburg to the airport at about 5:30 in the morning, early enough to clear security and make our 7:40 jump to Moscow, from where our trans-Atlantic flight to New York would depart. We walked into the terminal as our driver (who understood English well and spoke enough to communicate) pulled away from the curb.
After an initial security check inside the door, we discovered to our dismay that we were not only in the wrong terminal, but that there were no signs in English anywhere to help us. My friend Brooke, who is a 6-time veteran of these trips, managed to track down a security guard and somehow communicate our situation. The guard took us back out of the building and flagged down a taxi to take us to the international terminal.
Of course, the taxi driver understood about as much English as we did Russian. And on top of that, he didn’t have enough room in his cab for all four of us and our luggage. Nevertheless, we managed to negotiate a fare (500 rubles, or roughly $15) and an agreement that he would shuttle Brooke’s dad, Doug, and his wife, Ramona, then come back for Brooke and I.
Once we got in the cab, we sat in silence for about 5 minutes, simultaneously glad to have worked our way out of a potentially tough spot and still anxious that we weren’t entirely sure of what was going on. Suddenly, the driver started speaking to me. I obviously had no idea what he was saying, but as he repeated himself I managed to pick up something about “Russia” and the word for “good” (thanks to our awesome interpreters!), and guessed that he was asking if our visit had been enjoyable. I answered in the affirmative (“Da, da, da!”), and he responded, saying something about “London.” Again, I guessed he was asking if we were going to London, to which I replied, “Nyet, New York.”
“Ah,” he said, “New York Islanders!”
And there we had it. A piece of common ground. Our cabbie was a hockey fan!
“Nyet,” I replied. “Pittsburgh Penguins. Evgeni Malkin!” Recognizing the name of one of his national hockey heroes, he began to roll off the names of several Russian, American and Canadian hockey greats, and declared himself to be a hockey historian (luckily the Russian word for “historian” sounded enough like the English word that we understood what he meant). We laughed and joked about different teams and rivalries for the final few minutes of the taxi ride.
Then, as we pulled up to the drop-off curb, he said something that put our whole trip into perspective. I’m not honestly sure exactly how I understood him, with only a few basic words of Russian in my vocabulary. But it was crystal clear what he was saying:
“You know, Russians and Americans used to be like this,” he said, bumping his fists together to indicate an acrimonious relationship. “But now, friends.” I don’t remember for sure in my anxious and sleep-deprived condition, but I could swear he said “friends” in English. He held his hands together and shook them, and then reached for my hand to shake.
We’re all the same.
People everywhere desire to be in relationship with one another. For the most part, we don’t want to be enemies. And when stereotypes and misinformation are wiped away, we find that it is simply good to be friends.
I met some amazing people during my stay in Russia. And even though I was only there for a week and a half, I can say without reservation that not only did they become friends, but that we have kindled deep and meaningful relationships that transcend the distance between us.
The heart of the gospel is the good news that God loves us and opens himself to a relationship with him through Jesus. And more often than not, that relationship with him is played out in our relationships with one another. The more we know and love other people, the more we are able to know and love God.
I will have much more to write about our days in Ivanovo and the work we did there, but for today I simply want to let that truth sink in.
Ultimately, it’s not religion or moral codes or our argumentative interpretations of the Bible or even how many “souls” we “win for Jesus” that take the day.
It’s hanging out with kids in a mall, playing ping-pong in a cramped room, cramming too many people into a tiny kitchen around a makeshift dinner table to share a meal together, showing pictures from home and talking hockey in a language that you don’t understand that overcomes the hurts and barriers of the world and makes us all one.
To simply know and be known, to love and be loved, is the power that can change the world.
And if we learn to pay attention, we can see it happening.
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.
Thanks to my friend and traveling companion Doug Patterson for sharing this video of our trip to Russia May 18-28. Doug did a fabulous job of capturing both the highlights of our adventure and the relationships we formed. The bulk of Doug’s video is from our time in Ivanovo, but you’ll also see footage from our brief visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Even though I’ve only scratched the surface of my experiences during my recent visit to Russia on behalf of Orphan’s Tree, I feel like it’s about time to wrap up my “From Russia with Love” series today with a few of the lasting impressions that have forever altered my perspective.
It sounds almost trite to call this a “life-changing experience.” After all, if we’re honest, nearly every experience is life-changing in some way or another. But for me, these are the things I have learned from this particular experience that have deeply affected my heart and in many ways redirected my spirit:
1. I am the foreigner. Almost everything I saw and heard in Russia was different to me. From the alphabet and the language to the architecture and the culture, there was little to which I could draw comparisons to something familiar.
One night when writing in my journal I caught myself about to pen something about being in a “foreign country.” Then I realized, the country is not foreign. I am. I am bringing my experience, perspective and preconceptions into a place that is simply not the same as that to which I am accustomed (and whose culture, by the way, predates my own by more than a thousand years).
When I accepted my friend Brooke’s invitation to join the team for this trip, one of the reasons I did so was that I recognized a need to break my egocentric American arrogance. I don’t mean that as derisively as it sounds, but the truth is most of us who have never left US soil (and, sadly, many who have) view the world through a very narrow lens. We assume that what is familiar to us is superior to that which is not. And so, mostly subconsciously, we treat people and experiences of other cultures as being somehow inferior.
What I discovered was that when I allowed myself to approach Russian culture from a place of humility rather than superiority, I was able to see it in all its beauty. Yes, much of it was uncomfortably unfamiliar. But had I equated “unfamiliar” with “inferior,” I would have missed literally everything.
The Old Testament prophets leveled pretty sharp criticism on Israel for the way the people treated “outsiders.” And when they were exiled in Babylon, Jeremiah actually encouraged them to adapt and to actively seek peace and prosperity for their captors (Jer. 29:4-9). When we see ourselves as the foreigners, we open ourselves to enriching and transformative experiences.
2. It’s all about the heart. One of the things that’s been popular for some churches in our area in recent years has been shows by “Power Teams,” groups of big-muscled men who tear phone books in half, break concrete blocks, and perform various other feats of strength while proclaiming a gospel message and usually offering some sort of emotionally-infused invitation or altar call at the end.
To be honest, I was never really all that impressed. Now I know why.
Our second morning in Ivanovo, we visited one of the technical schools where many of the orphans from the ministry center attended. There we were introduced to Valeri, who basically served in the role as the gym coach. Valeri clearly was a man’s man. Former military, athletically gifted, hearty laugh, tough as nails. The whole package.
In Valeri’s gym, we saw typical equipment…weights, exercise machines, ropes, etc. But what was not “typical” was the boys he brought out to demonstrate the work he does.
It’s one thing to see big weightlifter types toss around kettle bells, bust up concrete with their bare hands, or take a punch to the gut without flinching. But when you watch a bunch of scrawny 16-year old boys do all those things and more, you see what true strength really is.
Valeri trains not only the bodies of his students, but their minds and hearts as well. His aim is not to create an army of ultra-macho muscleheads. It is to infuse a sense of inner strength and confidence that will allow them to go into the world in whatever profession they choose and excel.
It’s a reminder that the gospel is proclaimed not through what the world views as strength and power, but what it often views as weakness.
(Check out the video below for a brief sample of what Valeri’s students are doing.)
3. Vulnerability is foundational to great relationships. If I can sum up my feelings of being a foreigner in a different culture in one word, it would be vulnerable. Not being able to read directional signs, understand someone’s question, or know what cultural norms are called for in a given situation can be incredibly scary. I learned very quickly that I had to not only rely on our amazing team of interpreters, but also pay attention and try to learn from them. I was completely and utterly vulnerable, and they were literally my lifeline.
It was out of that vulnerability, though, that I learned something about creating deep, authentic relationships. I can’t remember a time when I have become so close so quickly with any single person or group of people as I did with the gifted young women who served us so well and so selflessly. Even though we only spent a few days together, I can honestly count those with whom I spent the most time–Tanja, Alex and Anya–among my very close, life-long friends.
I think that sense of vulnerability may have also helped forge relationships with some of the students in the ministry center. As you can imagine, when kids have been abandoned by their families to live an institutionalized life, it’s very difficult for them to trust people. If I’d have come in with an attitude of the American hero sweeping in to save them from themselves, I would have been met with cold indifference at best, or, more likely, downright hostility. It was only through a position of vulnerability that I could approach them, and make them comfortable with approaching me.
I wonder if maybe one of the most under-appreciated qualities of Jesus was his vulnerability. I think sometimes we look at his miraculous power over nature, sickness and death, and forget how vulnerable he allowed himself to become in donning the mantle of humanity in the first place, in risking everything to approach the people whom society had utterly marginalized, and in enduring the humility of the cross to give all people resurrection life.
I’m sure this won’t be the end of my writing about my experiences with the beautiful people of Russia, but it is the end of this particular series of blog posts. I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this little journey with me.
To those of you who have followed these entries, I offer you my sincerest gratitude. I have created a new page here on The Awesomeness Conspiracy where all of the articles from this series are included in chronological order. Feel free to read through the entire series, link to it or share it with friends.
I would love to continue this conversation either here in the comment section, on my Facebook page, or, better yet, in person. If you belong to a church, civic group or organization that would like to hear more about my experiences in Russia and/or the work Orphan’s Tree is doing there, please get in touch with me through one of the methods listed on the Contact page.
Peace and love,