story time

It’s no surprise that one of the things I miss most from being in the States is sitting down to a cup of coffee and telling stories with my friends. Usually, after getting back from Russia, I sit down telling the stories from our visit with the kids over coffee too many times to keep count. The beauty of connecting communities is in telling the stories, and I am blessed to be an intermediary for these two wonderful groups of people much beloved by God.

So here I am…barefoot in winter, Creole chatter mixed with school kid squeals from over the compound wall drifting into my room, listening to Josh Garrels and drinking my preferred Russian brew in my favorite mug I got for my birthday…handmade by Haitians employed to keep their families together and their kids out of children’s homes. I am ready to tell some stories, friends, and before we are done I may be breaking out the Russian chocolate because this is going to take awhile…you should probably get some coffee.

IMG_5378To begin the stories today, I need to fully disclose that I am crazy. Completely crazy, but completely obedient to how God is active in my life. You see, I never dreamed I would be going to visit the kids in Russia this year, but by the grace of God and his timeline it was within his plan for me to be present with my friends. I left Haiti on a Friday morning, and arrived in KC that night. I packed, purchased photos and snacks, and then celebrated my brother’s birthday all on Saturday. And then flew to Moscow on Sunday with three amazing people that I was beyond blessed to travel with this year.

It takes a ridiculous amount of time to get to Velikoretskoye, but I have never had anyone say it wasn’t worth it after spending a week with our friends.

We arrived to a very hospitable time with tea and coffee, and then we went to Gyorgy’s office. Gyorgy is a Russian man that commands the attentiveness of the many that work for him. I have massive amounts of respect for this man who is very dedicated to the success of the kids that come into his home as the orphanage director, who doubles as the school principal…and mayor. We spent about an hour with him, which doesn’t seem like a long time until you understand that on some trips we see him for about 5 minutes for the entire week. We started talking about one of the kids that was reunified with his family, which is very unusual in Russia where the parental rights are quickly terminated once kids are put into orphanages. Then we got Gyorgy talking about the current graduates, and hopefully were able to build more trust into how we want to support the orphanage kids’ education as much as we can. It has taken many years for trust to build to the point that Gyorgy knows we are not there to adopt kids from his home. We partner with him, because we believe and support his vision that education will provide a future for the kids.

This year, Gyorgy sent seven kids to university or colleges. SEVEN. Every single orphan that graduated from Velikoretskoye went on to a higher education instead of a tech school to learn a trade. Friends, orphanages in Russia don’t typically have this happen. In the whole FIVE years partnering with Kurlovo, where we went before the government shut it down in 2007, Kurlovo had ONE student go to university.

I had been waiting impatiently to express my excitement to him over this achievement in person, and later in the week when I did, he humbly brushed it off with, ‘I can help them gain education, but it is their character that needs improvement, so they will stay in school and succeed.’ My inner monologue was saying, ‘Sir, just take a compliment.’ However, if he truly thinks it is character building that needs to be improved, then we start working together to ask the questions of how can he best do that and where does he see us being able to help, if at all. One way he has asked for our help is in funds to have tutors for all of the kids. As is normal in an orphanage, some kids come in at a significantly lower grade level than their age assumes they should be at in school. One of the recent graduates was kept in the orphanage three years longer than the government says she should be so she could graduate from high school and go to university instead of tech school. She wants to be a school teacher, and she will make a fantastic teacher. Gyorgy’s request is one I hope a significant amount of us can get behind, because it is truly making a difference in the future of the Velikoretskoye kids.

What you are missing by reading this instead of being across a table from me is the massive amounts of animation I have in my countenance when I am telling a story about something I am really passionate about…just think of toddler at Christmas time and you will be pretty darn close.

I had really been praying about why God wanted me in Velikoretskoye this year. Why me? Part of the reason was revealed when I walked into my small group with the older kids. When we split into small groups, I always put the team members in the small group that their Russian friend is in if I can. We spend a lot of time building relationships with our Russian friends throughout the year by writing letters. First timers always get to be with their friend they write to and if you’ve been more than one time…you know more kids so it is easier to be wherever the team needs you to be. This year I ended up with the oldest group of kids. I honestly thought there would be no one there, because as they get older they are sometimes too cool to hang out with us the whole week. But as only God can orchestrate, the two friends I’ve known for six years and God had been pushing me to talk with one-on-one this year were both sitting in the room.

There were five kids in the room that afternoon. As we sat and talked about shared experiences and what I had missed in their lives over the last year it was so normal to be present with them. We laughed. We told stories. We teased each other. As some of the other groups were getting to know each other, our group literally picked up where we’d left off a year ago. I loved hearing about their summers in person, and seeing them tease each other about parts of stories they left out. I love seeing their shy reactions when I encouraged them…the ducking of the head, downcast eyes and soft, “Spaseeba, Stephanie.”

One morning, I had several of the older boys present, which meant there were some computer stations empty down the hall. While they were there I made them take a photo with me. I told them I needed a photo of how tall they are now next to me, because they used to be so small! As we took the photo, the first one clicked then each of them in perfectly timed synchronicity stood up on their tip toes. Laughing, I tried to stand up on my tip toes and could not hold it while laughing so hard. Oh, teenage boys!

VK HistoryOne of the boys has an older brother that was one of my Russian friends I wrote letters with six years ago. One of my favorite memories of he and his brother was during lesson time our first week-long visit with them. I was teaching lesson, and he and his brother were acting out the Starfish story. They were both leaping around like they were being thrown back into the ocean, and I was dying laughing. This would be the relationship I would have with both of them going forward…them being hilarious with me constantly laughing. As I was telling him this was one of my earliest memories with him, he replied, “But Stephanie, that wasn’t the first time I met you. You were here the year before and brought the inflatable globes to show us where you were from. That was the first time we met.”

“I can’t believe you remember that.”

He replied, “How could I forget the first time you all started coming to visit us?”

I get stuck in a cycle of thinking I am the only person who really remembers things, and when people share their memories of me that date back as far as I remember…it always shocks me, because I don’t consider myself memorable. For months, I had been questioning why God wanted me to be in Russia this year. Months, friends, but I trusted God, and he continually provided through a second passport with no problems from the US government. When our Visas needed to be signed, the time miraculously came when my go-to bestie was coming to Haiti for a visit. Everything kept working out, even though in my semi-logical brain, I didn’t understand how. I am not special. I don’t even speak their language. I’m not Russian when they desperately need believing Russians around them. I’m not a psychologist or teacher with a degree that might help them. I am no better for the kids than anyone else who travels to visit. Who am I to have something Russian orphans need? What could they possible learn or glean from me? What love and knowledge of God did I have that I hadn’t already given in previous years?

God is always sovereign and his orchestration in this world is always for his glory when you are just crazy enough to go along for the ride. And his glory explodes in the midst of relationships.

Over my time with the kids this year, God used me to funnel so many things he wanted them to hear. They trust me, and they know me, so what came from me was taken as genuine and loving. They heard encouragement for their incredible gifts, assurance that they are known, hope for their dreams, conversations about behavior that is getting them in trouble and encouragement in their school work. Once I got to the end of the day, my words were all used up.

IMG_5720 - CopyMy Russian friend that I get to write letters to is a small fella with a very large personality. I had been praying that our friendship would become stronger this year, since he is now another year older. He is still not too sure about me, and some of the looks he gives me are downright hilarious. On the final day last year, he and I had bonded over taking photos. I’m rarely seen without a camera of some sort, and he meandered over wanting to take some. This year, we dove right into taking photos. I was stunned when he was able to focus and manipulate the 85mm lens to get the photo he wanted. Not every photo was great, but there is no logical way a seven year old should be able to accomplish that level of focusing on an 85mm. Seriosna. Wow! All week, I patiently stood with him as he scanned a room through the lens thinking to myself, “This moment I need to remember, because everything is as it should be in this time and place.” Pride blossomed in him as he showed me the ones he thought were best and I responded with “Good job!”

On the day of the bonfire, I had been planning to stay back since the little kids were not normally allowed to go. It had snowed about six inches the day before on top of the snow they already had in Velikoretskoye. Not so secretly, I was glad my Haiti adjusted body temp wasn’t going to have to be out in the cold for multiple hours…until Gyorgy said all of the kids could go. They were all ecstatic, so I piled on the layers. Shashliki, basically pork kebob, was grilled and the kids attacked it with fervor. Admittedly, so did I…it’s SO good! We had massive game of snowballs…leading to snow tackling like pros. At one point, I went back to the bus to get my camera and take photos of the trees. As I was facing down a path, I hear these soft, little taps in the snow behind me. Turning around I see my seven year old buddy with a snow ball in his raised hand and a feral look in his eyes. IMG_5834Panicking I lifted my camera high above my head hoping he couldn’t throw that far. Seconds later, he was distracted by the bus. There is a reason we are friends…both easily distracted and all…this distraction was followed by his remembering that he was going to hit me with the snowball physically playing across his face. Boom. There it was snowball in the chest, and camera protected.

Because Russian government is so strict about God not being ‘pushed’ on orphans, it makes our responsibility to let God work through us in our relationships with the kids so very important. One evening, our Russian contact came to me and said the administrator had made a comment to her about the team talking too much about God. At that point in the week, our small group conversations had revolved around our favorite music, art and joy. Stifle that chuckle, friends, the administrator was serious. When I had written our small group discussions, I will admit to pushing the envelope with questions and what we were sharing, because I know that our relationships with the kids have progressed to the point that a lot of them are curious about our faith and why we believe what we believe.

Imagine that! God showing up in conversations about music, art and joy…respectfully we got a bit more creative on the last day when we talked about being known. And by creative, I mean creative translating by a very excellent translator. We had been showing videos of folks that had traveled before since our team was small to start small group discussion. We wanted the kids to feel like a lot of people were a part of our week since there were just four of us on the team. The last conversation was about being known and community, because when I was writing it, I wanted the kids to really, truly feel how much we do treasure not just being a part of their community but their being a large part of our community. Lindsay Evans was up first as muffled ‘Lynd-say!’ was heard around the room. She gave a beautiful example of how our friendship has grown even closer while I have been living in Haiti, and how with friendships it doesn’t matter how far away you are to be close to someone. Completely true, by the way, and a fantastic thing for the kids to hear since for 99% of the year we are across an ocean.

Next up was our inspiring, Pastor-friend Shawn. Choruses of “Shah-wn!!!” rang out…here is where the translating got creative. Shawn did exactly what I had asked him to do…talk about how God created us for community, how the original intent was for us to live within community and it comes in all forms. As one could imagine with a pastor, there was a lot of God in his message. After Sveta and I previewed it, I said, “That was a LOT of God, do you think we can use it?” She replied with, “It was a very good message that the kids need to hear. We will use it, but I will be creative when I translate it.” Creatively, ‘God created us…’ turned into ‘We were created for…’

Afterward, we showed video messages from the American friends to their Russian friends to the kids’ delight. My prayer for that day was that the kids would not find any question in the community that has been created across an ocean and that when they need to, they can trust and lean on that community. There is a deep, deep supernatural love within this community that cannot be easily explained, and within that deep love is the One who first loved us. Who we are overflows out of that love and it cannot be contained, even by the Russian government.

Russia is ripe for Gospel, but as with all cultures, how we present the truth looks different. In Haiti, relationships with God are abundant, and the Gospel is very vocal everywhere. In Russia, faith is very personal and past hurts by ‘religion’ have made it very hard to be vocal about the Gospel. Talking about God comes through having trusted relationships, which in Russia takes years to build, and God being so much a part of who you are that nothing you do is separate from his Kingdom.

Our tradition on the last day is to have tea and cakes with the kids, and after artful negotiating with Gyorgy all week, we were able to have it in the orphanage building with one of the Americans and a translator in each of the family groups. Gyorgy likes for us to do all of our activities in the school since there is more space and it is much newer than the orphanage building. In the past, our team size has been deemed too large to spend time in the orphanage, but when we are able to be with the kids in their home it is much more personal than a formal classroom. Again, by default, I placed myself in the last room that needed an American. In God’s great humor, Sveta and I walked into the same family group room we had started in five years prior on our first week-long visit with the kids. She looked at me and said, “This is where we started. Here we are again.” Choking back whatever wanted to come out of my eyes, I replied, “Yes. Yes we did.” I sat at the table with the kids, trying to get them to talk. For whatever reason, they had few words to share that afternoon, but it opened the door for me to go around the entire table and remember a time when I first met each of them. I told them many faces were gone from around the table, and some new faces have joined their family. Elbows flew into the sides of those that were new to say, “She’s talking about you!” The caregivers shared stories. I shared stories. Dima had tackled me into the snow the day before at the bonfire, and I told him that reminded me of when Kostya had done that the first year I was with them in family group. Everyone immediately remembered that epic game of snowballs that had quickly progressed to tackling.

IMG_5680Community is about being known, being remembered and not being alone. God didn’t place us here to walk through life alone, and in the midst of our time during the week God used so many different opportunities to use us to speak into that with the kids.

When I got on the bus the last day, I laid down in the back seat, plugged my music in my ears and thought to myself, “I left it all on the court this year. This week was like the book of Esther. God was all through it, around it and over it…and it all happened by him flowing out of his people not through actually saying God this and God that. I have poured out everything Haiti has filled me up with, and I did what God sent me here to do.” In eleven years of traveling to Russia, I’ve never once gotten to the end of a visit and thought I had nothing else to give. God is so good, friends.

And in true fashion that a coffee or lunch with me to talk about the stories from the Russia visit would normally turn into 3 hours…this is the longest post I’ve ever written on this blog. I probably should have broken it up into multiple posts, but each story poured into the next just like it would have in person. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed living them. God constantly mesmerizes me at what he allows me to be a part of, and sitting in Haiti right now, most of these stories feel like a dream. I have to remind myself every day that they actually happened and I was allowed to be a part of what God wanted to bring in person to the kids this year.

So I spoke up, I spoke out
I learned that love doesn’t hold its tongue
And passion doesn’t bow to what they think
It’s you and me
Sometimes it’s painful to be brave
To look fear in the face
And know your name
To know your strength
[Steffany Gretsinger, ‘I Spoke Up’ from her album The Undoing.]
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change their story

IMG_2187For the last ten years I have given a lot of my life and love to children in Russia that are cast off into orphanages. What started as a willingness to follow God’s pull to orphan ministry has become what is, and will be, a lifetime of fighting for orphans in our world…wherever God may lead me. 

Coming from someone who used to not like kids at all…this is an ironic calling. However, the truth is my passion for seeing educated orphans grow into healthy and mature citizens of their own countries, then have healthy families of their own that break the vicious orphan cycle…makes my soul sing.

I believe that the things our world finds worthless…our God sees worth. I believe that the people our world judges…our God wraps his arms around and whispers, ‘You are loved.’

But alone…I am just one believer fighting against many social and political structures.

I am blessed to be a part of a community that wants to invest in some great kids in Russia through Children’s Hopechest. Together, as one community, we fight to see the kids embrace the hope of a future and see love as genuine and unconditionally given by not only us, but by the God that has loved them since the beginning of time.

Most Russians believe orphans do not have a story, but we believe these kids have been a part of God’s story since before they were born.

IMG_2444I am known in the orphanage as the one who always laughs and smiles. To me it is the easiest gift to give,  crossing language and cultural boundaries, to make someone feel included and loved. The greater gift, however, is being accepting as a part of their family. Someone they trust. Someone they ask advice from when they want to reach out. Do you know what an honor that is? To be asked for advice from kids that have been betrayed by family, with countless promises broken, and resulting in not trusting anyone?

These are the moments God works through. Where he shows himself and everything points backs to his heart for our world. This is one of the moments in my life that I have waited for…to be counted as a part of their family no matter how far away I am or what language I speak.

I will fight for these kids with everything I have in me. They deserve better. They deserve to know love. They deserve to know laughter and joy. They deserve the presence of people who will come alongside them, and walk with them through the tough things life throws at them. They deserve people surrounding them that will hear them say, ‘My dream is to be a good mother.’ Respond with, ‘I believe you will be. Let’s talk about what you need to learn and how you need to grow to make that dream come true.’ Then be invested long enough to see that dream realized.

This Christmas season I am creating an opportunity for others to fight for these kids, too. To make a different choice in how you approach the Christmas season of giving.

I am choosing to make it known that I do not want gifts, and asking my friends and family to make a donation to Children’s Hopechest and their campaign ‘Change Their Story.’ My team will be raising funds for tutors at Velikoretskoye Orphanage in Russia. Russian orphans are given a free education…as long as their grades are good enough and they continue passing exams. We have several students on the verge of graduating and heading to tech school next year, which means more tutors will play a large roll in helping the kids continue their education.

Here you will find a link to the team I have created for ‘Change Their Story.’ This is a way to set aside normal American standards of Christmas, and embrace a new way of celebrating the birth of our Savior. An invitation to help some great kids and perhaps choose to spend time with those you would normally give a gift to instead.

IMG_2245I write this post as a call to action. A call to belief in a God big enough to embrace the broken in this world. A call to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This is a call to be a part of God’s story and change the story of some incredible kids.

This year will you choose to worship the materialism of a holiday that was created for worshipping our Savior? Or might you choose a new way? A new opportunity to fight for the injustice in this world? It may be that you are not passionate about orphan care…perhaps you are about clean water, the hungry, the homeless or victims of sex trafficking. No matter what your passion, choose to change a story of someone that will draw others closer to God’s Kingdom and reflect God’s heart.

I am praying that others will join me and choose to fight for something this Christmas, while I choose to fight for some amazing kids who deserve to know people are fighting for them. This year, listen for the sound of heaven touching earth as your heart aligns with God’s heart for the orphan. It’s the best sound on earth.

aching

My arms are aching. Not because I did a major workout yesterday…yah right. It is an empty and waiting sort of ache. All because I know that I am within 36 hours if holding onto my family members that I haven’t seen in a year.

It is that time of year…and I am on my way with the annual Russia team to visit Velikoretskoye orphanage. I wait all year for this visit. It’s as though each year at this time, a piece of the puzzle falls into place, and all seems right in the world.

Which is weird, because the whole reason I travel is because things are very wrong in our world. Sin runs rampantly unchecked. Injustice plagues every continent. Generations are being raised that don’t know a time without a war somewhere. An unimaginable numbers of slaves exist in our world. And there are hundreds of thousands orphans. Things are very wrong.

I serve a God who restores, transforms and creates beautiful futures through our relationship with him and others. Which is why I have always felt like a ministry of relationship and presence fits me so well. After all I am the person who will drive 20 minutes for a conversation instead of talking on the phone.

I ache to be in community with others, and that sometimes leads me across oceans to fill my aching arms with my friends…family…that I cannot wait to see how much taller they’ve gotten!

To follow our Russia Team blog, it can be found at: www.russiamissiontrip.blogspot.com.

reasons

IMG_4520It’s too expensive.

It takes too long to get there.

You have to use translators.

The money would be better spent on helping orphans than sending you to travel there for a week.

You name it, I’ve heard it regarding the reasons NOT to travel to Russia, and spend time with our kids over the last 10 years. And yes, it’s been that long, insane…I know.

But what happens when the discernment of calling, self-examination through prayer and the need of the kids to have a physical presence far outweigh the price tag?

You cannot put a price on relationship.

You cannot put a price on encouragement.

You cannot put a price on a hug.

You cannot put a price on giving a child hope because someone is supporting them and choosing to believe in their future.

You cannot put a price on family.

The orphans in Russia are put into a category that places a stigma on them as worthless and inferior to all other Russians. Simply because their parents either got in trouble with the law, abandoned them or died. They are told that they deserve to be in that orphanage by their culture…because no one wanted them.

They are considered broken.

It’s not fair, and it ignites God’s sense of justice in me.

It puts innocent kids in situations they are not equipped to navigate. It creates a mistrust of everything and everyone in each of those kids. It makes them feel alone, and unloved. How can anyone expect them to trust a loving God they cannot see when each person around them has broken their concept of love and trust?

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That it not God’s heart for them…and it is wrong, very wrong.

I have had the privilege of a front row seat for the change in the kids as they grow closer to their American friends. I’ve grown those relationships myself with two incredible gentlemen. I’ve experienced the change in them as they are poured into by someone who genuinely cares for them and wants nothing in return. I’ve seen students push themselves harder in school while encouraged by the love of another. I’ve seen them develop a sense of family with someone who is thousands of miles away.

I’ve seen God ignite a passion for his children in so many people that choose to make a difference in the lives of some phenomenal kids.

Mission is about God’s heart for the world. It is about righting the wrongs of this world, and believing that each of the wrongs that get righted moves us closer to God’s Kingdom.

I passionately believe God has called each one of us to a specific purpose, and within that purpose we find ourselves as the best we can humanly be in his image.

Some God has called to their neighbors. Some God is calling to the urban core. Others God calls to disaster areas. And yet others are called to the crazy world of global mission. We don’t choose our calling…but we get to choose to live it.

Many times over the last 10 years I have found myself examining my heart for the orphans of Russia. It is expensive. It is far away. The language is hard. It is a completely back-ass-ward country.

Yet every time I return to God and ask, ‘Still?’ the answer is consistently a resounding ‘Yes!’ with an aside of ‘Please stop asking!’

I’ve learned over time  it’s not worth it to argue with God…therefore I choose to live in my calling, and choose to love and support kids that are stronger because of God’s love  flowing through his people.

*If you feel pulled to help me live in my calling, consider checking out my photography at sojourner4jesusphotography.com. I am currently fundraising for the next opportunity to serve God in Russia this November.*

leave

There is one place on this earth that rips my soul in two to leave.

It is a palpable sound to God’s ears because after all, he is the one that sends me.

The echo of that rip haunts me when I leave. A good haunt though, a reminder that things are not right in this world, and that I’ve been chosen to make a small difference for the life of a child. A reminder that God is working long before me, all around me and staying after I leave…that it is never about me, and always about him.

I never would have imagined my soul would be so closely tied to an orphanage…let alone one in Russia. It wasn’t too long ago that I couldn’t even deal with being around kids. But to speak God’s love, worth, hope and community into the life of an orphan is the greatest privilege there is in this world.

It used to be the hardest thing I’d ever done to leave the orphanage on the last day. The emotion of leaving is overwhelming to even the hardest of hearts. We would lose whole days to the kids acting out or withdrawing. We eventually amended trip schedules so that we went back for a ‘last’ morning so the kids wouldn’t be as emotional on the last day. It helped everyone take the leaving part in slower steps.

Some trips the kids would hang on to the back of the bus, it didn’t matter how seriously we told them it was dangerous. It was as if they were clinging to those last precious moments, too.

What I love most, though, is it rarely happens anymore. It isn’t as emotional when we leave as it used to be. Why? They know their friends, or friends of their friends, are coming back. We’ve crossed the line of dismay and sorrow into this beautiful place of deep love and trust. It’s amazing the strength of the ties that God creates in his mission fields.

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But this is what happens when you surrender your heart…soul…life…God leads us to unimaginable, beautiful, Kingdom places.

The hardest part for me is leaving those places, and holding on to that Kingdom life.

The beauty of it is the places God sends you is where you find the person he has created you to be. The best of you and worst of you collide, and his heart is ignited in yours. Your soul finds itself overflowing, all because you willingly surrendered.

And when that happens, no one wants to leave that behind.

family

IMG_0615 ‘Подруга, you are my friend,’ is what I kept hearing in broken English from the kids. They don’t know a lot of English, but they know some basic they have learned from their English teachers.

Then I started hearing…

‘Семья.’ Family. You are my family.

This year, one of our team members who had been twice, but not the year before was looking for a familiar face. Her Russian friend had shown up last year and asked me, ‘Where is Marca?’ I had to tell her Marca is not here, to which Nadia immediately replied with concern, ‘Is she ok?’

This year, as we finished our tea and delicious sweet rolls…some Russian hospitality customs are really fantastic, we were walking out and the kids swarmed. In the merriment of hugs, hellos and I’ve missed you…I looked around for the faces of graduates. We have several grads that hear a Woods Chapel team is coming, and show up over the weekend to see familiar faces. I found a few…Sasha, Artyom, Pavel…but no Nadia. We walked through the school and up the stairs to the small room that doubles as an auditorium with a stage, where several of the kids had already gathered.

As Marca walked in, a head popped out of the first row to watch the Americans walk in…and there was Nadia. Marca had a myriad of emotions, and I had a huge sense of answered prayer.

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Throughout the day they had several small conversations, just trying to catch up.

But my favorite part was when Nadia went through all of the kids who were in the family group that Marca had spent 2 trips with their group. Vitalyi entered a portrait of her in a drawing contest and did really well, and his drawings have gotten so much better! Olga is at the same school with Vitalyi…this person is here, this person is doing this…sharing the family news with a relative she might see once a year. As I observed them at the back of the bus, Nadia’s face lit up as she talked. There was no doubt about her love for Marca, and no doubt that she knew that loved was returned.

Her words to Marca where, ‘You gave me hope.’ And isn’t that how we all want to impact people? Motivation for the struggles, and knowing someone is there…Nadia is a success story. She is at the Medical Academy and doing fantastic! It’s unusual for an orphan to make it, especially someone as young as Nadia.  But isn’t that how family should support each other?

The kids are contagious…their enthusiasm for activities, for learning about us and most of all their strong desire to know their American friends better. At the core is a need to be known. Each year we watch as kids open their gifts from their friends, and every year the first thing they grab out is the letter and photos that are sent to them.

WCC members sent video this year as an experiment in being able to share messages. It went over so well that many of the kids wanted to send video messages back. As I taped the kids talking, they were nervous, but their excitement to show themselves on video was evident. They had considered their messages on video as gifts, and wanted to give that gift in return.

As I taped Alyona, Sharon Hutchen’s friend, she was showing her photos to the kids around her. Her excitement was like nothing I’d ever seen out of these kids before. She pointed to each person, said their name and mixed those photos in with the few photos she has of her biological family. To her, Sharon’s family is her family and I got her feelings on tape as she said on her video, ‘I miss you so much! Avery has grown so much!’ It melted my heart to know that she feels so loved, and included, by a family half a world away that is brings to her high pitched squeals of excitement.

The amazing thing about this year was that after 4 years of investing into the lives of these kids that we see each year…conversations were real, not just surface. That’s when you know you’ve crossed into new territory, and when you know the Kingdom work has become very real. You’ve not only gained new family, but you’ve poured hope, love, commitment and friendship into a child abandoned by their family.

I have tried here, but I would never be able to fully express how honored I feel to be a part of their family. And count them a part of mine…

There are so many more stories to tell! Please join us in the Lecture Hall on January 6 at 12:15 pm as we share more about our trip, show videos from the kids and talk about the amazing kids we have the privilege of knowing. And if you missed it, we blogged our trip…you can check it out at http://www.russiamissiontrip.com.

community on mission

I saw a quote on Twitter, ‘Community is the byproduct of mission.’ I wonder how many would agree or disagree with that statement? Honestly…we’ve seen it both ways around Woods Chapel.

There are groups of friends, small groups or even large groups that choose to do mission together. They are all from different backgrounds…doing Bible studies together, Sunday school classes, neighbors or accountability groups. Groups go down to Westport, work in Joplin, help families that have lost jobs, bake delicious treats for neighbors or firemen, and serve at Harvesters are all examples of things our folks have done. Sometimes it’s not the whole group that is interested in serving, but as groups do everyone tags along. The part that I love, however, are those that have never served before. Never looked a homeless person in the eye, never looked for worth in one who finds pillows in dumpsters. Or didn’t realize there were thousands of people in the KC area that cannot regularly put food on their tables. And my personal favorite…those who suddenly realize that deeply caring for their neighbors is all a part of the mission God wants us to participate in while just living our ‘normal’ lives.

The groups that feel like there is something more for them to evolve toward typically find it when they serve together. The groups we’ve seen serve come away from that time with a stronger bond, more stories to laugh about and a greater understanding of what God meant when he said ‘Go!’ At the foundation of it is a group that has been the heart of God to others, and it ignites something in their souls.

‘Community is the byproduct of mission.’

Community is incredibly intensified by doing mission together. But what about those that are complete strangers who go out to serve together, and come back like family? Our Joplin teams are a fantastic example. Teams of 6-25 people were traveling to work for 1 to 3 days at a time. It became a normal thing to hear someone say, ‘I’ve been going to Woods Chapel for 10 years and I never met most of the people on my team!’ As over 200 folks traveled to Joplin…friendships were formed, relationships with ‘our Joplin families’ were nurtured and God’s presence was not only abundant, but tangible.

Woods Chapel has been serving meals down at Westport for many years. Folks go serve on a Saturday or Tuesday night, and a couple of months later go again. And soon enough there is a pattern. They learn names of those that come through the doors. They recognize faces. They acknowledge birthdays. And months later realize…this is not about serving meals. It is about connecting to others equally made in the image of God. Some of those that are investing each Saturday of the month at Westport are not only seeing homeless with a different set of eyes, but they are a part of a community that was born out of a desire to feed the hungry.

A couple of years ago, one of the Russia teams came back from a trip and wanted to figure out a way to involved everyone in the ministry at Woods Chapel instead of perpetuating the idea you had to travel to be part of the family. There are those that travel to the orphanage in Russia, families that sponsor each of the orphans, and pen pals that cannot make a monthly commitment, but want to speak hope & value into the lives of the kids. Soon Nadezhda Crew was created out of a random thought in Russia, and ever since anyone connected to the Russia ministry gathers on the first Sunday of the month to share a meal. They also do projects for the kids: cards, posters, and video messages. Without the Russia ministry…they would have never been a group. Their community was a byproduct…a beautiful, fantastic byproduct of the mission of God to serve orphans in Russia.

Each of us is born with a beautiful mission impulse. It is that part of ourselves that is hard to explain, because how do you form words around what it feels like to pour out God’s love on others? To have that gut feeling that there is more God has for you to participate in? It is the purest desire of our Father that we would fight for His kingdom on earth…and choosing to love others as a community on mission together is an amazing reflection of God’s presence in our lives.

What is your story? What has your group done? Shout it out! Hold it up! I would love to hear the story of how your group is participating in God’s mission!