torn

Shattered into a multitude of pieces is what my life typically feels like. You would think I am used to it by now. I want to be so many places all at the same time. It literally feels like a ragged ripping with a painful element of being torn…how is it this possible to feel comfortable and natural through different cultures, languages and continents?

It is an unexplainable feeling to be torn for completely different places and friendships.

I love Russia. I deeply love my friends in Russia. I value those friendships as important and transformative to my life.

I love Haiti. I deeply love my friends in Haiti. I value those friendships as important and transformative to my life.

See the dilemma?

This morning while driving through snow, I was reminded how drastically different these two places have been created. From general structure to temperature, landscape, architecture, politics…you name it and most everything is all on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Except for one, hospitality is completely in sync with one another. Each place would do anything to make a guest feel welcome.

But for me, there is a common denominator for both firmly within the orphan window of this world. Each has different orphan situations…social, political and poverty orphans…both places have an overwhelming abundance of children aching to be championed by someone who genuinely cares about them, listens to their dreams, encourages their worth, and is willing to fight with them for their education and future. Someone to be a friend in the times their cultures tell them they are not worth the time and effort. Someone to make them feel they are not alone, and they have been created for good.

Ultimately, someone who supports locals within their culture to step into a variety of scenarios with unconditional love and friendship. My greatest dream is that the number of people within their country to make them a part of their family increases exponentially until all orphans throughout the world are taken into families within their home culture and no orphanage needs to exist to raise kids. It could be that this will not happen until this world is restored, but I believe God is continually raising up and calling people to be that champion in their own country.

There is no escaping examples of orphans in the Bible. Moses in a basket floating down a river. Esther’s parents dying, then being taken in by her cousin. Jesus being adopted by Joseph, for just a few.

There is also no escaping God’s mandate to seek justice for orphans, because, he is their protector, and as agents of God we are not invited to participate, but instructed to participate in protecting those who need to feel chosen and loved unconditionally. Don’t take my word for it, look for yourself in Psalms 10:17-18, Psalms 65:5-6, Jeremiah 22:3, James 1:26-27, Deuteronomy 10:17, Isaiah 1:16-17, Zechariah 7:9-10 and Malachi 3:5 to name a few.

My life is proof that each created life has a unique calling and purpose within God’s Kingdom that is theirs alone. My life is whole and I would never trade what I have been given for a different life…it’s just my kind of crazy.

As one who is anointed and called as someone to speak into the lives of others, when I started coming to Russia, I lacked the maturity to speak well. Some would say I still lack maturity, and for certain situations I wouldn’t argue but for most I would argue they really don’t know me. I’ve done nothing to deserve the insane blessing and transformation of the journey into the orphan window over the last twelve years. I’m not worthy of that honor, but when it comes to the orphan window of this world, God has tuned me to the same frequency as his heart for the orphan and widow. For that I am ever grateful for being able to exist within so many different perspectives.

As I ride to Velikoretskoye listening to what I like to refer to my ‘Kingdom focus’ music to drown out my torn heart, I am not ready to leave my Russian friends…even though it is time. Oh, how I long to be hugged simultaneously by my Russian and Haitian buddies. These kids are meant for greatness. They are meant to transform the world with their gifts and talents God created them to possess. They are created to be good people, shitty situations come on them and choices get made for bad things…but they were created for good.

God moments have been written into every aspect of the last two weeks. Some small and others massive, then in an unexplainable realm, every time my Russian buddy would run to my legs and wrap his small arms around both legs in a tight hug, exclaiming ‘Stephanie Stevovona!’ with a high pitched giggle, I would simultaneously feel one of my Haitian buddies doing the same on my opposite side, yelling out, ‘Éstefony!’ I genuinely hope it works in reverse once I return to Haiti. 

Looking at our time in Velikoretskoye, God was everywhere, just as he is present all over the book of Esther, yet his name is not written into the pages.  His name may not have been spoken out loud and his word may not have been quoted, but his heart was represented well through relationships, conversations and goofy inside jokes that continue to build our community with each other. Many moments I am hoping to share and celebrate, while others are more likely to stay between me and my creator. We will see what ends up getting shared from our visit with our friends. 

I hate that I am torn. I love that I am torn. And I am learning and growing to live within that love/hate tension through my deep love for the orphans who find themselves in the orphan window of this world, because I am created as a voice to inform those who are unaware and a friend to encourage those who didn’t deserve that injustice in the first place.

I’ve been redeemed and set free through grace for this calling that I humbly walk into as one who is deeply in love with Jesus and choose to journey within that calling…fully knowing I will continue to feel the tension of being torn as I love my friends all over the world.  

 

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practice

Thirst for culture and language is a large part of who I am. During my time in China, my favorite class was language class and learning the characters of Mandarin. Over the years I have spent some time trying to make sense of Russian. I will never forget the trip to Kurlovo in Russia when I’d picked up enough phrases to make it sound like I spoke fluent Russian. Little Dima got in my face and just kept jabbering. I think I understood every 10th word. When I said in Russian, “I don’t speak Russian!” He told me “Yes, you DO!” And thought I’d created a new game to play. Ha!

And now I find myself having spent enough time learning and submerged in Creole that I can translate small conversations between visiting Americans and the kids in the villages. Emphasis on SMALL conversations. However, definitely at the point the kids think I speak more than I actually speak and tell me all sorts of things I have not a clue what they are really saying. Contractions in Haitian slang will be the death of me!

But the key to all of this is practice. I spent almost seven years learning French in school and university, but could not have kept a conversation going even if someone held a gun to my head!

Really great practice for me is when a lot of the kids like to test me. Lovesonnes is on a color phase, and yesterday he kept at me with saying a color in English and I would tell him the Creole word. Easy. I know my colors well! Then we switched to animals. Not so good there!

One of the things I cherish most at the villages is knowing the kids. One of my friends has been sick for a couple of weeks. Tacura has slowly been healing, and yesterday was the first day in a while that he was completely back to his highly energetic, goofy, lovable self. He was on my back and would shimmy up to where he could rest his head on my shoulder and put his cheek next to mine with our ears pressed together so it sounded like I was in a tunnel when I talked. Then he was acting like he was driving a car and squealing like a horn…in my ear. Good thing we have a good friendship and I know how sick he’s been, or that screaming *might* have been annoying.

At one point he asked to go to the cafeteria and we sat in a quiet corner where he started asking me questions in Creole. He knows my language limits and phrases things so I understand him. It was precious time spent with my friend, but also excellent practice for my language skills.

Before we left last night, a new American friend was holding Onelson…who was almost asleep. Everyone else is getting on the bus and she looked at me with the question of “Do I just put him down?” We took him to his room where he decided he wasn’t that sleepy, as toddlers do, and kept saying, “No!”

Tacura thought this was hilarious, but they live in the same room, so this was not new to him. Soon, Onelson was out and dead weight. Tacura immediately, started pulling the American’s arm while tip toeing making hilarious contortions with his face down the room length, simultaneously holding his finger to his lips…the international sign of please shut up. I hadn’t seen that animation in his face and eyes in weeks, as I stood in the doorway I couldn’t help but smile at this sweet scene that transcended language barriers.

Language barriers have never bothered me, and I fully acknowledge I am unique in that trait. I find myself so thankful for practice with my American friends, and translators who get that I am at the point where I am just going to go for it and say the sentence in Creole that they will need to correct.

But even more so, I love the quiet, memorable moments of when I practice language with the small friends in my life that speak Russian and Creole…all because it leads to a deepening of trust and being known within the relationships God is nurturing.

education

I live in a place where parents are faced with the indignity of giving their kids to a children’s home so they can go to school, or keep their child with their family at the perilous cost of not gaining an education. I cannot fathom having to make that decision, but in Haiti and other majority world countries around the world…it is a reality.

Is education always the answer to breaking the cycle of poverty and injustice? No, there are too many factors in play for it to be as easy as one answer. However, it has been proven to give kids more options to break into the dreams of their future.

The GO Project Pathways program exists to train young Haitians in trades when their level of education is expensive or not on par with their age. Many of the kids who are 18 are at a 5th or 6th grade in school. When they are 18 and are not allowed to be in the home with the other kids, their grade level is not high enough for them to continue regular school. The Pathways program stands in that gap and says that the sustainable future of these kids matter. I know several of these young adults. I know their smiles. I know how they tease. I know they need encouragement. And I know that they are grateful for a place to belong and skills to have the opportunity to provide for themselves.

IMG_3764The Pathways program is very similar to Russia’s tech school system. Russia’s tech schools are government run, and have so many in regions that it is hard to keep track of what tech school teaches what, but Russia has the same problem as Haiti. Kids come into the orphanage at a much younger grade level than their age would put them, and when they are no longer allowed to be in the orphanage at age 16 they are not at a grade level to send them to go to college or university.

After 6 years of traveling to Kurlovo orphanage in the Vladimir region, there was one young lady that went on to university out of all the kids that passed through the orphanage. One. Many went on to tech school, some to extended family, and Russian statistics show many kids at age 16 are left on the streets to be prey to sex traffickers, prostitution, drugs and suicide. When Kurlovo closed and our community went through the painful process of praying and discerning what next there were a lot of questions up in the air. Every piece of who you are individually and as a community is thrown into long-term relationships with a group of kids, and when you are told it is finished long before you imagined it would be, there is a lot of logic in not wanting to do it again

But by the grace and orchestration of God, we were drawn as a community to be an even larger community with a group of kids in Velikoretskoye. There were many reasons we were drawn to this unique place in the middle of nowhere. Really, it is in the middle of nowhere, but many come to this destination because one of the Russian Orthodox icons of St. Nicholas was found on the river banks.

One of the biggest draws was that the orphanage director was also the school principal and was already sending kids to university or college instead of learning a trade at a tech school. Tech school is a great option for learning construction, mechanics, interior decorating, cooking, working in a business and tourist trades for hotels and trains. However, colleges and university provide education for professions that would pay more for your knowledge.

Clearly, his dedication was something we connected with and wanted to support him. After our first year traveling, he had a young lady go to medical college and a young man go to design college. There have been kids that have gone on to succeed at tech schools, and some of the guys who gained education in construction are making an incredible living as Georgyi told me when we were there in November.

IMG_5606

Nastya is one of the graduates that came back to visit while the team was at Velikoretskoye this year. She is at university to become a teacher. Her situation was one that Georgyi championed when she expressed the desire to go to university, but her grade level was not to her age. Ignoring Russian laws, he kept her at the orphanage beyond age 16 so she could graduate high school in order to continue her education in university.

Georgyi graduated seven kids out of the orphanage last year, and last September had all seven kids in college or university. *Collective cheer!* I talked about this a little in my massive post I put up a few days ago about the trip this year.

God has grown me to the point where I hate seeing things sent or donated somewhere they are not needed. The locals on the ground need to verbalize a need before I can make sense of sending a plethora of clothes, shoes, toiletries and a myriad of other things to their location. When you send things they don’t need, all it does it inundate them with things they don’t have space for and in some extreme cases will sell it for the money. Not the original intent.

This year, Georgyi has verbalized a need for tutors for all of the kids. Last year, we talked with him about help for the kids that were graduating and several of us within our community raised money for that need. In that spirit, Lindsay Evans and I asked our friends and family to forgo a ‘traditional’ Christmas gift for ourselves and instead give money toward tutors for the kids. What better gift that to know that the kids we know and love will succeed in higher education AND provide income for local tutors? This year, to get tutors for all of the kids, it is going to be a bit more than what a few people might be able to generate and will end up being about $4,200.

In honor of a silly named day, ‘Giving Tuesday,’ (Shouldn’t it be ‘Giving Every Day’?!?!) I am putting up this post with links in it to support the future of kids in Haiti and Russia.

Go to ‘Change Their Story’ on the Children’s Hopechest page to support tutors at Velikoretskoye. You can do it a couple of different ways. Simply support our team, or if you want you could even become a team member and send folks to contribute on your page for the team. Here’s to ALL of the Velikoretskoye graduates going on to college or university from this point forward, friends!

Go to Global Orphan Project’s page to contribute to the Pathways program. If you have spent any time reading this blog, then you know how much I love getting to know some of these kids. Their smiles tell it all, friends. You couldn’t possibly make a better investment…

Do Christmas different and let it be about how we are impacting the future of kids told they are not worth anything, instead of the more socially accepted purchasing of things we don’t really need. I welcome and enthusiastically cheer on anyone willing to support the future of some pretty incredible Russians and Haitians.

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.]

men

I’ve seen countless women answering God’s call to be present within the orphan window around the world. Obvious reasons feed into why women are drawn to orphan care. Each has an innate way they nurture, love and care for others. I’ve even been surprised to see some of these qualities come out in myself. What I really wish is that social expectations for those qualities in men were higher, with much respect for what they already bring to the table.

Realistically, I would trade 5 of these phenomenal, Jesus’ lovin’ women drawn into orphan care for ONE MAN who is passionate about Jesus, willing to surrender himself and step outside his comfort zone to pour into the lives of orphans in this world and those who care for them.

No, ladies, I am not disvaluing your continual presence in the lives of orphans you care about, and it is always a joy digging deep into the mess of relationships with the kids and laugh until I cannot breathe with you. I am emphasizing the importance of men who are not afraid to show they love Jesus in the lives of kids who have been abandoned, and have few examples of the strength found in men that embrace their love for Jesus, and then their love for wife, family and friends.

If you hear one thing let it be that orphan care is not for one gender or the other. It is equal opportunity for all to be active in God’s Kingdom. Let me also clarify that orphan care is all inclusive of many different people in our world. When you define an orphan as someone who has no one to champion them…that busts open a new worldview to orphans being elderly, single moms, widows, foster kids, abandoned kids, kids with no parents, kids with parents in jail and the teenager down the street whose parents have decided they are done parenting.

Orphan care is also not just for those of us who happen to be called beyond the borders of the United States. It is for every believer living in God’s Kingdom who is a neighbor, employee, spouse, parent, sports enthusiast…the list goes on. Orphans surround you on a daily basis. Granted some are living in far more extreme situations than the neighbors of those that are reading this, but to God each orphan is equal to the next. No orphan is loved more by God based on the situation they find themselves.

IMG_1114I’ve had some unique opportunities to see men active in the lives of orphans around the world in the last month. In October, there was a group of 22 that came down to Haiti. Four in that group were women. Do the math…that’s eighteen of the male variety. What I saw in that group was the admiration on the kids’ faces as the men led games. Joy when a kid found themselves on the top of a man’s shoulders. Intense concentration as a man’s hair was braided, then pride in the result. Complete abandon as men held them and ‘hopped’ them through a potato sack race. There is great responsibility when a man steps into the life of an orphan, because that child of God is looking at how they treat the wife and kids they are traveling with, as well as the others on the team. They are watching, because they don’t see it very often.

IMG_5081The kids rarely have men play with them, and each of those interactions is a mark on a young boy or girl that has few models to look to in their life. I love the translators that work with us in Haiti. They have genuine love for the kids they see, and it’s no coincidence that the kids gravitate to these strong men who love Jesus. A few months ago one of the male social workers was at the village when a group pulled in to visit. He had a swarm of older teenage boys hanging around him as they kicked a soccer ball around. Another village we support has mamas and papas who live with the kids. The respect the kids have for the papas who are with them every day is evident. When you look around the village you see a lot of women taking care of the kids, cleaning clothes, cooking meals and male Pastor who is leading them all. What is absent from the daily life of most villages is the presence of good, strong examples of what it looks like to be men who passionately loves Jesus and choose to be present with the kids. There is definite strength in the women surrounding the kids, but God wants to use the presence of men in the kids’ lives to enrich their view of his Kingdom, too. Does it help an orphan connect with God when they see the real life example of what it is to be a man running after his Father’s heart? It was beautiful watching the kids come alive around the men on the team, but equally beautiful watching the men come alive as the kids soaked up the time they were given.

He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I will strike the land with a curse. [Malachi 4:6]

My hope is that men would inspire men to go deeper into God’s heart for the orphan, but that means time and loyal investment into the messy areas of orphan care. It means making time to walk through life with someone else. It means spending time with other men struggling through a calling to be present in the lives of orphans. It means digging deep into relationship and in the best case scenario…discipleship. And ladies, it means no guilt trips when your man is working through answering his calling. Take pride in that with him and support him, even if that means a fraction of time away from your family. He will be a better dad and husband for answering God’s calling…I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

Recently I traveled with a group to visit the kids in Russia that we have known for six years. These are short visits with long-term commitment that God is richly showing up in as we gain shared memories with the kids. Kids and their American friends write letters throughout the year, and once a year we get to physically be present to connect with kids, as well as their caregivers, teachers and the man who directs them all. These relationships have taken years to develop and much patience with God laying a base of trust. It has been a hard road, but worth every messy minute to be a part of what God is doing now.

IMG_5817This year we had four people, two men and 2 women, after several years of only one man traveling on our yearly visit. Much time was spent with these fellas being goofy, leading activities and allowing themselves to simply be present in the moments God put before them. We spent a lot of time in the gym, and there was a constant line of boys challenging the American men to different athletic endeavors. But it wasn’t just about a show of strength, it was about connection. It was about how you act when you lose, and how you represent yourself in a game. It’s about taking opportunities to be on the same team. It is about a young boy looking at an older man and craving to be known by someone that cares about them. It is about the moments in conversation where life is shared. It is about respect. Men crave respect, and it is no different when you are 14 or 55. How a man respects another man in the context of a challenge shows their character, and as far as the character in the lives of the Russian kids…not many take the time to pour into it.

One of the conversations I had with the orphanage director this year was how impressed we were with the amount of college and university students he had this year. He humbly blew off the compliment with a response that they may be getting good grades, but their character is lacking. His example was how he can provide for them and they can get good enough grades to move on, but after that it is up to them while living on their own. I’m praying God will raise up Russians to help pour into his concerns, at the same time I know we will seeking God in ways we can help support him to grow character in the kids. It is God’s Kingdom community working together that dissolves language barriers and country borders.

I am blessed to know many men who are active within the orphan window and passionately love Jesus. These men have incredible character, and love for their families. I get to see every aspect of these men come alive while being present with some incredible kids. It’s in those moments I see God’s Kingdom come to life.

Many of the kids I know names and faces of throughout the world never knew their father. The fathers are the ones that, unfortunately, are more likely to not take responsibility for their families. I also know many men that are taking responsibility, whose character is strong and love for Jesus is written all over their lives. I believe God is calling these men to call out the men who have not taken responsibility for their families. I get that it’s hard. I get that you don’t think it’s your responsibility. I get that it’s easier to pretend that single mom is doing great on her own, but if you are a great father then disciple other men to be great fathers. Imagine an absentee father on his knees asking forgiveness of his children, imagine the grace possible…imagine the picture of a family restored because a community of men came around another man whose relationship with God needed restoration. A Kingdom life restored to God’s glory. Men, it’s time to be men…real men who stand up for what is good, right and just in this world. Hold fathers accountable to being present with their families, and keep their family unit whole. Embrace how God has created you and lead with confidence.

He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I will strike the land with a curse. [Malachi 4:6]

God is calling men to take seriously the spiritual role as head of their families. God is calling the men who already are to disciple those that are not leading their families. God is calling men to seek the gentleness, playfulness and compassion within the strength he has given them. God is calling men of all backgrounds to be present and pour into the orphans of this world…the real question is which of those men will have enough crazy and courage to say yes.

 

 

 

stories

I love stories! I love telling them, but more often I love hearing them. I have random stories that like to pop up in conversation, then I have the stories that are a bit deeper and are more likely to share when I am asked.

Stories of the places I have been in the world are one of those that I typically get asked questions. Several months ago, I had a student that asked about my last trip to Russia. She asked at a point in time where student ministry chaos was abounding, so my response to her was ‘I would love to tell you, let’s get together and talk about it!’

The next month I get a text from her: ‘I want to get coffee, and just sit and talk.’

First…I do that really well. Coffee and talking. Talking and coffee. Second, though, in the many years I’ve done student ministry…this is a loaded text. Let me assure you that those conversations can range anywhere from ‘I got a bad haircut and my life is ending.’ to struggles with suicide.

But this time, it was story time! We sit down and she says to me, ‘Tell me everything about your last Russia trip!’

Obviously, I could never pass up that invitation…and the conversation carried on for almost 3 hours. Get me started on the things I am passionate about and this is what happens! I would say one thing and she would ask five questions about it, I would head into a different story and she would again ask me several questions.

One of the things I love about students is their curiosity, and their ability soak so much in and work to digest it. They ache to see God’s at work. They desire to know what it feels like to have the Holy Spirit leading them. They are thirsty for God’s word to be real in their lives. They want truth, and if you try to BS them…they will call you out. They scream out at the injustices in the world. They are a passionate bunch, and they are seeking relationships around them that are loyal, trusting and PRESENT.

A few weeks later, I was walking into the Student Ministry Building and my friend jumped up off the floor and ran to be yelling, ‘Steph! Steph! I have to share something with you!’

She had led a group at school in a devotion, and had used my stories about orphans in Russia to open the eyes of other students to the ways God is at work in our world and how the Kingdom is alive around us. She was so excited that she was able to share the stories that I had shared with her in order to push the truth of the Gospel forward.

Jesus told stories. A lot of them actually. After his death…how did the Gospel spread? How was God’s truth carried forward? A ton of Holy Spirit…but by stories being told. Witnesses actually baring witness to what they saw.

Too often we contain the ways God is working in us so that it is only ours.

That makes me incredibly sad, because stories are still worth their weight in the Gospel. I see it every day, as well as the impact of a story being told.

Stories are a beautiful thing, but the beauty of a story cannot be realized unless someone is willing to give it a voice.

awake

I strongly dislike mornings. If I am awake early, it is purely strong black sludge in a mug that makes me appear human.

Which means I am a night owl. I love the quiet of night, and if you look at the time stamps of when I post you will notice a pattern of time of day when I get my inspiration to write.

There are times that I have the best intentions of going to bed early, then the next thing I know I am still awake past midnight.

I watch TV. I listen to music. I read. I pray. I write. I ponder…a lot.

My brain tries to process the day and who I was with, who did I not see that I need to check in with, what needs to be done tomorrow…the list goes on and on.

But one of the last things that play through my mind while I am still awake are the places that have made a mark on my soul, and changed me.

They take turns. China. Russia. Haiti. Liberia. College. Friendships. Arguments.

Tonight I find myself doing the math as to what time it is in Russia. Right now, the kids are probably studying and it’s almost lunch time. How was their morning? How much snow did they get last night? (This thought is normally followed by a quick check of the weather, which is a snowy 17 and feels like 7 during the day while it is 11 and feels like -3 in KC overnight.) Did they wear the hats and gloves they were so excited about last month? It’s banya (bath) day, who will try to skip and not get caught by caregivers? Sergei is the best bet or maybe Dima S. Is Valya still in the hospital with pneumonia? Has Danil decided to not be as psycho today? Did someone tease Lena and make her sad? Who made Gera smile today? What has Vika drawn? Was Larisa more of a kid or mama today? What new poem has Stas memorized and did the superhero cape get pulled out and worn? Have the boys seen the soccer world cup groupings that came out? Has Dima kept control of his anger issues? Which Americans wrote a letter that might get delivered today by Yulia, our discipler?

These are orphans I know by name. They struggle with most of the same things our kids struggle with, but with the added scars of not being accepted by their culture and living with abandonment issues.

I was being obedient in my calling to international mission when God woke up a huge part of my soul in a small village orphanage with 50 kids, and he’s kept my passion alive for justice ever since.

One of my favorite songs is ‘Wake Up’ by All Sons and Daughters, and it always reminds me of this verse in Ephesians:

‘Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”‘ [Ephesians 5:14]

The chorus of the song is ‘Wake up all you sleepers. Stand up all you dreamers. Hands up all believers. Take up your cross…’

When you lie awake at night, what are you thinking about? What has God made you awake for?

Or better yet…what is God trying to wake you up to…or have you been choosing to press snooze?

The truth is this world is waiting for a lot of believers to wake up. Whether you have believed in the truth of the universal reign of God for an hour, a day, a month or 50 years…too many believers are asleep to the mission impulse God put in each one of us.

It’s there. Dig deep. Maybe chisel down to lay some of your scars bare to find it.

Because this world desperately needs your compassion, discerned words, unconditional love and faith in the world beyond this one.

Choose to be awake.

This post is part of a blog series using the Rethink Church Advent photo-a-day word. If you use Instagram follow #rethinkchurch or #rethinkchristmas.