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.
To 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!
One 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.
My 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. Panicking 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.
Community 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.]