18 November 2007

Blended and Blessed.

17-18 November 2007

According to the map on the screen in front of me on the airplane, we are over land somewhere north of Boston, which means we have traversed the Atlantic Ocean on our journey back to Dallas/Fort Worth. And as with our trip to St Petersburg, November 17th and 18th have blended into a single, long day. A day filled with glory, laughter, and tears.

We awoke yesterday (the 17th) and visited Orphanage #2. Buckner has been providing services and support to this orphanage for 12 years, and the facility shows the benefits. There are security cameras, a lovely playground, school supplies, toys, updated equipment – and the discipline in the orphanage is evident. Our follow-up staff is well-known here, and this was the first time my group experienced our interpreter Lena truly in “her element” with our children. She directed us on how best to conduct our Bible study and crafts so the children would remain focused and attentive. With children ranging in age from 3-7, it was essential. As always, the kids loved having their pictures taken as well as wanting to be a shutterbug themselves. It’s been fun to look back at the now more than 1,000 photos we have taken and see the ones taken by the children – some are great and some are, well, works of special “art.”

At lunch, we honored our in-country Buckner staff who have been so patient and kind with us as we stumble through the Russian language, culture, and our own emotions in dealing with the many children. Ismael, Vladmir, Olga, Masha, and Lena have each received their degrees in education or counseling, and most have received their masters in either theology or education. They travel to each orphanage eacn week to providing teaching and care to the children, and have been able to break through the hurt and pain of so many abandoned children. Their work is hard. And they need our prayer, our encouragement, and our support. And Natasha, the Director working for Buckner, has a heart of gold and such a gift of administration. She works daily with the government, battles with customs on shipments of shoes, socks and humanitarian air, assesses operational needs at each of the orphanages and hospitals, and serves as the daily contact with the Buckner offices in the United States.

I know I’ve written about the beauty we’ve seen in this city in the cathedrals, museums, and historical landmarks. But I don’t think anything prepared us for our afternoon visit to the Cathedral of the Saviour of Spilt Blood. Built on the site of the murder of Alexander, this Russian Orthodox temple is cavernous and ornate, and the walls are completely decorated with images designed of small mosaic tiles. The life of Christ, religious icons, and images of heaven and earth are depicted. The lens of a camera is rendered inadequate in capturing the magnitude and beauty. The cathedral was started in the 17th century and finished in the 1900s. During World War II, the cathedral was used as a storage facility for tens of thousands of dead bodies. They say the bodies covered every square inch of the floor and were stacked as high as the windows (see the photo to gain perspective). And during the rule of the Soviets, the cathedral was also used to store potatoes. A bomb fell through one of the cupolas into the center or the cathedral, but did not detonate. It lay there for four years before carefully being removed. Legend has it that the bomb detonated on the truck two miles away.

We ended our day with a bit of last-minute gift shopping for friends and family, and then wrapped our adventure with a Russian Folk Show at a local theatre. I have to admit I wasn’t extremely excited about attending – knowing we still had packing and traveling ahead of us, part of me wanted to have a bit of quiet time. But the experience was delightful. Those who believe they have a corner on creativity with hip-hop and breakdancing are greatly mistaken. Seems this country has been leading the dance revolution for centuries! A real highlight of the show was watching our own teammate Rick, from Washington, cautiously dancing onstage after being selected by one of the professional dancers.

Late night at the hotel was spent reflecting on the experience with our newfound friends. Then we entered our bus for the last time at 2am for the quiet trip to the airport. The streets of Russia were not as crowded but still alive. Clubs and coffee houses were crowded (as was the bar at our hotel), and several people were riding horses down the sidewalks. The drawbridges were up so ships could pass. And the lights on the rows of palaces glowed in the moist night air.

Which brings me back to this plane as we journey southeast over Canada. We’ve backtracked 8 timezones so far as the 17th blurs with the 18th, and have another 3 hours to go before we reach our destination. I struggle with sleep despite the Ambien because my head and heart are so full. I have images in my mind that are embossed for life. I have found new brothers and sisters who I will lift up and love. I have cherished moments that make me smile. And I could certainly use a good, old-fashion cry right now.


It’s now 8pm on Sunday, November 18th. My watch is still set to Russian time, and it looks like I’ve been up for almost 48 hours. I’m resting quietly, with my dog by my side and my husband, Brad, in the shower (just like the morning of November 8th). I’ve savored a turkey burger and sweet potato fries, and have shed a good number of tears. It actually feels awkward to be home – maybe two more days in Russia would have sated the hunger. Then again, it likely would have just fueled the fire that is growing within me. Brad and I have both determined we want to return to Russia. I would love to find out that Reb, Marie, Rick, Rachel, Amy, Janet, Dave, Jean, Elaine, Janet, Barbara, Joy, Helen, Marina, Deborah, Alex, and Jessica would be there with us, loving on the kids and supporting those who work so hard to provide love, care, and eternal values each day.

I’ll close with a few thoughts, adages, and special memories of the trip.

“Please take all the time you want – you have 5 minutes.” – our theme statement, coined by Natasha

“Relax and enjoy the beautiful works of Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh – we leave in 10 minutes.” – a secondary theme statement, coined by Masha

The movie Hairspray is easy to memorize when you’ve watched it six times.

Creativity reigns during long bus rides – including interpretation of Russian street signs. One particular one, showing a person walking on a crosswalk with another sign featuring a pair of sunglasses, was defined as “only cool and really famous people may cross this street.”

The word “to go” doesn’t really have relevance in Russia. This caused our caffeine-addicted crew anguish. Then again, the sheer strength of Russian coffee kept this crew in a perpetual state of wide-eyed glory. No cup is needed in this country - the coffee here can stand on its own.

Hot chocolate in Russia is just that. Hot chocolate. Envision heated Hershey’s syrup, in a cup, ready for your enjoyment.

The best bread in Russia can be found in Volkhov at Nadeszhda Orphanage. Rich yeast rolls sprinkled with sugar are a treat indeed!

If you don’t like meat, potatoes, cabbage, beets, mayonnaise and cheese (together), sour cream, dill, and dark sourdough rye bread, Russia may not be your best bet as a tourist destination.

If orange M&Ms come to the United States, run. Quickly. Trust us.

All roads lead to the Hermitage. And things owned by Peter the Great.

Smiles and hugs translate easily into every language. And laughter is universal.

Here’s to the journey. Here’s to the kids.

До свидания!

16 November 2007

Two Things.

16 November 2007

We’ve been here a week. I’m not sure if it feels like a lifetime or a moment in time. But I’m not sure I want it to end. Granted, I do miss my family, my friends terribly – and have a craving for a salad, turkey burger and sweet potato fries from Village Burger Bar (I’ve had my fill of meat dumplings, potatoes, mayonnaise, and bread) – but I feel I’m just now gaining my footing here in Russia. The streets are recognizable, the design of the orphanages is familiar (up two flights of stairs, music room, art room, bedrooms with three to four beds in each, wood floors, chipped paint, and the faint smell of food and sewage in the stairwells). And now we’re at the end of our journey, with only one more day to go. God, let me not miss a second.

I’m not sure if you believe in specifically answered prayer, but I do. And today, I received two answers to very personal prayers. The first was snow. We have seen flurries since we’ve been here, and in the country a good amount of snow has already fallen. But I really wanted to see a wonderfully full, fat snowfall – the kind of snowfall that blurs the skies and covers everything in a blanket of white. And today, while we were visiting Hospital 15, the snow came at a rate of around 2” an hour. It was heavenly! While it wasn’t a lofty prayer with divine impact, it was a precious gift from a most kind God.

The second prayer was answered in the form of a divine appointment. After seeing the need for love and care with these orphanages, I prayed that the Lord would raise up individuals and churches that would be passionate about this country. And I wondered if any European or Scandinavian countries would feel that passion. Today at the hospital, I met three staff members with Sviakoslov Foundation, a Christ-centered nonprofit based in Holland that cares for orphans and at-risk children in St Petersburg. They had come to the hospital to visit a young gypsy boy named Anya, who is in the last stage of AIDS (he is featured in the photos). Their focus is hospitals and crisis centers, and these fine folks even minister love to the children living under the streets of the city and in the most remote parts of the country surrounding St Petersburg. And a unique thing about the organization is that its workers are youth under the age of 25. To provide opportunity for teens and young adults to pour out their hearts is simply beautiful. And to know they are here throughout the year (actually working with Buckner at the hospital) is also a precious gift.

Thank you, Lord, for both. I’m humbled. And now I pray for Anya, that you will comfort him and reveal Your love to him in a most powerful way. You give snow - and you give life.

Note: If you are inspired to care for orphans and at-risk chldren, log onto http://www.itsyourmission.com/. From trips to the U.S/Mexico border to journeys to Ethiopia, there is a place for you to share your love.

15 November 2007

Make Her Brave

15 November 2007

A song of seagulls. A song about freedom. Sung by a girl with a heart so bound by fear and pain.

Our day began with a special opportunity to be the audience at a talent competition for orphanages. Each performance focused on some legend or great story of Russia, and the children were precious. They danced, sang and recited poems and stories – complete with set decorations and costumes designed by their caregivers. Our kids from Orphanage #7 were there, dressed as jungle animals (not sure what that had to do with Russian history, but it was certainly cute). I laughed and sang along with a few old standards used by some of them – “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Moon River,” and “Strangers in the Night.”

Music played a large theme in our afternoon as well. But this time the music would take on a different meaning.
When we arrived at Orphanage #60, we were greeted by rambunctious kids from 7-17. Of the 91, only 27 are officially “fatherless.” The others have at least one parent in St Petersburg, and have been removed from their homes because of financial problems, drug or alcohol use, physical abuse, or merely because their parents have had too many children. The impact on these children is particularly profound – not like we’ve seen at the other orphanages.

Our visit started with music. About a dozen of the children participate in music competition, and we were invited to attend a practice performance. The music was lovely and the voices sounded like angels. One older girl named Luda was the lead singer, and for the finale sang a beautiful song about freedom. She sang of wanting to be free to fly like seagulls, free to fly away from the cares of the world. That melody would later haunt me.

After the performance, we split into teams and moved into classrooms to spend time with the orphans. The singer, along with her brother and another young man, were included in our group of 16. The group was very agitated, and complained of being tired and bored. As we attempted to engage in conversation, the three “leaders” became more disruptive. And when we mentioned God, we were met with open defiance. “If God is real, then why am I here in an orphanage?” “God is just a word, made up like every other word.” “God does not exist – we were taught in history that the church was created to make money. God was created to make people give money.” “Prove to me God is real and then I’ll believe.” Our interpreter Liliana worked diligently with us to answer questions and calm the group. Those not near the three quietly watched and listened, but did not attempt to talk. As long as the three were in control, no others wanted to participate, as if they were afraid.

Despite the challenges we were having, we opted to pass out the materials for the prayer boxes. At that point, the three focused their efforts on decorating the boxes (though only one actually used any religious symbols). With the attention of the three diverted, the others began opening up. They wanted paper printed with scripture, and one young lady named Anastasia asked me to be her pen-pal (which I gladly accepted).

Our time with the group ended, and the others hugged us while the three stood cautiously by. Buckner in-country staff members say this group is one of the toughest – they question why a loving God would allow their parents to abandon them. The public schools still teach Atheistic methodology which further distances the kids. The battle for love and faith is an ongoing one. And the visits to the orphanage by “outsiders” are far too infrequent.

I have a picture of the three now. And video of the singer. She sang about seagulls, sang about freedom. Yet her heart is imprisoned by her own fear and pain. I pray she will be set free, pray she will be brave. I pray she will be molded and shaped into a vessel of honor.

Will you pray with me?

14 November 2007

The Work of Masters

14 November 2007

As I reflect on today, my mind is awash with color. Radiant, beautiful color. It actually began last night, as we drove back into St Petersburg for dinner. Turning the corner, we saw what had to be the largest display of neon, chaser-light, plastic yard art I’ve ever seen. Palm trees, cacti, flowers – all there to brighten up the darkness.

This morning, we took a “tourist break” and visited the Hermitage, one of the largest and most splendid museums in the world. Built originally as the Winter Palace for Catherine, it now holds 3 million works of art. Rembrandt, Cezanne, Raphael, Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet – my eyes could hardly take in all the beauty. The sheer magnitude of it all was amazing. They say that if you spent one second with each piece of art in the museum, it would take 5 years to see it all. With only three short hours to tour, we didn’t scratch the surface.

After lunch, we visited Orphanage #32, located in St Petersburg and home to 51 school-aged children. The orphanage director at this location is progressive, and she has modeled the living situation after more traditional family or group home settings. Small groups of children live in apartments with a housemother – each apartment has a living room, kitchen, dining room and multiple bedrooms. The orphanage also has a dance room, performance stage, and a slew of therapists and teachers. All children are mainstreamed into public school and attend church when they can.

Our group of boys, ranging in age from 7-13, were extremely polite and highly creative. Their prayer boxes were intricate and lovely. Beauty seems to be a theme in the home.

Orphan-created paintings, mosaics, sculptures and paper art line the hallways and decorate shelves. While their work may not hang in the Hermitage, it is as full of passion and beauty – perhaps from these children we’ll see the next Monet or Cezanne.

I can only pray tonight my dreams are as radiant as my reality.

The Weathermen Lie in Russia

13 November 2007

They say Russia only gets 40 days of sunshine a year. I think they’re wrong.

If we thought our journey yesterday was long, we were about to learn a thing or two today. We traveled to Volkhov, a small village 2-1/2 hours by bus from St Petersburg (keep in mind the first 30 minutes of the trip is maneuvering through the incredibly congested streets of the city). Volkhov was at one time the capital of Russia, as it was a small but powerful town centuries ago. Sailing, hunting, and fishing were the primary industries, along with defense through a sophisticated fortress set up along the banks of the Volkhov River.

Built in the 12th century, the Ladoga Fortress is situated on a hill overlooking the river. Inside, protected, is a beautiful Russian Orthodox temple. While much of the outer wall of the fortress has been compromised, the two towers and main structure remain intact. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the soldiers defending their land in what was deemed an impenetrable structure – thwarted by the river on one side, enemies had no choice but to try to gain access to the entrance on the other. Soldiers posted at the top of the fortress could see anyone who might be preparing to attack, and would launch an assault.

The fortress was strong enough to withstand attack and with it soldiers won many battles. But it was not strong enough to withstand indifference. The remote location of Volkhov led to its demise as other, more cosmopolitan locations began to be built in the country. What’s left is a very impoverished community with families struggling to survive. And the remains of that fortress.

But Volkhov does have a two beautiful bright spots - Rodnichok, a shelter for school-aged children, and Nadezda, an orphanage. Both facilities are home to some of the most intelligent and eager children we’ve met thus far. These kids are older and wise. They understand fully their situation, and their first question to us as we were introduced was, “Will you be back at Christmas, or maybe next summer?” I feel the answer must be “yes.” So does Brad.

We spent much time talking to the children in our special group (Brad and I are on the “Green” team), and a special treat for them was speaking to my pal Tasasha, who lives in Dallas, Texas. Several of the kids asked us to take pictures of them, and they even took our camera and posed so we would have lots of photos to choose from. They want a home, want a family. They’ve heard about the United States, and have seen a select few friends be adopted. Unfortunately, most of these kids still have family somewhere – family that doesn’t come to visit much, family that doesn’t stay around.

I weep as I write this. And like I said, those weathermen are wrong about Russia. Because there is sunshine every day in the faces of the orphans – just waiting to light up someone’s life.

13 November 2007

The Long Road to Love

Note: Several blogs were published on November 13th.

12 November 2007

Our journey today took us 1-1/2 hours outside the city to two rural orphanages. The first, Lomonosov, is a home dedicated to babies from birth to 4 years of age. The home is an historic landmark tucked away on farm roads, surrounded by birch forest. The children are so beautiful, and do not yet comprehend their plight. Because the desire to adopt infants and young children is great, this orphanage is fortunate to provide homes for a good percentage (in comparison to other institutions). And we've been told that the number of orphans dramatically increased at the fall of the Soviet Union, because so many people couldn't cope with the freedom they had been given. That number has not yet decreased.

My sweetheart this morning is a 3 year old named Ula. At first glance, she reminded me of childhood pictures of my dad. She could be a Sellers. She doesn’t yet know how to speak – we learned today that one week in an institution can delay development by up to a month. I was so proud of Ula – when she received her new boots (which were precious), she refused to take them off! The caregiver wanted her to put on some slippers, but she stood her ground. I know, I know – encouraging rebellion isn’t something I should be doing. But I was proud to see she had backbone!

We said goodbye to the children at Lomonosov and traveled to Lopukhinka, where we met wonderful school-aged children who were eager to talk, laugh, and learn. We talked about prayer, made prayer boxes, and played a few rounds of “Duck, Duck, Goose” – it’s a universal game, you know.

Did I mention that we had lunch at Lopukhinka? Yes, borscht.

Brad and I both found special buddies at the orphanage this afternoon.

His friend is Dima, a first grader who has a heart of gold and the boldness to volunteer when kids much older shy away. And mine is Veronika – her nickname is Ronnie. We instantly bonded because, well, “Veronika’s rule!”

Returning from the country, I listened to David Crowder sing “He’s the Remedy” as I prayed for Russia.

Borscht. 'Nuff said.

Note: Several blogs were published on November 13th.

11 November 2007

Our journey today takes us to Pushkin, where the Summer Palace of Catherine II was built. Words cannot adequately describe both the opulence and sheer excess of this palace. From the golden gates that lead to the “walking garden” in front of the palace to the gold-covered Baroque filigree on the walls and doorways, the palace is homage to a world gone by. Rather than attempt to share thoughts, I’ll simply share a few photos.

After our tour of the palace, we ate at a most delightful restaurant which specializes in traditional Russian rustic cuisine. And there was borscht. Lots of it. I’m not given to an affection for beets, so the experience of beet soup with a dollop of sour cream was not exceptionally exciting for me. But I closed my eyes and imagined the soup’s flavor without either involved, and determined the Russian’s might make a fine vegetable soup if they would just leave the beets out of it.

We then traveled to Orphanage #40, filled with children ages 4-8 with vision and severe developmental challenges. We adjusted our plans to accommodate the handicaps, and found great delight in simple acts of blowing bubbles, playing with balloons, dancing, and eating M&Ms. I believe the Lord has a very special heart for kids like these. And He has provided them a warm and loving environment with excellent caregivers. You may be asking why in the world I would consider an institution a good place, when we in the United States push so diligently for loving families to adopt or foster. We learned that many of these children are not truly “fatherless;” rather, they have been placed in the homes because their parents cannot or do not care for them. So the orphanage becomes a safe place for children who might otherwise be neglected, abused, or abandoned.

As I watched the children snuggle on Brad’s lap, and watched him tenderly speak to Sasha (a tiny boy with severe vision problems, malformed legs, and hearing problems), I wondered, “Might there ever be an opportunity for us to have a little one running around the house again?” Brad reminds me that, in working for Buckner, I am blessed with helping children throughout the world.

It’s hard to remember that when my heart is captured…

Guilty as Charged

Note: I published several blogs on November 13th.

10 November 2007

It’s Saturday, I think. With the help of Ambien, the 26 hours of sleeplessness melted away into good rest. We start with breakfast – a buffet full of, yes, meat, cheese, and vegetables, along with porridge, fried biscuits (called pancakes), baked cottage cheese, and fruit. I opted for fruit.

Rather than begin the day at an orphanage, we learned about Russian culture and St Petersburg history a bit. Founded by Peter the Great, St Petersburg is filled with palaces, churches, museums, monuments, and other icons. From the air, it was impossible to see the architecture and beauty that hid amidst the industrial-looking apartment buildings. But it seems there is some bit of history on every street. It’s difficult to take it all in.

We toured the Cathedral of St Isaac (named for Peter the Great’s patron saint), and were awe-struck by the artwork and design. The cathedral is only used for special occasions and major religious holidays now, and can accommodate 10,000 people.

Outside the cathedral, a large statue of Peter the Great was erected by his bride, Catherine. Peter is shown on a horse, hand outstretched to the west, crushing a snake. The base looks like a wave. I’ll write more about the symbolism later.

After the visit to the cathedral and a local shop for traditional Russian souvenirs, we had lunch and went to our first orphanage. Orphanage #7 is located inside the city, and is home to special needs children. They put on a delightful show for us, and we then spent time doing VBS and crafts. While many of the children have developmental delays, they are extremely talented dancers and artists. Having the opportunity to spend time with the kids was amazing.

Our day ended with a delightful evening at the small theatre of the Hermitage, watching the St Petersburg Ballet Company perform Swan Lake. Though the dancers were talented, they couldn’t hold a candle to the kids at #7.

As we rode back to the hotel, I pondered that statue of Peter the Great. You see, his hand is outstretched to the west because he wanted a city that would be better than European cities. His horse crushed the snake of adversity. And the wave? He fashioned his great empire after Venice. From the ornate architecture of the buildings to canals rather than roads, he wanted Venice in Russia. But there was a fatal flaw in his grand design. St Petersburg is located just south of Finland, and water can’t flow when it’s frozen. So his city became impassable in the autumn and spring when the canals were not thawed completely nor frozen solid.

Rather than look around at the land he had been given and design the perfect city for that land, Peter wanted to best a distant land. His hunger for greatness caused great distress – and he ultimately had to redesign the infrastructure of the city to make it inhabitable. I wonder how often we’re like Peter…hungry for what others have. When all the while God is holding out great gifts right where we are.

I know I’m guilty.