27 October 2009

Grace like rain.

It rained today – that soft, steady rain that soaks the ground and fills the lakes. I woke up to the sound of it pattering against the rooftop as if to say “Arise, oh sleeper. I have a story to share with you.” It drew shapes on the glass and blurred everything into a collage of deep green, rich blue and solemn grey. It played its own sweet rhythmic melody. The rain brought healing, hope, inspiration. And it brought something more - a picture of something profoundly precious.

Grace like rain, pours down on me. And all my stains are washed away.

Grace rained down today. Like the steady downpour, grace whispered “You are precious, you are prized, you are beloved.” Like the rain, grace drew shapes of redemption and worth on my heart, and blurred away the scars of rejection and abuse. It brought healing, hope, inspiration.

And grace played a Heavenly melody that, unlike the rain, knows no beginning or no end.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.

Grace, like rain, pour.

12 October 2009

Life as Worship.

I do believe in a God who has things under control, who designs our moments for His glory and who is, as John Piper says, “most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” So “Called to Worship” by Vernon Whaley has proven to be the perfect companion as I recently traveled to both Guatemala and Russia for orphan care ministry. I am reminded so eloquently , I am indeed worshiping when I am serving others in need.

With detail and diversity, Whaley walks through scripture to reveal the power of worship for and to God. I must admit, I was reticent to select this particular book for review, anticipating it to be a dry, disconnected academic study rather than an enlightening journey that would challenge, convict and inspire. But I was gladly proven wrong.

Whaley paints a picture of worship as a way of life rather than a single act. And no form of worship is left ignored. From meditation to song to prayer and lifestyle, as Whaley puts it, Our worship should be a natural response to His provision for you.”

With that said, I must ask myself the question – “is my worship a natural response to His provision? Do I see worship my day-to-day life? Do I view my actions correctly? Do I recognize my home as a place of worship?” “Am I allowing myself to be distracted and throw a precious opportunity away?”

Though Whaley’s book is written in a style more reminiscent of a school book, his purpose reaches deeper. His goal is discipleshp – being consumed completely by the Lord’s all-consuming fire. It is a book I will pick up again and again as I need encouragement on my purpose in this life.

09 October 2009

It's happening again.

“We are not just interested in money. We want a good relationship. For the past year, we have these programs – bible studies and the graduate program. It is good. Our hearts are open. Please come anytime.” – Vladimir, director at Tolamchova orphanage

It’s happening again. That “just one more day” feeling is overwhelming me as I pack my bags. I’ve got a notebook full of stats and scribbles, 300 new pictures on my iPhone, a few videos on the camera, and eight mysterious bites on my body from some bug that obviously wasn’t impressed with my visit to one of the many orphanages. And I’ve got a head full of questions, ideas, thoughts, and ramblings. Tomorrow we will spend a few hours being bonafide tourists, then we’ll board a plane to London. Sunday afternoon we’ll be back in the United States. Maybe I’ll celebrate with a turkey burger and sweet potato fries, like I did the last time I returned from this precious country. But right now, all I want to do is hug my son and daughter-in-love, spend a few precious hours talking to my dearest friends, and share what I have seen and heard.

We load in the van for this last full day in Russia, and set out to the countryside. The landscape is dotted with farmhouses – many old and in need of repair. The red, gold, green and blue of the homes matches the trees and fields and sky. Farmers sit on the side of the road, bundled to brave the cold, selling their fruits and vegetables, We venture to Tolmachova, an orphanage on the outskirts of a town called Luga. There are 51 orphans there, but the director predicts they will be at capacity (65) by winter. He says it always happens that way. The children range in age from 3 to 18, and the facility has received some renovations due to generous contributions from a family in the United States with a heart for the fatherless. Some of the bathrooms have been updated, and an all-purpose room has been outfitted with a small kitchen so the orphans can learn basic cooking skills. New windows are being installed in some of the rooms to block the bitterly cold air. And the government-mandated fire detection system has been retrofitted into the ceilings of the rooms. The evacuation signs are ready, but they are in St Petersburg – someone from the orphanage will have to meet the signmaker along the road between the bustling city and the poor farming community. Sending money and having the signs mailed is too risky.

Orphan Outreach has been working with Tolmachova, and has a social worker on staff there to help the graduates who attend tech school. Recent graduates are learning gardening. A new school model, combining tech school and university, has been launched in nearby Luga, but it is too early to tell if it will be successful. The director explains that, for his orphans, it is often wiser to graduate in 9th grade rather than continue attending school. Unless they are extremely motivated and intelligent, their chances of attending university are limited. And waiting until 11th grade to graduate also severely limits their options for technical training. So the Orphan Outreach social worker counsels the 14-year olds on life beyond technical school – on getting and keeping a job, budgeting, managing time and resources. I think about my own life at the age of 14, and try to imagine on my own.

One young lady has defied the odds at Tolmachova and is now attending St Petersburg University, a first for the orphanage. Receiving a degree from the university will ensure her a good-paying job. But because the university doesn’t have a subsidy program in place for orphans, she is struggling to get by. Her government stipend of 1500 rubels - $50 US dollars – a month doesn’t pay for much. There is concern that, without additional help, she will give up. The director shares, “It would be a shame if, after all she has done to further her education, after all her hard work and risk, she would be denied. We will do everything possible – we will do the impossible – to keep her in school.” Petitions to the university on her behalf are discussed by the team.

We tour the facility, and meet volunteers from a Baptist Church in Luga who are doing crafts with 8 children too young to attend school. They visit each week to encourage the orphans and offer bible study. And they help with activities like birthday parties, collecting gifts from others in the community so each child receives something special.

After leaving the orphanage, we drive into Luga. Though we had been told a visit to the baby home there would likely not happen because the director was considered “difficult,” we were granted an invitation. One of three baby homes in the Leningrad region, it is home to 65 children under the age of 4. Unlike the other baby homes, this one receives additional help from the municipality, and has social workers dedicated to reuniting babies with their families if at all possible. Adoptions are also common. But visits and humanitarian aid are not. The director graciously welcomed our team – and said her staff would love more visits.

Driving back to St Petersburg, the team discusses what can be done for the orphanages we’ve visited. The conversation continues through dinner. There are needs as simple as diapers and as big as heating systems. There are opportunities for visits to orphanages and opportunities for adoption. And there is a huge opportunity to help this generation of orphans in Russia be history-makers in their country by learning to live healthy, independent adult lives. I wonder what that Russia would look like. I pray I get to find out.

08 October 2009

A Little More in Love.

I think I fell a little more in love with St Petersburg today. Perhaps it’s her shy laughter I find so attractive. Or perhaps it’s because, despite the 9-hour time difference and the huge language barrier, we really are more alike than we realize.

We wound through urban streets this morning, then carefully drove down something much more like an alleyway than a road. The baby home was nestled in a grove of trees hidden away from the bustle of the city. This would be the first visit to the baby home for everyone on the team; it is now home to 36 of the children who used to live at Lomonosov, a baby home outside the city limits. The Russian government decided the orphanage, a former sea captain’s home with lots of acreage, would be more profitable serving something other than children. With the stroke of a pen, the orphanage closed and the babies were shipped to other locations. The baby home, already serving more than 60 children, would grow exponentially because of that decision. And it would learn quickly how to care for HIV-positive children, something only Lomonosov had done prior to the close.

The head nurse, Galina, was reserved at first as she shared basic information about the home. There are more than 100 beds here, and most of the orphans there are considered “social” orphans – they have been removed from their homes due to alcohol or drug abuse, and parental visits are encouraged. Her reservations faded away as we walked through the essential items needed by the children – baby wipes, diapers, baby oil and lotion, clothing, underwear, bibs, blankets, teething rings, bulb syringes and developmental toys.

Galina proudly showed us the facility she has been serving since the early ‘80s. Babies rested in large wooden playpens as caregivers quietly tended to their needs. A few goofy faces and “peek-a-boos” later, there were smiles and giggles from the little ones. The toddlers greeted us enthusiastically, holding our hands and sharing their toys. Valushka, a precious girl with a congenital heart defect, watched Reb intently, carefully mimicking his every move. We then walk into the HIV area, where one of two powerful air purifiers had been installed. Sixteen more are needed for the baby home – sixteen more at a cost of $350 each.

We talked about the benefits of Desitin ointment and the practicality of plastic bibs with pockets, the best digital thermometers, and how chilling teething rings helps to reduce pain. We lovingly talked about what it feels like to get to wear new clothes and how much fun it is to purchase them for a little one. And we shared knowing smiles with the caregivers feeding little ones warm cereal – trying to keep inquisitive eyes focused on breakfast rather than all the excitement around them.

At that moment, we weren’t a team taking notes or a team of orphanage workers. We were simply friends – moms, grandmoms, aunties.

The St Petersburg sky was a crystalline blue, and the sun’s warmth made an afternoon of respite and relaxation even more special. We laughed our way through negotiating with street vendors near the Church of the Spilt Blood, and then toured Peter and Paul Fortress, a powerful and awe-inspiring presence on the banks of the Niva River, The picture-perfect day was made complete by the four wedding parties we saw – the brides in flowing, ruffled white, surrounded by her well-appointed groom and his attendants. In front of the cathedral at Peter and Paul, the photographer snapped photo after photo of a young couple kissing, while a videographer circled the couple, his camera shooting every angle of the embrace. With so few churches, weddings are a common thing every day in St Petersburg. But the beauty of the brides and grooms was an instant “joy-maker” for all who saw. Old couples, young children, even a team from Texas found themselves caught up in the moment.

At dinner, we were joined by Anytoli, a gentleman who has served orphans for what seems like decades. His distinguished silver hair and scruffy beard were a nice foil to his black turtleneck and jacket. He shared story after story of caring for kids, preparing them for life beyond the walls of the institutions they lived in. He talked of taking a wrong turn and ending up in Moscow in the middle of the night during a military crisis, surrounded by police and military as he pleaded to simply return to his orphanage – his van full of donated honey he had travelled 1100km to receive. His Ford had no radio, so he was unaware of what had just taken place in the United States. A kind police officer heard his pleas, and escorted the van to the road to St Petersburg. It was only after returning home he discovered what had taken place in the United States – it was September 11, 2001.

Anytoli talked about the teens who had graduated the orphanage over the years, and their challenges in trying to survive. He talked about the teens desperately needing shoes to be able to attend school or go to work, and waiting patiently for shipments of new donated shoes to arrive since the orphanages had no money to purchase them for the children. In some ways the conversation, though, could have been one held over a dinner table in the United States. “The kids, they don’t understand how to take care of themselves. They are used to having someone else wake them up, someone else fix them breakfast,” he said. “And they don’t know what to do with the money they make. They forget they have to purchase their own food and pay bills.” He says he wishes he had spent more time teaching the graduates about life, that perhaps he could have found different words to say to get them to understand how tough it is to take responsibility when there aren’t others around.

At that point, we weren’t missionaries or a former minister of education. We were simply parents.

St Petersburg smiled a little bit more today – as if to say “we really are alike, you know. We make mistakes, we mess up priorities. And most of us don’t care much beyond ourselves. But some of us do want to see kids smile. We want to see teens laugh. We want to see weddings and blue skies. We want to feel the kindness of strangers. We really do want to be loved and valued.”

Yes, perhaps we are simply the same.

07 October 2009

From Line Drawings to Masterpieces - Russia Vision Trip Day 3

I’ve been told I write in color. I do admit, I am fascinated by word pictures and believe every moment has a story captured inside it, just waiting to be told. And if I was to paint today, it would begin as a stark line drawing. Slowly and carefully, that drawing would be dappled with subtle hues that, upon close inspection, may not appear lovely. But stepping back and gazing upon the finished work, it would be seen as a masterpiece.

The Line Drawing

I was reminded today that some orphans are not born through alcoholism, drug abuse, neglect or abandonment. For some, the moment happens in a rush of shattered glass and twisted metal, flashing lights and sirens.

Our van joined a seeming unending caravan of cars and trucks on the highway leading out of St Petersburg to Tikhvin, a three-hour drive. The highway would quickly shift from two lanes to four lanes – then back to two – with little warning. The aggressive nature of the drivers added to the feeling of chaos as we swerved and swayed. In the distance, we could see brake lights and police cars. There had been an accident. As if in slow motion, we passed the two mangled vehicles – one a sedan and the other an SUV. Ambulance workers were tending to the injured on the right side of the road. Those who did not survive were on the left – their lifeless faces a reminder of how quickly things can change.

The Subtle Hues

We arrived at Tikhvin shortly before lunch. Because of its distance from St Petersburg, few groups and organizations visit or offer care for the lone orphanage in the city of 60,000. The director, considered to be one of the finest in the country, welcomes us with open arms. There are 53 children living at Tikhvin, ranging in age from 8 to 18. Seventeen of the children are eligible for adoption, but their older age makes them unpopular in a world that prefers babies or toddlers. For many, life at the orphanage is the only one they have ever known.

The director tells us about her most recent graduates – 4 young teens who have all chosen to attend technical school to become skilled laborers. Their chances of finding a job are greater if they choose to live in St Petersburg, because the economic crisis has resulted in significant job loss in Tikhvin. Though many orphans choose to graduate from school after the 9th grade, she does what she can to encourage her students to continue their education through 11th grade – university may be an option at that point. There is great interest in Orphan Outreach’s graduate program – the director has heard some of the success stories already, and hopes the program can provide her graduates with the support and care they need to truly succeed.

To prepare her orphans for life, she makes sure they are involved in improvements made to their “home.” When financial contributions are received from donors, the older children even get to participate in the shopping process – comparing quality and prices. More often than not in day-to-day life, however, the caregivers themselves pay for school supplies, training materials, paint, and other needs.

There are two computers at Tikhvin, used as a reward for positive behavior. The orphans do receive some training at school, but there is no opportunity to practice computer skills at the orphanage. They would love to purchase computers, but there are more pressing needs. Showers and toilets. Mattresses for the beds. Repairs to the floors. Warm coats and clothing for the children.

As we leave the orphanage, the director braves the blustery cold to stand by our van as a symbol of her gratitude and trust. We depart the city, visiting a nearby hotel to make sure there is room in Tikhvin for those who will return someday. I look at Reb, an amazing man from Austin who raised the funds for our vision trip by reaching out to business associates and friends, and say “Feels like home, doesn’t it?” “Yes, this feels right,” he responds. It does indeed.

The Masterpiece.

From Tikhvin, we traveled to Volkhov, once the capital of Russia but now a community caught in economic hardship. The orphanage here is different than many – it is the only rural orphanage that focuses its efforts on children with special needs. There are 77 children in total here; the youngest is 2 and the oldest is 19. Because of the unique role the orphanage plays in helping children who are developmentally delayed or learning challenged, the government does provide some additional subsidy. And the director has a good business head about her – she has garnered sponsorship support locally to help pay for some recent improvements to the entry way and dining room. She is fortunate to have received plenty of clothing for her orphans. Her list of needs is small, but with winter approaching, it’s urgent. The heater needs to be repaired, and new windows need to be installed on the northern side of the orphanage to keep the icy cold air from blowing on the children as they sleep. Like Tikhvin, she also needs repairs to showers and new toilets.

We tour the facility and see friends we had met in November 2007 on a Shoes for Orphan Souls trip. While we visit the kids and keep them entertained with glow sticks, candy, and picture-taking (even showing some pictures from our previous visit), something like a miracle is taking place in the director’s office. I believe anyone who goes on a mission trip ends up carrying at least one image of a child with them – for me, there are three: Ulla from Lomonosov, Verohnika from Louphinka, and Josabeth from Antigua, Guatemala. For Reb, the image was of two boys from Volkhov. Those two young men – both gypsies – opened his heart and eyes to the plight of orphans in a powerful way. And today, he met with both boys to learn about their lives, their desires, their needs. The conversation was candid and honest as the boys shared their pain, their fears, and the “home” provided by the orphanage. Working with the director and Orphan Outreach, Reb was able to find ways to help them personally and stay in touch with them to encourage them over years. The most telling moment of the conversation was when Roman, a 12 year old boy with sky blue eyes and jet black hair, slipped on the sweatshirt and baseball cap provided by Reb. He then reach out and hugged him as tears started to flow. In that single moment, standing outside in the pouring rain to get photographs of the three new friends, the world was flooded in warmth and color. Reb’s smile said it all. This had been a most valuable journey.

06 October 2009

Nyet and Dah and iPhones.

Nyet. There’s something about “no’ in Russian that sounds so strong, so final. And today, the word seemed to spring up everywhere. Certainly I’m not going to discount the beautiful moments we encountered, like exploring a 100-year old building or feeling the mist of the fountains at Peterhoff or losing ourselves in the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt as the sun set on another day. But because of “nyet,” my heart is heavy.

We maneuvered winding, potholed pocked roads to Loupohinka, a rural orphanage about 2 hours outside of St Petersburg. Rather than spend time with children, our goal was to talk to the director – about needs, about groups wanting to travel to the sprawling, aging facility, about working with recent graduates to provide them with the best chance for success as they entered the workforce. She greeted us at the door with a wary look on her face – she seemed cynical and tired. Quickly she pulled out stapled sheets of paper, each filled completely with financial needs. There were lines for clothing and boots and coats for the kids. There were lines for toothpaste and shampoo and ointments. Donations are limited here – visitors don’t come often. And there were other lines – for a heater and kitchen supplies and a government-mandated sprinkler system. Inspectors come to see what progress has been made, but without money, the director is left simply to plead for more time. She has been able to cobble enough funding together to install sprinklers in the rooms where the 56 orphans sleep, but has no more money. There are no businesses nearby to help, no sponsoring companies willing to take care of the problem. And the government offers no stipend. In fact, because of the economic crisis in Russia, all but money for food and salaries has been removed from her budget. And winter is fast-approaching.

The organization we are traveling with, Orphan Outreach, offers suggestions on ways to help. Working with church and business partners in the United States, they have been able to provide money for a stove for Loupohinka. And a group of people passionate about the plight of Russian orphans will mean other much-needed supplies will arrive in a few weeks. The director seems appreciative – until the topic changes from money to gifts of time and talent. Her staff is doing well. Her children are doing well. Guests may come during limited windows of time – but she doesn’t have much time for them at Loupohinka. Other members of the staff, including her husband who teaches wordwork to the children, are jovial and engaging, but the director seems uncertain of the help others could truly provide to her children. She’s even seen the benefits of visits from groups like Grand Parkway, a Texas-based church that has fallen in love with the orphanage and its children. But her skepticism is strong.

We later learn that, when she visited the facility and was asked to become the director of Loupohinka, the director retreated to the forest for two days to pray and weep. The task was so great – she didn’t think she had the strength to do it. Her hard veneer hides a heart so driven to protect the orphans from harm that it keeps love at a distance.

From Loupohinka, we traveled along the Gulf of Finland to Lomonosov, where we eat a simple lunch of borscht and salad with a local pastor who ministers to the poor and fatherless in the area. The third floor of his church houses young men who are struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse, and his church is always open to meet the needs of the community. He himself has fostered children from orphanages in the area, and his team visits the children of Loupohinka to offer encouragement, read from the Bible, and pray. That is, they were – until funding ran dry for those people. They meet with us, hoping to hear good news. But it is confirmed a US-based organization who has supported their efforts for years has chosen to go in a different direction – and is ending the financial support of their ministry. Alternatives are discussed - perhaps one of the many churches that feels empassioned about the plight of orphans in Russia will step up with assistance. And in the midst of the troubling news, the faces of the pastor and his staff simply glow. They are thankful for all they do have – for help from friends and for the love of God they are able to share with so many. They show off the new beds they have purchased with financial gifts given through Orphan Outreach and its partners, praising God for His kindness.

After a short stop to Peterhoff Castle to stand in amazement at the solid gold statues adorning massive fountains that flow to the Gulf of Finland, the delicately manicured lawns and gardens with ornate designs drawn from flowers and shrubs, and the gold-roofed structure standing on the side of hill overlooking it all, we traveled back into St Petersburg to visit Hospital #15. Unlike hospitals in the United States, this old battered building offers medical respite to orphans. It smells of medicine and sickness, and the sofrt-spoken workers do their best to keep the facility clean despite its age and condition. The last time many of us were at the hospital, we visited older children including one young gypsy boy dying of AIDS. With no family support, the hospital had become his only home. Today, we were introduced to seven toddlers – each being “evaluated” to determine whether or not they should be designated orphans by the government. In the United States, 2/3 of children removed from their homes will be reunited with their families. In Russia, only 10% will return home. The rest will be placed in orphanages around the country. Our sweet little newcomers were bewildered by their surroundings. Most couldn’t yet speak in complete sentences. Dressed in the hand-me-downs donated to the hospital for the children there, the seven were a rag-tag team. They sat in a small room and were fed apples, cookies, and marshmallows by the workers. The room was quiet – hauntingly quiet. Then Brad pulled out his iPhone and showed a video of Steven Curtis Chapman and Geoff Moore singing “Listen to our Hearts.” The lyrics cut through the silence, and a small red-headed boy began swaying to the song. Then a stocky blonde boy joined him. Smiles began to fill the faces of the kids as we then watched Mat Kearney videos. We all took out our cameras and phones to take and show pictures, and laughter came.

While some of our team videotaped the “grandmothers” who come each day to hold the precious babies at the hospital, we took our seven new friends to another room filled with toys. Though many of the toys were broken, many had batteries that had long since died, the children snuggled up next to us to play. “MaMa,” one dimple-cheeked angel said every time she wanted me to hold a new toy or play a song on the xylophone. Hearing those words cut to the quick. Wanting to take her home, to show her what life would be like with a real mama and papa and big brother and beautiful sister – the tears flowed. Brad and his “band of boys” played with blocks and cars, and used a violin as a make-shift guitar to play airband.

We packed our things to leave, saying our goodbyes to our little tiny team of seven. The smiles disappeared as the children realized what was happening. “PaPa!” whimpered one of the boys as he reached out to Brad. The little red-headed musician clutched his violin, bottom lip quivering. And my dimple-cheeked angel began to cry. We were the first to visit them. And we were now the first to say “goodbye.”

So my heart is burdened tonight – sleep is interrupted by the sound of that word. “Nyet.” I want these orphans to hear “dah!” – YES – with good care and safe environments and bright futures. I want those who want to care for them to hear “dah!” – YES – with funding and support and helping hands. I want those in the United States who feel a kinship with the people here in Russia to hear “dah!” – YES – with open arms and attitudes that say, “we love your friendship.” And for those orphans who can be adopted, please Lord, let there be one “dah!” – YES – after another.

05 October 2009

Tick-tick-tick. There is life here.

The metronome ticks. St Petersburg is alive.

The sun rose over the Niva River as we journeyed to Orphanage 60 to speak to teens preparing for graduation. 60 is one of many government-run facilities in St Petersburg with numbers for names. Somehow it just makes sense here…

The smell of fresh paint and wood filled the air when we opened the door and walked up the steps to the office where the director and assistant director waited to meet with our team. We learned the orphanage had been recently renovated to become a public school – a school of close to 600 that just happened to still accommodate 45 orphans. Their rooms lined one short corridor, next to lecture rooms and offices. Their kitchen and eating area paralleled the larger school kitchen. When the other students went home at the end of a school day, the orphans stayed. They ranged in age from 12 -17, with stories of abandonment, abuse, financial difficulties, and more. Some would graduate at the end of their 9th grade year and pursue trade school education. Others would hold on until 11th grade in the hopes of being selected by a university. The dreams are big at Orphanage 60 – electrical engineers, civil aviation, forensic specialists, police officers, videographers and designers – all dreams requiring admission to school and a place to sleep.

Yes, a place to sleep. You see, the government offers orphans an extremely low-cost collegiate education. All the child needs is a safe place to call “home.” But what does home look like to a teen who has no family to live with? And if that orphan found a place to live, would they know how to cook, to manage their money, how to grow things and and craft a resume and look online for job openings. When asked that they wanted more than anything, several of the boys responded, “We want to learn to cook. We want to learn to speak English.” With a monthly stipend of only 350 rubels a month after graduating (that’s a little over $13 in USD), the struggles to survive without some type of support are strong. Transitional homes in St Petersburg are few and far between, and word on the street is that a couple of homes are being closed at the end of the year due to a reprioritzation at a US-based ministry. Several of the boys voiced their concern that their government had predetermined their vocation by making it so difficult to be accepted into schools that offer dormitory housing. Orphans overall seem prime candidates for trade school, which offer no additional benefits.

As the interview continued, a few of us toured the upgraded “school with built-in orphanage housing” to see what new facilities awaited us. A large commercial-grade kitchen was being built. The classroom would accommodate 12 students, and an orchard and garden assured fresh fruits and vegetables would be available months throughout the year. Developing a curriculum of heatlthy, easy to prepare, fun items would be simple enough – barring complications with conversations and ingredients. In my mind’s eye I could see pieroigi stuffed with mushrooms or beef, poached chicken in walnut cream pesto sauce., soups and salads. And of course there would be cupcakes. The headmaster of the orphanage beamed when we discussed the concept, and asked if other children suffering from siginificant poverty might be able to join the class.

We also visited a newly equipped computer lab. Fift-six computers were in the room – most in boxes. And a handful of young women played games on the computers rather then use to learn business applications. More instruction was need – more tutors were needed.

The final conversation revolved around English. In order to graduate school, standardized English comprehension tests are taken. The students receive limited lessons in Enligh, and hunger for a tutor who will work with them on an regular basis, teaching both Oxford and conversational English.

We said our goodbyes as we pondered the possibilities for “LifeCamp” done at the orphanages, Taught by volunteers with a passion for orphans and skills in their selected area, LifeCamp could provide a greater sense of independence for recent graduates. Our concept was received well by our in-country team, the students and even the faculty. The spark in their eyes said so much. They had a voice, and they had needs. And someone was willing to listen.

Our van drove us for a while, and then stopped shy of some imposing steps taking us underneath a major traffic circle. We followed them to a beautifully haunting World War II Memorial honoring the Seige of Leningrad. It showed in imagery and artifact the raging battle against the Nazis in the 40s. Hitler wanted Leningrad wiped from the face of the earth – he considered it the “heart” of Mother Russia. More than 250,000 bombs were launched and some say no structure went untouched in all of St Petersburg. Churches were used to store the dead and mass graves were used in an effort to quell disease. There was no electricity, no way to get food to people. In order to drink, people took saws to the frozen waters of the Niva River. More than 60,000 died of starvation alone. Of every 10 men who went off to fight the battle, less than 3 returned.

Haunting music played on radios and through loudspeakers each day during the heart of the war. The music alerted people to information to be shared. And then there was no information, a solemn “tick – tick – tick” of a metronome broadcast to everyone that ‘St Petersbrg was still alive.” We walked silently through the memorial, reading the inscriptions illuminated by candlelight. “Tick-tick-tick” the metronome resonated.

Rain had begun to fall as we departed the memorial and drove through historical buildings to Orphanage 2. Known by all as a precious gem in the city, this orphanage has children aged 3-12, living in small group settings. Our time was one of celebration for the orphanage, for Sasha had received gifts from her “forvever family,” a mom and dad and brother awaiting her arrival in a few short months. Two other children currently being considered for adoption received gifts from families in the United States. There were cheers and candy for everyone. Lots of smiles. But my heart wanted to cover a young landy named Sasha. With dark eyes, a huge smile and deep dimples, she could make any heart melt. And she wants so badly to be adopted. He has a little brother, and Buckner is trying to keep the sibling group together. I pray her day will come soon. There’s also Andre – a talk, shy tender young man who wants to sit and talk. He too wants to know the love of a family. My heart breaks as it fall more and more in love with these kids. We give hugs and kisses one last time before leaving, and I walk around the orphanage, I hear the rap on the window above me as Sasha stands and waves. She runs from window to window, stopping to rap, wave and smile. Oh, how I wish I could simply open that sash, and take her with me!

We drive away as night falls on the city. I hear the “tick-tick-tick” reminding me of life – and I pray that life is good for this city, for these orphans.

04 October 2009

Treasures in Junk Drawers - Russia Vision Trip Day 1

The room is dark, save for the glow of the two laptops and iPhones syncing music to prepare for the day. “Tear Down the Walls” by Hillsong United is playing as the day’s anthem.

“Your love is glorious - glorious. Your love is changing us.”

It’s 6:21a in St Petersburg, and the sun has not yet started to rise over the river that flows outside our window. We are at the Hotel Moscow, just steps away from the resting place of Tchaikovsky. The Nevsky Prospekt begins here – a winding road full of exclusive shops and restaurants and theatres. The Church of the Savior on the Spilt Blood is blocks away. The city is alive with new construction – high-rise condos and more shopping centers and highways. Despite the cold gray skies thick with moisture and pollution, summer has not yet given up her hold on the city. The medians are lush and the trees are just beginning to welcome the wash of gold and red on their leaves. Even petunias are in full bloom, in powerful explosions of fuschia and purple and white. The city seems to have readied itself for its visitors. Things are dusted and pillows are fluffed.

But as pretty as St Petersburg may be today, she forgets that we know about her closets and her junk drawers. We have walked past her cathedrals and palaces where she stores her treasures. And we have discovered treasure far greater in her “throwaway things”, in the 900,000 orphans who are tucked away in nondescript buildings hidden within apartment communities or in crumbling buildings on unmarked roads in small towns. And that’s why we’re here this time – to see those treasures again, and to see how we can polish and shine each one so they can shine brightly as a beacon of true and everlasting hope in Russia.

“Tear down the walls, save the world, is there something we have missed. Turn from ourselves, look beyond, there’s so much more than this.”

We’ve been told our visits to the orphanages could be met with some resistance. Russia trusts no one, even those who have shown her love over and over again. So we pray for every meeting, every interview, every single photograph and frame of video shot. We pray for favor, and we pray for transparency. We pray to be welcomed into the orphanages as we talk about technology and life skills camps and construction projects. We pray for discernment at each orphanage, to see yet unshared needs. And we pray for the children – oh, how we pray for the children. We pray for a generation to be raised in Russia, treasures from those closets and junk drawers, shining with a light that comes from truly understanding what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made.

“We will see Your spirit rising, as the lost come out of hiding. And every heart will see this hope we have in You.”

Our journey begins.