Over the Christmas break, nine members of Beltway Park Baptist Church joined over 30 others from North Carolina on a trip to Mogilev, Belarus to celebrate New Years and the Orthodox Christmas with orphans and other children participating in the American-Belarussian Relief Organization program. During the trip, ABRO hosted a New Years Eve skating party at the Ice Palace, made visits to four area orphanages, and held a “going away” party for trip participants, host families, and area children in the ABRO summer program. Americans traveling to Belarus stayed with host families who provided lodging, meals, and transportation (or at least helped us navigate public transportation). This provided an opportunity to reconnect with children who visited the US, to see the work being done by some of the orphanages supported by ABRO, to meet ABRO families from other regions of the US, and to learn about the people and culture of Belarus.
Our flight to Minsk was an adventure. The plane we were to take to Frankfurt, Germany was late to DFW because of weather in Frankfurt. The result was us getting to Frankfurt after our connection to Minsk had already left. Since Lufthansa only flies to Minsk once every three days, we were stuck! The airlines put us up in Frankfurt overnight and arranged to have us fly by Czech Air to Prague and then on to Minsk the next day. This gave us a chance to catch up on our sleep and adjust to European time. While all these arrangements were being made at a transfer agent’s desk in Frankfurt, a man came up behind us and heard we were from Texas. He mentioned he had grown up in El Paso. Of course, Marci and I jumped on that and soon we found out he had graduated with my life-long friend Jeff Longino from Burges High School. His name was Phil Luckett, an NFL referee who was on his way to Russia on a mission trip to start a church. Small world! The next day every flight was late getting in and departing, allowing us to catch planes leaving after their scheduled departure times and thereby make it to Minsk by about 4:30 in the afternoon. We landed in very dense fog and stepped off the plane in total darkness…at 4:30 in the afternoon. There were KGB agents watching everyone get off the plane and soldiers (but no visible weapons) instructing us on how to get to customs.
We went down a flight of stairs into a room filled with people trying to get their mandatory health insurance and pass through passport control. It was very dark, stark, unfriendly, and oppressive. Every mental image of the cold-war Soviet Union was played out before our eyes in real-time. We were instructed to tell the Customs agents that everything in our baggage was for personal use, which would be hard to justify since two suitcases were filled with beanie babies and clothing for the orphans. Also, we were each carrying four Russian Bibles, and word beforehand had been that evangelism and church activities were outlawed or tightly controlled. Our trip was humanitarian in nature. We made it through passport control without any problems, collected our bags, and were whisked out of Customs without being checked. ABRO had contacted airport officials of our arrival, and the “Americanski group” avoided the red tape awaiting the others. Leaving Customs we pushed our way through a sea of people waiting for friends and relatives and made our way to the curb to re-group. We got on a charter bus and were driven to Mogilev over icy, fog-covered roads. Upon our arrival we were met by our host families and went to our new “homes” for a night of rest. The next day we started in on our busy schedule of activities.
Belarus is a former member of the USSR that has maintained a close relationship with Russia. It has an oppressive government that has closed its borders to missionaries and is openly hostile to religious practice outside of Russian orthodoxy (after a church service we attended, members were asked to sign a petition opposing the government’s attempts to ban non-Orthodox worship). President Lukashenka rules with an iron fist and his opponents often disappear. In recent years he has unilaterally modified the constitution to allow his continued rule beyond the two-term limit specified. The impact that it has had on society is obvious, as people do not openly speak out against the government (it is a crime) and an air of futility is often found in the people. We noticed that few people smiled (we stood out like sore thumbs, and not just because of our clothes). Unemployment is reportedly low, but even college graduates are uncertain about whether a job is available in their field. A common salary would be less than $200 monthly.
We found living conditions to be varied. In the city of Mogilev there are well over a hundred 9-10 story apartment buildings where families live in flats of 2 or more rooms. The high-rise apartment buildings allow a city somewhat smaller than Abilene in land area to be home to four times as many people. The father of our host family (Leonid) works in a boiler room for the city and lives in a large house with running water, a REAL toilet, washing machine, microwave, television, computer, phone and cell phones, and two cars. Comparing notes with others on the trip told us what we already knew – most of their creature comforts are considered luxuries to the average Belarussian. Their home is in a village just outside of town on an unpaved road, where many of their neighbors made daily treks to public pumps to fill their water jugs and stray dogs begged for scraps from those waiting at bus stops. Natalia, our translator in Abilene, lives in a two bedroom flat with her mother. She has a mechanical engineering degree but works at the university there as an English teacher. She has no car, no television. Her brother is an electrical engineer. His large family (7 children) lives in a home outside the city with no running water. Go figure…
The public transportation system includes trolleys, large and small buses (the size of vans), and your two feet. There are few families with cars, and so bus stops are always filled with people trying to get to work, shop, or elsewhere. People shop daily because they cannot transport a week’s worth of groceries home via public transportation. It reminded me of the way of life one might expect in New York or other large cities – not like life as we know it in west Texas. Some of those in our group stayed with families without cars, and so their travel to join us for our day trips started with a bus ride. Adult fares cost 70,000 rubles (35 cents) and children cost about 35,000 rubles (roughly 18 cents).
Life in the country is much rougher than in the city. Homes are reminiscent of what life must have been like on the American prairies 150 years ago. Horse-drawn carts are still one means for transportation. Many of the neighborhoods reminded me of those I’ve seen in Mexico, only with subfreezing temperatures around the clock. It is a hand-to-mouth existence that would make it hard to make a living and raise a family, and with little opportunity.
Our clothes made us easy to identify as foreigners. Locals dressed in dark clothes (easier to keep clean with snowy slush everywhere) that were stylish and functional. We saw few coats that weren’t either leather or wool or fur, and black or brown. Most had hoods. Men wore black boots that were more Beatles than cowboy. Women wore spike-heeled boots. Those fur hats we associate with Russians were very common. Younger men and boys often wore stocking caps. I was surprised how few men wore gloves.
Church was an adventure. We went to church four times – New Years day, twice on Orthodox Christmas day, and again on the Sunday following Christmas. Women covered their heads with scarves and sat on the right; men sat on the left. The shortest of the services was two hours and fifteen minutes; the longest just over three hours. Each consisted of 3-4 sermons and lots of wonderful music. There were many small ensembles of singers and musicians – violins, accordions, balalaikas, mandolins, dobros, piano, etc. Much of the music was regional Christmas music, but there were also some Christmas carols and hymns familiar to us – the Christmas day singing of “O Holy Night” with strings was very beautiful. People in the congregation got a kick out of watching us singing along in a language very different from their own. We had Natalia there to translate the sermons for us, and it was great to hear sermons preached in Belarus that tell the same truths we hear in America – we serve a mighty God who is sufficient for our need. The preaching was good…but I sure got a crick in my neck from turning an ear toward Natalia. One sermon was particularly interesting, as the preacher talked about the rich blessings they had –how privileged they were – in comparison to the poor of the world. It’s all relative, I guess. We had communion on New Year’s Day, with all of us drinking from the same cup. It was a very meaningful event. On the one occasion that we didn’t have Natalia to translate, the service was (naturally) harder to follow. However, it demonstrated how our words and the routine of our services can breed a familiarity that robs the meaning and importance of our being in God’s presence. How great it was just to soak in the experience of worship in a foreign tongue and foreign land. The Holy Spirit is not bound by nation or tongue. Natalia says people in the church think she’s weird. Marci and I think it is because she is what the Bible refers to as a “stranger and alien” in Belarus. She’s unusual in that she smiles broadly and frequently – and God’s love shines through her.
The food was very good, with only one dish setting off the flares for me – a cold breakfast salad consisting of shredded beets, shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, potatoes, apple, and minced fish. I thought there was a chunk of metal on my plate, until I poked at it and found it was the silvery skin of the fish that was reflecting the light. I choked down my portion and thought “thank goodness I’ve survived” only to have Leonid put another helping on my plate when I wasn’t looking. Other than that, meals were good and FILLING. Every meal began with our standing and holding hands and Leonid (or me) saying grace (and most meals ended that way also). Each meal’s menu was similar – a huge portion of something (easily 3-4 times our usual portions), accompanied by a beet- or cabbage- or mystery-based salad, and sparkling water to drink. The entrée was typically a bed of rice or pasta or mashed potatoes with some form of fried meat on top and a special sauce. When we were finished, Luda would bring out hot tea and some pastry or dessert. Most of the time we would have been full with only two meals, but we always had that third big meal around 8 pm to please our hosts. Surprisingly, we did not come home looking like a Macy’s Parade float. Some of our favorites were a cabbage borscht and Luda’s desserts – wow she can cook! We had taken over lots of snack foods in case we could not stomach Belarussian food. It went untouched until our return trip home.
Television consisted of three stations from Moscow and Minsk. There were many old movies (and an occasional semi-modern blockbuster), an Argentine soap opera, the Russian equivalent of Wheel of Fortune, and variety shows featuring comic acts centering around the theme of men dressed as women. I got the idea folks there are suckers for a guy with a high squeaky voice. We never figured out their Wheel of Fortune. Contestants brought “gifts” that they put on the wheel. Jars of honey, loaves of bread, bottles of wine…you name it! Some contestants sang. Like some weird dream, it was parts of Wheel of Fortune, The Price is Right, The Gong Show, and Oprah all rolled into one. Our saving moment each day came at about 8 pm when one station played a cartoon advertising the next day’s programming. It was very entertaining and is the subject of a web-quest I am undertaking! If you know where I can find the “Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet” song, I’ll be forever in your debt.
Shopping was interesting. We went on a couple of occasions and were told to not say anything and wait outside the actual store while the “locals” did the bargaining. The stores were in the first floor or basement under the apartment buildings and in a huge department store downtown. Stand-alone stores were found near most bus stops. Most stores had only a narrow range of specialty products – leather goods or produce, for example. Everyone wanted rubles instead of dollars, and so any purchases required currency exchange at one of the exchange booths found in the shopping centers. When Jeannette found a coat for Rebecca at one store, she took a 10-15 minute trip to get cash exchanged so Leonid could make the purchase. It was only when we were standing in the checkout line that I noticed the Mastercard swipe reader that could have taken care of the transaction in a matter of seconds.
Our first official event was the skating party on New Years Day at the Ice Palace. This is a large ice rink that is home to Mogilev’s ice hockey team. It is very modern and nice…until you go to one of the restrooms. A hole in the floor is a poor substitute for a toilet. But, I guess if you are a drunk hockey fan it is sufficient for the task. The kids skated and afterward had refreshments and received some presents. Nice way to start off the trip. I was struck by several of the boys from Cherikov who took an interest in my video camera and seeing themselves on tape. I would see them again when we visited their orphanage in less than a week.
Belarus has 34,000 orphans, with another thousand being added each year. Many are left behind by victims of Chernobyl and other catastrophes of life. Others are victims of family neglect – the so-called “social orphans”. One extreme example was encountered at Ryasno, where there was a little boy who appeared to have a cleft palate. We found out that actually the deformity was due to rats that had attacked him as a baby. The social system finds children whose parents are incapable of caring for them and places them in shelters. During the six months a child is in the shelter, authorities work with the family to help fix the problems causing the child’s removal. If successful, the child rejoins the family; if not the child is moved to an orphanage. We saw both types of facilities during our trip. After the children reach their mid-teens, they must leave the orphanage and are given a few dollars a week to live on. Some are lost to the worlds of drugs and prostitution. The lucky ones attend college or a trade school.
Visiting the orphanages and shelter was a tale of contrasts. At three of the orphanages it was obvious that the staff loved the children and did all they could with their available resources to provide a structured living environment that was safe and loving. The walls were decorated for the season with pictures drawn by the children. The gymnasium where the festivities took place had a Christmas tree, and there was seasonal music in the background. There was singing and dancing and games. Older orphans took an interest in helping out the younger ones. Teachers joined their students in choosing Americans to join them in relay races, a version of “hot potato”, or musical chairs. Thousands of dollars were raised for the orphanages through auctions of crafts made by the kids.
The fourth orphanage was colder, both physically and emotionally. There were no decorations on the walls, no Christmas tree, no games, no auction. There was no holiday cheer in the staff and little joy or play among the children. Everything was very dark and restrained, and exhibited little of the love and hope seen elsewhere. This was the orphanage where three of the orphans who came to Abilene now live, including our boy Ruslan. Ruslan and Vlad were there when we visited, but Slava had been signed out by his family for the holidays. Those who remember Ruslan from last summer mention that he was either the life of the party or the terror of the neighborhood. He charmed and kidded and entertained at times, and he defied and fought and fought some more at others. At the orphanage, he was a ray of sunshine in a very dark place and was the object of attention for us Americans. The ABRO board members wanted to meet this boy they had heard about – witness to his mother’s knife attack on his father, the one whose joy and happiness belie the circumstances of his life. He did not disappoint, as he put on my cold-weather hat and confidently met people and acted like he owned the place. He was happy to see his Abilene friends and me, but he positively lit up when he saw Marci. It was a look that said with pride and love, “she’s mine!” I imagine how I would feel if someone cared enough about me, an orphan, to travel 6000 miles to see me. Later it dawned on me that we are probably the only two people in the world who love him as we do. His biological mom sometimes comes to sign him out for a weekend, but he’s told us he would rather stay at the orphanage. We had a very nice but brief visit with him. When we walked out to board the bus, it broke our hearts to see him alone in a sterile hallway holding a bag of Christmas presents we brought just for him. As we made our way across the icy field to the street, Marci could only ask me whether tears freeze.
In all, we saw nine of the 12 children who came to Abilene last summer. It was good to get a better mental picture of daily life for them and to have reassurance that they are fine. Something Marci and I hang our hats on is knowing that God is sufficient for their needs, and that His protection and provision are far superior to our own abilities. God loves those kids more than we possibly can, and that gives us hope. All but one of the children we saw was healthy and doing well. The other showed signs of living in neglect – skin infections, poor hygiene. She lives with her grandmother now that her mother has remarried and left, and the grandmother has difficulty with the challenge of raising a 7-year old girl. We hope and pray our group’s intervention can lead to some improvements.
There were many times when God spoke to me on this trip. Some were found in the acts of others, and some were during our quiet time as Marci and I recorded our thoughts in our journals at bedtime. He spoke to me during church, when it became obvious that every tribe and tongue and nation can praise Him. He spoke to me through the orphans, who were happy despite circumstances. Every place we went, orphans who had been to America were helping those who hadn’t make the connections with ABRO that could help make it happen for them. He spoke to me at Cherikov, where the older orphans took such interest and care in helping the youngest residents to dance, and clap, and play. He spoke to me as we traveled across the frozen landscape – Chris Tomlin singing “How Great is Our God” on my MP3 player. He spoke to me often about the importance of prayer. After visiting Ruslan’s orphanage, I was led to the story in which the disciples ask Jesus why they had been unable to remove the demon from a possessed man. His reply was that this kind could only be removed by prayer. I am determined to keep that orphanage in my prayers daily. He spoke to me at the going away party, as Jeannette addressed the audience and quoted from Luke 12:48 – “and from everyone to whom much has been given, much is expected…” How blessed we are. What a blessing we can be for others. In these and many other ways I found the trip to be spiritually enriching.
Two stories from this trip bear telling, because they speak to the goodness of the people and the hope we should have for the people of Belarus. The first surrounds an orphan named Victor who came to Abilene last summer and stayed with Scotty Lindley’s family. After returning to Mogilev last summer, Victor was moved to the Mogilev military cadet academy. We’ve worried about Victor’s well-being in his new home. We saw Victor every day of our stay in Belarus. Natalia, our translator (the children’s chaperone) last summer, has befriended Victor and checked him out of the school for the holidays to stay with her and her mother. As she accompanied our group to the orphanages, so did Victor. At the first one we visited, Victor and I were standing in the back of the room while the auction took place. When a wood carving by one of the orphans sold for $20, he asked me “Why are they spending $20 for that. You could buy the same thing in Mogilev for $5!” I told him that this was a way to raise money for the orphanage, to help make things better for the kids. Victor disappeared, and a few minutes later he outbid Marci for a wood carving. He had spent $30 taken out of his Christmas money from the Lindley’s – an orphan helping orphans, giving from his new-found wealth to benefit the others. Before the end of the day, he had given his purchases away as gifts. When we think of him we recall Joseph in Egypt, using a terrible past as a way to save his nation. We can pray that the goodness and spirit in him can be a light to those around him. He is a special young man.
The other story comes from Cherikov, where a member of the North Carolina group pointed out a 17-year old girl. She was small with straight dark hair cut short. He told me that she was a real ABRO success story. About 10 years ago she was discovered by social workers, chained by her parents in a doghouse during summers and locked in an attic during winters. After coming to the orphanage and participating in the ABRO program in American for several summers, she has hope and a future. I have a photo of Marci and me with Ala and a doily she knitted. It will always hold special meaning for me, a testament to goodness overcoming evil. When she was slated for leaving the orphanage due to her age, the director took her into her own home. Some people know that their work is God’s calling and not just a job.
My first entry in the “What have I learned?” section of my journal is something I’ve known all along: how blessed and spoiled and naive we are as Americans, how great and beautiful God’s creation is, how He will remind you of His control over it all. We got reminders of how He was with us and encouraging us every day. The Belarussian passport guard with Tourette’s Syndrome reminded us of God’s healing of Marcus. Our sadness upon leaving Ruslan was met with the first rays of sunshine – God’s way of saying that His light can break through any darkness and that Ruslan is not alone. We also learned other lessons: don’t put peanuts in your suitcase in cheap Ziploc bags; all bathrooms are not equal so if you find a good one, use it; even Belarussian kids can have trouble ice skating; bring some undesignated gifts in case the host family has a 6-year old daughter or the mother’s birthday occurs while you are there. We realized that the summer program in churches like ours is helping raise a generation in Belarus that has seen freedom and has learned enough English to make opportunities and change possible. We should be encouraged by this. Besides helping give these children physical healing by getting them away from the radiation, the program is also fostering emotional and spiritual healing. These kids need something we have in abundance – love, safety, care, freedom. We are pleased to offer these in love from our abundance. But what they give us – a balanced perspective and understanding of our great fortune and obligation to others – is the greater gift. I hope someday we can take our sons to Belarus so that they might also find these truths for themselves.
Being with the orphans this Christmas has sparked a growing compassion and love for these children of Belarus. Their needs are so great and their hopes are so limited. One thing Marci and I know is that we cannot change the world for every one of them. However, we can change the world for one. Our teacher for some of life’s most important lessons during the past year has been a little 10-year old orphan named Ruslan. We want him to know that he matters, that he is loved, that the goodness in him makes the world a better place. We want to help him find the hope and future God has in store for him. I find myself more excited about Ruslan’s return this coming summer than before (if possible), because it is then that my next life lesson begins. Thank you, ABRO, for making this possible.