Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Nineteen: Camp. Again.

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At the end of my first week in Liepaja I found myself at another camp. This one was located on the grounds of the oldest Latvian Baptist Church just outside the seaside town of Pavilosta.

I arrived at the camp Friday afternoon to discover two hundred children of all ages all over the place. It looked like complete chaos. Some were playing games, others were running wildly, while still others were hiding in their tents.

In the midst of the anarchy I noticed a group that didn’t fit in with the rest of the campers. They stuck to themselves and never mixed with anyone else. I sought out the leader of the camp to learn about this unusual group.

The camp leader was a pastor from a nearby town. He explained that these were youths from an orphanage where he worked part-time. My mind went back to before I left for my trip. At the time I was preparing to work in an orphanage. Now I was in a position to actually apply my training to actual practice.

In order to reach out to this group, I had to overcome several obstacles. Language continued to be a barrier. If I could somehow work past this, I needed to gain acceptance of the group. At the previous camp, I used the balloon animal craft to appeal to younger children. At this camp, I needed something more clever.

I brought a puzzle ring to Latvia. It’s made of four interlocking silver rings that fit together to create a single larger ring. It often worked as an icebreaker when meeting new groups. At this camp it worked marvellously. I was asked to take it apart and rebuild it over and over.

Around the camp fire on the first night I was formally introduced to the group. They asked the usual questions about my background and my reason for being there. In response, I asked them about church and life in their city. It was a great time of singing and fellowship.

Some of the high schoolers started speaking to me in broken English. It gave us the freedom to talk to each other with relative ease. I started playing the games they enjoyed, and I was able to teach them how to play baseball. I still don’t know why they were so curious about baseball, specifically, but I was not going to miss an opportunity.

By Saturday night it was time to return to Liepaja. The camp itself went until Sunday night, but I had to return to meet with my field supervisor and his wife. As I packed up, I took a quick look around at the campers laughing and playing. In the midst of the group my eyes focused on a small group playing in a circle. They were from several churches in the area who became friends during camp. Included in the circle were some from the orphanage. It was satisfying to see them part of the group.

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Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Eighteen: Abstinence

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Another insight provided by Malcolm’s English student police officer was in regards to crime. He was a supervisor for the Liepaja police department. He shared that ninety percent of all crimes in his experience involved alcohol in some way. Alcoholism was a serious problem in the country.

Alcohol was cheap and readily available, even to minors. Many, explained the officer, would start the morning with a beer and be drunk by the afternoon. I often saw construction workers on scaffolding several storeys high drinking beer on their breaks.

I went to Latvia with a fairly liberal attitude toward alcohol. I believed it was acceptable to drink in moderation. After all, the Bible only prohibits disciples from getting drunk. Europeans had different attitudes towards it than North Americans. I naturally assumed it would be widespread, even in the church.

What I immediately noticed upon arrival was that young Christians did not drink. Alcoholism is such a problem that the Christians purposely abstained in order to be a witness to the rest of society.

It isn’t a issue of superiority or prudishness. So many came from homes damaged by alcoholism. They saw the results of alcohol very clearly. Their stand was utilitarian. Why even flirt with something that can be so destructive? It destroyed too many lives, too many families.

Is drinking alcohol a sin? No. Is it beneficial? According to the Latvian Christians I met, the benefits of social drinking did not outweigh the damage alcoholism had done to their society. For that reason, they abstained.

I deeply respected their position.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Seventeen: English Classes and Ethnic Tensions

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One of Malcolm’s duties was teaching English at the local college. He used the Good News version of the Gospel of Mark as a textbook. Malcolm figured that way he could teach English and the Gospel at the same time.

The first day I attended they are discussing the question, ‘who is a sinner?’ This opened the door to present the plan of salvation starting at Romans chapter three. The next week we moved to Romans chapter five and ten. They learned what Jesus did to reconcile us with God.

At every point Malcolm made sure any new and unfamiliar words would be defined. At other moments he made sure the concepts made sense. It was a slow process, but it was invaluable. Proceeding slowly let the students understand and reflect on the Gospel they were learning.

The response to Malcolm’s class was positive. Three of his students admitted they accepted Christ and the fourth understood, but needed time to think it through. Helping Malcolm was real blessing. Malcolm taught me a lot about teaching and I was able to teach Malcolm the plan of salvation I had learned from Pastor Bullis.

Afterward, Malcolm shared how much he appreciated the clarity of Paul’s message through Romans. It was straight forward and easy to understand. Much more, it was something he could share across culture barriers. I was thankful for the chance to be useful for the Kingdom.

Malcolm also taught a Russian speaking police officer who wanted to improve his English skills. I learned through him a lot about the underlying tension between Latvians and Russians.

Although he had Lithuanian mother and Ukranian father, the police officer grew up speaking Russian under the communist regime. Born in Latvia, he was not considered a true Latvian. This led to a bitterness that was palpable when he spoke.

He shared how, since the fall of the Soviet Empire, Latvia had been trying to redefine citizenship to include only those of Latvian heritage. This bristled the Russian speakers, including the police officer. They held a largely negative view of native Latvians, which only escalated tensions.

I had no desire to become involved in this debate, but it was difficult to avoid. My concern was for the ministry. If I chose one side, I would alienate the other. It was a delicate line most missionaries walked. This was done by focusing on Christ. Only through Christ would reconciliation begin, first with God, and then with our neighbours.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Sixteen: The Aftermath

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After the incident, Malcolm decided it was time to move to Madona. He realized how difficult it would be to work with the young pastor, so he chose the opportunity to work with Raivis instead. I later learned that Malcolm had also been in conflict with the young pastor. Working with him in Liepaja would be far too difficult.

With my situation somewhat resolved, a new problem arose. Now what do I do? The only planned event was camp at the end of the week. The rest of my time was open. With my supervisor arriving the next Sunday, I needed to get creative.

Malcolm allowed me to attend the English classes he taught and Dr. Egils offered to give me a tour of the local hospital. That would occupy a few days, but what would I do with the rest of my time? I certainly did not want to become a tourist.

At the time when I felt low, God graciously provided. My confidence was shaken by the incident. I did not feel comfortable in Liepaja. God knew what I needed and was about to provided beautifully.

Malcolm’s supervisors arrived in Liepaja a few days later. Malcolm was rather nervous about the meeting, but I was looking forward to the visit. I had the opportunity to meet Colin and Brenda in Riga several weeks earlier, and got along well.

Malcolm and I met them at the bus station. Their arrival brought a lot of laughter. I learned first hand the importance of missionary colleagues. It was a time of sweet fellowship with others who shared the burden of ministry.

The visit only lasted a few hours, but it was long enough enough to learn about the goodness of God. He brought the right people along at the right time. I felt blessed, but also a little convicted. I wondered if I was being the a blessing to folks like Malcolm. If I faced struggles after only a few weeks, how many more had a career missionary like Malcolm faced?

I later prayed that God would use me to minister to missionaries as much as I ministered to the people of Latvia. It became a deeper purpose for the rest of my trip.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Fifteen: The Incident

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I was invited to a youth meeting soon after I arrived in Liepaja. After a much needed nap, I got to the meeting late. There were ten people at the flat all sitting in the living room talking and drinking tea. As I sat down, one of the visiting Englishmen asked me how I would introduce someone to Christ. What ensued were forty-five minutes of questions about my theology.

Since I was new, I didn’t think this was particularly unusual. There was a natural curiosity about who I was and my reasons for being there. After it was over, I was satisfied that everything went well. I learned later that this was not the case.

The young pastor I was supposed to work with did not appreciate the attention I received. I was told that my arrival was an unwelcome distraction. Unfortunately, I discovered this much too late. A resentment was already building.

The next day was Sunday. John, one of the Englishmen, was scheduled to preach in the morning service at Paul’s Church. In the evening service I was expected to introduce myself to the same congregation. In preparing for the evening, I realized I had no clear assignment.

After some inquiry, I discovered I would be working with the same young pastor I met at the youth meeting in planting the Nazareth Church. I assumed that involved assisting his efforts. This meant I wouldn’t be working with the Paul’s Church youth, as I had originally expected. Still, nothing was firmly set, and I was rather confused.

An hour before the evening service the young pastor, and my interpreter for the evening, told me he had a headache. He didn’t want to serve as my interpreter. As it happened, we bumped into Gunita, a UN interpreter and a member at Paul’s Church. The young pastor asked her to fill in for him, but she declined. She didn’t plan to attend Sunday evening due to a previous engagement.

The young pastor then did something that absolutely shocked me. He started whining. This grown man worked very hard to guilt this young woman into interpreting for me. It was a pathetic sight to see a future pastor sink to such manipulation. I was furious.

Feeling sorry for Gunita, I stepped in and said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll find someone else.”

I couldn’t believe what I’d just witnessed. It was uncalled for and unfair.

That evening Malcolm and I went to the service. The young pastor wouldn’t sit with us, even though he wound up interpreting. My little speech went very poorly, but I didn’t care. I was still bothered by what I’d seen earlier.

After the service I walked home with Malcolm and the young pastor. In the discussion, I brought up my duties for the next four weeks in Liepaja. The young pastor answered, “Pray about it and God will let us know.” Unsatisfied with that, I pressed the question. I was supposed to start working the next day. I wanted to know what to do.

That’s when it happened. The young pastor exploded. He told me I was too eager and that my theology would hurt the people. I demanded to know what he meant. He made reference to the previous evening at the youth meeting. I asked if my theology was correct, and he agreed. He also told me to ‘come down’, meaning to get off my pedestal.

At that point he tore a strip off me as we walked down the street. It was ugly. Despite my intense anger, I decided to keep my mouth shut. Malcolm later told me it was a wise move. When the young pastor was finished, I thanked him for his ‘counsel’. He stormed off.

Malcolm spent the rest of the walk calming me down.

An hour later the young pastor called Malcolm to let him know he was too busy to work with me. I immediately realized the trouble I was in. Things couldn’t have gone worse.

I was assured by others that the young pastor was in the wrong. I was told that I should have been warned about him. He had difficulty working with others, and my presence caused him to lash out with unusual cruelty.

That didn’t make me feel any better. I blamed myself for a bad attitude over the incident with Gunita. I had to come to grips with the fact I had little respect for the young pastor and that influenced my later encounter.

Malcolm believed we could salvage the rest of my time if I apologized. He hoped it would be a positive example to the church if we reconciled our differences for the sake of the ministry. There is no doubt Malcolm was a peacemaker.

The reconciliation came the following day. The young pastor called me in the morning and apologized. I accepted his forgiveness and sought forgiveness for my part. I never did work with him in building his church. We did, however, work hard to become friends.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Fourteen: Halfway

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The time had come for me to leave Madona. In my time there I saw three people make a commitment to Christ and started a Bible study which we hoped would become a church in Biksēre. I left with a feeling of satisfaction.

It was short lived.

Raivis had a couple of confrontations with the church leaders of Madona. He told me he was moving to Riga and would forget all about Madona and Biksēre. I knew he was making and angry decision and hoped to calm him down. I didn’t want him to do something foolish that would seriously hurt the work I’d just finished.

Raivis had a heart for these towns and had the potential to be an effective minister to these folks. I did not want him to toss that aside because of a couple of misunderstandings. I spent the last few days ministering to him. He eventually cooled down and decided to continue the work.

I left my first assignment knowing God was glorified. It was a good feeling. I wanted to do something significant while I was there and I believed that I had. I was on good terms with everyone and had survived half my trip away from home.

Next came the home stretch in Liepaja. I looked forward to the change and prayed that I might continue to be effective.

My trip to Liepaja was long and hot. Raivis traveled with me to by train to Riga. From there I took a bus a by myself to Leipaja. All totalled, it was seven hours of travel.

Upon arrival, I was surprised to be greeted by a group. There was Dr. Egils, Malcolm, another man named Egils and two Englishmen named John and Jerry. I was tired from my journey and my first priorities were a meal and a nap. I hadn’t eaten since 5am and was famished.

My priorities, however, soon changed. As it turned out, no one had made any living arrangements. As it stood, I was homeless. This didn’t lead to a favourable first impression of my new town.

Malcolm graciously let me spend the night in his flat while we got things set up for the rest of my stay. There was no doubt my first twenty-four hours in Liepaja were unsettled.

Then it happened.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Thirteen: Loneliness and an American President

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My fianceé’s birthday was early in July and I decided to call her. I not only hoped to surprise her but also figured I could use the support of hearing her voice. I even rehearsed what I would say before I called.

At that time, called internationally took special arrangements. When the time came, my heart pounded as I heard the phone ringing.

“Hello?”

It was her mother. Tricia was at work. My heart sank. I felt like screaming. I spoke with for a minute and then got cut off.

I waited until 12:30am, which was 5:30pm her time. This time she was home. I forgot all the things I wanted to tell her, so I just babbled. When she finally spoke, I could tell something was wrong. She spent half the conversation yelling at me to speak up and the other half trying to keep everyone in the background quiet.

It was not the surprise I hope it would be. In fact, I felt worse after the call. She was struggling back home while I was feeling homesick. I started to blame God. Why would I be called to a place where we would both be miserable?

All the things I had experienced, the joys and triumphs of seeing God at work, were lost on me. I just wanted to be home. I had been away for nearly a month. Wasn’t that enough for God? I was depressed for the next few days.

July sixth was an important day for Latvia. Bill Clinton, President of the United States of America, was making the first visit of any president to a Baltic state. Raivis convinced me to go with him to see the President. We got up at 5am for the 6am train out of Cesvaine. Both of us slept the entire way down.

We met a friend of Raivis’ in Riga and made our way to the outdoor square where President Clinton was to make his speech to the nation. Security was tight. The entire old city was ringed with Latvian military. US Secret Service set up checkpoints with metal detectors, had snipers on roofs, and frogmen in the river running through the city. It certainly gave the impression we were about to witness history.

As with most official events, there were a lot speeches, but not must else. We soon got bored and left. We wandered around Riga and did a little shopping. We finally wandered over to the Baptist Union building where I met with Aigars.

He gave me a fax he received from Tricia. She sent it after the call because she felt bad about sounding so down. It was just the kind of letter I needed. In my loneliness I needed to know that I was missed just as much I missed her.

Looking back, it’s funny to think how President Clinton would be the catalyst to bring me out of my funk! God certainly has a funny sense of humour.