From Here to There
(This month, I’m going to attempt to respond to two of the questions I am most asked; “How did it come about that you started working in Russia?” and “Why do you continue to work in Russia?” This is part 1 of 4 parts.)
How did I get from here to there?
The “here”? Well, I’m sitting on the deck of my home situated in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. It’s a spectacular fall morning, the air soft and sweet. I’m surrounded by the sights and sounds of what makes front-range Colorado an ideal place to live. The vistas are spectacular. The sky’s a robin’s-egg blue, and the air pure as any on earth. And that’s just the physical setting.
At 62 years old, I’m truly blessed. I have a beautiful wife, two wonderful daughters, two great sons-in-law, four precious grandchildren and the gifts of long-established friendships near and far.
And the “there”? At this very moment, my heart and mind are thousands of miles away, thinking about, and praying for, those who have defined my life’s work for two decades. My calling to help Russian orphans was really unexpected. Frankly, 22 years ago I didn’t have any interest in, or knowledge of, Russia. And I knew next to nothing about orphans, let alone Russian orphans. That began to change in August 1991. During that week of the coup attempt of Gorbachev, I led a group of donors and board members on a trip to Russia to see the work of the Moscow Project. My life was changed forever.
Simply put, the Moscow Project was all about distributing Bibles in Russia. The Soviet Union had not yet collapsed, but the veil that was the Iron Curtain was coming down fast. Dubbed the Evil Empire by the Reagan Administration in the ’80s, the former USSR was in the throes of a real socio-economic crisis. The Russian people were once again facing chaotic upheaval. Serving with a Christian ministry seeking to provide aid and assurance, I was exposed firsthand to this nation’s orphans and their immeasurable suffering.
In some respects, it’s hard for me to describe what I thought an orphan was back then. I’ve come to know that using the strict definition—children without living parents—includes just a small percentage of Russian’s orphans, let alone orphans worldwide. Orphan Annie–cute, mischievous and always loveable–is of course unrealistic as well. To think most orphans are adopted is equally absurd. TV images from those days, babies wrapped in blankets in Eastern European nations like Romania all headed for loving homes in the West, were purely fanciful. In truth, most Russian orphans are young adults and even older adults, still dealing with all the issues they endured through their life’s circumstances. Perceived to be a burden on society, they have little to no hope of becoming confident young adults with identified gifts and talents.
In September 1993, I visited my first orphanage in the northern part of Moscow. Orphanages had been closed to outsiders during the Soviet era, and until the early ’90s, it was unusual for guests to visit, much less foreigners. But International Bible Society was starting the My First Bible Project for orphanages, and I was allowed to visit and meet many directors and caregivers.
I’ll always remember that first orphanage. I was with Katya Celenina, my interpreter, and another ministry staff member who was working on the project. We pulled up to the orphanage with a trunk full of children’s Bibles and New Testaments wrapped in brown paper. I didn’t really know what to expect. When we arrived, I realized that the orphanage staff and children probably didn’t either. The kids were well dressed and exceptionally well behaved, something I would see over and over again throughout the next several years. We were shown their bedrooms with every bed perfectly made, their pillows precisely placed in a triangular shape. I was wishing my daughters’ rooms could be so neat.
The staff gathered all the orphans together in the gym, and we handed out the Bibles. Afterward, we passed out some candy. I’m pretty sure they were more excited about the candy! After a brief meeting with the director, we departed. It was a truly friendly meeting. And as we drove away, many of the stereotypical images of orphans I had at the time were validated.
Cute. Loveable. Perfectly behaved.
In the ensuing years, however, I realized my superficial views of orphans and their life circumstances were just that—totally superficial.
** Next week: How one orphan dramatically impacted my life and the lives of many others.