From Here to There, Part II

I enjoy traveling by train in Russia. I usually sleep well. It’s a way to see more of the country than flying over it. For me, it’s fun. But I remember one restless, sleepless overnight train trip between Moscow and St. Petersburg that was anything but restful. It was on that train when I suspected God was about to take my life’s work in an entirely new direction. And I felt profoundly lost and inadequate.

It was the early spring of 1994, and I was in the midst of a two-month My First Bible Project ministry audit for International Bible Society (IBS). My wife Kathy and our teenage daughters, Rebecca and Meredith, had flown over to spend spring break with me in Russia. It was the first international trip for our daughters, and I was doing all I could to ensure they had a great experience. I tried to give them a combination of experiencing my work along with some touring of Moscow and St Petersburg.

The day began like many others. Katya Celenina accompanied my family to Khotkova Orphanage, about 60 miles north of Moscow near Sergei Posad. The IBS Moscow staff had distributed scriptures through the project to this orphanage five months earlier. I was interested to see how they were being used and if there might be improvements we could make to the program.

After a rather cold and diesel-fumes–filled van ride, we arrived unannounced. The director, Yuri, obviously didn’t like surprises. However, Luba, his assistant, was eager for us to see and experience everything. Compared to Yuri, she was Ms. Enthusiasm. After the obligatory tea and orphanage briefing in Yuri’s office (with Lenin’s picture prominently displayed), Luba took us on a tour. Khotkova was an orphanage (technically, a boarding school) for orphans with speech impediments. It held 185 children, ages 7 to 16, with classrooms throughout. Luba insisted we visit many of the classes in session.

In classroom after classroom, Luba asked the children if they had been reading their My First Bibles. Yes, they replied. In fact, they were using them one day per week in class. At one point, Luba asked if they had a favorite story. Several of the children spoke up, but one boy really impressed me. Frail, pale and blond, 11-year-old Staas shared quite eloquently, despite his speech impediment, that his favorite story was Jesus taking the children on His lap and loving them. Something about his angelic countenance and his serious contemplation would never leave me.

Before departing, we distributed a suitcase full of gifts that Bob and Mary Jo Steinke, neighbors from Colorado Springs, had sent with me to use when and where I thought best. Supplemented with fresh fruit we purchased that morning, the food and gifts proved to be real treats for all the kids.

On the van ride back to Moscow, Katya shared Staas’s story. Like so many, Staas and his brother Sergei were orphaned as a result of their mother’s death and their father’s alcoholism. In those crazy, mixed up, early post-Communist times, somehow the alcoholic father had managed to divert the state funds intended to support his sons in the orphanage. Despite that, and somewhat miraculously, the Khotkova Orphanage kept Stass and Sergei in residence. In light of these facts, the Bible story Staas chose, Jesus inviting children to come to Him and holding them, was even more moving.

Staas was 11 years old but looked all of 8. What was his future? When would he find his way? I knew kids left the orphanages at 15 or 16 years old. With only four years to go, what would happen to this frail boy lost in post-Soviet Russia?

Late that night, as we boarded the train, my mind was working overtime. The depth of the hopelessness of these orphans’ futures began to sink in. It was overwhelming. What could anyone do? The Russian orphanage system was well established and there was no way to change it. Why was I so consumed with the plight of Staas? He was but one child in one orphanage. And I, of all people, wasn’t in a position to do anything. Or was I?

I so wanted to go to sleep on that train and wake up content with my work for IBS in Russia. It wasn’t to be. My mind was flooded with questions without answers. What if I started a ministry for Russian orphans? What would that entail? What would be the short-term, mid-term and long-term goals? Would Russians ever support a Western-based ministry outreach to their orphans? For that matter, would Westerners support a ministry for kids in a country of a former enemy in a land so troubled and so far away?

 ** This is the second of a four part series on why I started working with orphans and why I continue to do so. You can read the previous post here if have not yet.

*** Next week: How an orphanage visit in 1994 confirmed my future in orphan work.