Reading everything that’s been done and said about last week’s events has been hard. Everywhere I’ve looked, people were discussing the hard topics of racial inequality, police violence, and hate-filled retaliation.
Being a member of a now multi-racial family, I struggled with my own assessment of these topics, mixed along with the idea of white privilege and how it relates to my life. All of this led me to also assess my effectiveness in being a good witness through my presence with and feeding of our BELL campers, who are here to keep learning throughout the summer. How, I wondered, was I perceived by these children?
Needless to say, by Friday afternoon these thoughts left me a little deflated, a little drained, as serious thought tends to do.
Then something happened that filled me back up.
While I was standing at the front desk having a conversation about finances with a coworker, one of our campers walked by to go to the restroom. She walked right up to me and spontaneously hugged my leg. This reminded me that our actions truly do have an impact when they are motivated with love. We need to fill each other up with love in these difficult times.
We need more hugs.
– Nick Kepp
P.S. A high-five (see below) isn’t a bad option, either.
Our last two days (Wednesday and Thursday, July 6-7) have been full and our hosts extremely gracious. On Wednesday, they showed us a bit of the Ryazan area, with a tour of a 19th century poet’s village and a picnic on the bluffs of the Oka River. Later, Tamara, one of the leaders in the church, invited us to dine in her garden, under the cherry trees. Two meals outside in idyllic settings!
On Thursday, we traveled to Ryaszhk to visit our fifth small rural Baptist church. The missionary, Sasha, with his wife and four children greeted us and we all shared our motivations and goals in mission. We drank Russian tea and ate sweets (a common practice each day, whether standalone or after dinner). Tonight we participated in the women’s fellowship at Hope Baptist, hearing a message about how parents and grandparents can teach their children about God and Jesus.
The Russian Christians we have met have been so welcoming to us, but we can see that they lead difficult lives. Neighbors avoid them (Sasha said none of his neighbors spoke to him for three years, until one of them finally did); they are viewed with suspicion; and in some towns the authorities can put obstacles in their way, or shut down their plans. We must pray for them, as they do for us.
Since our partnership with Hope Baptist began in 2003, we have seen improvements and additions to the worship space. The kitchen and office have been in multiple locations in the building, each one better than the last, and the sanctuary has been expanded. With the support of First Presbyterian, Hope Baptist purchased their worship space and gained greater stability.
Even with all of the remodeling and ownership of the space, the dream has always been to have a church building. Baptists are viewed as a dangerous cult in Russia, and having a space that looks like a church lends the congregation greater legitimacy and the ability to design their space to accommodate their growing programs. They have also struggled with current neighbors who are suspicious and harass the congregation.
We have been privileged to witness the next exciting stage of their church life. Hope Baptist had purchased land and drawn up plans for a three-story building. The basement will house the kitchen and a fellowship space for conferences, wedding receptions, and other celebrations. The ground floor is reserved for the sanctuary, and the Sunday school spaces and offices will be on the second floor.
First Presbyterian has supported this project financially and will continue to send funds through the Global Mission committee. Hope Baptist is very grateful for our partnership. Church members have also all pledged money for the church. During worship on Sunday, they took up two collections, one for the regular offering and one for the building. Additionally, church members are giving their time and energy to help build the structure. Our support is greatly appreciated, but this project’s heart is found in the investment of resources, energy, and sweat from the members.
This morning, we got to tour the foundation. It is so easy to look at the foundation and imagine the completed building, full of life and joy and grace. There are 160 members and children. It is undoubtedly a group that will fill the sanctuary with singing, prayer, and community.
Our trip to Russia has been filled with many, many blessings, but seeing the future home of Hope Baptist is one of the highlights. Scripture tells us that space to worship God and celebrate baptisms, marriages, and deaths is important. It is a joy to be part of Hope Baptist’s journey to build their new home.
We have been traveling around the state seeing town churches that cooperate together with Hope Baptist. So far, we have visited 4, all with different interesting and moving stories. We also saw a newly purchased camp and retreat site on beautiful land with a pond, wildflowers and a forest edge.
I could write paragraphs about each church but I’ll try to hit a few highlights.
The churches do struggle with discrimination, so that they need their own land and building to do much ministry. One home church, dating from the days of true persecution, just constructed a good-size two-story building from ground to roof — all done by Christian brothers from around the state in one season!
Another church just starting to grow had their donated space destroyed by fire one month ago. They have purchased land in the town center but need prayers to help them overcome problems with commercial pipelines on the property.
One older woman sums up the attitudes, saying, “We trust the Lord; in the face of evil, we respond with good.”
“And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” – Matthew 6:28-29
Monday, July 4
It has been a full three days in Russia!Our intrepid group (as Erika has described us) of me, Mary Elizabeth Coley, Barb and Rich Neidinger arrived safely to Moscow on Saturday afternoon and discovered that our bags hadn’t made the trip quite as smoothly as we did.
After meeting up with Ellen Smith, our PC(USA) missionary partner, at the airport, we took a train from Moscow to Ryazan and got our first glimpses of the Russian countryside.It was beautiful, and seeing Pavel and Olga waiting for us on the train platform in Ryazan was the best welcome!
It had been a long day (days, really) of planes and car rides and trains, and after we checked into the hotel, Pavel and Olga drove us to Hope Baptist for dinner.When I walked in the dining room of the church and saw the table set for us with dishes of pasta, chicken, rice, fresh vegetables, and bread, I couldn’t help but cry.Such a feast prepared for us — three of us strangers to the church but all of us sisters and brothers in Christ — it was humbling, grace-filled, and delicious.
The hospitality of our Russian sisters and brothers has been incredible.They’ve welcomed us in their worship, fed us homemade meals, prayed for us, and literally given us their clothes to wear while we are waiting (hoping! praying!) to hear something about our luggage.
In these first few days, it would be easy to get caught up in the fact that we are suitcase-less, and I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been some moments of frustration about that.But the bigger takeaway from the luggage debacle is the reminder that we are not in control.God is, though, and God is good.God’s steadfast care comes to us in all kinds of forms — a late night dinner with new friends in the back room of a church, a bag of clean clothes offered from those same new friends so you don’t have to wear the same shirt for four days in a row, a patient teacher helping us learn to sing “Happy Birthday” in Russian so we could celebrate our dinner hostess, and the embodied reminder that we are all one in Christ.Slava Bogu!Praise God!
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world…in the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)
If you want to see what church looks like when we are really being church, come to the campus of First Presbyterian the first six weeks of the summer.
We are about halfway through hosting the BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) program – a tutoring initiative that provides experiences in the classroom and the uptown community for 60 students from the K-8th grade Westerly Hills Academy, with whom our church has a partnership.
These six weeks our campus is buzzing: in the courtyard at drop-off, in the Wood Fellowship Hall for breakfast, on the third floor for classes, and through the hallways as children make this church their home.
Additionally, in the summer our church also makes a commitment to send children to Camp Grier for a total of 65 camper weeks.
Our summer program is one of the finest examples of where our faith and our stewardship become salt and light in our community. These programs make an impact. Reading scores go up. Parents are more plugged in. Children grow in confidence. And God is glorified.
This Sunday during worship, we’ll recognize a dozen people from around the country who were part of the first international mission trip for youth in 1974—a trip to Haiti so profound that participants have traveled from across the country for a reunion during worship here on Sunday.
“It was eye-opening,” said Ben Williams, who celebrated his sixteenth birthday during that mission trip. “Our senses came alive to the plight of this poverty-stricken island.”
You can watch video from that trip more than 40 years ago, a mission trip that continues to echo for Ben and the other participants who are gathered in Charlotte this weekend, including Nel Hobbie (Hill), Eve Baker (Bennett), Elizabeth Barefoot (Vinson), Betsy Barry (Dreier), Charlie Durham, Jeff Gaines, Tom Higgins, Kathrine Horn (Coggins), Amy Petris (Capps), Dick Ridenhour, Ken Roberts and Kay Sullivan (Johnston). Dorathy Stewart (Link) will be unable to attend.
We woke up to another beautiful sunny day at VIM. Everyone was eager to finish the walk way we had been working on all week. After countless buckets of sand, gravel and cement, we finally finished the path and were able to sign our names, making our mark on VIM just as VIM made a mark on us.
We packed up and cleaned what had been our temporary home for the past week. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to our gracious hosts and all the students that had become family. Off to Cancun we went. Everyone enjoyed the pool at the hotel in the afternoon and a great dinner in downtown Cancun.
The theme this week was stretching our faith, and there is no doubt that was accomplished in many different ways by spending time with the children, breaking down language barriers with those of all ages, and putting in hard work everyday despite the weather conditions. Our last day was full of laughter and affirmations of each others’ skills and abilities and we will no doubt never forget this trip. Not only has our faith been stretched but it will continue to be stretched into our everyday lives at home in Charlotte.
Signing off from the dream team –
– Kyle, Stevie, Alex, Jack, William, and Caroline Hace calor!!
Day 4: Three cheers for a work day with no rain, but still enough cloud cover to not be scorching hot, and enough sun to dry things off!
The sidewalk is looking good! We are all experts now in mixing concrete, shoveling and creating assembly lines to pass buckets of dirt, gravel, rocks, and concrete. We are also getting to know each other better as we stand in our lines passing buckets. Lots of stories and laughter helping the time pass!
As much fun as we are having, we are also being stretched by having to get up early and work with our sore muscles and dirty, tired bodies. Then, as we head to Vacation Bible School, it is rejuvenating as we are greeted by the smiling faces of the kids so excited to see us with nothing but love in their sweet eyes. At the end of our day, behind every smiling face of our youth and advisors, we can also see the exhaustion. But because our group is so amazing, we just keep pushing onward and ‘stretching our faith’!!
– Group One and Done, Adele Campbell, Jack Perrin, Alex Glontz, Abigail Giles, Davis Ryan, Davis McMillan, Rand Ayer and Kelli Mallory
Our faith today was stretched by lots of rain and mud. We woke up at 6:30, had breakfast and waited for the rain to break. Alas, that moment never came.
We worked for a solid few hours of drizzle, shoveling buckets and wheelbarrows of rock and dirt to help form a sidewalk. When the rain got heavier, we took a break for lunch before ending the day with another hour of work.
By quitting time, every member of our group was soaked to the bone and covered in mud. Stretching our faith, indeed!
We took much-appreciated showers before a long nap and siesta.
Vacation bible school brought more fun times with the local children, where we made bracelets, painted faces and played ball. VBS was topped off with our hilarious attempt at a David and Goliath skit in Spanish. We ended our day with spaghetti, volleyball and soccer.
And kudos to Rand Ayer as he is chasing down giant moths with a broom while we write this.
Our bedtime prayer is to ask God for sun and to thank him for our small group not having to empty the bathroom trash again tomorrow.
Farewell from Group 5!
Abigail Justis, Margaret Lloyd, John Owens, Henry Moldenhauer, Colin Perrin and Carson Rogers