The short answer, is, of course, we have gone back to work: I am back at Tanner Research, working with a team of young programmers and working on nutrition-related projects, which are a real interest of my boss and have become an interest of mine. Lisa is back at Fuller Seminary in an Affiliate Faculty role, and between that and other things she stays pretty busy. But as we lift up our eyes past the immediate, we have been taken with a vision for our lives coming out of our trip that we are allowing God to confirm, to deepen, to refocus, or to put a stop to. We will be taking steps over the next two years to move back to Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union countries, not to itinerate but to get an apartment and plant ourselves for a few years. We would intend to invest in one country’s local work, and to travel to a handful of the other countries that we visited in the last year. Probably not 25 countries, but perhaps five or six, with people in them we’d want to invest more deeply in, and places we feel we would be welcome to make a longer-term commitment to. This would happen, as well as we can see it now, starting the fall of 2017, after our daughter Becca finishes college that Spring.
Between now and then we will continue to encourage our adult children in their pursuits. Our daughter is in her junior year in college, and is in India at the moment, studying there for her semester abroad in her international studies major. Our son, Mark, is still in London, working away at his bitcoin startup, and we are happy every time he gets his paycheck, succeeding once again to keep his company alive for another month. Next year, we expect to make a trip or two to one or more of the countries we visited last year. We ask you to join us in praying for the countries that we consider at the top of our list to return to, either to live in or to invest in long-term from a home base elsewhere in Europe:
1. Ukraine: One of the few countries we spent more than three weeks in, Ukraine was in many ways like a home base. I had spent more time in Ukraine than anywhere else we visited before our year began, and it was friends in Ukraine that encouraged us to consider the trip back when it was just a crazy idea. The level of English ability on the parts of many students was pretty good, so we were able to have good conversations with many, as well as with most of the staff team. We spent significant time in the four main cities where student work is going on, and were present at the staff team where the leadership transition was being made between an older, beloved male GenSec and the new, energetic and poised young female GenSec. We really came to enjoy the staff in Ukraine, their vision for ministry, the role of native English-speaking workers in their teaching and evangelism ministry, and could easily envision living in Kiev, Lviv or Kharkiv, or traveling overland between cities to invest in the staff around the country.
2. Belarus: We also spent almost three weeks in Belarus, focused in Minsk but we made our way around to five or six cities and saw the spread of the work, its evangelistic nature, and its vision for leadership development as a core value to shape and grow, not just the student work, but the larger work of God and indeed a desperately needed culture of healthy leadership in Belarus as a country. We received an invitation from a church pastor couple, the founders of the IFES work in Belarus, to come and join them in their church planting ministry. The pastor was was surprisingly open to and supportive of Lisa’s teaching ministry in his church planter school, and was impressed at her theological training and pleased to welcome her to teach at his school on a regular basis if we were to move to Minsk. We saw a lot of ways we could come alongside gifted and committed men and women of faith here, and Minsk is a very attractive city. And while it would be difficult to move to Russia, if we lived in Belarus, visits to Russia to work with the IFES movement there would be easy, and some of our dearest friends from this year are in Russia.
3. Romania: We visited Romania more times than any other country, and, like Ukraine, I have friends there that go back more than a decade. We were welcomed by the IFES work and a church that has grown out of it, and there would be many ways to continue to contribute. The movement in Romania is the largest movement of all the countries we visited, with over 600 students involved, and the student conference we attended and spoke at was the most impressive event of all the student conferences, with 130 students at the conference and signs of strong, creative, servant leadership throughout the conference. It doesn’t hurt that Romanian in a romance language, and shares many cognate words with French, Spanish and Latin. We would probably have the easiest time learning the language if we were to move to Romania.
Any place we would move would require efforts to learn the local language, Russian, Ukrainian or Romanian, though we presume our teaching and much of our mentoring and ministry would still need to be done in English. And beyond the country we might live in, there are places we’d definitely like to return to:
- Baltics: Latvia and Lithuania are places where the student ministry is small (but so is the population of these small countries) but we experienced a solid welcome on the parts of staff there. We taught in English, often without translation, because English language skill was high.
- Balkans: We were surprised by our fondness for Albania after our visit there, but aspects of the country broke our hearts while the people we met certainly won them. We hope to return both to work with the IFES there and with the Bible school at which we taught.
- Caucasus Region: We visited the Caucasus region a total of three times, with time in each of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. These IFES movements are also small and need leadership development investment. We enjoyed time with staff and students here and would be glad to return.
- Central Asia: With three visits to a few of the countries of Central Asia (the “stans” of the former Soviet Union) we enjoyed the chance to get to know the cultures and the IFES ministries here.
- MENA: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the predominantly Muslim countries that we visited of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt – all are quite challenging in many ways for us. But the warmth of hospitality and the kindness of some of our strongest new friends for the year may well draw us to return.
We don't know what is ahead for us--of course--but our hearts are open and our ears are attentive to God's call. Our Facebook feed right now is filled with news from new friends from this year, and this keeps our prayers focused on God's work in this part of the world. But God knows how to get our attention, to continue to steer us in the directions he wants our lives to take. We are quite glad to leave, once again, our home as we say yes to his call.