- Nurhan, from Uzbekistan. I met this smart, funny, friendly young woman in Kyrgyzstan at a student leadership conference we taught. She and nine others had traveled for two days by bus to be there, and they would return home with no printed materials, to avoid detection as Christians. Her Muslim family has accepted her conversion but has forbidden her to tell the extended family or anyone else. She is able to attend a Bible Study in the city where she attends college, studying international relations. The challenges she faces in living out her faith are immense, but she handles them all with humor, wisdom, and grace. She is a phenomenally gifted leader and I pray she will impact her nation powerfully someday.
- Tony, from Nigeria, studying medicine in Ukraine. Tony represents the many international students we met. We had not anticipated how many students come to Eurasia from Africa and from some countries to which traditional Christian missionaries have no access, such as Turkmenistan. We met Indian students in Armenia, Turkmen in Belarus, and Kenyans and Nigerians in Ukraine. Tony was in my daily track, “Skills for Everyone,” at the English Camp outside Lviv, Ukraine three weeks ago. He impressed me right away with his insightful reflections as we discussed skills like conflict resolution, decision making, and time management. His story represents the many facets of corruption in many aspects of Eurasian/Eastern European society, including education. At one point we had a lively discussion in which I tried to convince the mostly non-Christian students why they ought to choose not to cheat. The students were quite adamant that due to the poor post-Soviet education system, the low quality of the instruction, etc., it was basically the morally appropriate response to such a broken system, to cheat on exams. One student said, “I would never cheat a friend, but this has nothing to do with doing harm to another person.” Tony alone pointed out, “If I as a pre-med student choose to regularly cheat on exams and therefore don’t learn the material, I could kill a patient!” Score one for long-term thinking and for connecting individual ethical behavior to its relational effects. I wish Tony many years of serving patients with skillful care.
- Tanya, Ukrainian studying in Kiev: Tanya represents the many, many students IFES is reaching who have not yet committed to faith. She is an enthusiastic participant, a leader even, in the English Club ministry of IFES in Kiev. She is a talented poet who writes poetry beseeching her beloved nation to continue to strive for freedom. (You just don’t hear poetry like that recited at the typical talent night in the US!) Like almost everyone in Ukraine, she was baptized Orthodox but does not follow the Orthodox faith actively. She has been drawn to what she’s seen of the Protestant student group, but has not yet chosen to fully align herself with them. It would be costly to family relationships. I pray for her heart to fully turn toward God soon.
- Pavel and Katya, in Belarus. We loved so many things about the leadership of this couple. Though serving in a denomination and country that does not do a lot to empower women in leadership, Pavel honors his wife’s many ministry gifts at every turn, and endorsed me to speak and teach in several settings during our time in Minsk. (Women in ministry was an unexpected theme of our year—I had not anticipated how hungry students and churches would be for input on this topic, and due to different cultural contexts had to scramble to create three or four distinct seminars, which I taught in Lebanon, Armenia, Romania, Moldova, etc.) Pavel also represents a refreshing exception to a sad theme we saw throughout the region, the difficulty sharing power and handing off leadership. The reasons for this are complex; I blogged about them a bit HERE. Pavel is a networker who from all reports shares power well. He is a sponsor and a coach by nature, and has a cadre of young church planters he is training and sending out around the country. He and his wife began the IFES movement in Belarus several years ago and are loyal partners today. It was an honor to work with them in Minsk.
- Alex and Nati, in Romania. We enjoyed these two so much! Rich had built a friendship with Alex over several visits to Eastern Europe IFES events in the last ten years, and he welcomed us to be speakers at his church’s fall retreat in September, to do leadership training for them in December, and to join the merry madness that is the English-Adventure Camp his church cohosts (along with the IFES student group) for high-schoolers, our final stop before returning to LA. One of our favorite parts of our journey was the chance to simply ‘do life’ with some of the people who hosted us. We had extra days around each teaching gig in Romania, and we enjoyed just going with Alex to the mechanic or the grocery store, staying up late laughing and telling stories, or thinking through a parenting or ministry challenge together. Alex and Nati represent the many faithful Christians we saw adopting orphans around Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Alex is taking a national leadership role with an agency seeking to build a culture of adoption in Romania, a country with very low rates of adoption and very high rates of abuse in orphanages.
- Nabil and Sarah in Lebanon: I’m fudging a little here because Sarah is Swiss-British and Nabil lived in London several years, but I can’t resist a hat tip to these two, who welcomed us so warmly to Lebanon. Nabil and Sarah led All Saints International Church in Beirut with enormous creativity and generosity for several years. (International churches were another learning theme of our year—I confess to a certain ignorant dismissal of them as a way for expats to avoid getting to know their new community. But I have more sympathy for expats and their needs, and more respect for the many ways international churches serve communities, after visiting and preaching at several, and getting to know some brave and weary expats this year. In Beirut the church served as a much-needed place of restoration for people doing hugely challenging work among refugees, for one thing.) Nabil and Sarah saw the Alpha Course prove to be so effective at their church that they have taken a role as directors of advancement of Alpha ministries throughout the Middle East.
North American Missionaries:
- Blair and Elizabeth, in Kiev. One of the humbling features of our year was being hosted by complete strangers several times. None of the IFES staff were able to host us, but they knew they could confidently ask Blair and Elizabeth. Though they were only in Kiev for one year, and though their formal ministry assignment was not with IFES, they had opened their home for games and movie nights to students all year. Blair and Elizabeth, roughly our age and with kids at similar ages, helped us to picture what it might be like to return to Ukraine for longer than just a week or two, since they were able to thrive there.
- Steve and Cinda, in Egypt. One of the regrets of our year was that we were rarely able to connect with ministers from our denomination, the PC(USA). We simply weren’t in charge of our own time in many of the cities we visited, having essentially written a blank check to the IFES staff to book up our days. The Protestant church in Eurasia/Eastern Europe tends more towards Baptist and Pentecostal than Reformed of any stripe. Egypt is very different. The Synod of the Nile is huge, and we were so impressed with the good work it is doing, which we blogged about HERE. We stayed at the Presbyterian seminary and were warmly hosted by Steve and Cinda, who after decades of service stateside threw themselves into a three-year assignment in Cairo with gusto and good humor.
- Liz , in Bulgaria: Liz represents the many InterVarsity Link staff we met, serving faithfully in Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Romania, etc. Liz knows how to have a good time. She ran an English club for Bulgarian and international students in Sofia and at its Halloween party she gave pairs rolls of toilet paper to make costumes for each other. One made a partner into the Statue of Liberty and pulled out a cigarette lighter to set his torch aflame! I chose Liz because she is gifted and fun and welcomed us well, but also because she is young, unlike the other two couples, and frankly we would love to see many more young people graduate and choose to invest in a challenging setting the way Liz did. Going as a single person takes an extra dose of bravery and sacrifice; I had in Rich a companion, a luggage porter for the many elevator-less buildings we encountered, etc. My hat is off to all who head out in mission as single people, younger or older.
National IFES Staff:
- Hussam in Jordan. Hussam impressed us in many ways. He is a smart and capable leader, and the student conference we attended outside Amman was a joyful gathering. His church is doing amazing work to serve the many Iraqi refugees entering Jordan each week. We were struck by the suffering of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon (and to some extent in Ukraine as well), but also struck by the ways God has blessed those churches and individuals who have opened their hearts to them.
- Javid and Esmira, in Azerbaijan. This couple didn’t have quite enough challenge reaching out to college students in this 99% Muslim country in a city that already had a small but solid group of Christians, so they are heading this fall to a city near the border of Iran which has only 6 or 7 known believers. Ministers becoming missionaries was another theme of our year, as we watched Romanians sense God calling them to India, or others simply sense God calling them to the hardest and least-reached regions of their own countries.
- Marina, Dasha and Polina in Kiev, and while we’re at it, the whole Ukraine team. I know, this post is already ridiculously long and I said 12 people, but I couldn’t pick between these three amazing women who serve in such different ways in Kiev, Ukraine. Marina is a super-talented violinist who likes to take her violin with her to bring encouragement to soldiers, people delayed in train stations, and the likes of me and Rich on a few occasions this past year. Dasha lives life with a lot of style, while coordinating the details of events like a Lamb visit to Kiev or an English Camp with meticulous attention. Polina jumps into ministry with energy and a smile. The Ukrainian team in general inspired us again and again, as several of them found themselves uprooted by violence and kept serving faithfully in the new cities in which they found themselves, and as they persevered through a strategic leadership planning process we facilitated in June, boldly dreaming big for their movement, even though their nation’s future is unstable.
That’s it. Twelve people, or pairs or teams of people, who inspired us, taught us, and made our year an amazing adventure. I’m missing them all as I write this, and profoundly grateful to God for their faithful witness.