When we are in the throes of planning our next two or three country visits, Rich and I sometimes say that we are doing 40 short-term missions projects in one year—so no wonder the planning is hard! Sometimes the execution is hard, too. We leave some places with the satisfied feeling that what we had to bring was just what the students, campus staff-workers, and local pastors were hoping for. After two weeks in Moldova, we leave a little sad—we’re sad for the country and its struggles, and we’re sad for the ways our time here, especially our second week, felt like a bit of a miss. I thought one helpful way to reflect on that would be to frame this post as a set of factors to weigh for anyone out there who may be planning a short-term trip. I’ll note four factors, and then a few ways you can muddle through to something good even if all of them are out of whack.
Timing: Our timing was off in a few ways. First, it was the dead of winter, in a country that sometimes can’t afford to heat its buildings, which meant that two events where Rich taught were held in buildings heated only into the fifties. For one five-hour-long session, everyone kept their coats on the whole day. It’s hard to get students or graduates out for days like that, and who can blame them? Attendance and morale were low. The cold also meant we didn’t get to see the beauty that we hear is present in Moldova. We got sick, with hacking coughs and depleted energy, which made it harder to invest relationally. It was instructive for us to learn about the realities of life in a poorer country in the middle of winter, and learn about the work of various agencies to get people the wood and fuel they need to heat their homes, but our timing had its costs.
Another key way our timing was off was that the Christian Fellowship we visited had just had an extended visit from a much-beloved man, his tenth such visit. He had raised over $30,000 to help them purchase a lovely office space near the university where they could hold their English clubs and Bible studies. The group had rallied to give him a hero’s welcome, with many meals, accompanying him to the airport with tears, etc. Trying to rally the students to come to extra meetings for the leadership training we offered was hard at the end of the push they’d just made to honor their previous guest.
Mismatch of Resources: In planning a short-term project, it’s crucial to consider whether the skills, passions, and gifts your team brings are a match for what is needed in that situation. I remember groaning hearing about a certain mega-church pastor trying to get into Haiti on one of the first planes into the country after the earthquake in 2010. Highly trained emergency relief workers were the order of the day; well-meaning pastors simply got in the way. This year, it’s not a huge problem if what we bring isn’t an exact match: we’re in this journey to learn as much as to serve, so no time spent with people is a complete loss if we’ve learned. And the primary goal of many a short-term project is rightly educational and transformational for those who go. Still, when a team can bring skills that actually fit some needs in a country, so much the better. In Moldova, the student ministry is heavily focused on evangelism through various clubs, from fitness to movies to language-learning. There really aren’t a lot of students who consider themselves leaders, so while the office was an absolutely perfect match, our training was helpful but may not have scratched an itch they felt acutely.
An Adequate Language Bridge: Crossing the language divide can happen in a variety of ways. The goers (us) learn it, the hosts know it, or a translator serves as a human bridge. Many of the places to which we travel are mercifully filled with English-language speakers, or at least folks who are eager to learn and so motivated to practice with us. Balti, Moldova, is different. Though the country’s official language is Romanian, Balti has a high Russian population; store signs and commerce in the streets are carried on in Russian. Most of the churches have chosen to work with one population or the other. That’s because these two languages are not close cousins! So where people have made the effort to learn the two languages of their city, English has dropped to a distant third on their to-do list. We stayed in the home of a lovely family who spoke about thirty words of English between them, and let’s just say Google translate is great, but not quite there yet. We are so grateful that Nicolai and Mariana were brave and generous enough to take us on as guests for a whole week, but it was a challenge all around. The students and staff were warm and kind but after a few moments tended to converse among themselves, and we don’t blame them. This led to us withdrawing as well. Between the language issues and our colds, we regretfully opted out of a games night that could have helped us connect with people there.
Your Hot-Button Issues. This one’s a bit of an outlier, but I think it’s important in preparing for a short (or long) term cross-cultural assignment to think through the values you hold most dear, and have awareness of how they play out differently in the country and church contexts in which you will be a guest. For me, that has been my passion for women’s flourishing in ministry, and for women’s rights and equality in a society. It has been surprising to me how much more grating and jarring the sexism has been in contexts like Moldova than in some Arab countries where it is ostensibly more severe.
I have been struck by how male-dominated the culture is. At the theater the sculpture of actors acting depicts three men acting. The government building sculpture of generic leaders depicts two men leading. The pastor we had lunch with yesterday described the 46 men he is currently training in leadership. The man who interviewed us at the university to determine if we were qualified to present on various topics of leadership/communication there asked Rich what his qualifications were and there gave his verdict (not without approval from the capital…) without so much as looking at me. And it seems to be internalized by the women here: I was asked to lead a discussion on women’s issues, and, fishing for a starting point, I asked, “What do you think are some of the pressing issues women in Moldova face today?” In a country from which thousands of women are trafficked each year and thousands suffer domestic violence in their homes, I had expected something along those lines. What I heard from one of the Christian students was, “Women do not submit to their husbands the way they used to. Why, they even earn the same salaries as men! This means they are more likely to consider themselves equal to them and not respect them.” It was hard to know exactly where to go from there, where to find common ground. A young pastor, after explaining why women cannot be pastors, allowed me to hold forth on the exegetical challenges surrounding First Timothy’s injunction against women teaching for a couple moments before saying, “I do not doubt your sincerity, but we have chosen to follow Paul’s words without questioning them,” signaling that the conversation was over. I have had to work hard to maintain my enthusiasm for the ministry as I’ve battled my own emotional responses to conversations like this. It has raised real issues about where we could do ministry long-term, especially in countries where there seems to be no worshipping communities where the whole range of women’s gifts are encouraged.
What Then? What happens when you find yourself in a mismatch situation? Maybe the fault is your own; maybe the communication ahead of time was poor, maybe the situation on the ground changed since you conceived the trip. What do you do then?
Maintain a learning posture and learn all you can. Since various bureaucrats nixed the events the Christian leaders had hoped to sponsor on leadership and public speaking, Rich and I spent a fascinating afternoon at the free Museum of History in Balti. It is fairly humble but we stumbled on an enthusiastic English-speaking guide, who was especially eager for us to know about the thousands of Moldovans carted off to Siberia for crimes such as being too educated or owning one too many fields.
Say yes to odd invitations. The pastor of the Baptist church may have a different approach to gender than we do, but he is a terrific leader with a huge heart for the poor, and his church building hosts the offices of CERI (Children’s Emergency Relief International), a team of social workers doing great work among the many orphans in Balti. Many are classified as ‘social orphans’ because they still have living parents (so are not adoptable), but those parents have often gone to Moscow to work. In a bid for EU membership, Moldova has closed all its orphanages, but failed to put in place a foster care system. Young children were forcibly returned to relatives, and older teens often simply live alone. About thirty of those teens come to a ‘club’ that teaches them basic life skills, held at the church. They don't all come willingly—they get some money as part of enrollment in the program. But, they do come, and since it was near Valentine’s Day, the pastor asked us to share stories of what attracted us to each other. We shared about learning to forgive, serve, and listen well to each other. This was a lovely afternoon, and it let us meet some inspiring Christian social workers.
Treat your Team-mates Well. It’s a shame when the mission doesn’t go well, but it’s perhaps a bigger shame when the team members can’t treat each other well. In the midst of cold and colds, cancelled events and less than fantastic connections with the students in Balti, we stayed on each other’s side, and that counts for a lot as we head on to yet another short-term venture. We leave Balti a little wistful that we didn’t make some of the connections that have made other visits feel more ‘successful,’ but grateful still for all we learned, and that we hung together as our little team in the midst of the challenges.
I (Lisa) have been thinking about the pros and cons of pit stops, as I took one recently. While pit stops are necessary, any race car driver would probably tell you that if they weren’t so very necessary, he or she would rather not take one. They cost valuable time and focus, and subsequent reacceleration takes effort. I imagine it takes a while for a driver to get back in the groove. When we began planning our journey, one thing we agreed on early was that we would not return to the United States for the whole year unless a family emergency made it crucial to do so. We wanted to keep our heads in the game, and not lose momentum for our journey here. We were blessed that our children and some good friends were willing to come our way for Christmas. So it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I learned I was a finalist for a job in Los Angeles and would need to fly there for an interview. I was thrilled to get that far for a position that had many applicants (though the likelihood of actually landing the job is still remote), and happy of course to see family and friends, both human and canine. But I was genuinely sorry to be apart from my favorite mission team-mate for ten days, and sorry not to be able to join him in ministering in Ukraine at a crucial time in that nation’s life.
I hadn’t anticipated how quickly I would get used to life back in California. What’s not to love? I loved driving a car for the first time in six months, having a phone that worked anywhere and not just when I am able to connect to Wi-Fi. I loved pulling my clothes out of the washer to find this brilliant machine next to it called a dryer! I know, they’re energy guzzlers and Europeans are probably right to reject them but oh, what a treat it was to have dried clothes half an hour after washing them! I loved being warm in a t-shirt by afternoon in Pasadena. It was delightful to see my sister three whole times and go a movie (Selma—amazing) and linger over Chinese dumplings with my mother. I loved walking my dog and her boisterous buddy-for-the-year every morning, and catching up with many friends. As with every pit stop, I reloaded on supplies: toiletries not readily available in Eastern Europe, socks and undies and a couple of TJ’s treats. I took a giant stack of mail from the wonderful friends who are receiving it for the year. And, as is inevitable with every pit stop, I lost steam.
I came back jet-lagged and cranky, unhappy with our tiny, bunk-bed-equipped, toilet-less room in the noisy youth hostel where we stayed while we hosted a conference for InterVarsity in London. I could not get to sleep until 3am Thursday night, and finally met our lovely partner Amy, from IV’s national office, in the lobby close to tears with frustration at my own state of exhaustion. Rich and I quarreled about petty things, reuniting with all the grace of a barge slamming into an old wooden dock. My vision for the weekend was small: get through it. My fear for what came after it was great: all I could think of in cold London was that most of the next five countries promised to be much colder—I don’t think late March counts as spring yet in Siberia, and temps in Moldova this coming week are hovering in the twenties.
Where did God meet me in London? Why, at a pub, of course! Friday night, as our meeting ended, we were given the option of braving the cold and walking a few blocks to a pub, and I thought, “Well, if I was awake in my bed until 3am last night, I may as well join them.” At the risk of getting in trouble with IV’s risk management department, we enjoyed, um, beverages and a surprisingly quiet, cheerfully warm back room of a pub, and after stories alive with friendly laughter, our conversation turned to how we had gotten involved with InterVarsity and how God had worked through it in each of our lives. A lovely young woman, Michaela, shared that she had been so drawn in by the worship at the campus fellowship meetings that she learned to play the guitar and asked to join the worship team even though she wasn’t yet a Christian! She proceeded to commit her life to Christ at the winter retreat. As she spoke, she realized it was essentially one year later, so we all raised a glass and toasted God’s good work in her life. Other students shared how desperately they were missing the first-year students they’d been leading all fall. “I miss them like a mom misses her babies!” It was a joy-filled evening, one that left me profoundly grateful for my own years in IV, and glad to have this small opportunity to invest in a dozen students who were seeking to be more missional with their semester abroad. It was also a treat to meet an Indonesian student who happened to mention that her father’s faith had been strengthened while in the Indonesian Christian Fellowship at Iowa State—Rich’s father was the very involved faculty sponsor of that group for many years!
I think I’m ready to head to Moldova tomorrow. I’m back on some sort of European time, and we made a run to London’s discount clothing store, Primark, today for warmer hats and scarves. I like to read up on each country and learn a few phrases, etc. before we arrive. We just had half an hour of free internet tonight, enough to learn what I had heard previously, that Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, which has made it a huge target for human trafficking of women and children. A stunning 38% of its GDP comes from remittances sent back from relatives who’ve gone in search of employment elsewhere. In that climate of discouragement, we hope to offer good news and caring hearts to the ones who are making a long-term impact there. We will be teaching for two gatherings of graduates from IFES ministries, as well as at various student and staff gatherings. I will seek to be fully present, listening well, caring and serving in every way I can, even as part of my mind is inevitably a little bit more on next year’s employment situation than it would have been if I hadn’t gone to Los Angeles. We do ask your prayers as we head into this colder phase of our journey, and as we seek God’s direction for the future beyond this year. Pray that we can trust God for that and stay as focused on the present and the Moldovans (and Belarusians and Siberians, et al.) right in front of us. Pit stop’s over, but it’s not a race…it’s a journey.
As I (Rich) mentioned in the previous post, I have spent the week in Ukraine in ministry to IFES students. I was surprised, though I shouldn't have been, how heavily the war with Russia weighed on every person at the conference. We began the conference and every day with a time of worship, but the first song of every worship set was one of two different songs that were essentially prayers for God to bless and protect Ukraine.
I had lunch with a staff person, Sasha, who grew up in Crimea and was on staff with the IFES group there. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Sasha moved with his wife and young son to the city of Luhansk, out of a desire to remain in Ukraine rather than to work in Russian Crimea. But this stay in Luhansk was short, as over the next few months protests increased and pro-Russian forces sought to declare the Luhansk region's independence from Ukraine and loyalty to Russia. As fighting escalated near Sasha's home, they left Luhansk and moved to Odessa, where he now works with IFES at the universities there. His testimony, of having been displaced twice, from his home and his parents (who are now happily Russian citizens in their Crimean hometown), of the losses and gains they have experienced, and of the faithfulness and provision of God brought tears to his eyes as he told his story.
Last night I was speaking to my host, Tolyk, a former IFES staff who I first met 10 or 11 years ago when I was in Ukraine teaching the staff team here. Since then he has married and now has 4 children. We were just talking about our mutual interest in reading about news on-line. He admitted that the war in Ukraine dominates his spare time reading and that he is discouraged when he reads the news but is relatively powerless to stop doing so. He acknowledged that he prays for God to bring peace, but that he sees no progress in that direction, and things are getting worse. Tolyk served in the Ukrainian Army before, but because he has more than 2 children, he said it is unlikely that he will be called into service again, though if he were called he would be willing to go. We were talking about the need that Tolyk and his wife have to take time to talk as a couple, and he acknowledged that it is difficult to get that time because of the amount of time he spends reading about the war. Lesa commented that he spends so much time reading about a war he cannot impact that it costs him time with his family where he can make an impact. Now, I spent an evening and a Sunday afternoon with Tolyk, Lesa and their beautiful kids. They are well behaved, bright (the older two speaking to me in English freely) and loving, and their parents both clearly have led and loved them well. If the war here is impacting this Christian family around the edges, how much more to people who don't have the experience or resources they do?
Today at church prayers were offered for the war, for soldiers, for the wounded and those who have lost loved ones, and for those displaced by the war, some of whom are in the congregation. I spoke after the service with a young man studying law. He wanted to know how Americans viewed Ukraine and the events of the war. I said that I thought Americans had given a lot of thought to Ukraine during the early part of the war, after the Maidan, after the Crimean annexation, but that it is easy for it to drop out of the news and off of our consciousness. I said that, in my estimation, though the US has been at war almost continuously since the early 1990s, unless you know service members you don't really think about it unless there is big news. But here in Ukraine Ukrainians cannot go a day without thinking about and worrying about the war. It is a much different story: they are at war, on their own land, with their "big brother" neighbor that cannot decide just to leave them alone. My new friend said that the only solution to the conflict is political, but it is hard to know how the politics will align in such a way as to bring about peace, as both parties (Putin and Ukraine's President Poroshenko) in some ways benefit from the conflict. But the people of Ukraine, and specifically in the war-torn areas of the South and East, are weary, having been displaced, often without food and consistent energy. And everyone here is touched by the suffering of their countrymen.
My host said that most evangelicals in Ukraine used to be pacifists, but now are supporting Ukraine and the army. I kind of understand this, though I was sad to hear that they have left their pacifist convictions under the harsh reality of a proximate war. Evangelicals were pacifists when the government persecuted them and supported the Orthodox church. But Evangelical Christianity has taken its place in Ukraine at the table of national conversation, with prominent pastors frequent guests on nationally televised talk shows, and discussions touching on faith and community in the midst of suffering and struggle are becoming more prominent. I asked my host, "Is Ukraine in the midst of a renewal or revival?" He wouldn't claim that it was, but it is difficult at this point to say what God is doing, other than that he is clearly at work, and that faith is alive and God's people are active, proclaiming and demonstrating the power and goodness of God, inviting people to turn to him.
Of course, we can believe God is working out his purposes for his people in Ukraine and still be heartbroken at their suffering and loss. This is from the IFES Ukraine recent newsletter: "Hundreds of Ukrainain soldiers and thousand of civilians were killed during this armed conflict. And the situation on the East is only getting worse. This naturally changed an agenda for many of our friends and partners. Today many Ukrainians, including our donors, started giving their funds to support refugees, soldiers and victims of the new Ukrainian war. It has also brought an economic crisis to our country: our national currency has depreciated by half (the USD to UA hryvna exhange rate has changed from 1:8 in January 2014, to 1:21 in January 2015). As a result thousands of young professionals, the core of our donors in Ukraine, have lost their jobs." Please join me in praying for Ukraine, and especially for the church and the ministry of IFES here as they seek to disciple and develop the student servant leaders who will lead their churches and other institutions in their country in the coming years.
I (Rich) am nearing the end of my time in Ukraine after a 5-day student conference at which I taught. It was the kind of conference I would have avoided if I had to fly from the US in order to come: I had 7.5 hours of sessions, and one 2-hour training time with staff, over the course of the five days. Not a very rigorous (or efficient) teaching schedule, and for the cost of a transoceanic flight and a week away from home, not really worth it, at one level. (I was teaching Images of Leadership and Situational Leadership, topics I have written about in this blog before.)
But I had a great week here, in part because I didn't have that attitude at all. I was, after all, not coming from the US but from nearby Turkey, just a two-hour flight from Istanbul to Lviv, Ukraine (a city in the Western part of Ukraine, in an area that used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that part of Poland). But I had a great week largely because of the conversations I had with students and staff, who sought me out or welcomed me at their meal tables while practicing their English.
I also had a meal with Marina, a graduating senior studying chemistry, who has served with the IFES group while a student and has been asked to consider serving on staff with IFES. Because I mentioned my academic background (chemistry major, among other things), she wanted to tell her story and hear mine. As it turns out, she has a professor and research advisor who is strongly recruiting her into graduate study in chemistry. She is a top student and enjoys science, but she also values ministry and her experience with IFES. I told her of my process, that at the end of the day, though I was better in science than with people in ministry, I enjoyed ministry more and made that choice. In other words, what I enjoyed really mattered to the decision, more than what I thought I was supposed to do. She hears a number of voices telling her to do science, but in the end I think it will be her own sheer enjoyment of her research that will lead her to make the decision. She will carry the values and vision of her IFES experience with her into graduate work and perhaps one day will become an advocate for IFES as she takes her ranks as a professor on a Ukrainian university campus.
I also had several brief conversations with Boba, a young man who came from the Orthodox church in Ukraine, and it was clear he was new to Bible study about leadership and ministry. At one point in a teaching session, he looked like he was falling asleep. As he was on the front row, I gently nudged him while I was leading a large group discussion of the passages in Mark 8 and 10, the paradox promises. He woke right up and was participating for the remainder of the session, and then came up afterward to apologize. I told him no apology was needed, as I understood why he was tired, but it was clear from our previous conversation that he was sincerely benefiting from the teaching and wouldn't mind being nudged awake. He thanked me for doing so and for the teaching, and at the end of the week, Boba stood to commit to becoming a leader in his IFES fellowship.
I met and heard the stories of the two young women who came from university in Sebastopol, Crimea (now defacto Russia), to attend a conference of their brothers and sisters in IFES Ukraine, even though they are no longer living in Ukraine. I encouraged a woman who has been reaching out to homeless people and seeing her heart break for them.
Rich and Lisa Lamb