When we left the US in August, our first stop was Belarus, where I taught a leadership conference for IFES students. This event was well received, and the team invited us to return to Belarus for two weeks. It was not certain that we’d return. It is both time-consuming and expensive to secure visas (about $600 to pay all the costs associated with getting the visas and supporting documentation). When we finally did secure our visas, Lisa’s remark (after the tally of the costs) was, “Let’s make this trip worth it.” Well, our two weeks in Belarus just ended this morning, and it was certainly worth it. As we have left the country, it will be safe for us to mention some of what we did, although we cannot mention any names and will obscure things somewhat. We were doing nothing illegal, but the IFES work in Belarus must operate in the murky shadows, not illegally, but not officially registered with the government, either.
As we have done in other countries, we tried to set up talks at universities around Belarus where we could offer the training we have to offer to groups of students who don’t know about IFES and mostly are not believers. But unlike in other countries, we were met with a great deal of openness and welcome, and between us taught 9 or 10 times at 6 or 7 universities around Belarus. I spoke on Situational Leadership, which I have posted about before, a secular training program that I believe is both biblical and very helpful for college students. Lisa taught a Public Speaking Workshop, at which she taught principles of preparation and delivery, and each participant was asked to make a sales pitch about an item they pulled out of a bag, with minimal prep time. The only requirement is that they had to sell the item based on its use as something other than what it obviously was. Humor, quick thinking, and strong emotional appeals predominated in a short and fun session.
Once each week I spoke on the topic “Ancient Wisdom for 21st Century Leadership.” These sessions were publicized during the Leadership and Public Speaking class sessions in various locations, and both believers and non-believers came to hear more teaching on the topic of leadership, this time with a focus on Jesus’ teachings and their (perhaps surprising to some) relevance for today. Between the two sessions there were probably 80 students total, and as many as half of them were not believers. The two-fold goal of these sessions was to introduce students to Jesus and what he has to offer as a teacher and leader, and to introduce students (believers and non-) to the IFES group and how it helps people grow as disciples and as leaders. It was clear that the sessions went very well, as students stayed around afterwards to ask questions of me and my hosts, staff for the IFES movement. Our hosts were very pleased by the attendance and interest level at all the sessions we held.
One of the reasons we like being in this part of the world, and in Belarus especially, is that students are very motivated to practice their English. In several of the teaching settings, we even taught in English without the need of translation, to advanced students who were studying languages or business. Belarussian students were eager to have pictures taken with us, and always wanted to know what we thought of their country. The answer, “The people are very friendly” was usually welcome, and had the added benefit of being true. We did also enjoy Minsk, which is a beautiful city with some great architecture, though early March is admittedly not the best time of year to be walking about or enjoying the parks.
Our final day of teaching was a staff team meeting during which Lisa taught on team building and public speaking, and I taught on leadership development, training and coaching. It was a very encouraging time to be with a group of staff we esteem and enjoy, and during the day we began to make plans for a possible third visit to Belarus before our year winds up in late July. As the day drew to a close, the team surprised us with gift tickets to the opera, to see Tchaikovsky’s Iolanthe, a simple and beautiful story that ends happily and with the entire cast singing praise to God for his goodness. With the English subtitles beneath the stage, we could follow along and even work a bit on learning Russian. It was a beautiful way to end a great two weeks. We do hope God opens doors (and provides visas) for us to return to this land where the gospel is needed and the people are receptive.
(* Opera, from the latin, meaning work or labor. We did labor here in Minsk, and were also given opportunities to enjoy the opera of others...)
Rich and Lisa Lamb