Thursday, May 7, 2009

Russia-A Love Story

As I meet new people on here, I realize that a lot of you don't know my story. Maybe I have told bits and pieces of it along the way, but I have never told the whole story in one place.

The time has come. Of course, there is no way to capture it all at once, but I'll do my best. Then I'll file it under "key posts."

July 1996

I feel old, reminiscing. I was 14 that summer and heading to Russia for the first time. We had been invited to a place called "Camp Karavella." We were the first team to visit that camp, and our church had never sent a team to Russia before. It was a first for everyone. It was a curious meeting.

I don't remember much from that trip, although my teammates could tell stories of friendships that were formed. I experienced a lot of culture shock, as well as amazement that such an exchange could take place.

I didn't know any Russian, and I didn't particularly know how to use an interpreter. Besides, what was there to say? I am a reticent person, and I don't like making small talk. I found other ways to bond. I remember many times looking into the eyes of new friends there, and finding understanding hidden there, beneath the confusion of different cultures.

Summer 1997-2000

We were invited back to Karavella the next year, and for many subsequent years. Karavella was the place where I grew up, in various ways. I can mark how I was changing by recalling the fruit of each summer there. And my Russian peers were going through growing pains at the same time.

We went to Russia to preach the Gospel, and we did this by way of friendship. I know that this doesn't always work. Sometimes motivation is incorrect; sometimes the methods are incorrect; sometimes we are too fast or too slow; misunderstood or failing to understand.

But the friendships we formed were real. The tears and the smiles we shared with our friends there were real. The conversations about God were real. When I meet with old friends from Karavella, they have fond memories of that camp. They were kids there, and then became counselors. Now their own kids are campers or even work there. And we have this shared experience.

My heart

I remember feeling how God was changing me. As I became bolder and took more initiative, I also felt more burdened, sharing in the responsibilities. I remember walking through camp and seeing people as though God had peeled off the layers and was showing me their hearts. He was inviting me to go deeper. He was clearing the way for me. I watched the youth respond to the Gospel message. I saw on their faces how it penetrated their hearts.

I also was becoming more culturally sensitive. Now I could speak some Russian, and had a new level of understanding. I understood that we were not just honored guests. We brought challenges with us. It was not easy to accommodate us, and it was not easy to make room for the message we had brought. There were believers in that camp, but it was not a Christian camp. It was a former Pioneer camp. There were strict laws about evanglization. I felt that conflict.
Journal entry 7-16-01

"There is a conflict here, but somewhere underneath there is hope. Help us uncover that hope. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11) What is the truth? The truth is that we are your children. You sent your son to die for our sins. You love us and you are faithful and just. You are forgiving. You called us here to serve you. And serving you means serving others. It means respecting our leaders. It means being faithful in our responsibilities."
And I faced inevitable times of doubt.
Another journal entry from the same summer:

"Oh, Lord. I need to talk to you. I'm in one of those low spots...I'm not sure what to do or if I even need to do anything other than wait for your healing and your comfort. I guess I'm frustrated about being shy. It's hard for me to make friends. I know that reaching even one person makes a difference to you, but I need to feel like you're really using me."
Each summer, we went back to the U.S. after our trip. I felt awful that summer when we left. I thought of the new believers whom we had told "you're now a part of the Body of Christ." What Body? We were now in the States and they were back at camp or in the city with their families. They weren't connected with anyone. At least, not that we could see. We could only pray for them to find other believers in St. Petersburg.

And besides that, I missed Russia. I had an awful feeling of grief that produced wrenching heartache. It seemed, this way of life was not of God. I felt deceived. "How could you let me love like that and take me away?" I asked Him. It was baffling.

I have had a few other experiences in life when it felt like I loved too hard. I remember feeling devasted after graduating from college and leaving all my friends and church. It felt very final. I wondered why I hadn't held back a little. After all, I knew that I would be leaving after 4 years. Why hadn't I been more careful?

And I feel that way now. I love some people so much that it scares me (and others, not enough. But that's another issue). God comforts me and whispers, "I know." But He doesn't make it go away or make love less of a risk.

Back in the summer of 2001, I felt as though everything was very wrong. And I decided that there would be no more short-term missions for me. I was sure that I would die of heartache if I had to experience that again.

No more camp

I didn't go back for a few years. One year I was busy, another year I was in St. Petersburg, studying abroad. That was an interesting look at life. I was staying with a Russian host family, and hanging out with fellow students from my university. It was very different engaging in secular activities in Russia, rather than being there for a missions trip. Though I lived in the student bubble, I became a bit more independent, and got a taste of the city.

I continued to study Russian during the school year. I prayed for Russia. In the meantime, my parents had adopted 2 teenage girls from one of the orphanages we were familiar with in St. Petersburg. Now Russia was with us all the time.

When I was at university, I felt twice removed from Russia, despite it being my course of study. No one understood what I had experienced. But of course, it wasn't their fault that I couldn't explain it to them. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out, and tears formed in my eyes.

The next step

Senior year. I was graduating soon. My father had formed an organization to do full-time work in St. Petersburg, rather than just in the summer. Over eight years we had formed many contacts. There were young people in need of counsel, and there were orphans in need of attention. I began to think of going over there to serve alongside Russian Christians.

I am not sure how I eventually made the decision. I just took one step after another, and let the Lord lead. The doors were open. I remember people thinking that I seemed uncertain, because I wasn't running around shouting something emotional about the vision I had. Maybe I was uncertain, but I was trusting in the Lord.


I committed for a year. After a few months, I knew that it was going to be longer. Therefore, I devoted that time to building a foundation. I found a church. I met as many people as I could who had the same goals as I did. I became grounded in the Word. I searched for opportunities and asked questions. I learned how to buy groceries and do laundry and mail letters and ride the public transportation.

And then, I decided to stay.

Sometimes, I think of Russia as a person. She has impacted my life in so many ways. She has brought me joy as well as pain. Sometimes I wonder if we will go our separate ways. I want to be faithful to her, yet my first love is Christ.

One day I wrote in my journal, "I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. (Isaiah 38:15b) I think this pretty much sums up how I feel about living in Russia." Perhaps this is accurate. But it is not only anguish. There is a sweetness and contentment when I feel God's presence with me here.


  1. Amen, amen, and AMEN!! I do know the heartbreak you feel upon leaving Russia. It is with me too. Just now I'm fighting tears because I want to take Lola back so very much and because of the impending strike at my company we cannot go this year...I love Russia and I thank God every day I have a little piece of Russia with me always in Lola!

  2. Jill - I feel the same way.... Longing so much for Russia....and I sit and think "why?" I do not understand why I love it there....but from the first time, as a twelve year old, I stumbled on Russian literature - that was it.

    People can be brusque and rude; many things are quite annoying; in Ivanovo there is no sense at all of keeping the environment nice....trash is not just strewn, but piled about. The contemporary "style" in furniture, clothing, fabric....none of that is appealing to me on the first, conscious level. But I love the place. Love it.

    Liz thanks for sharing your journey....not just your relationship with Russia, but with ministry, too.

    Interesting the "oh, by the way" way in which you mentioned your parents adopting the Russian siblings. I expect it is in that way that Aidan thinks of his younger siblings.... Once you are partly "out of the house" perhaps a new sibling - adopted or bio - is a different thing.

  3. The adoption is a personal experience of many layers, which I don't feel at liberty to share about in detail at the moment. Not to mention, it would have been a tangent.

    You're right, my relationship with them is different because I was out of the house-although I had spent time with them in Russia, perhaps more than most adoptive families do prior to adoptions.

  4. this is beautiful. I can feel your love for Russia. I love Russia too and for years I asked God to call me there. It was not to be and I know now that I probably wasn't cut out for living in Russia. I would have caved, it's not an easy life, I know. But I love many Russians, dear dear friends that I will cherish for life. And I love so many things about Russia. In so many ways, it's such a wonderful place, and so difficult and confounding at the same time! Thank you for your commitment to Russia. And thank you for being in St. Petersburg. I only spent two weeks in St. Petersburg compared to 6 in Moscow. I feel more "at home" in Moscow, but for some reason, I feel that the people in St. Pete are in great need of conversion. I never experienced the segregation of religion in Moscow like I did in St. Pete. I was told it would be better for me in court if I were an atheist than if I was an evangelical. I'm neither, I'm Catholic, and they told me that was okay because they didn't think Catholicism was a cult! :P

  5. They say that you develop a loyalty to one or the other. I guess I visited St. Petersburg first, so I wasn't really interested in Moscow.

    This year at the university I have met several Catholic missionaries-priests and nuns! It's interesting how I've been crossing paths with Catholics lately. I think Catholicism has a good "reputation" because there is more consistency, whereas Protestant denominations vary widely, and have more "characters" who can cause people to be cautious.

  6. All I can say is wow. Praise God. We serve a incredible God, like yourself I haven't yet shared my story, in some ways it makes me nervous to share about this, but reading what you wrote has helped me to understand why it's important to do so. Interestingly, I too am here in Russia living with my wife who is Russian. I've been praying that I would start meeting other Christian brothers and sisters to share the experiences of what it's like to live in Russia, I hope you will take a moment to come visit my blog. I don't use my blog as a platform to preach or anything like that. But I do share my love of God in the hopes it will touch those who read it. Thanks I needed to read this post.


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