Good Shepherd Latvia Mission Trip 2009

Five representatives from Good Shepherd traveled to Latvia as part of a mission trip. Starting Sunday, July 26, 2009, they served as counselors for a week in a Christian camping experience for troubled children. On Sunday, July 26, 2009, and Sunday, August 2, 2009, they worshiped with other United Methodists in Latvia. In particular, they had a meeting with Rev. Edgars Sneiders and the people of Matras and Tasi congregations whom we help support. The team returned to Waldorf on August 6, 2009. The team members are Bob Kells (leader), Sarah Kells, Alina Busch, Emma Larsen and Pastor Steve Larsen.

Below is a blog submitted by Bob Kells from the team activities in Latvia:


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Our last full day in country (August 5, 2009) was spent meeting with the District Superintendent for Latvia and seeing some of the sights in Riga. We met Gita Mednes, the DS, on Wednesday morning for a debriefing of our experience here. She also showed us around the building that serves as the headquarters for the Latvian District of the United Methodist Church and also as a worshipping congregation-First Riga UMC. The three story brick building sits on a side street just a couple of blocks from our hotel. It was built about 1921 for the Blue Cross (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) and passed quickly to the Methodist Church. Like other churches in Latvia, this building was re-purposed by the Soviets during the Occupation and was used for apartments and sports clubs. (A weightlifting club still rents out the basement for another year). After independence in 1991, the United Methodist Church reacquired the building and is in the process of restoring the interior. There is a good sized sanctuary here that looks like it could hold 300 or 400 people. Gita told us it used to hold 800 but it's hard to see where they all fit. First Riga has around 75 members and is the second largest congregation in the country. The largest is in Liepaja with about 175.

After our meeting with Gita we took in a couple of the other churches in the city. Riga's religious history is quite diverse for this part of Europe, a result of the several occupations the country endured over the centuries. This is reflected by the many churches whose spires and domes punctuate the city skyline. The most beautiful church we visited was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which sits on one of the main streets at the opening to a large park. Like other Orthodox churches, the interior is decorated with icons of Christ, Mary, Mary and Christ, and numerous saints. Many of these icons are done in gold leaf. The ceiling, too, is carefully painted to reflect the heavenly realms and the majesty of God the Creator, savior and redeemer of mankind. It is truly awe inspiring.

We spent some time in the Dome Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church originally founding in the early 1200's. This is now the largest worshipping space in the Baltic States. It also houses one of the largest organs in the world. The organ, which stands at the rear of the sanctuary, was built in Germany in the 1880's. It has two spiral stair cases to access the organ console and huge pipes rising about two stories. The Cathedral still needs a lot of restoration work, though. Given the state of the economy in Latvia these days-it is one of the weakest in Europe-this will take a long time.

There are other churches in the city we did not get a chance to see. Lutheran churches have a large presence here along with Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian. Yesterday, we saw a street demonstration by 30 to 40 people who appeared to be Buddhists. They were chanting and marching under a banner with "hare Krishna/hare Rama" and other slogans written on it as they crossed a street into a crowded shopping district. No one seemed to pay them much attention.

This is the last update for our Latvia mission trip. We are all overwhelmed by the many sights and sounds and emotions evoked by the events of the past two weeks. There is so much for us to process that it will take some time to put it all together. Uppermost in my mind right now is what God intends for us to take away from the experience? What does it mean for us, individually, as Christians who came to serve at Wesley Camp? What does it all mean for us, as a church in suburban Maryland, for the way we serve our Lord in the world? And where will God lead us to serve as a church in the future as we seek to live out the gospel that we hold so dear? No complete answers to these questions yet. But I believe God has more in mind for us to do here in Latvia with the churches we already connect with, with Wesley Camp and with the wonderful people we met here. I give thanks to God that this team was able to make the trip. I also give thanks for the people of Good Shepherd who helped make the trip possible and who prayed for us throughout. I also pray that God will continue to guide us all as we seek to serve others in the name of our Lord, wherever that may lead us and whatever form that service takes.



Wednesday, August 5, 2009

We are back in Riga. We got in last night after driving from Kaunas, Lithuania, about five hours of driving altogether. Today’s agenda includes an office call with Gita Mednis, the District Superintendent for Latvia; returning the rental van; and, some final sightseeing and souvenir hunting.

Our stay in Kaunas was a pleasant one. We arrived there on Monday a bit later than we’d planned—about 8:30 pm—following a delayed departure from Wesley Camp. (It took longer to pack up the tents and sleeping gear than we thought. Also had a good sit-down talk with Dan Randall, the Camp Director, on some of the things we will take home with us about the camp experience). We were met in Kaunas by John Campbell, the DS for Lithuania, and his wife Bonnie. John secured rooms for us at the Guest House of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kaunas, a very, very nice accommodation after our week long stay in tents at the Camp.

We had dinner with John and Bonnie at an outdoor restaurant and listened with interest as they told us about the work of the church in Lithuania. Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania, about 350,000 people, and headquarters for the United Methodist Church’s work in this country. The situation for the United Methodist Church in Lithuania is very similar to the Latvian UMC. There are 11 United Methodist Churches in Lithuania (13 in Latvia), many of which are new church starts. Lithuania’s Methodist churches are newer than those in Latvia because the Church in Latvia had a larger Methodist presence early on, in the 1920's, thanks to missionaries from the United States. This was not the case for Lithuania. Like Latvia, the Lithuanian UMC operates in a society that is predominantly secular. Fifty years of Soviet occupation, which included indoctrination in an atheistic world view, created societies that are largely secular. The Methodist Churches in Latvia were suppressed due to their connection with the United States. Most Lithuanians have little interest in religion but some are beginning to explore their religious roots, which are predominantly Roman Catholic. During our stay, we visited two beautiful churches in Kaunas, one of which had elaborate paintings, statues and artwork all around the huge interior that reflect the devotion of the Lithuanian people.

After some shopping we left Kaunas for the Hill of Crosses in north central Lithuania. The story behind this religious site serves as a metaphor for the resistance and resilience of the Lithuanian people against centuries of outside occupation. It started in the 1830s after Tsarist Russia violently suppressed a Lithuanian uprising against Russian rule. At first, a few crosses were placed on a small hill north of Siauliai as a symbol of Lithuanian nationalism. More and more crosses appeared over the decades until the start of World War II, by which time were 200 crosses on the hill. The Soviet Union tried to destroy this site several times during the occupation years—the site was bulldozed, buried and had sewage poured over it—but each time, the Lithuanians rebuilt it. With independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Hill of Crosses continued to grow. There are now well over 100,000 crosses of varying sizes on the hill, which rises 50 or 60 feet above the flat farmland that surrounds it. Most of the crosses are crucifixes, as you would expect in a country that was once predominantly Roman Catholic, but some are plain. Visitors continue to place crosses at the site and your mission team was no different—each of us placed a small crosses on the hill in honor of God and this awe inspiring site of devotion to freedom, including the freedom to worship God as we choose.



Monday, August 3, 2009

Wow, what a past 24 hours! It's hard to capture the pace and range of emotions of yesterday's events. The biggest event was the departure of the campers. After a week in this country retreat, the busses arrived around 1400 yesterday to take the children back home. We are, this morning, waking up to an empty camp-only the staff remain to set up for the final camp of summer which begins next week. Sunday morning's final program was a mixture of drama-yes, the puppeteers we taught performed a short story-praise and songs. There were also a lot of teary eyed campers, shepherds and adults as the children said their goodbyes. This camp is a highpoint of their year, a time when they can be in a safe environment, get three hot meals a day-some of them are lucky to get two meals a day at home-basic medical care (there was a nurse here all week) and most importantly, love. We have a lot of stories to tell about this last day; in fact, we have a lot to tell about every day of this moving and memorable trip. But those stories will have to wait for another time.

After lunch, we visited Matras and Tasi, the churches Good Shepherd connects to here in Latvia. We drove to Tasi along the back country roads to visit the church, which is in a two-story apartment building in a small country town. (Why there is an apartment building in a small village like Tasi is beyond me.) Next, we drove to Matras Church where we worshipped with about 20 people who gathered for a 4 pm worship service. Edgars Sneiders, the pastor, and his wife were most gracious hosts. We contributed to this service with greetings from Good Shepherd (Bob) and a song (Alina and Sarah). The sermon prepared by Pastor Steve was delivered by Alina and translated by Edgars' wife. Following the service, we were treated to a sumptuous feast of sandwiches, fresh fruit, cookies and cakes in the church chapel, which also serves as a fellowship hall. We talked about our respective churches, our faith in God, and our hopes and dreams for the future.

We saw Pastor Steve at the Liepaja hospital last night. He is comfortable but bored-nothing to do but look at the ceiling in this hospital. Steve and Emma will be on their way home tomorrow and should arrive in DC around 7:30 pm. He told us he appreciated all the prayers and the support provided for him, Emma, Wanda and Nathan. We also prayed last night around his bedside for a safe journey home for he and Emma, and for safe travels for the rest of the team.

Sarah, Alina and I will be leaving shortly for the next stop on our trip: the hill of crosses in Lithuania. I'll provide more when I can. Until then, keep us in prayer. Our God truly is an awesome God. We have seen God's hand at work in so many ways and felt his ever-loving arms around us throughout this trip. We will have stories to tell when we return. But until we do, praise God!



Sunday, August 2, 2009

This Lord's Day begins on the cool side with overcast skies and not much wind to speak of. It is 0900 and the campers are slowly getting ready for the day. Some are gathering around the smoldering campfire and wooden deck at the center of the camp. Others are poking through the pile of clean laundry that accumulated over the past six days-the camp washes everybody's dirty clothes in one small washing machine and hangs them out on clothes lines to dry-so they can pack up for the journey home. Still others are walking around the camp waiting for breakfast, which has been delayed because last night's end of camp party didn't end until nearly 0100. A lot of the campers, some as young as eight or nine, brought their own cell phones. A few are making calls home, or playing games on the phones, it's hard to tell which.

During my devotions this morning at the East side of the barn, I watched a single stork work its way through the field of grass just a few feet from where I stood. It walked steadily through the tall yellow grass picking at the ground every now as it spotted a bit of food. These magnificent large white birds are all around here. Sarah and I saw one searching for food near some cows in a field between here and the beach. I watched seven of them fly over the farm a couple of days ago. They reminded me a bit of the Canada Geese we have back home as they passed overhead, moving in and out of a rather loose V formation. Stork nests are just down the road from us, high up in the trees. I mention them now as I reflect on the tremendous beauty and diversity of God's good creation.



Thursday, July 30, 2009

Yesterday was our first full day of camp and it turned out to be a wonderful day in many ways. For one, the weather cooperated fully as we experienced a glorious Latvian summer day. A Latvian summer day is sunny with a few scattered clouds and temperatures in the mid 70s. Most of the campers were out in shorts and T-shirts running from one camp activity to another and otherwise just loving a great day in the country. Nighttime is another matter. It’s been in the 50s the first few nights but last night was colder — probably upper 40s. Makes it kinda hard to get up in the morning but we get by.

Another blessing was the food, which has taken a little getting used to but is very good. I said earlier to expect a lot of potatoes and our hosts have not let us down—we get them at least once a day. Last night’s dinner was a particularly good rice and vegetable dish with some bits of pork that we all enjoyed. If there’s a recipe for one meal we’d bring back with us, it would be for this one. So far. Tonight’s meal might be even better.

The greatest blessing of all, though, is the way we have been able to interact with the children in the camp activities. This has taken a little time, as you might expect, since we are the outsiders in this culture. But yesterday we made some great connections through some of the activities.

Alina painted about 20 children’s faces with her signature broad curve design. She was absolutely glowing last night about how this brought her together with the kids in just the way we’d hoped we could relate to them. Emma also made some connections with the young children on a walk to the beach and some swimming in the Baltic Sea. She and Alina are also getting to know the Latvian shepherds—the older youth, who watch over the young ones, do crafts with them and teach them about Jesus.

Steve has been helping out around the camp. He and Emma cleaned up a storage shed yesterday that was in much need of sweeping and organizing. He’s not making any promises about doing the same to his garage back home but I can attest that the shed here is in great shape thanks to his efforts.

Sarah and I met with six children who volunteered to work with the puppets we brought over as a gift to the camp. They are really great kids and show the same kind of enthusiasm about puppet ministry as the Carpenter’s Crew at Good Shepherd. They’ve already caught on to the basics and we are now working on a story they can tell during the camp talent show tomorrow night. That’s when the children at the camp will name the puppets. We’re also going to work on a skit for the closing worship service on Sunday.

As the Camp starts to close down for the night, the five of us gather at a tree just down the road—our tree of meeting—where we review the day’s events, express our hopes for the next day and pray. Our hopes for this mission trip are being met—we are making the connections with the people here we had long prayed for. Our God is an awesome God and is continuing to work through the wonderful people of Latvia who have come together for this week to lead the children in learning about God’s love for them. We are truly blessed to be a part of this movement of the Spirit. God is very, very GOOD!



Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wow! Has it been three days already? So much has happened since we arrived in Riga that I’ll just begin right here at Wesley Camp. We got here just in time for dinner on Sunday evening—boiled potatoes and hamburgers with onion mixed in. I’m told we can expect a lot of potatoes while we’re here. Glad I’m a potato fan.

Camp Wesley ( is about 15km (9.5 miles) north of Liepaja. It is REALLY out in the country situated on an old farm that was purchased about four years ago for the express purpose of setting up a camp for the United Methodist Churches in Latvia and Lithuania. The Camp has about 25 acres of land and a small apple orchard which is the centerpiece of a fall apple festival. (In fact, I’m sitting under an apple tree right now, waiting to see if Isaac Newton was right about gravity!) The camp infrastructure (plumbing, electricity, etc.) is very rudimentary but takes some steps forward every year as other mission teams come through. About 3/4s of a mile away is the Baltic Sea. There is a nice trail running through the woods that opens up to the sea, which was rough and windy the day we visited.

The staff at the camp has been preparing about 30 mostly Latvian youth for the arrival of the children. They have had several training sessions to teach them what it means to be a shepherd for the younger children. We sat in on a couple of the sessions and had a translator explain what is going on. This morning they closed the preparation time with a devotional period followed by communion. The camp director, Dan Randall, served us communion stressing the common mission for all who are here—Latvians, Lithuanians, Americans—and the unity we share in the fellowship of Christ. We all prayed for the upcoming week and the children we will soon greet in Christian love; for this is their week to relax in a safe environment and to learn about God’s love for them in Christ that is offered through the camp staff, the youth shepherds and the Good Shepherd mission team.

The first campers have arrived! Early. We just saw the first two boys walk by loaded down with backpacks, sleeping bags and a tent. We’ll get a flood of them this afternoon and then the fun begins. And it will be fun serving alongside the rest of the staff, learning, living and sharing the story of Jesus Christ.

Until I can send another update, Pastor Steve, Alina, Emma, Sarah and I send you greetings from Camp Wesley.



Saturday, July 25, 2009

Riga, LatviaWell, never mind the update from Frankfurt. It took too long to get through security to find time for that.

To paraphrase our astronauts who landed on the moon 40 years ago: "Riga base here, the Shepherd has landed!" The mission team got into Riga about 1300 local time today and we were met by out Latvian contact, Kristine. She escorted us to the hotel and will meet us again tomorrow to get the rental van and then go to worship services.

We spent the afternoon walking around the old town part of Riga. Lots of nice old buildings in this very subdued city. The streets were quiet for the most part-not very many people around. Could be because it's Saturday. We did see a wedding procession driving through the old town area, cars decorated with colorful streamers, honking horns, waving to the people on the sidewalks. There was no mistaking this celebration in any culture-best wishes and blessings to the bride and groom.

We're off to dinner shortly and then a restful night's sleep. Will report again soon.



Friday, July 24, 2009
Latvia Mission Team at Dulles International Airport

Latvia MapWell, the big day has arrived and your mission team is now sitting at the gate waiting for the flight to Frankfurt. We got here plenty early - about three hours before flight time - which is always a good thing when you drive around DC. For us, it is now hurry up. Even more so since the sign at our gate tells us the Lufthansa flight is DELAYED. But I'm thinking more of Joyce and Andrew and Wanda and Don and Annlydia who drove us out here and now have to drive back home in Friday afternoon traffic. Godspeed to them as they fight the battle of the Beltway on the way to Waldorf.

As for the rest of us, we are anxious, excited and a bit nervous about what lies ahead. There's always some anxiety about traveling to a new place. We are now thinking about what it will be like to get on the ground in Riga and Liepaja, to walk the streets of these cities, to meet the people and hear their stories of life and of faith. We've seen pictures of these places-Riga, Liepaja, Wesley Camp; I've talked to and E Mailed the camp director, Dan Randall, and our Latvian UMC contact, Kristine. Now we get to meet them and thank them face to face, get to know them as more than a voice on the other end of the phone. Now we will learn their stories, of how Christ has been moving in their lives and the lives of the Latvian UMC. And they will hear our stories, of how we came to faith in Christ and how that faith brought us to them. The more I think about it, the less anxious I am about the trip because I know we are moving with the Spirit to accomplish that which Christ has already prepared in advance for us to do. In him we live and move and have our being.

Got to save some battery power for the next stop. Aufwiedersehen until Frankfurt.



Friday, July 18, 2009

Latvia Flag"All my bags are packed I'm ready to go!" That's the first line to the 70's song about leaving on a jet plane. And while I'm not quite packed yet, I am VERY ready to go on the mission trip to Latvia. Pastor Steve, Emma, Alina, Sarah and I have been preparing for the last few weeks and I can safely say, we are all prepared for what will be a terrific opportunity to serve God at Wesley Camp.

First off, thank you to everyone who contributed in so many ways to make this trip possible. Whether it was donating time, money, prayers, T shirts, whatever, your efforts have made this mission journey possible. Praise God!

Second, we hope to have some updates for the church that we can post on this site. My laptop is making its first overseas trip and if all goes well--and if the internet access is any good--we will post periodic narratives of our experiences and some photos right here. So please check this space every couple of days for the Latvia Mission Team update.

Until then, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Romans 15:13