Good Shepherd Latvia Mission Trip 2012
Three representatives from Good Shepherd are traveling as part of a mission trip. Starting Monday, July 2nd they will served as counselors for a week in a Christian camping experience for troubled children. The team members are Sarah Kells, Shannon Suban and Bob Kells. We're on our way to Latvia to renew old friendships in the Latvian UMC, to make new friends, and to share the love of God through puppetry at Wesley Camp. There should be about 100 children and adults at the camp this year. We are praying God will bless them in the time they have at the camp and for God to use us to minister to them. Many of these children come from homes where alcoholism, joblessness and abuse are the rule, not the exception. For them, the week spent at Wesley Camp will be major highlight of their year where they can be kids in a safe place and hear that God loves them, even through their hurt.
Below is a blog submitted by Bob Kells from the team activities in Latvia:
Thursday & Friday, 12-13 July 2012
Our journey to Latvia did not end at Wesley Camp. There is still more to see and learn about this beautiful country and its people, and that is what we set out to do following our return to Riga.
On the 12th we drove two hours south and crossed into Lithuania to visit the Hill of Crosses. This site is a small hill near the town of Siauliai (pronounced sch-ou-lay) that has become a place of pilgrimage for many Christians, especially Roman Catholics, who make up the largest segment of the Lithuanian population. During the 19th century, when Lithuania was controlled by Russia, some of the faithful placed a few crosses on a hill as a symbol of both national and religious resistance against the Orthodox Russian occupiers. The same tradition continued during the 20th century when the Soviet Union occupied the country. No matter how many times Soviet officials destroyed the crosses-the entire hill was bulldozed at one point-people continued to place crosses here. There are tens of thousands of crosses on the hill now. They come in all shapes and sizes. They were placed here mainly by Christians from Eastern Europe but there some from other parts of the world. Keeping with tradition, we placed our own crosses on the hill to mark this as part of our own spiritual journey.
From the Hill of Crosses we drove back into Latvia and visited Rundale Palace located near the town of Bauskas in southern Latvia. The palace was the home of the Dukes of Courland, a minor European power during the late 17th and 18th centuries. The region may have been small in size but the Dukes clearly had huge ambitions because the palace they built was fashioned on the French palace of Versailles. The exterior looks very similar to that seat of French royal power and the interior was no less impressive. Huge rooms, lavish furnishings, parquet floors, colorful artwork and highly detailed plaster ceilings made it clear this was built to impress. The outdoor gardens were laid out to awe visitors-and maybe give the Dukes a place to get away from the duchesses for a while.
The next day we visited the Occupation Museum in Old Town Riga. The museum was opened in the late 1990s, following Latvia's independence from Soviet rule. It tells the tragic story of Latvia's suffering at the hands of Soviet and German occupiers from the 1930s to the 1990s. There are many artifacts on display from this time including a mock up of a crude wooden barracks that housed political prisoners. There is also the horrific tale of German persecution of the Jews-part of the Holocaust-including the massacre of over 25,000 Latvian Jews at Rumbala, just outside Riga. Visiting the Occupation Museum was a memorable and moving experience. It is a tragic tale but one that needs to be told and preserved so that people always remember what can happen when some of God's children look at other people as less than human and not part of God's wonderfully diverse Creation.
Tuesday & Wednesday, 10-11 July 2012
Monday the weather turned decidedly more Latvian, and that continued into today. We had a brief rain shower in the mornings and it stayed cloudy until around 1000, at which point the sun broke through and warmed things up. Temperatures have been much cooler with highs near 70 and lows at night probably in the low- to mid-50s. It was also much windier, which is another way things have returned to the norm. Liepaja is the closest city to the camp-about 18 kms (11 miles) to the south. It's known here as the city where the wind begins. That helps explain the growing number of large wind turbines along the coast. There is one about ¼ mile away from camp, across a dirt road and a farmer's field. Sometimes I can hear the sound of the large propeller blades when the wind is blowing from the right direction.
Tuesday night was the last program for the campers. It began with a party for the children with the theme of "Black & White." All the campers wore something with those colors. This was a dance party featuring, of all things, Scottish dance and music. The guy who directed this dance was a Scotsman who now lives in Latvia. He gave all his directions in Latvian as he guided the campers through several line dances that looked very much like square dancing. Some of the lines looked a little ragged as the dancers threw their partners across the floor and weaved in and out of the lines. But that was okay. Everyone had fun, and that was the main point of the dance.
After the dance, we entered into a time of worship. This was a candlelight service and like the other worship services here, there was music, prayer, and quiet moments as the children reflected on God's love for them. The service was capped off with communion at about 1230 in the morning. This was a very moving service. Some of the campers were crying, others just holding on to their shepherds or their friends as the words were spoken. As the bread and juice were served, people prayed fervently and the music played quietly in the background. Even though we did not understand much of what was said, Sarah, Shannon and I felt the presence of God's Holy Spirit, simply bathing everyone in God's love. When the three of us reflected on this later, I likened the experience to the Spirit's presence at Pentecost, when the foreigners in Jerusalem heard the disciples speak in their own language. We did not hear voices but I believe the Spirit spoke to us through our hearts and through our spirits that night. This service was truly a thing of beauty.
Wednesday morning the sun broke through the clouds and the wind subsided, giving us a clear and warm day to say our goodbyes to Wesley Camp. We came to share God's love through puppetry and I think we did a pretty good job. We used the puppets every day we were there, with the Latvians translating for us during the first five days. For the last two services (Tuesday and Wednesday), the puppet sketches were done entirely in Latvian. We prepared six of the campers (including two shepherds I had worked with before on previous visits) to do the stories. We did not have a lot of time but the kids caught on quickly and turned in a good performance that conveyed the main message of the stories to campers in a language they knew. A couple of the adults told me later they had never seen puppets used in this way before and that the children listened intently as the stories unfolded. That was our goal for the trip-to enable the Latvian children to tell the stories of God's love in their own tongue.
The last worship service was another emotional one as the campers said farewell to each other. The staff also recognized us and a family from Texas (the Paynes) who also had come to the camp as helpers. I took the opportunity to give two of our mission team t-shirts to Vivita, the camp director, and to the very talented worship leader, Nauris. Shannon and Sarah handed out some wristbands we'd brought along with us after the service. Our hosts gave us some gifts to thank us for coming to the camp.
And then it was time for the hard goodbyes. It's difficult to explain how this feels, to say farewell to the children and staff we'd connected with over the past week. We did get some email addresses and Facebook names but we don't know when we'll see them again. On our ride back to Riga and in the days that followed, we all agreed that this was a mountain-top spiritual experience. We've come to love Wesley Camp and the Latvian people in ways we had not expected. We've made some connections that I hope and pray will last throughout the years. And we hope we'll be able to return someday to share in the important work the Latvian UMC is doing with the children at Wesley Camp.
Sunday 8 July 2012
This was a very busy day for us. The Good Shepherd mission team provided a message during the 1100 camp worship service that told about the importance of following God's directions in order to live a life pleasing to God. This followed several praise songs which were led by Nauriss, a talented young Pentecostal singer/guitar player who travels from churches to camps during the summer to lead people in worship. Although we cannot understand the language, the joy and enthusiasm he puts into his songs reflects a deep faith in the power of God at work in his life. After a set of songs and our puppets, we heard a message from Gita Mednis, District Superintendent for Latvia and pastor of Riga First UMC. Gita Told the children that the way of life they were learning from Jesus is something that will have a positive influence on their families, friends and people they meet. She told them they can be lights shining in a dark world for Jesus Christ. Gita's message was followed by…more singing, of course. Nauriss led us in Latvian version of "Father Abraham," which the children performed with glee.
Dinner was served at 1330. About an hour later, Shannon, Sarah and I got in our car and followed Rev. Edgars Scheiders to his church at Matras. Matras is a small agricultural community about 15 minutes north of Wesley Camp. The church itself is located in the woods. When Sarah and I visited Matras in 2009, the view of the main entrance was blocked by two very large trees and the green façade was surrounded by scaffolding for renovation. This time, the trees and scaffolding were gone and the church was painted a delightful yellow.
Worship at this little country church was filled with song. We opened the service with several hymns and praise songs, most of which we knew and sang along in Latvian as best we could. (Latvian is fairly easy to read-there are hardly any silent letters-but it's a little tricky to pronounce in spots because of a few consonants and vowels unique to the language). After singing there was a time for prayer, followed by more singing and then I gave the sermon. My text was Mark 6:1-6, the story of Jesus' visit to his hometown and how he was not accepted by those who know him and saw him grow up. I said this was important for us today as we live out the gospel in a world that may not accept the idea that God can change lives. In addition, we need to be open to changes God is working in our lives and in the lives of others.
After the service, we were the guests of honor in the small fellowship hall behind the sanctuary. While sharing a light meal consisting of pastries, coffee and tea, we talked about our churches, our worship services and our music. Latvians love music. They have a very rich heritage in folk songs that is part of their national culture. Every four years, they hold a festival in a sports stadium that culminates with a 30,000 voice choir that sings some of these songs. When we sat down to the table, they sang a song and then asked us to sing a song we know. We struggled through a very rough version of our doxology. They didn't throw us out so I reckon it was acceptable. Later, our hosts sang a folk song for us and we listened to the beautiful melody. Sitting there listening to their song, I felt we were part of something very old, an ancient tradition dating back centuries that is truly music of the human soul. I felt privileged to be a part of this beautiful event.
When the meal was over, Edgars and his wife led us back to Wesley Camp where we said our goodbyes. Then it was back to the routine of worship, games, Bible study and other activities for the kids. More joy to come from this holy ground. More from me later.
Saturday 7 July 2012
The first full day of camp (Friday) was HOT! Now, it wasn't hot like Washington DC hot. But the temperature reached the mid 80s, it was humid, there were rumbles of thunder in the distance, and no air-conditioning. We experienced what they call "honey rain" on Friday-that is, rain when the sun is out. The clouds were way off in the distance but we got enough of a sprinkle to comment on. And it remained humid after the rain passed. The children don't seem to mind it too much. They're too busy having fun.
We had our first workshop with a group of 10 children on Friday. Sarah and Shannon showed them the basics of how to use puppets. I also had two of the youth I trained last year (they're shepherds at camp now) show the children what they know. I think they were a little surprised when I asked them but they demonstrated good, basic puppetry technique. Well done, Reinnes and Simona.
Last night, we opened the worship service again with a sketch and a song. It was quite a challenge lip syncing to a Latvian version of "Every Move I Make," but we managed it without too much embarrassment. It was good fun and all for an awesome God! What made it even more special was the way the children looked forward to the puppet show. As we waited behind the stage for the signal to begin, we heard the children chanting something. Our translator told us they were saying "puppets, puppets!" That got us psyched to do the show. And when they closed out the devotion time, one of the little girls named Ieva (E-ev-uh) said a prayer thanking God for the wonderful day at the camp and also for the Americans who came to Latvia to help us all get closer to God. That was a very special blessing and one of the reasons the church sends people on mission trips. We believe we are going to bless the people we are sent to serve-and we do. But we are also blessed in ways we do not expect. This was one of them.
Saturday morning gave us more thunder and a 30 rain minute shower at breakfast time. Camp Activities continued inside for a while until the weather cleared up and cooled down. This afternoon, the campers are participating in the Wesley Camp Olympic games. These are a variety of team activities that require cooperation and communication in order to pass. Tonight, more worship and fellowship, and hopefully a more comfortable night for sleeping.
On Sunday, Sarah, Shannon and I travel to Matras with Rev. Edgars Schieder to worship at the church Edgars pastors there. Then it's back to camp. May the God of all grace fill your hearts with joy as we celebrate and praise our Lord this Sunday and every day!
Friday, 6 July 2012
The campers are here! What a difference a day makes. When we arrived on Wednesday, the only people here were the support staff and the shepherds (teenagers trained to lead small groups of younger children, like our VBS crew leaders). Yesterday afternoon, over 60 children from the Latvian UM churches descended on Wesley Camp, making it a lively, holy training ground for God's children.
We've already been at work by opening the worship program last night. Three of our favorite puppets-Abby, Joy and Rodney-talked about how glad they were about being at Wesley Camp, and also about being a bit nervous. Rodney fainted-twice. But he's up and around and ready to meet some more children today as we begin showing them how to use the puppets to tell the story of God's love for us. Our goal is to put together a small team of children who can present a message in the Latvian language by Wednesday morning.
In case you're wondering how we are doing with the language difference, we're pretty fortunate because most of the staff and camp leaders speak some English. Many of the children also know some English. That's because they start learning it in elementary school, around 3rd or 4th grade, I think. Many of the shepherds have enough English to carry on a good conversation. And some of them are really excellent. We are trying to learn a few Latvian terms like la britt (pronounced, lah breet), which means good morning. Good day is lab dien (lob dee-en).
My favorite word, though, is paldies (pall dee-es), which means "thank you." It seems like every prayer here begins and ends with paldies, which is a good thing for a Christian summer camp. Shannon, Sarah and I also say a big paldies to God for enabling us to travel here to be part of this beautiful experience as the children learn about Jesus Christ. They also have their faith stories to share. I just sat through a Bible study where several of them told about how they decided to put themselves second instead of first (today's theme), by sharing with people who were hungrier or needier than them. Jesus is smiling on these children and on this camp.
We'll have more to report later but right now, here is a message from Sarah about her experiences at the camp: "We made it to Wesley camp and it's like I never left. I remember almost everything about this place…except for how to get to the beach. (By the way it's down the driveway to the road then turn left, right, and left, and you're there. Someone had to tell me.) Its fun going back to a place years after you visit it. You remember the adventures you had and friends you made, even if some of those friends aren't here when you come back. You appreciate the time you had with them. You get to meet new people and make new friends.
If you know me, you know I'm a music person. So of course I love the music here. I even remember about 2 or 3 songs that they played 3 years ago. Even though I don't know what they're singing about I try to sing along. But Latvian is a hard language so I do my best. One good thing about singing along to the songs is they have some hand movements like when we sing "Yes, Lord" at home. We do the same hand movements except it's called "Ja, Kungs". They also sing "Every Move I Make, I Make in You," but I can't spell the Latvian title for this one. The thing I like the most about music is that we all feel connected to the music, even though we come from different backgrounds."
Until next time,
Tuesday, 3 July 2012
Today's reading from my devotional book included a passage from Paul's letter to the Romans in which he explained why he wanted to visit the church in Rome. Paul wrote: "I really want to see you to pass along some spiritual gift to you so that you can be strengthened. What I mean is that we can mutually encourage each other while I am with you. We can be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in each other, both your faithfulness and mine" (Romans 1:11-12, CEB). That passage is a good theme for our mission trip here. Yes, we certainly want to pass on some gifts to the UMC in Latvia through our ministry of presence and our skills in Christian puppetry. But we also recognize that we are not the only ones giving on this trip. Like Paul, we are also encouraged by the faithfulness we find in God's people in Latvia. We are mutually encouraged and strengthened in our own faith through the faith we encounter in our Latvian friends. After all, God has been at work in this country long before we even dreamed of traveling here.
Mutual encouragement was part of our experience today, which was our preparation day for tomorrow's drive to Wesley Camp. We met three of the youth from First Riga UMC today. They took us to a store where we purchased some equipment that was too bulky to bring with us. This gave us an opportunity to experience the Riga transit system first hand. We travelled by tram and bus to and from the store. Overall, it was a smooth journey and very inexpensive-it costs just under $4.00 for an individual 24 hour pass to ride anywhere on the entire metro system, all on one card. Not bad at all.
After shopping, our hosts took us on a walking tour of Riga that included the Monument of Freedom, a tall pillar dedicated to the people who died in Latvia's War of Independence (1918-1920). We also saw a Russian Orthodox Cathedral replete with the distinctive dome and Russian Orthodox crosses on the outside and wonderfully adorned walls, covered with icons of Christ and the saints, on the inside. That cathedral is part of the diverse religious landscape of Latvia which also includes Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist and several other Protestant churches. After the tour, we talked about our hopes and dreams for the future over lunch. And in the process, we made some new friends: friends who now know a little bit more about each other and a little more about our common bonds in Christ.
One thing that is hard to get used to here in Latvia is the amount of daylight at this time of year. According to the weather service, sunrise is about 4:30 AM and sunset about 10:20 PM. Factor in an hour of twilight on each end and it starts getting light around 3:30 AM and dark around 11:20. I took a picture of a large clock tower tonight that gives you an idea what this looks like. The clock reads about 9:50 PM but the sun was still shining directly on the clock. Imagine the long nights in the winter when days are short. That's just one reason why we make this trip in the summer.
May the faith of Jesus Christ strengthen and encourage you all.
Until next time,
Sunday 1 July 2012
As I begin the blog for this trip we are flying at 37,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean on our way to Latvia. I'm still thinking about the beautiful worship service this morning in the Fellowship Hall. The voices of everyone singing "I'll Fly Away is still ringing in my ears as Sarah, Shannon and I "fly away" on this mission trip. The children's voices singing VBS songs, the praise band, Holy Communion and hearing God's Word preached by Pastor Laurie made this a memorable day for us all. We may have been without electric power, but the power of God's Holy Spirit was clearly present with us as Pastor Laurie and her family joined the Good Shepherd family for the next chapter in our lives together in Christ. Thank you, church, for the great sendoff for out team!
We're on our way to Latvia to renew old friendships in the Latvian UMC, to make new friends, and to share the love of God through puppetry at Wesley Camp. I'm told there should be about 100 children and adults at the camp this year. We are praying God will bless them in the time they have at the camp and for God to use us to minister to them. Many of these children come from homes where alcoholism, joblessness and abuse are the rule, not the exception. For them, the week spent at Wesley Camp will be major highlight of their year where they can be kids in a safe place and hear that God loves them, even through their hurt.
Our team will spend some time each morning training several of the Latvian children how to use the puppets. Then, each evening during the nightly worship time, we will have a message for the campers using puppets.
Our first stop today was Copenhagen, Denmark, where we spent about five hours sightseeing between flights. Downtown Copenhagen was very nice. Many old buildings scattered around the city blocks among newer construction. Or, rather, new construction built up around the old buildings.
Our friend Rev. Gita Mednis, District Superintendent for Latvia and pastor at Riga First UMC, met us at the airport and got us to our hotel where we spent the night resting. Tomorrow, some more of our Latvian friends will help us make final preparations for the drive to Wesley Camp.
Please keep us in your prayers as you remain in ours,