Been back from Russia a week...

...as of today. I felt utterly spent on the day I got back, and after battling a sinus infection, culture shock, and a pesky inability to focus, I can't say I've completely recovered yet.

This trip was one of our best (This is #7 for me going to the orphanages). I felt that we were productive with our time there, spending a few days each in three orphanages around St. Petersburg that we have continuing relationships with, opening doors to further time with people in disabled adult facilities, and sharing the gospel with a group of three refugee families from Uzbekistan that lived in a shanty near a market in Moscow. The Lord truly blessed us and our time there (and thanks to all who prayed for us...).

I was the "team leader" on this trip, which meant that I took responsibility for devotionals in the morning, schedule and activity decisions during the day, and that I had to be the heavy who pushed the team members (especially the younger ones) to stay on schedule. I didn't have to handle money (Karen and Louis did...), food (Beth Miltner graciously handled it), or any logistical arrangements for transportation or lodging. It was different. On the 15 or so mission trips I've been on in my lifetime, I was almost always involved in leadership, but only so much as I wanted to. I always had someone I could submit to, and this gave me a comfortable, security-blanket warm feeling inside. I never had everyone looking to me to make a decision on what they would do. Louis and Karen could have been the team leaders for this trip, but they delegated this to me. I struggled at the beginning (where I explained to the team how to order pancakes in a restaurant as if it was a sensitive military mission requiring the precision of a jeweler's caliper), but by the last days of the trip, I started to see things coming together better, though not without some effort. I think I realized that, to be the leader, one has to care deeply about what they are doing, be willing to make decisions that may be wrong, not dwell on one's mistakes, be conscientious of the complex situations that surround (as they do inevitably with people), and continuously submit one's will to that of God. That's a tall order, and for most of the trip, I probably didn't live up to it. By the grace of God, I never stopped trying, and by the grace of God, the trip was a success.

This trip marked five years since we first started going to the orphanages. Louis and Linda Fry discovered Pavlovsk #4, the first and largest facility we've visited, by looking relentlessly for the facility where a boy named Sasha lived. Upon their arrival, they found he had recently passed away, but in their brief visit there, they saw a place with much need, and decided to form a team to visit. They asked me to come (I was the "Church session missionary" at the time - I could play a guitar and had ample experience in short-term missions), and we got several others to come with us that summer of 2000. We spent about eight days living in the Pavlovsk orphanage, becoming a part of the lives of the children during that time. We spent our mornings in Building #4, where the nonambulatory children lived. The conditions were heartbreaking, and the children there were the most broken I've ever seen of humanity. We would hold the children, sing to them, and generally love on them as best we could. During afternoons we spent time outside, visiting nearby castle ruins during naptime and playing soccer when we returned. We spent our nights dancing with some of the older children and adults who worked there. We had some medical and developmental professionals on our team who assessed the needs there and made these needs known back in the States. All in all, it was a precious time we will never forget, and a springboard for much more in the five years following.

In going on these orphanage trips, which are so intense in their joys and heartaches, those who have gone together on them have formed a special bond. I think of the Fellowship of the Ring, where the nine companions of radically differing backgrounds come together for the common purpose of destroying the Ring and saving Middle Earth. They have all manner of adventures, fight terrifying battles, fail and succeed, and after they have finished their time together, share experiences and knowledge that no one else but them will ever understand (The scene at the end of Return of the King in the Shire Pub where the 4 hobbits share a beer illustrates this beautifully.). I see those who go on these trips and the Russians that we work with as a Fellowship - a Fellowship of people, imperfect normal Americans who have chosen to act on the words of the Master as best they can: "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me." I've been blessed to know many such people since I got involved with this five years ago. Beth Shanklin is a developmental specialist for disabled children who came on the first trip and continues to go to work with parents of disabled children in Russia who want to keep and teach their children at home. Karen Jones is a City Council member in Ohio who joined us on the 2nd trip, and who has gone to visit the orphanages 15 times since then, bringing her husband Martin and her grandchildren Jocelyn and Micah from time to time. Mike Cantrell moved to Russia shortly before our first trip, and now runs a charitable organization called MIR (Russian for "World" and "Peace") that specializes in aid to orphans and widows. He met and married his wife Olga there in 2001. Sasha Sharoyko, one of our interpreters on the first trip, fell in love with the children in the disabled orphanages and has worked with them and with visiting teams ever since. David and Cris Brown have never been to Russia, but have worked hard (even in their busy lives) to raise support and aid for the orphanages working with Louis and Linda. Louis and Linda Fry had 5 children when they started going to the orphanages, the last two disabled twins named Gabe and John-Michael. As of last December, they had 6 - they adopted a girl named Yelena from Pavlovsk through a grueling process that took over a year. Some of these people I see once or twice a year. Some I see every week. All of them (and many more) I will always have a common point of reference with - our experiences sharing the love of God in these orphanages.

So have we seen any lasting change in five years? I would say yes, though it has been slow. The facility at Pavlovsk has improved, and the children in the nonambulatory building are cared for better. The kids light up whenever we see them, and many cry when we leave. They have heard that God loves them and that Jesus died for them many times, and have played frisbee, colored, built crafts, or heard us sing many more times. The kids who have moved on to adult facilities have had hard lives, and are suprised and overjoyed to see us when we visit them. There are Russians like Sasha Sharoyko and Natasha Baliasnikova who continue to visit these children and care for them even while we are in America (I'd like to think that we can replace ourselves someday with Russians with a heart for these children). On at least two occasions in the last 5 years we had the opportunity to offer life-saving help to people we encountered. I see the Lord at work in what we (and others) are involved in. That is an encouraging thought.

So coming back to Austin, my birthplace, my home insomuch as I have a home on earth, is always a hard thing. To go back to designing power lines, paying bills, mowing my lawn, and everything else is a bit like coming back from a tour of duty - most people don't really understand where I've been or what I've done. "Every heart knows its own joy, but no one can know its pain." That is, no one but God. I still haven't made complete sense of this trip (though this little rant here helped some). Wes Birdwell told me that I always seem to have an "unfocused period" shortly after I return from Russia. That's where I'm at. I need to refocus, and I need help - I don't think I'll be able to do it on my own this time. I hope my friends can be patient with me. I'm thankful that the Lord is...


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