What an amazing journey it has been! For the entire team, the past three days have been a time full of both joy and sadness; laughter and tears. In only two weeks, the young souls at the TB center have openly embraced us as family and our time with them has been precious.
On Wednesday morning, the team and the kids took a walk through the Kremlin (the Novgorod Kremlin, Dad), where we took a team picture in front of the memorial. We then proceeded through the other end, where a ferry awaited in the river on the outskirts. Upon boarding the ferry, we sat ourselves in the dining area, as it took us on an hour-long voyage down the river. During that time, the team took plenty of pictures, and used markers and face chalk to draw animals on the faces of the younglings. After the boat ride, we escorted the children back to the hospital, and began making preparations for the afternoon. After we got some sleep and relaxation, we left for the TB center for our second half of the day. The second session began with a skit in which the team gets caught cheating in a competition, and Dale took the blame, resembling Jesus taking the fall for our sins. Following the skit, we started our routine of breaking up into older and younger groups. The message being taught was the same for both groups: the death and resurrection of Jesus. The teams briefly described how Jesus had to die and be raised from the dead so that all of humanity could have salvation. Once the lessons were done, Melanie, Joey, and I assisted the older kids in making salvation bracelets for the remainder of the session. Similarly, half of the kids’ team assisted the young ones in making salvation bracelets, while the other half worked to hide Easter eggs containing tattoos, stickers, and clips in the nearby playground. Sarah headed up the project and the team successfully brought smiles and excitement to everyone’s faces.
Thursday was perhaps the busiest day of the trip. The morning started with a skit that continued from yesterday’s performance. The team walked in, demoralized and confused as to why Dale took the blame for their transgressions. When Dale was asked why he took the blame; he acted as a Jesus-like character and made sure that they knew he was there for them. The teams once again split up, and Melanie, Joey and I made bracelets and lanyards with the kids, while the team with the younger kids used jewelry beads and string to make some unique bracelets as well. In preparation for the closing ceremony, Kasey and her team took two children at a time during their bracelet project outside to take their handprints. Using water colors, they placed their hands in the paint and placed them on the sheet. During this time, Matt and Vasili were also hard at work preparing a surplus of water balloons for a future event. Once everyone’s hands had been washed of paint, and everyone finished making their jewelry, the teams gathered outside for a game in which everyone acquired a partner and faced each other a few feet apart. One was holding a water balloon, and the goal of the game was to successfully toss the balloon to the partner, take a step back and repeat… I would like to pause here to let everyone know that I just took a break from writing to join the team in a spontaneous dance on the street corner in front of our church. It was exhilarating. Videos will come soon… Before leaving, the team surprised Joey with an onslaught of water balloons to show our appreciation for all his hard work. He took it like a champ. In the afternoon, the session started with an hour of free-time while some of the team prepared for the closing ceremony. Most of the kids spent their time watching with intrigue as the team poured cement in holes to be used for holding volleyball poles. During this time, Joey took aside some of the older men and women and had some personal conversations with them. We were delighted to hear that several of the students willingly shared their stories with us and further strengthened our relationships with them. Once the free time was over, the closing ceremony began. The teams had made personalized certificates to each of the kids congratulating them on completing the Olympics-themed games. Along with the certificate came a medal and a bag of goodies. Though everyone was happy, the day ended with some somber emotions due to the anticipating inevitable end that was to come.
After a long night full of random jokes and laughter spent among the team, we started this morning celebrating Chelsea’s 20th birthday. As we walked to the TB center, we were all mentally preparing ourselves for the goodbyes and parting with each other. We arrived and began the day with some free time, playing some mini games and volleyball on the newly constructed net. After an hour, we began the final ending phase of our time with the children and teens. We began with all of us gathering around them, giving our last words. With everyone situated, the team called each individual by name to present them with our final gift, including a number of essentials, as well as a pair of shoes. Once everyone had received their bags, the kids put on a little goodbye performance for us. Our eyes swelled with tears as the children passionately expressed their thanks through their heartfelt dancing. With the reality of the situation finally settling in and everyone trying to make the most of the time that we had left, Zinaida (the headmaster of the center) gathered us all together and passionately expressed her thanks to us. Once her words had been said, she had everyone wish Chelsea a happy birthday and provided her with a gift. It was after this that the goodbyes began. If there were any kids that weren’t crying before, they certainly were now, and so were we. None of us wanted to leave, our hearts belonged here, with these children whom we had come to love and think of as our own. As the goodbyes were being said, and thoughts and tears being exchanged, Zinaida invited us in for tea once we had finished.
Inside the small room and crowded around a table designed for children half our height, Zinaida poured us all tea and provided us with homemade baked food. With our team and leaders around the table, Zinaida explained to us how before we had arrived that the children didn’t understand why we were coming to see them. They simply didn’t understand why we would travel across the Atlantic just to spend time with them, and in the end, they had come to love us as much as we had loved them. Before we ended, Zinaida’s head nurse, Nadia, sang us an old prayer that touched me deeper than any song ever has. I don’t think I will ever know the words that were being prayed over us, but the one thing that God revealed to me through the song was the absolute, insurmountable love that she had for the children at the center. She truly was a mother to them; and a mother’s love for her children is unparalleled. And it was in that brief instant revelation, that I too experienced the same love that she had for the children. That’s as good as I can explain it, but all I can say is that I have never experienced the Holy Spirit’s touch in such a unique manner. By the time the moment arrived to leave, there wasn’t a single dry eye among us. To know that this journey that God had taken us on and prepared us for was soon coming to an end was all too surreal to fully embrace in the moment. All of us do know, however, that God has been faithful every step of the way.
Since the day we arrived in Russia, God’s guidance and faithfulness to the purpose of this team has been evident in every step we have taken on this trip. Through strong discipleship and ministry among the team even as we weren’t at the center, God enabled us to stay sensitive to His wisdom and empowerment in our lives. Our team encountered many trials and spiritual attacks on both the team and on the children at the center, and it became clear that the work we were doing gathered the attention of the enemy. Indeed, there hasn’t been a single day where the lies of the enemy didn’t threaten to cause division among our team. However, through the strong leadership and mature team members in Christ, we were able recognize the attacks and refuse to be discouraged. Never have I seen so much spiritual warfare in such a short amount of time. We were encouraged knowing that the work we were doing was powerful. Though it brings us much sorrow in knowing that we must leave behind our friends whom we have come to call family, we are excited for what God’s plans are for our future. His work in our lives on this great adventure has left us with a distant family and changed lives. Wherever God leads us next, we will be waiting for His call.
Vanguard team, written by David