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explorations

In February I went with some fellow students to a small city called Brest, on Belarus's border with Poland. Our congregation in Minsk has a "satellite" fellowship there, full of new and energetic believers. I adored everyone I met, in all their freshness and enthusiasm, and grew a love for the town itself... though I could have done without the five meals a day I wound up eating due to a slightly overdeveloped sense of hospitality!

In spite of the fear that I would gain too much weight, I promised my new friends in Brest that I would return as soon as possible. Of course, life in Minsk was hectic and unpredictable, and and "as soon as possible" turned out to be four months later. At the beginning of June, I finally go to go to Brest again.

It was a kind of final project for some students of the Minsk Bible school: a weekend full of ministry in visits, prayer, teaching songs, sharing testimonies. The fellowship there doesn't have a pastor yet, and leaders from Minsk can only make it there every couple of months, so the folks there are eager to learn from whatever sources they can. While this meant an abundance of televangelist videos (which did not particularly thrill me), it also meant that we as humble students were put in positions of... well, not authority exactly, but of (at least perceived) wisdom. In fact, I was surprised several times at the words of wisdom that somehow made their way out of my mouth (and subsequently out of the mouth of my brilliant interpreter).

Of course, listening is generally wiser than talking, and I had plenty of opportunities to do that. A couple of hours after arriving in Brest, I visited a babushka named Gallina who had been a partisan during World War II. A little background: Brest was 80% Jewish before that war, and featured 25 synagogues. Because of the war and pogroms, however, there are now no synagogue buildings in Brest and only about 600 Jews (or, rather, admitted Jews) left in the city.

Gallina is Jewish, and comes from a village near Brest which was entirely Jewish before the war (Jews weren't allowed to move about freely here). In fact, everyone in her village spoke Yiddish, and Gallina didn't even learn Russian until she joined the partisans. The partisans lived in the forests and raided Germans when they could, taking their families with them as they moved from one part of the forest to the other. It was a heroic group of people who are often praised throughout this part of the world... Gallina herself recited many partisan poems to us when we visited.

But the partisans were also extremely antisemitic. Gallina spoke of one Jewish mother in her unit who was forced to leave her kids behind in the forest because the rest of the partisans didn't want to have to take care of any Jewish kids along the way.... They still demanded that their mother fight, however, and promised to kill her kids immediately if she tried to stay with them.

Minsk was overrun by Nazis during the war, too. But Brest, further West, is even more deeply marked. Its main attraction for visitors is a fortress, in which resistors held out against the Nazis until the last defender died. It's difficult for me to reconcile the marks of heroism that I've seen with the stories of prevalant hatred toward Jews... especially since so many of the heroes were in fact Jewish. Many Jewish people I've met in Belarus have only recently discovered that they're Jewish, because their families tried to hide their Jewishness for so many years.

In spite of the painful history, which I felt every time I walked in Brest's streets, I enjoyed my time there to an almost inexplicable degree. Of course, I developed several theories as to why. For one thing, there was this new fellowship's enthusiasm, which I've mentioned. Everyone is in an exciting phase of discovery, and God is beginning to direct the enthusiasm in the group into ministries for each of its members.

One woman testified to the group about the power of prayer... and so was appointed prayer leader, and immediately began organizing various weekly prayer meetings. Andre, a believer of just a few months, began leading a home group. Only he and his helper came to the first three meetings, so they spent the time persistently praying. Now Andre's group is the biggest and fastest-growing group in the fellowship.

But a more personal reason that I loved Brest so was that it was a new place. It's probably evident that I enjoy new places. My time in Brest reminded me of a way in which exploration helps me a great deal. When we are in our homes, of course it's easy to get in a rut. But -- maybe worse -- it's also easy to focus on ourselves: on our lives, on our "needs" and wants, on how we are going to make everything work. But when we explore, we are inherently looking outside of ourselves. In Brest I was reminded that to keep my ears and heart open to people like Gallina, I have to be willing to be an explorer, leaving what I know and what I think I can control.

Of course, exploration doesn't only mean rickety former Soviet trains or rides through the streets of Brest on the floor of a Gypsy family's van. (That was fun -- I think we fit about 20 people in the back of that van at one point!) I know I should be just as able to step outside of myself at 'home' (wherever that is at any given moment). But at home it's always easier to forget that need.

So, while I work on that, I'm planning for a little bit more physical exploration. I've finally decided on my travel plans for this summer. My old dream was to spend a few weeks in nearby Scandinavia, enjoying 24-hour sunlight and people who often speak English. The more I prayed and thought about it, though, the more God showed me that he wanted me to go to Ukraine. Whereas a few months ago Ukraine held no interest for me whatsoever, I'm now thrilled to go and absorb everything I can there... so I don't doubt that God has been working in my heart.

My plan, then, is to spend the month of July in Ukraine. Though I am hoping to fit in a little relaxation, my main goal is to come out of it with some solid writing. I hope to visit about seven cities in four weeks, and want to have a lot of conversations and write down everything I can.

I've "smelled" a couple of stories already. For instance, a drug-rehab center run by believers at which dozens of ex-junkies came to know God and started a fellowship of sorts. Or the Messianic Jewish congregation in Kiev, the largest Messianic congregation in the world. But I'm also hoping to hear more personal stories, like Gallina's.

I'll rely heavily on hospitality (nearly as strong in Ukraine as in Belarus, I'm told... I guess I'll just have to get plenty of exercise carrying luggage!) and Ukranian trains, so please pray for both of those things to work out smoothly.

The first step of the journey is to Odessa, by a two-day-long train ride (which only costs about $25!). While there I'll help out for a couple of days at a kids' camp, and of course listen to people's stories. After Odessa, I don't have much planned; that the way things go here, if I make a lot of plans now, they will most likely change a hundred times anyway. I trust that God will reveal more concrete plans as I go.

This is a lot like what I did in the UK and Ireland (if you feel like it, you can read the journals or the result). This time, though, I hope to actually get some of the writing published... somewhere. In fact, getting some stuff published is another area I'm exploring, now that I have more time to write. I don't know much about what publications would be interested in these kinds of stories, though, so if any of you happen to know more than I do in this area, I would be thrilled to hear your suggestions.

Those of you who wanted postcards, by the way... I haven't entirely forgotten. I just seem to forget everytime I'm at a place where I can actually buy postcards. I think I'll send them from Ukraine, since that's more of a "trip" anyway -- if you would like one and haven't sent me your postal address, please do so soon, because I'm not sure what kind of email access I'll have on my travels.

I said goodbye to some of my friends from Brest again this morning; several members of the group came to Minsk for last night's all-night prayer meeting. They told me to come back to Brest as soon as I can... hopefully that doesn't mean four months again.

As I looked around our 'night prayer' room in the wee hours last night (um, I mean this morning) I thought about how I'll miss all the parts of my family here -- the group from Brest, my home group, the youth group, etc. -- while I'm in Ukraine. I have six months left in Belarus, and it doesn't seem enough time to explore all I want to explore.

Of course, everytime I discover something -- about God, about people, about culture, about life, about the Russian language (ooh boy, is that a bizarre and many-dimensioned territory!) -- I realize there is so much more to it. But God knows what he wants me to explore. We take the steps we see, and trust God to reveal more concrete plans as we go.

- 17 June 2001

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