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
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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