The train ride was a special experience for sure. Many of us had never been on a train, so the novelty was quite exciting. The rooms were small but we got used to them quickly. A few made the brave journey to the Dining Car but for most of us, we simply stayed in our rooms and talked and laughed. Sleep – well that’s a different story Apparently, it is tougher to sleep on a train than many of us thought. We managed to toss and turn through the night for our 8:00 a.m. arrival in Kirov (midnight EDT) – but we were beginning to look a little haggard and road weary. We were all ready for a shower and a little break, but not before breakfast!!
Breakfast was at a little restaurant owned by a friend of one of our translators. They knew we were coming and we took up each seat in the establishment! As we walked in, they warmly greeted us and immediately began serving us food. They wanted to give us an American breakfast to welcome us…so they served us grilled chicken breasts and French fries, with toast and fresh cheese!! It was the best tasting “chicken and fries” breakfast any of us had experienced! Truly, a great meal made that was made with warmth and love. The place was also a bakery, so for dessert we tested some of the best apple strudel made in Russia (in our opinion). We boarded our bus with full bellies and great anticipation for what was in store for us.
After a quick stop at a department store for some last minute supplies for the orphanage, we headed for the 45-minute drive to Slobodskoy. There’s only one town between Kirov and Slobodskoy, so we were able to really see the rural Russian landscape. We arrived at the hotel about noon, with a couple of hours to shower (for the first time in two days) and unpack.
The brand new hotel has no name as it is the only hotel in Slobodskoy. We had no idea where we were staying as those details were handled by our ministry partner, Children’s Hope Chest, and their partners in Russia. Let’s just say that we are thrilled with the accommodations. Like the breakfast place earlier in the day, we have actually taken every room in the small hotel. In addition to our twenty-one Chapel Hill travelers, we have eleven Russian translators with us. Most of these translators are students at the university in Kirov. Our translators joked with us that since we were probably the largest group this new hotel had accommodated, that we probably earned the right to name the hotel. The hotel has new furnishings with a modern twist in décor, with wonderfully functional bathrooms and hot water. We could not have asked for better accommodations even if we were staying in Moscow.
We arrived for our fist visit to the orphanage at 3:00 p.m. local time. Our bodies have adjusted to the time and we felt clean and energetic…but nothing could have prepared us for the intensity we were about to experience.
First, my caveat: I am either too tired or too wired (or both) but I am not going to be able to adequately express our emotions as we spent our first six hours at the orphanage. Recounting travel details and logistics is one thing, but trying to describe an emotional rollercoaster of feelings is near impossible. I will do my best but I expect it will take many more posts…and some divine intervention…for the words to give you even 10% of what we are experiencing.
From the moment we arrived, we were met with unbelievable love and appreciation. It took about 15 minutes for everyone to feel comfortable (Americans and Russians alike) but after that, the floodgates opened! Kids could not stop hugging us, holding our hands, asking us questions and just wanting to be with us. They ask lots of great questions, especially about our lives and our families, and there is a clear longing for what we represent in terms of family stability and acceptance. The translators were kept incredibly busy jumping from group to group. The Russian kids were literally running to find a translator so they could ask their questions to us. By the end of the evening, the Americans were trying to speak Russian and the Russians trying to speak English as the hunger for conversation and connection could not wait for a busy translator!
The highlight of this first night for the kids was the photo albums/pictures that we brought of our families. The kids could not get enough of them! Over and over and over again they wanted to see them, from the hardcopies you brought to the pictures you just took on your camera moments earlier. It was so fun to see their faces light up as they recognized themselves or one of their new American friends. We have an incredible amount of pictures to share with you all back home but that may have to wait until we return.
There is so much to share about the facility, the food, the staff and the performances (which I will try to share later) but all that pales in comparison to what these 100+ kids represent. They demonstrated unconditional love and acceptance today, welcoming strangers into their house for food, shelter and warmth. These kids represented the universal love of God that is both palpable and yet mysterious all at the same time.
Again, I hope I am able to better communicate what is transpiring here in future posts; as I reread this, I realize that these words do not come close to describing what is happening to us and to these kids. But transformations are not always easy to document in writing, so I am giving myself a little break if this doesn’t capture it all! I am hoping that other travelers on this trip will update the blog in coming days (although internet access is limited) as they likely will have different perspectives and observations.
One special note for current Slobodskoy sponsors. These kids crave and love our letters to them. They keep the letters – every one of them. Many of them showed us the letters you had written to them, asking for their sponsors by name and wondering if they were on the trip. The words you write to them mean so much. For those of you currently sponsoring a child, please sit down and write them a letter today. Even if you don’t sponsor a child, sit down and write a letter and we will get it in the hand of a new friend. Just tell them about your life, your family, the weather, anything. Each of us on this trip have a renewed commitment to communicate via writing in the coming days, weeks and months.
Throughout our trip, I’ll be writing more about what you can do to help the children in Slobodskoy. There are so many needs here that we can help address. For now, just pray for them. Pray that their time with us will give them hope, love and restoration where needed. And pray for us, that we will continue to see Jesus in their little faces as we seek the same hope, love and restoration that they do.
Folks, this is an incredible experience that not one of us will ever forget. The impact this place and these children will have on the lives of the twenty-one of us may never be fully understood. But that’s part of the beauty of our faith. We don’t have to fully understand – that’s not our job. Our job is to love the least of these and hang out in places were Jesus would hang. We think we’ve found such a place in rural Russia. Thanks be to God.