I’m just getting back into the flow of things, at work and at home, having just returned from my 2nd trip to the Slobodskoy Orphanage this past weekend. This trip was very similar to my initial trip last year, in that, again, it was a life changing, faith altering experience. Although similar in emotional and spiritual impact this years trip was very different in many ways from my initial spring 2010 trip.
This year I was a “seasoned” Russian traveler and, for example, knew about all the fun associated with the 12+ hour train ride from Moscow to Kirov, the interesting orphanage food, and the difficulty I had in getting a good nights’ sleep at the hotel after each emotional day at the orphanage, and then upon waking, the fun morning shower experience! So all that part of the learning curve was behind me now as I prepared for this years’ trip. Also , my wife, Kathy, joined Julia and I on this trip, so as I prepared for this second trip I knew it would be similar, yet completely different, I just didn’t know quite how.
In my trip last year, upon getting to the orphanage the first day I was immediately overwhelmed and emotionally gasping for air nearly the entire week as I met these wonderful people each day but struggled to remember names and understand the workings of the orphanage; for example, what a “discipler” was, and the difference between the “teachers” and the “caregivers”, and generally how the orphanage operated. I was also unprepared for how emotionally connected I would become to the kids and translators and staff so quickly in this process. As well we learned about the eccentricities of the very talented and completely over the top, charismatic orphanage director, Galina, who consistently amazed us with her predictable unpredictability. In addition, on our first trip, there was stress for Julia and me the first couple of mornings as we pulled up to the orphanage thinking about having to “perform” for the kids and concerned about connecting with them and making it meaningful for the kids and keeping them entertained. However, of course, it quickly became apparent that the bar was low in terms of the childrens’ expectations for the Americans, as they only wanted a hug, and a smile, and someone to otherwise take an interest in their lives and show them how important they are in God’s world. So – hugs, and kisses, I found, that I am highly qualified to do! So over the last year Julia and I learned much about the logistics and workings of the orphanage and the travel experiences and after meeting the amazing kids, staff, and translators our lives have been turned upside down never to be the same again.
However, the trip for me this year was much different as we basically knew what to expect in the daily routine at the orphanage. Last year in the Spring trip we each had the same translator each day to keep us out of trouble and do all of the communicating with the kids. But this year the returning travelers were much more at ease and, for example, not as concerned with having a consistent translator at all times to escort you around. So there was a more wandering around and free lancing during the day to take advantage of opportunities to talk with certain groups of kids as they became available.
One of my goals from last year was to learn a bit of the Russian language. So this year I came to Russia prepared to interact with the kids/staff with a woefully small, yet in the end, adequate, working knowledge of some basic Russian vocabulary. There were wonderful moments talking, sans translator, one on one with the kids and the staff and looking at our family photo albums and sharing about each other’s lives. They clearly enjoyed hearing the tortured Russian that many of us attempted to speak throughout the week.
There is a wonderful bond that is formed when you share photos of your family and life back home and can hear the orphanage staff members describe their sons and daughters and homes and family life as well. My first trip was about showing love and building trust. This trip, for me, was much more about truly being included as a part of the Slobodskoy orphanage family – and it’s not an exaggeration to say that we are part of the family there. There was no imaginary stress in having to “perform” or worrying about whether you were getting through to the older kids. It was a family reunion atmosphere in the grandest sense of the word.
I’ll share a couple of highlights for me even outside of the daily exchange of hugs and loving little conversations we had with the kids and staff. One of these was the chance to spend key conversation time with several of the loving and talented translators that had become such close friends to all of us over the last year. Truly they have become a part of my family. Throughout the week I found time to have deep discussions of life and the future and the various paths that each of our lives were on. The list of Russian friends we’ve met through this ministry continues to grow and it’s a challenge to find the time during the week to talk one on one with each of these now close friends.
However the true highlight for me was the honor that Robert Naylor and I shared on meeting with a group of seven graduating boys who are in their last year at the orphanage. It was our chance to sit with these young men in a formal setting and share some tea and impart any wisdom or advice that Robert or I thought may be meaningful to help them as they prepared to graduate on to technical school next year. Throughout the week the daily schedules constantly shifted and changed and at one point during the day of our graduate meeting I thought that our evening graduate discussion session would be postponed and I was honestly relieved as I didn’t feel up to the challenge that day. However, it turned out that, in the end, we did meet with them that night.
You have to understand that these are normal 16-year-old boys who, similar to American youth, typically have no use for grown up discussions of their futures and low tolerance for preachy do-gooder advice. And Robert and I didn’t have any jokes or gimmicks prepared and were relying on God’s presence to guide us in a way to reach through to these young men. So there was this big question in my mind as to how much respect or interest we would be shown by these likely disinterested boys. However, after a nervous start, it turned out God was there with us and Robert and I had an amazing 90 minute chat with these young men where we talked of our own life philosophies and our thoughts on faith and success in life. It quickly became apparent that these young men were hungry to hear advice and the questions freely flowed. The caregiver/teacher that sat in with us during the discussion also questioned some of our philosophy and the nature of God as we presented it and joined in the back and forth discussion. It was an amazing religious experience for Robert and I to have God lead this discussion and we were just kind of along for the ride.
There are too many other highlights to list here, but it is safe to say that two trips is not enough to satisfy this need to be a part of this growing family. We look forward to another trip next year if we’re fortunate enough to be included.