20 August 2014

A few thoughts: Belarus July 2014

I've been asked how my trip to Belarus went and it's been hard to render an explanation of my experiences in a concise yet comprehensive manner. Normally it's just easy to answer that it went wonderfully. And it did. But there is so much more to be said about my trip.
Visiting Khatyn, a memorial to the village burned by Hitler. Belarus is no stranger to tragedies.

I had heard of reverse culture shock and been told I might experience it after getting home to the US from spending two weeks in Belarus.  I didn't think too much of it until I got back. As I process and deconstruct my time over there I am left with many differing emotions. Thankfulness is the most prominent feeling. I'm thankful for getting a glimpse of what's important.

In a world where you wear the same clothes over and over and over because you don't waste soap and water on clothes that aren't really dirty, our walk in closets are filled with overpriced clothes and 87 pairs of shoes that we don't even need. It is a thought unfathomable over there to have such over abundance. I packed a suitcase full of clothes and only ended up wearing a few of the items because it's normal to look the same day after day there. It was a freely enjoyable experience of not caring about whether anyone had already seen me in that set of clothes that week. No one cares!

Dirt roads, clay houses, and outhouses are still common place outside the city and you use your yard to garden, not to grow grass. Every inch of the yard was used to grow food. And you use what you grow. You don't run down to the pizza place for dinner if you don't feel like cooking because there isn't a local pizza place. There are no fast food dives. You make what you eat, from scratch. No boxes of mac and cheese let alone 20 different varieties that our local market dizzyingly offers.

You see block upon block of socialist apartment housing.

Restrictions on free speech, free assembly, and religion remain high. Members of a religious organization don't even have the right to share their convictions or to carry out religious activity beyond the borders of the location where they are registered.

In the US where practically everyone here is familiar with Protestants and the Baptist faith and what we stand for, it's odd to be in a country where you are seen as being a member of a cult. Old superstitions are still spread around that you stay away from the Baptists because we might eat your children and we drink people's blood. In Belarus where there is strong restrictions on being able to start a new church, proselytize, and advertise, the way to change people's thoughts about what we believe about Jesus Christ is through direct one to one personal relationships. It was actually refreshing and a constant reminder about how Jesus lived and told people about the Kingdom. He did it one to one, person to person, by loving and reaching the people who society marginalized. He didn't use a tv station, a radio program, or an internet podcast. He used his life to tell people who he was. Joy and peace like that can not be suppressed no matter the governments control.

I was in Belarus to help a local church and to work with people who have special needs. And even our help is legally restricted. We can not teach with out a legal license or we could be arrested. And good luck getting one of those licenses.We helped run a camp for 'kids' of all ages (6-28 years of age) who were so excited to be able to come together and create crafts, sing songs, and learn about Jesus. Their joy was infectious. They would light up each day when they saw us and would yell our names across the room and come running to greet us.

Believers are few and far between there. Less than 1 in a 100 are Christians. The Russian Orthodox Church is the state promoted religion which is steeped in mysticism and paganism with Catholicism thrown in. But the joy in the hearts of the fellow believers is a beautiful thing to witness. They have so many obstacles to overcome in reference to the political climate, the history, and negative misconceptions and yet they have such peace and thankfulness in the midst of it all. They make no assumptions. It was something to be jealous of actually, because they have a deep respect for their faith, which America (as a whole) seems to take for granted. They are full of hope. Hope that the people on their street will come to know Jesus because of the joy and peace they have in their lives, even in the midst of the oppression of their people.

Belarus is a country that is not ready or able to be a democracy yet. That was something that was very hard for me to experience. Growing up in a country where we are given so many freedoms, it was hard to see the people there have so much less than we do. My close translator and guide summed it all up for me though. The people of Belarus are tired from all the wars, the fall of communism, Chernobyl, etc...  They just want peace. Even if that peace means they aren't as free as persons in the US, they are still ok with the old ways of the dictatorship because they are pretty much left alone, as long as they follow the rules.

It was a poignant response, one that filled me with an understanding of the bigger picture in Belarus. The people are oppressed and most don't even know it.

October Square, Independence Ave.,Minsk
Building built specifically for the circus.
October Square
Minsk is clean, beautiful, and safe.
I honestly can't wait to go back. I can't imagine not getting there again and living and working alongside such amazing people as we work with special needs families. I even came home and started learning Russian. I left there with a determination to try to make life easier for Belarusians in any way I can. The wheelchairs in Belarus are still wooden, education for the multiply disabled is either minimal or completely lacking, support for the special needs family is non existent, the suicide rate is high. I don't know why I have been given the life I lead here in the US, but now that I have been able to experience Belarus for special needs families and Christians, I can't not help. <3 p="">
Our VBS team, translators, and the pastor & his wife.

Thankful for new friends.

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