Winter Wonderland

It has been an unusually mild winter in Transcarpathia.  Snow has been scarce. Nonexistent really, nothing but the occasional dusting of snow.  Even as you gaze east on a clear day towards the Carpathians Mountains, the foothills have sparse amounts of snow.  Only the higher peaks, the most distant the eye can see have copious amounts of snow. The weather has seemed to be more March like than you would expect to find in the month of January.  Legendary tales of the winter of 2018 will not be told around dinner tables in the coming decades.  The Snowdrop flower, the earliest flower of the season which typically springs up from the ground at the first melting of the snow, has appeared even before February made its entrance.

We enjoy the cozy and quieter winter months.  I am thankful we have been able to have two different opportunities to go to the Carpathians Mountains and experience some genuine winter days.  The first opportunity came with our trip to the mountains during the Pella Winterim trip.  We traveled there with a combination of Pella Christian and Peterfalva Reformed High School students.  Thick and heavy snow flakes began to fall as we drove into the mountains.  The next morning, we awoke to a fresh pristine blanket of snow.  Our second opportunity to visit the mountains this winter was on the annual sledding day the Peterfalva Reformed High School organizes every January.  It was a beautiful day; the sun was shinning brightly as the students went up and down the sledding hill.  It was a great opportunity to spend time with teachers and students alike with the gorgeous wintry backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains all around us.  Standing on top of a mountain with snowy peaks as far as the eye can see has a way of making a person stop and gaze in awe, marveling at God’s creation and softly pondering His handy work and His majesty.  In the quiet and pristine beauty of the mountains to be reminded anew that without a doubt creation speaks of the existence of God as Paul writes about in Romans.

Peterfalva & Nagydobrony English Camps

Nagydobrony – For the first time this past summer we held an English/outreach camp in the town of Nagydobrony, Ukraine at the Hungarian Reformed Boarding School in the village.  The school is one of three Hungarian Reformed boarding schools in the minority Hungarian population of the western Ukraine, the province of Transcarpathia.  Transcarpathia, part of Hungary for a thousand years, still has an active minority Hungarian population and many Protestant churches.  The English teacher at the school, Magdolna Borovszki, a Peterfalva Reformed High School graduate, is a close friend of ours who was a student and former university Bible Study attendee, dating back to my first years visiting Ukraine.  Nagydobrony is 50 miles, but a grueling nearly two-hour drive from our home village of Peterfalva, and is one of the largest Hungarian settlements in the Transcarpathia region.  We immensely enjoyed traveling there for our week-long camp filled with devotions and singing, English lessons, games and activities, and capped off with a bonfire on a beautiful early summer night.  It was wonderful to meet many new students and teachers.  This was our first camp of the summer, beginning in the end of May, and was a great start for our volunteer teachers.  The town of Nagydobrony is home to a Christian Nursing home.  Nursing homes are uncommon and a Christian nursing home is very unique.  As part of the camp we walked over every afternoon with a group of students to sing and visit the elderly residents.  The residents enjoyed it and hopefully the students did too.

An evening of Hungarian Folk Dancing.One other highlight for us was to have a folk dance evening in Nagydobrony. Some area folk dance instructors came and taught all of us different Hungarian folk dances. We are thankful to the Nagydobrony school, the teachers, and community for welcoming us and partnering with us during this English camp.

Volunteer Sarah Slager from North Carolina leads devotions.

Devotions and singing are an important part of our camps. The students seem to enjoy the singing.  Learning English and vocabulary through song for many seems to be an easier and more enjoyable way to learn English. We especially love the devotional time as it provides time and places to be able to talk to the students about faith.  It is moving to hear the volunteers share with the students, personal testimonies, favorite Bible verses, and devotions that have helped them in their faith. Sometimes volunteers use this time to share with the students about struggles in their own lives and about how they were led to Christ.  It is always our hope and prayer that these words will fall on listening ears and open hearts. Please follow the link below to see more pictures. http://iccdabroad.org/photo-galleries/2017-nagydobrony-english-camp/

Peterfalva – Peterfalva, the small agrarian village in Western Ukraine we call home, was the location of our third camp of the summer.  This also marked our second camp with a Hungarian Reformed Boarding School. Around 100 students from the Peterfalva Reformed High School attend the camp.  The camp is a required part of the school curriculum.  The school year runs from September through May and the month of June is designated for language camps.  The students take part in our two-week English camp as well as a two-week Ukrainian language camp.  Despite the setting of a Christian boarding school, the camp is still an excellent opportunity to share the Gospel and the hope that is ours in Christ.  Also, it is a great opportunity to live our lives as a Christian example of what it means to follow Christ.

You may be wondering, what does a day in a boarding school camp look like?  The day is broken down into four different types of events.  Devotions & Singing, English Lessons, Service Projects, and Games & Activities.  Devotions and Singing occur every morning and evening.  We take turns as volunteers leading the devotions by sharing the Gospel, speaking about our faith, sharing a favorite Bible passage or a devotion or something that the LORD has been teaching us.  The devotions are translated into Hungarian by an English teacher or a local university student who is helping with the camp.  Every morning is filled with English Lessons from after breakfast until lunch.  Volunteers from North America prepare and conduct English lessons for the students.  The lessons are an opportunity for the students to advance in their English language abilities, which with a greater knowledge of English will help them find better jobs and opportunities later in life.  Many of the English Lessons are also centered around topics of faith and the Bible.  Afternoons are filled with Games & Activities and Service Projects.

Every student is required to take part in one Service Project throughout the course of the two-week camp.  The service projects involve spending an afternoon visiting elderly and widows in the Peterfalva community; singing, visiting, reading the Bible and praying with them.  The other opportunity is to volunteer for an afternoon at the local Roma kindergarten organizing games, songs, and a Sunday School message for these young Roma children.  One day we went to the Roma kindergarten and organized a lunch for the children.  Pastor Elemer Barta cooked the famed Hungarian goulash over an open fire and students from the Peterfalva Reformed High School, children from the Roma kindergarten and their teaches, and North American volunteers all enjoyed games, lunch, and fellowship together.

Evenings during the English Camp are filled with with many different activities for the students.  During the course of the two week camp we organize the students into activity teams.  The students choose a team name and make a poster representing their team. Throughout the two week camp the teams compete against each other in many games and activities and at the end of the camp an activity team is crowned champions and rewarded for their efforts with chocolate.  The student teams compete in Ultimate Frisbee, water games, a scavenger hunt, a trivia competition, organize skits and do many different other activities.

This camp is a busy two weeks but always richly blessed by God and a rewarding experience we are thankful for.

One exciting thing to happen this past year was one of volunteers David Guba, from Alberta, Canada brought with him an entire suitcase full of blankets, gloves, and winter hats that his mother had knitted.  David gave these items to many teachers and cooks at the school and he was also able to give them as gifts to elderly ladies of the community who the students visited in the afternoons during the camp.  Earlier this week, Stacey and I were able to visit Mariska-neni, a 92 year old woman in our village who the students visited last summer.  The blanket made by David’s mother was on her bed and she proudly retold the story of how she received it during the English camp.  We are thankful to both David who carried an entire extra suitcase and to his mother who must have given countless hours to make the blankets and hats.

We are again thankful to God for all the volunteers from North America this past summer.  We are thankful for their willingness to come and serve and give of themselves and their time.  We are also thankful to Reformed Mission Services for helping us find volunteers.  We were also very thankful to Csilla Kodobocz, David Hidi, Zoltan Toth, Krisztina Bosckor, Eszter Kucsinka, and Kamilla Kelemen (university students) who helped as translators and classroom assistants.  We also were thankful to Irenke Kalincs, and Magdolna Borovszki the respective English teachers we worked with in Peterfalva and Nagydobrony.  We are thankful to the administrators, dorm parents, cooks, cleaning staff, and everyone else at both schools who made these weeks possible.  We appreciated the efforts of so many people to be able to organize and conduct summer camps in both Peterfalva and Nagydobrony at the Hungarian Reformed boarding schools.  Soli Deo Gloria! Follow the link below to see more pictures.

2017 Peterfalva English Camp

Pella Christian High School Winterim

We arrived back to Eastern Europe on December 29.  It was a busy start for us as we had a group from Pella, Iowa come for a visit from January 2-13.  The group consisted of 15 high school students and 5 chaperones.  We happily agreed to organize a Winterim class trip from Pella Christian High School to Ukraine, Hungary, and Poland.  Winterim is a program done by Pella Christian Highschool as well as other Christian schools and colleges.  Before the start of the winter/spring semester the school offers special off campus short term classes and special focus short-term classes on location at the school. From our perspective, the class/trip went very well.

It is always a pleasure for us to have visitors and to be able to show this fascinating corner of the world to people from North America.  As part of the trip we organized a joint Pella/Peterfalva student trip to the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine.  Pella Christian High School and the Peterfalva Hungarian Reformed high school have developed a relationship over the past years.  We have had a number of volunteers from Pella come for summer English camps to Peterfalva, and Pella Christian has hosted three different exchange students from the Peterfalva Reformed High School. It was great to be able to take Pella students to Ukraine and to show them the high school here.  We organized an off-campus trip to the mountains with 15 Pella students and 16 Peterfalva students as well as chaperones from each school, and 6 local university students who acted as helpers and translators. We visited a WWII bunker, the top of a mountain, a castle, and a famous waterfall.  It was a great opportunity for the Peterfalva students to practice speaking in English as they interacted with Pella students. We hope the Pella students were able to learn about the culture, heritage, history and educational  system here in Transcarpthia. 

Peterfalva Students

Each evening we had small group Bible studies and devotions with combined student groups.  We also enjoyed an evening of singing together and praising God with our voices in two languages. We hope and pray

that the students were encouraged in their faith and relationship with Jesus over the course of the days we spent together.

Following the time in Ukraine we traveled with just the Pella group to Budapest, Hungary spending time there exploring and learning about the history of the city and of Hungary.  We were able to worship on Sunday with the Erdokertes, Hungarian Reformed Church, who we partner with in one of our English/outreach camps.  We were welcomed with such hospitality and a delicious meal following the morning service. We went on to Poland to visit the cities of Warsaw and Krakow as well as the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

We hope it was a memorable and life changing trip for these students (I think only one student had ever been out of the U.S.).  We hope they were all impacted by the fellowship, history, culture and opportunities to share their faith. We also hope some of the Pella students when they get of university age will consider coming to volunteer in our camps in the summer time and spend more time in this fascinating corner of the world.  It is really amazing to witness Christ’s dominion over all corners of the earth, and how He builds His kingdom!

Pella Christian Students with John Calvin on Kalvin Square, Budapest, Hungary.

 

 

Below, students in front of the Hungarian Parliament.

A Beautiful Song

Stacey and I have a love for singing.  I can’t claim to make a beautiful sound, but I do have a deep and sincere love for singing.  My roommates at Dordt College would often give me a hard time for my not so beautiful singing voice, little did they know I would some years later get a Chinese fortune cookie with the little paper inside saying that one day someone would enjoy my singing.   Hopefully this “fortune” has come true.  Stacey on the other hand can make a joyful sound and she leads us every Sunday night in an English Hymn sing at the Peterfalva Reformed High School.  Laci, a guitar playing teacher and dorm parent, faithfully comes to play the guitar for us every week. We have a faithful core of students who come every week to sing with us, to both practice their English and for a love of singing.  Some weeks we have up to 25 students who come for the event.  Our little English choir was invited last year to perform at an evangelizing week being organized by a local Reformed youth group at a local college in nearby Beregszasz.  We were again invited back this year and once again enjoyed going with our English choir to perform three songs during this church event.  May our “joyful noise” be to the glory and praise of God alone!

Roma Kindergarten Outreach

DSC_1128Working among the Roma, more commonly known around the world by the misnomer, Gyspy, brings both joys and frustrations. Often times we find ourselves frustrated with feelings that are far from Christ-like; judgmental and exasperated, annoyed or even angry. Many times, in a week, sometimes several times a day, Roma come to our door asking for money or food. Some have let themselves into our house uninvited. Then there is also theft. This past February, a bag of chicken that I had placed outside to thaw was taken from our front porch. Apart from feeling frustration towards these people who ask with such a demeanor that can be perceived as entitlement, there is also in us a sense of helplessness at the overwhelming neediness that these people possess.  We are often left feeling lost as to the best way to help them.  It raises many questions: How can we help the Roma without hurting them? How can we minister to their seemingly insurmountable needs, both physical and spiritual? Is true change possible for them? Sometimes in frustration I even wonder, is this possible?  How can you help someone change their habits and their life when it seems the entirety of society and culture is against them? Sometimes Roma come and beg for handouts while seeming totally unwilling to take personal responsibility to alter their predicament.  Can the Roma rise above their current poverty when it often appears that history, prejudices, racism, and stereotypes are stacked against them?  Some Roma do. Why don’t the majority?  Incidences such as begging and theft can leave a disagreeable taste in one’s mouth, and cause a sort of ungraciousness, bitterness, and an attitude of indifference to well up in us.  We need reminding that the Roma are image bearers of their Creator, just as we are, and no less so.  Their most basic need is also ours.  They stand in need of Christ and His redemptive work on the cross on their behalf, just as we do.  No amount of money, aid, or welfare is going to change their situation.  Only Christ can change the Roma, as only Christ can change us.  Both a humbling and infinitely hopeful thought! DSC_1042

Only Christ can change the lives of the Roma giving them hope, not only for today, but for eternity as well, yet how will this happen if they don’t know and believe in Jesus? I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 10:14-15.  The local church in the last decade has begun many ministries towards the Roma.  Some have succeeded, others have not.  Many in the local community have a heart for the Roma, while many others look upon the Roma with scorn.  The success of these ministries often seems to wax and wane.  One such ministry near us is a local Reformed Roma kindergarten and Christian after school center.  Young children come in the morning for kindergarten, and older students come after school for help with reading and school work.  Most Roma are illiterate and most do not go to school.  Those who do go to school, go inconsistently.  Percentage wise there is a very small amount of Roma children out of the total population who are coming for the kindergarten and after school program.  DSC_1135

It has been a blessing to us to be able to go to partner with this local outreach in a few different ways. Once a week we go with students from the local Peterfalva Reformed high school to lead a Bible lesson and prayer, singing and a Bible memory verse, activities and crafts. Our team includes Eric and myself, as well as 7-10 high school students. Interest was high among the students in the Reformed High school and we had to divide the 30 or so students into four different teams to take turns going.  About 20-25 Roma children wait eagerly for us to arrive. Students take turns leading the Bible story followed by a couple of questions as to what the story teaches us. The children are eager to recite the Bible memory verse and to answer the questions. To see our students from the high school bending near to these little ones, intently speaking or listening to the Roma children is really beautiful to see, and a sweet reminder of what it can mean to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  DSC_1158DSC_0893

We hope that the time spent together can help to bridge the gap between the different cultures and societies.  We hope the Roma children will hear the Word of God through this program, but we also hope that the Hungarian students who come with us will see the Roma children, who, though often dirty and shouting, are children of God made in His image.  We hope and pray that God will lead these students who go with us into lives of loving their neighbors and that they will see the Roma with new eyes, and a mission field, if you will, right in their own neighborhood. Please visit the photo gallery for more photos.    DSC_0868