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.

Church Partnered Summer Camps

Summer Camps are partnered with either Christian schools in Ukraine or in partnership with Church congregations in Ukraine, Hungary, and Croatia.  We looked forward to hopefully adding a church partnered camp in Romania this coming summer as well.  These week long camps that are partnered with churches are an outreach to the people of the local community which the church serves.  We praise God for this opportunity and we thank God for these weeks spending time with hundreds of young people teaching English to them, but more importantly having an opportunity to share our faith and the Gospel of Jesus Christ with many young people.  Here is a look back at last summer’s four camps that took place in cooperation with churches.

I. Beregszasz – Over the last four years, a university student named Nikolett has attended our university English classes.  We have enjoyed getting to know her over the past years and have been encouraged by her strong faith and devotion to Christ.  She has attended or helped us in some of our summer English camps and has been an active participant in some of our Bible Retreat weekends.  This past year she invited us to visit her church a couple of times and after hearing about our summer English/Outreach camps, the church invited us to partner with their small Presbyterian church in Beregszasz, Ukraine for a week-long camp.  This was not a school camp, but a church camp.  Children as young as seven years old and as old as high school age from the church and local community attended from 9am-3pm for devotions, singing, English classes, and games.  God blessed this week. The church was happy and excited to have such a week of Gospel outreach and relationship building, and it was a pleasure for us to be of service to them and their local church. Follow the link below for more photos of this camp.

II. Vachartyan is an old village, near the storied Danube Bend region of Hungary.  Vachartyan and the neighboring town of Erdokertes, sister congregations led by the same pastor, Barnabas Gergely, are both bedroom communities of Budapest due to their proximity of being within 45 miles of the capital city. In Vachartyan we have been working with pastor Barnabas and his wife Livia for 10 years conducting an English outreach camp for local middle school and high school students of their church and community during the first week of July.

Water Balloon Volleyball

We are always welcomed with generous hospitality and we have enjoyed over the last decade getting to know many people in these communities.  We and our volunteers stay with host families from the both the Vachartyan and Erdokertes congregations helping us get to know many families over the past years.

We also enjoy working with David and Grace McBrier, American missionaries living in the nearby city of Vac.  They have many interesting outreach programs including a softball/baseball ministry, women’s retreats, and as Grace is an excellent cook and baker they are often hosting people at their home.  David is also a carpenter and every year David and Grace lead the students at the Vachartyan camp in a week long building/craft project with a Gospel theme.  At the end of the week all of the students have built a souvenir to take home with them.

Building Project

Another interesting side note to our Vachartyan camp is that it is the home town of our volunteer David Guba’s grandparents.  He first heard about us and the camp through a google search while researching his ancestors home village. This past year during the camp he lived with cousins who still live in Vachartyan.

We are also excited every year to work along side Orsi Gelle, a dear friend and English teacher from Vac.  Orsi’s experience teaching children and her genuine faith and friendship are such a blessing to the camp.  We are thankful each and every year to be a part of this camp in Vachartyan. Follow the link below for more pictures from the camp.

III. Tiszaujvaros is also a small city on the Eastern end of Hungary.  Tiszaujvaros has a very different history and very different settings today than Vachartyan.  Tiszaujvaros is a very new city, having been created in farm fields along the Tisza river in the 1950’s as a model communist industrial city.  Due to its history and recent creation, the city never had a church until the late 1990’s.  We have been working with the Tiszaujvaros congregation in a similar fashion for only the past three years.

We can see the LORD’s providence at work in how we came know the Church and Congregation in Tiszaujvaros.  Four years ago, on a dark February night, while traveling with a group of students, our Volkswagen van broke down near their church and their subsequent kindness, care, and aid met our unfortunate predicament.  They welcomed us that evening with such hospitality.  They had been praying for a way to start an English camp ministry and we were an answer to that prayer, stranded on the side of the highway that cold dark snowy night.

We have enjoyed partnering with Aranka and Laci and their ministry in Tiszaujvaros and like many other places, we have enjoyed meeting many people in the church community.  We are blessed to be serving these churches and their ministry to their communities through helping them organize these summer Gospel outreach/English camps.

Because these are church outreach weeks and not school camps, we follow a model of having students come from 9am until 3-4pm, returning home in the evenings.  Days are filled with alternating hours of devotions & singing, games, and creative English lessons.  Over 50 middle school and high school students attended the Vachartyan camp and around half that number came to the Tiszaujvaros camp.  We praise God for these opportunities.  We are thankful to God for the opportunity to work beside so many godly people in this community who labor intensively for the sake of the Gospel.

IV. Vorosmart – Our week-long camp in Vorosmart is unique to us.  It is not an English camp and it is our only camp to date that happens outside of the borders of Hungary or Ukraine.  Vorosmart is a small ethnic Hungarian town in north eastern Croatia.  The camp is a Bible camp in a Vacation Bible School format.  Middle school and high school students attend from 9am until 3pm for periods of devotions and singing, small group discussions, and games and crafts.

The other unique aspect of this camp for us, is that the camp is mostly led by university students that we take from Ukraine.  We help organize it and provide the logistics and we and other native English volunteers help lead the devotions and help with games, but by in large the camp is run by Hungarian university students from Ukraine.  It is truly amazing to see God at work, using these young people to reach out and share the Gospel with others.  We are always welcomed and hosted by Pastor Gyorgy Varga and the congregation.  This past year we enjoyed delicious dinners every evening made by ladies in the congregation.

God Blessed these camps this past summer and we are excited to once again plan for these camps this coming summer.  Please pray for these camps and outreach opportunities now during the planning process and this summer when they will be underway. To God be the glory!

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.

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

Catching Up

We found ourselves busier than we anticipated this spring heading into the summer months.  It was a good kind of busyness.  We are thankful for so many opportunities God has graced us with.  Opportunities to share the Gospel with many young people of Eastern Europe.  We are thankful for the opportunities that God has given us to live out our faith in gratitude for the gift of salvation He has given us through the blood of Jesus Christ.  We often dwell on the here and now of our earthly lives and spend little time looking towards our heavenly home.  I hope this year through the work of the Holy Spirit we were able to plant seeds in lives and hearts of many young people that this life is but temporary, as we look towards our glorious future of everlasting life, dwelling with and praising God.  We hope and pray that the words and deeds that were heard and observed by many young people in our English lessons and clubs, Bible Retreats, and other ministries point towards our precious hope that is in Christ alone.

The focus of these latest blogs, although belated, has been upon spring events.  In our next blogs we will give a report on our summer camps which the LORD blessed immensely.  With thankful hearts and humble praises, Soli Deo Gloria.

I never got around to posting a blog I wrote last spring about the beauty of spring in Ukraine.  I thought it was still worth posting.

Spring abounds with hope and renewal.  The changing of the season passes by, giving hope of new life and a renewed creation.  As beautiful as the winter is, what a glorious transformation to watch the snow melt and to see the wonder of life and color return after the dormant sleepy months of winter.  Life in the villages of Ukraine with the spring season come to life in buzzing activity following months of house bound winter captivity. Ukraine will never have spring time fame like the flower fields of Holland, or the cherry trees blossoming in Washington D.C. or Tokyo.  Yet, with an abundance of fruit trees joined by a variety of flowers perfectly suited for life and growth here, Transcarpathia, Ukraine, lacks nothing in beauty during the spring time months.  The snow flowers are the first to appear, often before the snow even melts away, soon followed by the Crocus covering the forest floor in a majestic sea of purple.  These early spring flowers are soon replaced by tulips, fruit tree blossoms, and many other flowers too numerous to name here.  Spring is my favorite season in Ukraine.  All of creation in every season testifies of God and proclaims His name and His handiwork.  The coming to life of creation in the spring time reminds me of God’s promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth.  What a glories day it will be to see God’s perfect creation where there will be no more pain and suffering or death, and every tear will be wiped away.

Ultimate Frisbee And Pizza In The Park

Ultimate Frisbee and Pizza in the park: The majority of our students in Western Ukraine are part of the minority Hungarian population of Ukraine who have been living on these lands for a thousand years, but now call Ukraine home instead of Hungary due to border changes and the twists and turns of history.  Speaking Hungarian as their mother tongue, many of these students end up in universities in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.  Many stay and find jobs and spouses.  Between current and former students, and people who have left for a “better life” in Hungary we have been left with a city full of acquaintances and friends most of them with Western Ukrainian roots.  On one May weekend, we traveled the five-hour trip to Budapest to meet with pastors and organizers that we would be working with later in the summer during our outreach/English camps in Hungary.  We decided to spend Saturday afternoon in a park and invite students from Western Ukraine to join us for a pizza and a game of Ultimate Frisbee.  In case you are not familiar with the game, it is a cross between soccer and football, but using a Frisbee disc. It has been popular on American university campuses for the past couple decades and is growing in popularity in Europe.  Around a dozen students joined us.  It was a fun afternoon to play, talk, and visit with former students from Ukraine and to meet new young people.  We played for a couple of hours with a thunder storm marking half time, and then went out for pizza.  The opportunity also allowed us to introduce these students to a young pastor who works just outside of Budapest (a dear friend of ours who is an avid fan and participant of the sport).  He has been in some contact with a couple of these students since, and we praise God for this and we hope and pray he can be a godly influence on their lives too.

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!

English Clubs and Classes

Through the winter and spring months this past year we have been thankful to be involved in many different English clubs and classes.  Two of the English clubs and one class are held in the nearby city of Beregszasz.  One afternoon/evening a week we spent in the city teaching a university class at the local Rakoczi Ferenc Hungarian College and holding a children’s English club and an evening English club for teenagers and adults.  The children’s club is focused more on English learning using games, crafts, and activities.  The adult club is focused on a weekly topic that we discuss.  The college class is also centered around a weekly topic of the English language or American culture.  It was a rewarding experience to get to know so many people through these weekly meetings.  The classes gave us an opportunity to invite the students to other events.  Many of the university students would later accept our invitation and join us in the late spring for a Bible retreat weekend in the mountains.

We also enjoyed teaching English in our home village of Peterfalva.  We conducted English classes at the local Hungarian Reformed boarding school on a weekly basis.  Most classes took place at the school learning about English through a variety of ways and methods.  Classes often involved games, songs, and activities.

One particular English class the Stacey and I reflected fondly on was one afternoon, when students came to our house to learn about American style pancakes and maple syrup.  Pancakes are different in Europe.  They are not the thick fluffy pancakes that dot the breakfast tables and cafes across North America.  On the contrary, a European pancake is thin, cooked without a rising agent and is then rolled into a burrito shape with its delicious ingredients inside.  In Hungarian cuisine pancakes are filled with chocolate, jams, or a type of local cheese curds.  However, I have had similar pancakes in the Netherlands that were variety and could be filled with cheese and ham. Most people in Eastern Europe have never seen or tasted North American style pancakes covered in such a delicacy as maple syrup.  We had brought a small bottle of maple syrup with us which we shared with the students and taught them about where the syrup comes from and how it is harvested.  Stacey crushed up chocolate bars and showed the students how to make pancakes.  Chocolate chip pancakes with maple syrup was enjoyed by all. 

This past spring Stacey also began to organize an adult English club out of our home for our neighbors.  Not just young students, but also many middle-aged people are interested in learning English.  On a trip to the pharmacy one day, Stacey was approached by a local pharmacist about starting an English club in the village that could meet on a weekly basis.  A dedicated group of neighbors came throughout the spring for evening English lessons from Stacey and it was a very good way to get in closer contact with our neighbors. 

Dordt College Visit

Corn dominates the landscape of much of Iowa.  This is undeniable.  I have heard many people complain about a drive across Iowa, grumbling about the miles of nothingness but corn and soybean fields, discontent and bored for each of the 306 miles it takes to drive across Iowa on Interstate 80. Lacking oceans and mountains many people view traveling through Iowa as an unfortunate necessity to endure as they pass by on their way to somewhere they think worthier of their time.  I have never understood this. I love the state of Iowa and its surreal beauty of rolling green hills and big skies.  I look forward each and every time to any opportunity to visit Iowa. I have many times in my life championed Iowa to fellow travelers as a place of great beauty and charm filled with interesting Midwestern small towns. Iowa is an agriculture paradise dotted with historical family farms and century old picturesque barns. In some ways, Iowa reminds me also of Ukraine.  Rising and falling hills of crops dominate the skyline of Ukraine much like they do Iowa. Located in Northwestern Iowa in the small hamlet of Sioux Center is my Alma mater, Dordt College, a small Christian College of Reformed heritage named after the Cannons of Dort, a statement of Faith signed many years ago in the Dutch city of Dordrecht.

I was excited this past May to get a visit in Ukraine from two professors from Dordt College who were leading a group of students on a research project in Ukraine.  Professor Mark McCarthy and Professor Mark Christians took a group of students to study life, culture and social issues of Ukraine.  The research project was based on interviews done by a separate research group years ago.  The group was made up of three Dordt students plus eight other students from different universities from across the country. I was asked if I could help them organize a trip to Ukraine to see both the country and its people.  I enjoyed working them and getting to know the students taking part in this research program.  It was a pleasure to show them around western Ukraine and for us to have interaction with these students.


Bible Retreat Weekend

The weekend of May 5-7 we traveled to the beautiful Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine with 48 young adults and university students for a weekend of Bible study, prayer, singing, fellowship, and hiking. This was the third annual weekend Bible retreat we have conducted through a grant from the Zondervan Foundation.

For much of the world, May 1 is Labor Day.  This was an important socialist holiday across Eastern Europe and the Communist bloc. May 9 is Victory Day, commemorating the end of WWII. The week and weekends that these days fall on are spring holidays from school for students and therefore, an ideal time to attract students to come for a weekend away to the mountains. The heart of spring is a lovely time to spend in God’s creation among the vibrant spring flowers and landscapes of the Carpathian Mountains. We have been encouraged by the number of students who have returned from previous years and it has also been wonderful to see new faces this year. Many of the students are young adults who we regularly see and have spent time with in English camps, English classes, and Bible studies. This weekend is a unique opportunity to reinforce and grow in our relationships with them. However, many are students we do not know, and it is an excellent occasion to meet and form new relationships with them.  We praise God for the hints of change we can see in their lives and we pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to work in their lives and change their hearts.

Possibly the biggest surprise for us in organizing this weekend is the diversity of those attending. Originally, when the retreat weekend was still nothing but an idea, we thought it would be attended only by Hungarian university students who are among the Hungarian minority populations of western Ukraine. God has blessed the Bible retreats the past three years in ways that we could not imagine.  One of them being the great diversity of the students.  The majority remain minority Hungarian students of Transcarpathia, Ukraine.  However, we also welcomed six Nigerian students who are in western Ukraine attending medical school, two German students volunteering in western Ukraine with a German organization, and six Ukrainian students from Kyiv brought by three Navigator missionaries.  The Navigators are a U.S. based mission organization with a ministry in Kyiv and we have been blessed to partner with the Navigators for the past three years. This year three Navigator missionaries brought a group of six young adults and joined us for the Bible retreat and served as small group leaders. This was a small foretaste of what heaven would be like with so many people from so many different cultures and walks of life joining together to praise God and study the Bible. Using English as a common language, it was remarkable to study the Bible and praise and glorify God among such a diverse group of believers.

We broke up into four small groups for the weekend and had morning and evening sessions studying the Trinity.  We studied and discussed God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  We hope and pray that the discussions and Bible studies on the three Persons of the Trinity encouraged the faith and understanding of the attendees and for those who are not Christians that it would show them who God is and why we need Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We pray that the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Gospel were faithfully proclaimed and we hope and pray that the seeds that were planted in open hearts and minds will continue to grow and flourish.

If for some the message of the Gospel and Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross was something they had never heard. We hope that this weekend was an encouragement to all and a calling to all to give their lives to Jesus Christ.

Photo Credit: Maksym Diachenko