Weekends in the mountains are often refreshing and renewing for the soul and the body. Cool and fresh mornings and brisk mountain air are invigorating. The Carpathian Mountains are a perfect place abounding in the natural beauty of God’s creation to spend a weekend to slow down and spend time in God’s Word with a group of young adults. After a busy past month, a weekend away for a spiritual retreat with university students was an absolutely wonderful break from the schedule. We have been given a grant from the Zondervan Foundation to conduct a couple of Bible Retreat weekends this spring. We are planning a much larger weekend for May with many students, but this past weekend focused on a smaller more intimate setting with a small group of students who were wanting to spend time in Bible study, discussion, prayer and singing.
Unfortunately, three students had to back out at the last moment due to a death in the family and some issues at school. In the last moments, I searched for people to take their place. I found one local student and then contacted two medical students from Nigeria who I had met last year, who live two hours from us and study here in Ukraine. They were not able to come, but they told me they had two friends who might be interested. I assumed these two friends were living locally. To my surprise, I received a call late in the night from one of the two girls. They were not at all living in the local Transcarpathian area, but instead living in Ternopil, a city 7 hours by train to the east of us. They were so excited to come that they left five hours later at 3am in the morning in order to travel seven hours in a train to join us for the weekend. These two young ladies were very strong and committed in their faith and very articulate about their faith in Jesus. They were a blessed addition to our weekend. It was also good for the local Hungarian and Ukrainian students to mingle and worship with Christians from a different continent.
On a side note: Ukraine is full of Nigerian students who have come to Ukraine, learned Russian and study medicine in Ukrainian universities. One of the girls who joined us will be a doctor in less than two months. Most of these Nigerian students are also Christians. They originally studied in eastern Ukraine in Luhansk and Donetsk. In the last years when war erupted in the far eastern regions of Ukraine these Nigerian students found themselves in the middle of a war zone. Faith and Deborah, the two girls we met this past weekend, told us stories of having to lie on the floor of their apartment to avoid bullets and shrapnel, of walking in the streets around dead bodies, of friends dying, and stories of other Nigerians who were kidnapped by rebels. One of the other students asked why they didn’t just leave. They replied that it was very difficult and dangerous to leave. If you went to the train station or bus station you risked death or kidnapping from the hands of rebels who patrolled and waited by exit points. Many Nigerians have in the last couple of years now been relocated near us in western Ukraine and they have started vibrant Christian churches among African students and Ukrainians. How amazing are the mysterious ways of God that he is using African Christians to start churches, proclaim His Word and spread the Gospel across Ukraine, even in the war zones of eastern Ukraine! Until last year, we were unaware of the vast number of African Christians that have been arriving in western Ukraine. We have been blessed and encouraged to now call some of them friends and brothers and sisters in Christ. We spent the weekend at a hotel on the edge of a mountain. A forest lay behind it with a series of waterfalls and a flowing stream descending down into the hotel complex. The hotel was on the grounds of what appeared to be an old camp. There was an abandoned pool, old outdoor weight lifting equipment, and a few random Soviet era statues of children eerily looking over the place. The statues of children appeared to be very similar to statues I have seen elsewhere in Ukraine at an abandoned Pioneer camp. This led Stacey and I to believe that the hotel was on the complex of an old Soviet Communist Pioneer camp. The Pioneers were the communist version to American Boy Scouts.
The theme of the Spiritual Retreat weekend was twofold. First, to find joy in our lives through Jesus Christ and not through vainly searching for joy through material goods or earthly things that will always leave us unsatisfied. And secondly, when we have joy in our lives and faith in God, what is expected of us? How are we to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves? We took an in depth look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan discussing questions and observations from Tim Keller in his book, “Ministries of Mercy”. Concluding with a challenge to the students to let their light shine for Christ, as it says in Philippians 2:15, “so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe. “
We were continually amazed at the richness of God’s grace throughout this weekend. Although it got off to a shaky start with a number of students having to cancel because of a death in the family and school problems, we can see that God was at work. We had a wonderful and blessed weekend and we praise God for the Christian fellowship and encouragement, and being in the Word and praying together. Thanks again to the Zondervan Foundation for their support for such weekends.
If you are interested in reading more about the Pioneers. Here is an interesting link. http://russiapedia.rt.com/of-russian-origin/pioneers/