BRJANSK, Russia (BP)–The Russian children stood, silent and subdued, in front of their isolated country orphanage, eyes downcast, spirits crushed. “They didn’t run up to us. They didn’t laugh. There was no joy in their eyes, only overwhelming hopelessness,” said Jullianne Kramer, a member of Oakgrove Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.
Kramer and a team of 15 other volunteers, led by Rick Gage, a Southern Baptist evangelist from Atlanta, traveled to Brjansk, Russia, eight hours south of Moscow, to bring physical and spiritual aid to Eastern Europe’s youngest citizens.
The team visited eight orphanages and several churches, whose pastors had helped make local arrangements with the Brjansk Ministry of Education, which oversees the orphanages. Through a drama presentation about Christ’s life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven, the team shared the gospel with more than 1,500 children, mainly 7-16 years of age. More than 300 made decisions for Christ. “It was all done through an interpreter,” Gage recounted. “The narrator read Scripture to explain the play. It never failed at every orphanage when Jesus rose from the grave all the kids would clap and cheer.”
But laughter and joy are not familiar companions to these children. “The orphanages are not happy places,” said Bill Holmes, team member and pastor of First Baptist Church, Tenaha, Texas. “The directors and workers are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances, but these facilities are still on the bottom of Russia’s already crumbling economic ladder.”
None of the orphanages the team visited had heat, but were burning wood or coal for warmth. The children’s diet consisted mainly of potatoes, cabbage, soup and chicken. Many were sick, but there was no medicine available. In addition, Brjansk orphanages are located in isolated communities near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster where radiation has contaminated the environment. Local residents told team members that young children still die of radiation poisoning.
Gage and his volunteer team had recruited financial support and donated supplies in an effort to meet the orphanages’ most pressing needs during the months before the Feb. 25-March 5 trip. When the group boarded their plane to Moscow, they had more than 2.5 tons of medical and dental supplies, clothes, toys and other aid sent by the shoebox-full from Southern Baptist churches across the country.
“International flights limit passengers to two checked bags, which can only weigh 70 pounds total. Anything above that costs extra, so we had to trust God to get these supplies to the children,” Gage said. “Before we left, Delta Airlines waived all the fees for our load — 4,500 pounds!”
Gage’s ministry has focused its relief and evangelistic efforts on Russia since 1992, but in the last year has narrowed the emphasis to orphanages in particular. “We’ve known since we started going to Russia that there was an incredible need among the children,” Gage said. “In the 10 years since communism has collapsed, the Russian people, especially the children, have been suffering tremendously. God seemed to open the doors from day one.
“An orphanage director told me each facility is supposed to receive 1,000 rubles per child per month from the government,” Gage said. “That’s about $50 per child, and it had to pay for salaries, clothes, food, medicine and utilities. Sadly, the orphanages haven’t even received that tiny amount in the last six months because of the government’s financial crisis. But the workers have stayed anyway because they are so committed to these kids.”
Life outside the orphanage is no more promising for the children, when at age 16 they must leave the system. “They are just put out on the street,” said Bill Holmes, whose family is currently working to adopt a Russian infant. “They have no food, no job, no home, no security. The government isn’t coldhearted, there’s just no other option. Here in America, our kids can’t wait to be 16 so they can drive and finally have their freedom. But in Russia, these orphans see themselves on death row, with their 16th birthday as the execution date.”
Ten percent commit suicide, and of those left, 70 percent become criminals, drug addicts or prostitutes, said Debbie Wynne, director of the Buckner International Adoption Services in Dallas.
This is where Christ comes in. “After we spent a few hours at an orphanage, sharing the gospel, hugging the children, distributing stickers, toothbrushes and clothes, I began to see life in their eyes,” said Jullianne Kramer. “I shared my testimony with a 12-year-old girl, gave her a sticker and then explained the gospel to her. She wrapped her arms around me and broke into tears. I knew that she had accepted Christ because I had reached out to her in love. She had nothing, but I know it wasn’t the sticker I gave her that made the difference. It was the touch that came with the sticker. She knew I couldn’t stay, but I was leaving her with Jesus and a new hope for the future.”
A 15-year-old boy asked Kramer, “How do you believe?” “I was surrounded by children, so I looked them right in the eyes and told them all about Jesus,” she said. “I really wanted them to understand why I had come.”
The team explained the gospel using the colored bead bracelets also popular here in America. “For the majority of these children and workers, it was the first time they had ever heard the Gospel,” Gage said. “At one orphanage, the team was handing out donated supplies to the children when I noticed the orphanage director just standing there transfixed by what she was seeing. I went up to her and explained why we had come, that we loved these kids, and that we were here to give them the love of God. I shared the plan of salvation with her, and tears began to flow down her face. She and another lady listening nearby accepted Christ right there in the middle of all this commotion of giving gifts and loving the children.”
Each new Christian received a Russian New Testament and Gage’s book, “Getting Started Right,” as a follow-up tool. “The children and workers in these isolated orphanages are literally an unreached people group,” Gage said.
In addition to the frequent trips to Russian orphanages, Gage’s ministry also sponsors a dozen orphans and several chaperons each year to attend his youth summer camp in Toccoa, Ga. Nearly 50 children have already come to America through “The Russian Students Dream Come True Project” and have spent three weeks in the homes of Southern Baptist families in the Atlanta area. In 1994, the first year of the program, Ludmila Sordova, an official with the Ministry of Education, brought 12 children with her to America to attend the camp. She and all the children accepted Christ during the camp week and were baptized. Since then, Sordova has personally helped facilitate Gage’s ministry trips to Russia and helped orphans obtain visas to travel to America.
Bill and Tammy Loveless had prayed for years for an opportunity to minister to the needs of the Russian people. Then in 1996 they hosted Nastia, a 14-year-old orphan girl, so she could attend Gage’s summer camp.
“We brought her home from the Atlanta airport and immediately began to regret what we had done,” said Tammy Loveless. “For the two weeks before she left for camp, Nastia was withdrawn, angry and afraid. I’d call everyone to dinner; she’d sit down, then jump up, race to her room and lock the door. We called the interpreter. We tried everything to resolve the situation, but nothing worked.
“Then she went to camp, and while she was there she accepted the Lord. The difference in the child was amazing. She was happy, joyful, playful — a complete transformation. It was truly a miracle. The rest of her visit was a blessing, and we hated to send her back.” The Loveless family has communicated through letters with Nastia and even visited her in Russia.
Ludmila Sordova’s boss, a high-level government official, heard about the American summer camp and wanted her teenage daughter to attend. She did, and when Gage returned to Moscow recently, he was invited to dinner at the family’s home.
“Both the mother and father told us that the trip changed their daughter’s life,” Gage said. “She was saved and baptized at our camp. They said she was a different daughter. Then the phone rang and the mother went to answer it. While she was gone, I shared with the father why his daughter had changed so radically. He accepted Christ right there at the dinner table.”
Today, there is hope in Russia, and slowly it is spreading from one person to another. “I talked with an older Russian man who said, ‘For 70 years, our government lied to us about you Americans’,” said Bill Holmes. “He told me, ‘Every American was our enemy. Some of us saw through that, but many believed it. But you Americans are not like that. You have come from far away, at great expense, to love these children. The government may still tell them the lie, but they will no longer believe it.’
“We told him that we came all this way, not just because we are Americans, but because we are Christians,” Holmes said. “No one can stop the lies and the darkness for good, except Christ.”
Gage plans to take another team to Brjansk Aug. 2-10. For more information about this trip or future trips, Gage’s ministry can be contacted at 1-800-550-4243 or P.O. Box 48543, Atlanta, GA 30362.
Williams is a freelance writer in Swansboro, N.C.