Russian Americans grow in faith, build community at campground
By Jared Janzen
For many kids, summer camp is a way to have fun in the great outdoors by swimming, hiking and roasting marshmallows over bonfires. But for children and adults at Russian Baptist Church, a USMB congregation in Shakopee, Minn., camping is much more. It’s an opportunity to build community and learn about God, which is why the church owns Eagle Lake Camp and Retreat Center.
This summer marks the third year since the church purchased Eagle Lake Camp, a 120-acre campground situated around a private lake about 130 miles north of Shakopee. The purpose of the camp is to develop and encourage ministry groups in the congregation, says Victor Gromoff, a board member of Russian Baptist Church.
“It’s mostly for promoting relationships with church members and building up the community at the church,” says Gromoff.
Owning camp expands options
In the summer, the church uses the campground for a number of kids’ camps. They also hold a variety of weekend retreats designed for specific groups, such as fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, married couples, older adults and the church’s choir. These retreats focus on building relationships within families and within the congregation.
Before the church purchased Eagle Lake Camp in the spring of 2013, it rented sites at national parks to hold camps. Having its own site has expanded the church’s options for holding camps and retreats.
The first year at Eagle Lake Camp, all kids and teens were in one camp for a total of about 350 people, including volunteers. Now kids ranging in age from six to 15 are split into three separate back-to-back camps in the first half of July, each one lasting five days.
A typical day for the campers begins at the crack of dawn with 5 a.m. fishing excursions on the lake. Then, typical of Russian culture, the kids gather for 15 minutes of aerobic activity before breakfast, including stretching, jumping jacks and running laps.
They then have a morning Bible study for about an hour, followed by an activity time with different checkpoint games based on the day’s topic or the theme of the camp. After lunch is more free time for activities like soccer, volleyball, inflatables, swimming, boat rides and tube rides. A new addition this summer is banana boat rides.
The evening is dedicated to a two-hour program based on the theme of the camp. This time includes singing, reciting Bible verses, skits, puppet shows and a message from a speaker. The lessons focus on important concepts, such as the consequences of sin and the identity of God and Jesus.
On the last night of the camp, the kids grab flashlights and walk to a remote setting where the volunteers perform a play—focusing on stories from the life of Daniel or Joseph, for example—that emphasize the week’s theme.
Eagle Lake Camp welcomes kids outside Russian Baptist Church who hear about the camp through the city’s Russian school.
“More and more, we have kids who come from other Russian churches in the Twin Cities or from families of nonbelievers that are Russian,” says Andrey Tabakov, a volunteer at Eagle Lake.
Retreats target specific groups
The different retreats the church holds allow all ages within the congregation to enjoy the campground and benefit from the ministries it provides.
“We see that these groups that we have established are absolutely needed,” says Tabakov concerning the retreats for specific groups. “For future years we try to polish these programs for different groups so that they are more helpful, and that they have more long-lasting effects.”
The couples’ retreat is one that Tabakov has done with his wife the past two summers. The first year, a speaker from the Ukraine who works with family ministries, spoke about personality types.
“For me personally, that opened my eyes to who my wife is,” says Tabakov, who has been married for almost nine years now. He added that the seminar helped him understand why he and his wife might react in different ways.
Many of the speakers give their time on a volunteer basis rather than for payment, but depending on who they are and where they come from, the church may pay for the speaker’s travel or make a donation to the speaker’s organization. In the past, the camp has invited speakers from Russia, Ukraine and Moldova as well as from within the U.S. While most speakers prefer presenting in Russian, some will give their message in English.
Volunteers make camps possible
The church’s summer camps and retreats are free, and they do not charge outside groups that use the camp facilities. During summer months, the church sets aside one weekend each month for the camp to be used by outside groups, with more availability for such purposes in other seasons.
Russian Baptist Church uses the campground in the other seasons too, but less heavily. Within the past year, they’ve built a sauna to use for the programs during the snowy weeks of December.
The sauna is just one of many additions and renovations they’ve made to Eagle Lake Camp, which was built in the late 60s and early 70s. They’ve converted the kitchen space to be usable year-round, reshingled some buildings and generally made sure the camp was in good condition.
“In our culture overall people just like to get together and make things happen, and so we constantly improve,” says Tabakov.
Tabakov is one of the 70 to 80 volunteers who make camp operations possible. He volunteers at the camp in a number of capacities that include setting up audio and visual components around the camp, leading hiking trips through the surrounding woods and giving boat rides around the lake. Last summer he volunteered at the camp every weekend except two.
In the past 20 years, Russian Baptist Church has grown exponentially from 60 members to 750 members due to a wave of immigration that has since slowed, says Tabakov.
Russian Baptist Church joined USMB about 10 or 12 years ago, according to Roger Engbrecht, Central District Conference minister for ethnic ministries. Although the church has Baptist in its name, in Russian culture this has a different meaning than it usually does in the U.S. For Russians, the word “Baptist” is similar to the way U.S. Christians use the word “evangelical.”
The camp used to put more emphasis on maintaining the Russian culture of their youth, according to Tabakov, but now the camp’s focus has shifted away from culture to teaching their youth to be ethical followers of God.
“The main focus is building the relationship within families, building their relationships with God,” says Tabakov.
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