Modeling a passion for missions

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Slavic congregations send youth on summer trips

by Myra Holmes

It’s not uncommon for Mennonite Brethren congregations to send young people on summer mission trips. They know that the experience never fails to be spiritually invigorating for the youth and that host communities get a shot in the arm from short-term help. What may be surprising to Christian Leader readers is that some of the MB congregations most passionate about sending their youth on short-term mission trips are still learning to call the United States home.

The U.S. Mennonite Brethren family includes 33 Slavic congregations, mostly on the West Coast, comprising at least a third of U.S. Conference membership. Each year, these Slavic congregations send hundreds of young people on short-term mission trips to the former Soviet Union—the parts of the world they once called home.

House of the Gospel Church, a Slavic Mennonite Brethren congregation located in Fresno, Calif., sent 27 young people on short-term mission trips last summer. And, for the second time, they expanded their sending beyond the former Soviet Union to include Mexico.

It’s all part of a larger vision for the congregation’s mission department to expand the mission of the congregation to new global regions. Slavic Gladysh, mission department head at House of the Gospel, says, “My goal is to open doors to Mexico, then the 10/40 window.”

The pews of House of the Gospel are filled with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, so it’s not surprising that many members have a passion for ministry in their homeland. They faithfully support missionaries and pastors in those countries, eagerly look for news from those ministries and regularly send short-term teams to help. This past summer House of the Gospel supported four teams of Slavic youth who went to the former Soviet Union.

House of the Gospel worked with MBMS International, the global mission agency of North American Mennonite Brethren, to send one of these teams to Ukraine May 27-Aug. 5. They served first alongside MBMSI workers John and Evelyn Wiens, then with local missionary Luyba Dzhymik in Kiev. 

The team encouraged a youth group in Zaporizhiya, sang and shared testimonies in the historic German Mennonite village of Malochansk, did street evangelism in Feodosia, led an impromptu kids’ camp in Nikolaipolia and led more kids’ camps in Kiev.

Although the Ukraine team experienced persecution as villagers threw rocks at them and sabotaged their van, team leader Vitaliy Kovalinskiy says, “This did not stop us from spreading the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” He says the trip inspired a hunger for God that remains long after the team’s return to the U.S. “The team has been transformed to be intensely gospel-focused,” he says.

House of the Gospel worked with other churches and organizations, including Power in Truth, an organization that focuses on Russia, to send youth with other teams. One team of four went to the northernmost part of the former Soviet Union, near Pevek, where they assisted the local missionary in visiting nearby villages, conducting youth camps and outreach.

Team leader Alik Shipuk tells how the team saw God answer prayer in one remote village near the Arctic Ocean. Plans for the island’s first baptism were jeopardized when a snowstorm blew in. So the team prayed for good weather and in faith invited villagers to the ocean baptism. “They looked at us in a very strange way,” Shipuk says. But when the time came, the sun shone, two believers were baptized and two more came to faith in Christ.

Shipuk says, “God was in control of the whole trip. We were so confident and didn’t doubt at any point that he would not provide or would not open doors for us. We also learned the power of prayer.”

Gladysh says that the congregation must expand its vision beyond the former Soviet Union to other areas of the world. He says the younger generations don’t remember the country their parents emigrated from, so their passion for mission is not necessarily focused on the former Soviet Union but on “the most needy area.” He feels it’s important to give youth opportunities to pursue mission in many countries and cultures, lest their passion be lost. 

So for the second time the congregation sent youth to Mexico. House of the Gospel worked with an English-language church in Fresno and with Caravan Ministries, a mission organization focused on Mexico, to send a team that included eight Slavic youth to Tijuana, Mexico, over spring break. In addition, the congregation sent one girl to the Texas/Mexico border with MBMSI’s SOAR S. Texas program in July.

The Tijuana team’s primary job was to build relationships with local people, which they did as they built small homes for those in need. Team leader Veniamin “Ben” Morgun says the 12-by-12 foot homes could hardly be called houses. “We Americans would probably use something like that for our tools.” Yet he was impressed by the gratitude expressed by the families receiving the homes. He says the poverty he observed was eye-opening.

“I learned so much about God and the world while I was there,” Morgun says. “And the biggest thing I learned about God was that he deserves all of our honor and praise.”

Gladysh says that Slavic youth often live in two cultures. “On Sunday, they are Russian, but the rest of the time, they are American.”

Kovalinskiy says that ministering in the Ukraine as an American-raised Ukrainian made him realize he is both Ukrainian and American, yet doesn’t fit comfortably in either culture. “This led me to conclude that I am not a citizen of the world but of heaven,” Kovalinskiy says. “What a thought!”

At the same time, that cultural adaptability may have been an advantage as the youth faced another culture in Mexico. “They have already experienced two cultures, so an additional one culture is easy to accept,” Gladysh says.

Summer missionaries from all of the West Coast Slavic congregations were celebrated at a “Blessings of Missions” dinner Sept. 27, hosted by Power in Truth Missions, the organization many Slavic MB congregations work with for missions to the former Soviet Union. An estimated 250-300 young people attended, which hints at the large numbers of Slavic youth involved in short-term mission trips. Randy Friesen, general director of MBMSI, challenged the group to serve God regardless of the cost or risk.

Gladysh hopes that at least as many Slavic youth will be sent on short-term missions next summer. He also hopes to involve youth who can’t go internationally in local outreach. House of the Gospel recently decided to begin an English-language service, and Gladysh dreams of various outreach activities designed to welcome English-speaking neighbors into the church. “We want to make our church full of people from the neighborhood,” he says. Those neighbors, by the way, aren’t likely to be Slavic, but American, African-American and Hispanic.

Mark Thompson, who helped coordinate the Ukraine team as short term mission coordinator with MBMSI, says the Slavic MB congregations like House of the Gospel are modeling passion for mission. “Our MB Conference should take a good look at their passion for prayer, their devotion to Word of God and their heart to share Christ with others—and learn from them,” he says.

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