A Postcard from Russia

This has been quite a summer, one of the busiest and hardest we’ve ever had. It has certainly been the most diverse.

Olga’s grandfather, Orest Groten (above), passed away in July. He is much missed. Born in 1918, he was a child of the Russian Revolution. He joined Communist Party in 1942 and lived his professional life serving the military, first in WWII as a radioman and later as an engineer designing ships and submarines. For almost all of his days he was a committed atheist. At the age of 93 he asked Jesus to forgive him of his sins. He was a loving father and grandfather, a real anchor for the family. He could combine being strict with being very loving. He taught himself to play the piano and accordion; he enjoyed life, had a wonderful sense of humor, and heartily welcomed an American son-in-law into the family. We are sad that he is not with us now, but we are glad that we will see him in heaven.

In June we helped a mission team from Teen Mania as they ministered in Russia and Estonia. In July, Mike drove through Central Europe and helped a team run a youth camp in Montenegro. Two interns, Caroline and Krystal, joined us for several weeks, and it was a joy to have them share in our lives and receive good things from the Lord. Caroline’s mother, Linda, also visited, spending time at dacha and at the Hermitage (that’s quite a contrast). Mike traveled through 14 countries in a month’s time, visiting Budapest, Vienna, Auschwitz/Birkenau, and Tallinn. There were many meetings in Russia, Estonia and Montengro: building relationships, planning for future ministry, encouraging one another.

From Mike: One thing that made the summer hard was my visa situation. When grand-dad died, I was driving in Slovakia on the way to Montenegro. Of course, I quickly started planning how to return to Russia in order to be with my family. However, my old visa had just expired and my new visa started in early August (I thought I would be in Montenegro the whole time and wouldn’t need a visa). It was a bit of a shock to face that hard reality, that I couldn’t go home. It was the first time that political borders and legal issues kept me from being with my family. It was very hard on all of us for me to be at a distance during those days.

From Olga: It has been the hardest summer I’ve ever had, very busy, non-stop for two months, and that was hard; and losing grand-dad was a shock. I feel like there are some things I need to learn all over again: what comes first and what comes second. First is my relationship with and abiding in God, and out of that flows everything else. That is my lesson for the summer.

The Lord has been saying this to us in many ways and at different times. Apart from the Lord we can do nothing, but if we abide in Him then his life will flow through us (John chapter 15). God has been calling us to abide in Him. Please pray for us that we’ll abide in Him and trust that all else will take its rightful place.

Sunset over Pühajarvi, Finland

Well, that was really something!

I’ve just arrived in Russia after a whirl-wind trip. I left St. Petersburg, Russia on July 12 with Caroline Bennighof, a Stoneworks intern, in Estonia we picked up Kristjan Pold and Krystal Smith (another Stoneworks intern) and drove to Montenegro. We helped run a youth camp there for a few weeks and then drove all the way to Finland.From there, I drove to Russia to complete the circuit. All together, we traveled 7932 km (4928 miles) in a van. On the way we visited Budapest, Vienna, Auschwitz/Birkenau, Tallinn and many other places, while traveling in 14 countries, from the Baltics to the Balkans.

This was a very fulfilling trip. On the drives to and from Montenegro, we had great times of conversation and fellowship. We listed to, and discussed, several recordings by Elisabeth Elliot. While in Montenegro, we worked very well together as we served at the camp, where we worked with a team from the US ministry Students With A Testimony (SWAT).

I am very thankful for the time. God blessed us all in many ways. Here are few pictures from the trip, in no particular order.

The Long Drive to Montenegro

I (Mike) arrived in Montenegro a couple of days ago. I drove here with two Stoneworks interns, Caroline Bennighof and Krystal Smith, and a young man from Estonia, Kristjan Pold.

We’re here to work with a team from the US who will run a youth camp next week. The team arrives tomorrow, and for the next few days we’ll build relationships with the youth and minister at the Brethren Assembly here in Podgorica.

Here are the numbers —

  • 2966km (1843 miles): from our front door in St. Petersburg, Russia to the front door of our friends in Podgorica, Montenegro
  • 2732km (1698 miles): from the Tallinn airport to Podgorica, Montenegro
  • 35hours and 51 minutes: total time driving, with the car in motion.
  • Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro

Sunbeam Open House

I was in Estonia last week for the Open House at Sunbeam. The mayor of Jõhvi, city administrators and townfolk came to learn more about the center and see our progress. Mary Walsh and Janice Himmelsbach, supporters from the US, were also there. They are in town advising the staff about the program.

Things are coming along pretty well. We already have three children signed up, so it’s nice to know that we can hit the ground running when the building is ready. We’ll need more money to finish out the building, though. All in all, it’s great to see what’s been accomplished since February 1.

In addition to the center for children with disabilities, we’ve also rented a portion of the building to the Salvation Army, a kindergarten and a youth center. A Christian dance company is also talking with us about renting the hall. So, Sunbeam has become a ministry center, more than our original vision for only a day center for children.

Kunda Mill

Last week in Estonia we did some exploring between meetings. Estonia has many old manor houses, and we went snooping around for  them. You can see ALL of them at this website. Estonia has some beautiful places.

One great thing we found was an old water mill. Water mills are always in great locations, near flowing water often with beautiful trees, down in a low spot of land so that the place is remote. I often look for watermills in the various countries we visit. I’ve found them in Russia, Finland, Estonia, Montenegro and of course the US.

In addition to a great location, this mill has some wonderful old buildings. They are in disrepair (but the roofs and foundations are good) and it was fun to imagine how they could be brought back to life and used as a ministry center. (Anyone want to chip in a few hundred thousand dollars?)

First a video and then some pictures:

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A Snapshot from Estonia

I was in Tallinn today for a few reasons. I had a very good visit with my friend Heikki, I picked up my new Russian visa (!), and I met Beth Shanklin at the airport. Beth is a neuro-developmentalist who will be helping us establish Sunbeam; she’ll have a series of meetings with the leadership over the next few days, before we head to Russia on Sunday afternoon.

Oh, the picture is a view the Gothic town hall (c. 1403).

Merry Chr. . .uhhm. . . Happy Easter

This was the view from my bedroom window on Easter morning in Jõhvi, Estonia.  One would think we’re still at Christmastime:

I’m in Estonia getting a new Russian visa and having a great time with friends and ministry partners. The work at Sunbeam continues to go well. You can read the latest news here. Soon, we also plan to purchase a house and land to start a women’s rehab center. I’ll tell more about that later.

Olga and Valerie are in Russia and were going to join me in Estonia tomorrow, but Olga’s grandmother had to go to the hospital and so Olga’s grandfather moved to our flat to stay with Olga. Olga’s grandmother is improving, and we may yet work out a way for Olga and Valerie to come to me. I can enter Russia in a week, so it’s not too long before we can be reunited.

Easter is the proof that Christ is who He claimed to be. The Resurrection of Christ is the turning point of human history; the evidence of the defeat of death and the victory of love. Through faith in Christ, we can now be at peace with God and share in His divine nature. He is risen indeed.

A New Opportunity

It seems that opportunities always open up when I’m in Estonia. Today I visited a country house near Sillamae, Estonia. Pastor Artur Pold and others want to open a women’s drug rehab center in that area, so we went to look at a house that is being sold by a member of a local church:

A lady named Galina is directing a ministry in Sillamae that started about 5 years ago. They have a soup kitchen, children’s ministry and safe house there. It’s very good work that is growing and bearing good fruit. They want to open a women’s rehab center, and they already have three women who want to lead it and several women who would live there.

The land has a small house, a sauna building, and a few out buildings. It’s in a great location, not too far from town and only 400 yards (meters) from the Gulf of Finland.

Artur and Galina like the place very much and want to buy it and start a rehab center there. The owner is selling it below market value; he’s asking 20,000 euros and may be willing to work out a payment plan. Artur and Galina are confident that they can find the money for renovations and operating expenses if they can purchase it.

Artur said that there is not a women’s rehab center in that area, and there is a great need.

As you can see, it is a very simple place. That’s one thing I like about it. I’d like to help them get it, and some donors in the US have given some money that could be a start.

Here’s a short video I made:

Contact me if you’d like to know more or want to help with this project.


Tearing It Up

Here’s an updated I just posted on the Stoneworks site:

We are in Estonia for a few days, catching up on the work at Sunbeam. We’ve had some great fellowship time with people; it feels good to be here.

Yesterday we had a meeting of the board members and hired a bookkeeper. Workers continue the renovation of the rooms and offices. The local church is quite involved, and it’s great to see the sense of community among all involved.

We expect to pour the floor next week. Today we purchased the tubing for the in-floor hydronic heating system.  Andres is doing a great job overseeing the work. It’s great that he’s here to manage the project.

Here are a few pictures, with some ‘before’ pictures for reference:

The kitchen before:

6 8 In Goes the Floor

And today!

IMG 1306 1024x576 In Goes the Floor

One of the main rooms before:

15 room 1 In Goes the Floor

And today:

IMG 1300 300x168 In Goes the Floor

The old floor was pulled out, sand and new plumbing have been laid down (see above), next comes a vapor barrier and insulation (see below). After that, they’ll put in rebar and the heating system and pour concrete on top of all that. It will be very nice when it’s all done.

Offices are also being renovated, and we’re talking with other ministries that are interested in renting rooms. I think we’ll work out a deal with the Salvation Army; they want to use a few rooms for their meetings and ministry. We hope that rental income will cover the cost keeping the building.

As Sunbeam grows, we hope to use the entire building, but for now we have some free space on the second floor (we don’t have an elevator yet anyway, so we can’t use the second floor for helping the disabled children).

You can also see that Artur was interviewed for a TV show today: Continue reading

Now THIS is fun!

Over the past several months, I’ve often said that ‘I may have some good news about Estonia soon’. Well, today I have some good news about our work in Estonia.

For over a year now, Stoneworks has been partnering with several people in the US and Estonia to help establish a day center for children with disabilities. There are over 100 children with disabilities in that area and they have no access to services; they are at home, quite isolated from the world. They need help, and we are called to help them.

An American donor is giving a significant amount to help start the program, and in the process we’ve opened an Estonian charity named Päikesekiiir (Sunbeam) to run the program. But we didn’t have a building. Until yesterday.

The city of Jõhvi has given us use of a great building in the city center. And here it is:

sompa 5a spring 1 Sunbeam    The Beginning

We have it for 30 years at no cost! We have the keys and will start renovation soon.The building is in better shape than it may appear. It has a new roof and new high efficiency windows, it has a new security system and recently had firewalls and fire doors installed.

Pastor Artur Põld, architect Andres Toome and myself are the founding board members of the Estonian charity Sunbeam. Stoneworks represents the US side of the project, and also involved are Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans and Brits.

 Sunbeam    The BeginningIn addition to housing the center for children with disabilities, the building is large enough to house many more activities. It has a great assembly hall, conference rooms, we’ll build housing for mission teams, and host other events there. It’s in a great location, right in the middle of town.

Currently a youth center and kindergarten use a few of the rooms. They will pay rent to help offset operating expenses. There is much more room for expansion. And there is a smaller building on the lot that we hope to turn into a wood-working shop.

entrance Sunbeam    The BeginningThere is much to be done to prepare the building for the ministry. Though some parts of the building are in good shape, we need to renovate several rooms, build two wheelchair accessible bathrooms, reconfigure and rebuild the entrance (ramps, roof, doors) and offices, upgrade the heating system, renovate the kitchen, build a fence, and much more. Here are the initial designs for the first floor, where Sunbeam will be housed.

So, now that we have the building, much more is needed: mission teams to do construction, funds for equipment and operations, people to help train volunteers, and on and on.

sompa 5a spring 6 Sunbeam    The Beginning

We hope to open Sunbeam on June 1 — International Childrens’ Day.The next four months will be quite full and quite fun! And I’ll be posting more news as we move along.

You can read more and see more pictures and videos here.

Donations to support the center can be made here.

Soli Deo Gloria — To God alone be the glory. He has put this in our hearts, and He is bringing all the resources needed to help these children. We thank Him for guiding us.