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

Such is the Spirit

I’ve just returned from time with a mission team in Montenegro and I’d like to share one example of how the team served and how God spoke.

We ran a youth camp for a few days earlier this week. As a part of the camp, in one session the team had a time during which each camper was prayed for and team members would share impressions that they sensed as they prayed; the purpose is to share scriptures and words of encouragement and comfort.

One of the young lady campers heard about this ahead of time, and that day, as she was reading the Bible story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiping them with her hair (Luke 7) the camper said to God something like — ‘if this team is really hearing from you and if you really speak to people, then have one of the team members mention the story of this woman to me today’.

We all, Americans and campers, sat in a circle as the team shared their words of encouragement. Each team member prayed, asking God to give good words to share with each camper. Many good, encouraging words and scriptures were shared with all the campers. When the time came to share with this young lady, though people said many things to her, no one mentioned the story.

After we’d spoken to each camper, there was a time for team members to say anything they may not have had time to share before. Again, no one mentioned the story to the young lady. She was dispirited and sort of ‘gave up’ on the whole thing.

After we dismissed that meeting, one of the team members went to the young lady and said that the Lord had put something on her heart for the camper. It was Luke 7, the story of the woman washing Jesus’ feet!

The camper was in awe that the Lord would hear her prayer and love her so much as to answer it so specifically. Her heart was deeply touched and she was very encouraged. Only God could make that specific connection for that young woman. Her faith was increased and she felt the touch of the Lord.

God is love. He will be found by those who seek Him.

The Low Slag Heap

I just read a quote by Peggy Noonan:

In Iraq this year I asked an Iraqi military officer doing joint training at an American base what was the big thing he’d come to believe about Americans in the years they’d been there. He thought. “You are a better people than your movies say.” He had judged us by our exports. He had seen the low slag heap of our culture and assumed it was a true expression of who we are.

This has been my experience in various countries. The USA exports a lot of filth (by movies, music, popular culture, etc.), and others have judged Americans by it. We need to keep this in mind when the US is criticized by other cultures. In many cases the USA is not very attractive when judged by our cultural exports.

This is also one more good reason for mission trips: people in other countries can experience a different kind of American, an American who follows God and acts in love. In this way we may, in small part, act as peacemakers between cultures.

The best thing we can do is love the Lord deeply and be the people He wants us to be. Sometimes He may then send us to other cultures be a witness of His loving-kindness. He always wants us to be a witness in our home culture.

A Postcard from . . . . Everywhere

Since our last Postcard we’ve been all over Europe. At the end of August we drove from Russia to Montenegro (you can see a photo record of the trip here). The picture above was taken when we gassed up in Augustow, Poland. We spent almost a month in Montenegro, visiting family, friends and ministry partners. Valerie had a GREAT time, especially at the beach (here is a video of her first experience of the sea).

Then we drove from Montenegro to Rathenow, Germany, the town where Olga lived for a couple of years when her father was stationed at a Soviet military base in East Germany. Olga has many good memories of that town, and it’s where she and her mom first heard the gospel preached; this happened just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. The commander of the base surprisingly allowed a group of Christians to share their testimonies.

From Germany, we went to Estonia. Olga and Valerie returned to Russia while I applied for my new Russian visa and spent time in Estonia and Finland. The picture below is of Finland in Autumn.

So, in the span of about 6 weeks we were in these countries (in order): Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia and Finland. It was quite an adventure.

Valerie is doing very well. She’s growing like a weed and speaking better and better all the time. She’s a good kid and we all love each other. We are gathering documents necessary to petition the court to terminate Oksana’s (Valerie’s birth mother’s) parental rights. We think this will happen in a few weeks. Then we can then move to adopt Valerie, however there is a six-month waiting period after termination of parental rights before we can adopt.

The ministry continues. You can see the most recent Stoneworks update here. Several projects are in various stages: we’ll host a mission team of 40-60 who will minister in Russia and Estonia; two teams from Georgia will go to Montenegro; we continue to work on Sunbeam (the center for children with disabilities in Estonia) and I hope to have some good news about that soon.

Even though the world faces difficulties and we are affected by those forces, our hope is not in the things of this world; our hope is in Christ who is a good shepherd. Remember, He has prepared good work in advance for you to do. His best is always in the future.


A Quick Overview of Mike’s Work

As I’ve been posting pictures of Montenegro, I realized that people may not know what I really do other than see beautiful places on a regular basis. So, I thought I’d write a note about what I’m up to these days.

For those who don’t know, I am the Executive Director of Stoneworks International, a small American mission organization that has projects in Russia, Estonia, Belarus and Montenegro. I’m also the chairman of the board of МИР (MIR), a Russia charity I helped found about 11 years ago. And, I’m a founding board member of Päikesekiir (Sunbeam), an Estonian charity that’s in the process of establishing a day center for children with disabilities in Northeast Estonia.

Here in Montenegro, I’ve recently done some preliminary planning for a mission team we’ll host in May. I’m spending time with ministry leaders and co-workers, as well as with Olga’s sister’s family. In the past, I’ve helped several short-term mission teams run summer camps here; I hope we’ll run another this coming summer. And, having an internet connection, I continue to communicate with partners in other countries.

In Russia, our ministry faces a variety of challenges, including financial short-falls and a staff in transition; I’m in regular contact regarding budgets, staffing, vision, etc. MIR has just finished a successful summer, and we’re thankful for that. I’ve also been helping a couple, Yan and Nadya Boldyrev, as they transition their orphan ministry to work more closely with us. I’m also in talks with Teen Mania about a 40-person mission team they plan to send to Russia and Estonia next summer.

In Belarus, I primarily help in decision-making regarding the future of the ministry, and I help assure that reporting (financial, ministry) is going smoothly. Other Stoneworks board members are active in helping the ministry in Belarus. Of course, the staff of our sister ministry, Spring of Revival, is great and serve selflessly. Recently, I helped our co-workers there get Estonia visas, and I look forward to the time when our friends in Estonia will meet and partner with our friends in Belarus. The ministry staff in Belarus are facing a difficult time these days; the culture is under siege and the financial markets are very unstable.

My work in Estonia continues to grow. The biggest project is Sunbeam, a center for children with disabilities we plan to build in Johvi. Right now, the city is working on zoning changes for the land they will grant to us. I’ve had several meetings with the architect, and his designs are nearing completion; it’s going to take a while to build it, but it will be great when it’s all done. I’m also in early planning for a project to build a missionary guest house in Estonia, a home where Christian workers from Russia and other ex-soviet states can take a break and be refreshed. We’ve identified a building at Camp Gideon that we hope to renovate for that project. Our relationships with people there get better and better all the time. We also now have an apartment in Estonia (our home is still in St. Petersburg), and our car is registered there, so our connections in Estonia are increasing.

This update has the word “I” quite a bit. It must be said that everything I do is in partnership with many wonderful people. In Russia, I commend Masha, Katya, Tatiana, Tanya, Yan and Nadya, Zhenya, Dima, Marina, Lyle, Peter and Liz; in Estonia, I tip my hat to Artur, Liana, Erkki, and Andres; in Belarus, the work is carried out with love by Olga, Yasha, Alesya and Masha; in Montenegro, my co-laborers are Vladimir, Marijana, and Violeta; in the USA, I depend very much on Mary Jean (who is the best!), Dave, Larry, Jill, Dan, Kirk and Phill (who is actually in South Africa). These people and many more are my co-workers for the sake of the gospel.

God sets us together as living stones, and I am very happy with the ‘stones’ among whom He has set me.

So, that’s a quick run-down of what I do. I’m also enjoying being a new father, as Olga and I are in the process of adopting a little girl who is living with us now —  a 4 year old named Valerie. And Olga and I will celebrate our 10th anniversary in November.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a flat overlooking the Bay of Kotor, on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. Another day, another beautiful view. . . .