Digging Dacha

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We’ve just returned from dacha where we moved a lot of dirt. Val worked (some) in the garden while Olga and I installed a simple drainage system; we need to get the water away from the house so we can improve the foundation. (Olga and I may start a drainage business: Cantrell and Wife — Our Work is Beneath You)

Our dacha belongs to Olga’s grandmother, and the house is well over 200 years old. It was originally set on large stones, and over the years it’s slowly been sinking into the (very wet) ground. We want to save the building, so one step is to dry it out.  A few years ago part of the foundation was replaced but the most difficult work remains. Perhaps some day we’ll be able to tackle that . . . .

We found a bullet from WWII not too far below the surface. It’s a reminder of violent episodes in that little village; German soldiers used our house as a field HQ as they moved to encircle Leningrad in 1941. The old house still bears the wounds of war, battle scars.  We’ve also found an artillery shell casing in the attic and a US Jeep tire pump (from 1941, part of Lend-Lease) in the workshop.

Our dacha visit was little lull in the action. A team from Austin arrives in a few hours to help run a camp at Elama for single mothers and their children. Next week I go to Estonia to meet a team from Athens, GA that will run a camp for the disabled children from Sunbeam.

I have crossed the border several times over the past few months and have had no problems at all. That has been a pleasant surprise. We continue to wait to hear from the US government regarding our green card applications for Olga and Valerie. We’ve submitted another round of documents and are waiting for them to process the docs and give us a decision; the next step, if all goes well, is for Olga and Val to have an interview at the US embassy in Moscow where they would hopefully get immigrant visas. For now, we wait . . . .

The ministry of Stoneworks continues to grow. In addition to full summer schedules running camps and conferences, many of our partners are traveling, meeting with one another, from the Arctic to the Adriatic, Baltics to Balkans. I am very thankful for the friendships and partnerships God has given us. It’s an amazing blessing to be welcomed as family in so many places. The body of Christ is beautiful.

A Postcard from Finland

A few times in the last week I’ve spoken with people about one of God’s characteristics: he is able to do more than we can ask or even imagine. Not too many years ago I would not have imagined enjoying time in a little, primitive cabin in Finland. Now it’s a source of great joy. In all our planning, we try to leave at least one blank spot for the thing we can’t imagine, and it may be that very thing into which God is going to call us. This helps us hold our lives loosely, trusting that God is a REALLY good shepherd, and He will lead the way. He’s led us to Finland, and that’s very good.

There’s a certain joy in visiting Finland. We love it here. I’m in Finland on my own this time. Olga and I have bank accounts in the US, Estonia, Russia and Finland. I needed to come to Finland to take care of some banking and visit friends, and a few days opened up for me to do that.

I stay at a little cabin call Koppero, next to the lake Pyhäjärvi. A friend owns the cabin and lets us stay here whenever we want. As you can see, the lake is still quite frozen. The temperature inside the cabin was the same as the lake; it took several hours to warm it up. Koppero has no running water though it does have electricity and I have a wireless internet connection. So, for a few days this little cabin is the European office of Stoneworks International (see my executive office below).

I’ve also just had a very nice visit with our friend Riitta Tarvainen. Riitta owns an old Finnish estate, Hovinkartano, and we’re very glad that we’ve become friends with her. She told me today how her local church, in the small village of Hauho, has supported missionaries around the world. It’s encouraging: God is at work in every culture, and once He begins a good work He continues it all the way to the end.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen


A Postcard from Estonia

I’ve just had a nice visit to Estonia. It was very nice to have a quite leadership meeting with Artur, Andres and Ursula. I hope to have some very good news about Sunbeam in the near future. Artur always seems to have some great plan in process . . . .

I received an email from a Norwegian believer, Trygve Nilsen, who I met a year ago when he visited Estonia. Two weeks ago as he was praying, he felt led to contact me about a small ministry in Moldova that he’s been helping. My heart leapt when I read his note. A pastor there, Victor Urasinov, has a small church and runs a crisis center for single mothers. They help about 15 mothers and their children. Additionally, Victor and his wife have adopted eight orphans. I’ve exchanged emails with Victor and like all that I hear from him. I may try to make a fact-finding trip there. So, we’ll see how that goes . . . .

I’m in the thick of planning multiple mission trips and helping support the workers over here. We’ll have teams in Norway, Russia, Estonia and Montenegro. I plan to be with the teams in all of those countries, so the next few months will be quite busy preparing and then traveling. More news on that later.

A friend sent a message the other day reminding me of a great truth about our God. He is a refuge in times of trouble. We do not need to fix our problems before we go to Him. He wants us to run to Him in times of trouble, to find safety with Him.

A Postcard from Russia

Well, well. Autumn is here and we put on winter tires just in time; we’ve just seen the first snow of the season. Many of the leaves have now fallen. It’s been a glorious Autumn.

After a tremendous amount of travel (Central Europe, Germany, Montenegro, Estonia, Finland and Norway), we are now at least settled in the same general area. I’m in Estonia for a few days taking care of some business (like putting on winter tires) and head to Russia tomorrow.

On Friday we had a board meeting of Sunbeam, the center for children with disabilities in Estonia. That program is doing very well (but is in need of financing, as is often the case). The director, Ursula, is a very good leader, and more children are joining the program. In addition to the wonderful paid staff, we also have two interns from the USA serving for several months. The leadership team is pictured below.

One VERY good outcome of the meeting is our intention to open a Christian kindergarten in one wing of the building. I hope to have more news about that in the coming months. This was Artur’s idea, and we all agree that it will be a wonderful thing to have a Christian school there, starting with a kindergarten. Continue reading

A Postcard from Norway

Since my last postcard I’ve covered some ground. After leaving Estonia, I took the ferry to Helsinki and spent two nights at Koppero. From there, I drove to Rovaniemi, Finland (on the Arctic Circle) to attend a men’s conference with Yura Belonozhkin. He brought a team of 16 men from Russia to the conference, and I was very glad to meet them and also meet brothers from Norway and Finland.

From there, Yura and I drove up into the Finnmark region of Norway. We visited several ministry partners as Yura planned for future ministry. For instance, he is planning a men’s conference/camp in Lakselv, Norway to be held in May, which I hope to attend. From Lakselv we drove to Vadso on the Varanger peninsula (past several fjords, above) and met other ministry leaders. Then, we drove into Russia, to Murmansk, and from there I drove south to home! It was very good to have time with Yura as we drove those long, beautiful distances. It’s ALWAYS good to have personal time with brothers and sisters in Christ.

I’m now safely, happily at home. Valerie has started her ballet and piano lessons; Olga spent the last few days juicing and canning apples from dacha; and I’m getting caught up on emails and updates. I just bought tickets to travel to the USA for a Stoneworks board meeting. (I used frequent flyer miles, so the flight is only costing $153!) I’ll be in the States for about 2 weeks, mostly in the Athens, GA area, in early November. (This seems to be a season of travel for me. . . .)

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:36

A Postcard from Montenegro – Truly Significant

I recently returned to Russia from Montenegro and Austria. I made initial contact with a ministry in Vienna and had a great time visiting Matt and Liz Eck. I hope one result will be a partnership between Stoneworks, Calvary Chapel-Vienna and the youth ministry in Montenegro.

The picture above is truly significant. While it may appear to be one of many such Christian youth meetings, it is much more than that. With a population of about 600,000 people, Montenegro has less than 200 Evangelical Christians. There are three main fellowships in the country, the largest being the Brethren Assembly in the capital city of Podgorica. On any given Sunday, perhaps 35 people will attend their service.

So here is why the picture above is so significant: twenty six teenagers attended the youth meeting a week ago. Twenty six! This is a VERY significant number of people for such a small church. Not all of the teenagers are yet followers of Jesus, but all have been invited to hear more about Him and all have willingly come. Some have been involved in the Brethren youth meetings for a few years, some are part of a Roma (gypsy) fellowship, some received Samaritan’s Purse shoe-box Christmas gifts and expressed an interest in the youth meetings.

Vladimir and Marijana Cizmanski have ministered there for many years; Violeta Pavetic, an early convert of Vladimir’s ministry, is now the youth leader. They are laying their lives down for Christ, and the fruit is the beautiful souls and loving relationships so evident in the meetings. As is always the case, challenges and difficulties accompany the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Please keep Vladimir, Marijana and Violeta in your prayers as they fight the good fight.

Olga and Valerie have their passports and visas, and we will arrive in Athens, Georgia on March 5. I’ll make a quick trip to Estonia next week and hope to give a great report on Sunbeam then; we are so VERY close to opening the program. We’re also beginning to plan the summer. We’ll host mission teams in Russia, Estonia and Montenegro, and we’ll have interns serving in Montenegro. It’s great to be a part of so much life and growth. The Lord is good to us.

A Postcard from Belarus

This Fall has been quite busy. After traveling to the Arctic last month, I’ve just returned from Minsk, Belarus where I visited Stoneworks partner Spring of Revival (SOR). I visited the Minsk Family Homes, boys’ and girls’ homes for graduate orphans, helping teenage orphans make the transition from life in the orphanage to life on their own.

Olga Goncharenko, the Director of SOR, is doing very good work.  In addition to the Family Homes, SOR serves several shelters, orphanages and foster families. You can see where they serve by visiting the Stoneworks Ministry Map and read news about SOR here.

Sergei Tovstopyat (the new Executive Director of MIR) traveled with me, and it was very nice to have time with him. One result is that some of the girls will serve as counselors at our Camp Elama this summer. Also, Alla Shestak (above, at left), the director of the girls’ home, will come to Russia to learn from Sergei how to lead Eco programs in orphanages and shelters. It’s gratifying to see various Stoneworks ministries working together.

Valerie is doing great. The picture at left was taken at Camp Gideon in Estonia this summer. She sure doesn’t look like a 5 year old in that picture, but she looks more like herself in the picture below. Her English is coming along, and she’s learning her numbers and letters (two alphabets!) quite well.

The adoption process continues, however slowly. We’ve completed all of the documents we need from the US and are waiting for the final apostilles before they can be sent to Russia. We are also finalizing documents in Russia, most of which are medical checks (which take a LONG time to complete). Hopefully we can submit documents to the court this month. My FBI background check is taking the longest time; last spring we were told by social workers here that we didn’t need it. If we’d known we could have gotten it months ago. The process is full of frustrations, but we trust the Lord’s timing and are content.

I had to return from Belarus a day early because Oksana, Valerie’s birth mother, was released from prison on Friday. Oksana has been in prison for two and a half years. Olga visited Oksana many times and we’ve exchanged letters and phone calls with her as well.

We met Oksana at the prison when she was released. I cooked her favorite food (my version of potatoes au gratin) and we had a nice visit with her. She hugged us and called us Mama and Papa. It was an emotional day for her, as you can imagine.

Oksana is now in a Christian rehab center. She wants to make a new life and not fall back into her old way of living, but she’s torn about what to do next. In the rehab center she is surrounded by loving believers and has a good structure for her life. She is HIV positive and has Hepatitis C, so her health is not good. Please keep her in prayer. Her life is in the balance right now, and we pray that she’ll live by faith and abide in the Lord.

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

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 Postcard from Russia — Snow and Heat

Winter has arrived in St. Petersburg. We’ve had quite a bit of snowfall over the past few days (see our car below). The city is beautiful as we continue to press on in our life and work. Here is an update about a few items —

MIR hopes to send 39 children on the hosting program in December. Laws recently changed in Russia, and this is making it much more difficult to send children on the hosting program. Please pray for the staff of MIR, to make good decisions and have favor with the government officials. Much needs to be done before the children travel on December 13.

Our relationships and work in Estonia continue to grow, and next year should see some significant activity. I (Mike) continue to help coordinate the establishment of a center for disabled children there. We’re planning a fact-finding trip to Norway early next year, which will include Estonians and Americans. Also, an architect has offered a house that we may be able to use as a Christian guesthouse — whenever he finishes it (it’s 80% done). And we’re hoping to send a few mission teams to minister in camps next summer.

Last week, I went to Camp Elama with Sergei to work on one of the stoves (below). Sergei is working to make Elama more useful throughout the year, and fixing this old smokey stove is a part of that. As we tore it apart, we discovered that it was built with the outlet from the firebox actually below the fire — not a good design. And the stove fairly fell apart, so Sergei will need to do a lot of rebuilding. We’re hoping to host a couple of camps at Elama this winter, and it’s good that Sergei has learned how to build stoves. Most of the buildings are now heated. That is a significant improvement over last year.

This will be the first year of our married life when we won’t be in the US for Christmas.  We’ll miss our family and friends in the States, but it will be good to have Christmas and New Year’s with folks here.