Social and economic problems have put Russia's children in a precarious position. Millions live in poverty, more than 1 million are homeless, and some 650,000 are living in state-supported orphanages, says RM Vice-President Sergey Rakhuba. Even those living at home might be abused or neglected by parents who are alcohol or drug addicted, he said.
Russian Ministries helps these children through a host of outreaches, including Sunday School programs, material aid to orphanages and schools, and its annual summer camps where tens of thousands of the neediest Russian children learn about Jesus Christ.
The ministry tries to give children a place where they can feel safe, rediscover the joys of childhood, and find hope for their future, says Nadia Abydenova, RM's director of children's ministries. Working through Project 250's regional centers, she trains local ministers to start children's ministries.
At a day camp last summer, about 30 children gathered on the grounds of a church in Mozhaysk, a city about 65 miles west of Moscow. Project 250 missionary Valery Povazhunuk, 23, works with the local Baptist church to reach children in the city. Armed with a whistle and an impish grin, he led them in games and contests, all the while making them laugh with his silly antics and jokes.
Later he led them in singing worship songs and then taught a Bible lesson. At the end of the camp he gave out ice cream and hugs and one was struck by the fact that these might have been the happiest hours of the children's' day.
That's the whole point, Abydenova says. "Every teacher knows that [the camp] should be the best part of [the children's] lives. We can't always give great food or sports equipment, but it's much more effective to give them love."
Reaching Children - Reaching Adults
Such ministry impacts the entire community because it touches not only the children, but also their parents, grandparents, and other caregivers. Russian adults are cynical about religion in general and suspicious of evangelicals in particular, but children hold no preconceptions and accept the ministry at face value.
"They receive us just as we are and then become much better witnesses for the parents and the whole environment," Povazhunuk said.
Older people have changed their attitudes towards the church because of the youth work, he said. A woman who used to curse at members as they walked to service became a vocal supporter of the church when her granddaughter began going to the summer day camp. Amazed by the love and attention showered on the children, in addition to the games, music, and food, she thanked the church profusely for its work.
Another woman wouldn't set foot in the church but allowed her grandchildren to attend Sunday School because it gave them gifts one Christmas. After a year of letting them go alone she decided to attend a service and by the end of the first hymn she was at the altar giving her life to Christ. "That was enough to change her heart. Now she is a member of our church," Povazhunuk said.
Summer Camps Change Thousands of Lives
The summer camps give Western Christians the opportunity to participate in changing Russia's future. Russian Ministries encourages U.S. Christians to make a 10-day to two-week trip to Russia to be counselors and teachers at the camps. Those who can't travel to Russia can sponsor a child to a camp for $50.
More than 10,000 children, many of them sponsored by supporters of Russian Ministries, attended some 150 camps held from June to August last year. Regional directors organize the camps and Project 250 staffers instruct missionaries and youth workers how to prepare and run them. Russian and Western Christians volunteer to serve as counselors, instructors, and camp helpers, Rakhuba said.
"The camps do two things," Abydenova said. "Take the children out of their everyday environment, which is good, and put them where they get lots of love."
Once they begin to feel secure they open up to their counselors, who minister the love of God to them, he said. He described heartbreaking stories, such as the young boy who saw his father kill his mother but had never been able to talk about it. After a few days at the camp he told his story to a counselor who held him as he cried. Abydenova told of a girl who was very shy but began to open up on the last day of the camp, telling stories of how her mother abused her and kicked her out of the house. Now she comes to Nadia when she needs a place to stay or medical care.
The children's outreach aims to minister to each child as an individual but its broader goal is to impact a whole generation of Russians. Missionaries, pastors, and lay Christians strive to maintain contact with the thousands of children who attend the summer camps, Rakhuba said. Some of them develop long-term, mentoring relationships and give them Christian direction as they grow up. The hope is that enough children will be influenced by Christ to begin changing Russian society, he said.
"By reaching this next generation we are bringing a stability to life here. They have hope because Christ is growing in their hearts."
For information on sponsoring a child or working in a summer camp contact Russian Ministries at their website at http://www.pdrm.org