Friday, June 29, 2012

Stolnik, An Orphanage, and Elin Pelin

Yesterday (Friday) was another busy for our team. We woke up early and headed back out to the gypsy village of Stolnik to finish painting a mural on one wall of their church walls. Several churches in Bulgaria have been blessed by the amazing artistic gift the Lord has given Linzi Drew and this piece was one of her finest. The mural depicts four miracles of Christ's ministry on earth: The water turned to wine, calming of the storm, feeding the five thousand, and the empty tomb. Each component features a verse reference in Bulgarian to remind the viewers of the deeper truth behind each miracle.

We returned to Sofia in the afternoon to visit an orphanage. For many years, orphanage visits were an annual part of our teams' ministry. We worked with a couple who served regularly in the orphanages, as it is very difficult to get into them on your own. The orphanages are State-run and skeptical of outsiders, as they are underfunded and understaffed so living conditions for the children are not great. The couple we worked with eventually moved away and we lost our opportunity to minister in this arena 5 or 6 years ago.

This year, we located another organization, One Heart BG, that has a heart for these children. They raise funds in the United States and elsewhere to help meet the needs in orphanages across Bulgaria that are often overlooked because of insufficient resources. I contacted their director and was put in touch with an orphanage in Sofia for a visit.

We spend the afternoon hanging out with children, just showing them Christ's love and attention. This particular orphanage recently experienced some controversy with allegations of neglect after one girl there was supposedly found to be pregnant. Apparently, the story was brewing in the media and several reporters were on hand to interview the director about the scandal. While waiting their turn with her, they were treated to a display of God's love and goodness as they watched us with the kids!

We sang songs with them and shared briefly about Jesus' love for them, then spent time playing futbol (soccer) and other games. Brijon was completely in her element and spent most of the as afternoon with her arms full of the little children who flocked to her! It was incredible to watch the Lord use her gifts in that place. Linzi also flourished there, overseeing activities with the children and nurturing them as only Mama Linzi can!

Meanwhile, as the reporters finished up, the director came out and expressed genuine gratitude for our desire to help in a place where the need is so great. Joey then spent some time in her office discussing our ministry and future plans to work with her and this orphanage. He was assisted by our friend and translator, Simona Ivanova of the Blaga Vest congregation. We met Simona last year and she has been with us every day to assist with the language barrier but also to serve alongside us in all that we do. We are encouraged by the opportunity for hands-on discipleship in her life as she works with us!

Before leaving the orphanage, we gave the director some supplies we collected in the U.S. for an upcoming trip to the Black Sea that the children will be taking. We brought along almost 20 pairs of brand-new flip-flops, some beach balls and frisbees, and bag full of sunscreen. Pray for God's direction for next year as we consider ways to deepen our relationship here and serve even more effectively.

Finally, we wrapped up the night worshipping with the Elin Pelin congregation in their Friday service. This church, where we began our ministry in Bulgaria many years ago, continues to be a special place of fellowship for our teams. This year, we were blessed by their new worship team with several of their young people singing beautifully accompanied by two guitars and a keyboard. They have a sound system now, but still need some equipment to make it better. When we get home, I will be looking at ways we can help them with that out of our own church's surplus.

Each of our team members was given the opportunity to introduce themselves and share a few words. Then, I shared a message about giving our lives for a cause from the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Afterward, we prayed together with the church then broke for an evening of fellowship. The church fed us a wonderful traditional Bulgarian meal, with Christina making sure that each of us gained at least 10 pounds before we were allowed to leave the table!

For those of you who know Christina (and trust me, once you've met her you never forget her!), you will be blessed to know that her son, Venci, was recently married to a girl named Christiana. She shared the story with us of his engagement. He had decided that he wanted the Lord to choose his wife and asked for direction. Within a short time, all four members of his family had dreams about him marrying a girl in the church. After more prayer, he proposed to her and she accepted. Turns out, she was interested in marrying him and had a dream over three years earlier about him proposing to her on her birthday. Two years came and went with no birthday proposal, but guess what happened on her birthday this year? On top of that, her parents were also seeking God about the marriage and both of them had dreams about the young couple being married! For those who doubted, the Lord still works in dreams and visions!

Please continue to pray for this church. The battle for the lost hearts and minds of Bulgaria is being waged here, but it is not an easy one. They need our encouragement and support and to know that we are bringing them up before the Lord. God bless you all!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Day at Stolnik

Linzi painting
Today was an awesome kickoff to our trip. We came to serve the Body of Christ here and spent the day at Stolnik, a small Roma (gypsy) village about 20 minutes outside of Sofia. Pastor Niki Vassilev, with his wife Tsveta, leads the church, in addition to another one in nearby Elin Pelin. Niki has a genuine heart for the gypsy people that is rare among the Bulgarians and it has always been a real joy to fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Stolnik.

Bulgarian scaffolding :-)
We showed up today to paint a wall of their church with one of Linzi's now famous murals. She designed a piece with illustrations from various bible stories including: the feeding of the five thousand, water turned into wine, Jesus calming a storm, Calvary and the tomb. The girls also added a section listing more than 30 names for God from scripture, with some help from Pastor Niki's daughters Cali & Viki, and their friend Iva. The girls got about half the painting done, so we are going to be returning early in the morning to finish the painting.
Half of the partially finished mural
Vern Garrett: Grass Grim Reaper
Meanwhile, the guys helped to clear the lot that the church is on. It has a lot of unused space that had become heavily overgrown. Everything is green in Bulgaria and the weeds grow like... well, weeds! The grass was freshly trimmed using an actual scythe, Grim Reaper-style. Vernon gave it a whack, but learned quickly that, while Pastor Niki made it look easy, it only looked that way.

Chopping down a stubborn tree
We raked the grass into piles, then tackled the edge of the property which was covered in dense, thorny vines and unwanted trees. Its amazing what you can accomplish with an axe, two pitchforks, and a scythe with lots of manpower and hearts to serve! We chopped trees down and dragged them away, and covered our arms and legs in nicks and scratches from the thorny vines, but it was all worth it! A good hard days' work serving our Stolnik family. We were blessed to be used by the Lord to bless them and overjoyed to be knee-deep in the work get sent us to do.
Is there a landscaper in the house?
Roy getting some hard work done

Megan with gypsy kids
Brittany with gypsy kids
In the evening, the congregation gathered for their weekly service. The kids stayed outside for games and activities with a lot of our team, along with bible stories read and acted out for them. It was a joy to see our group effectively communicating God's Word even through the language barrier (the Roma children do not generally enjoy the same schooling as the Bulgarians and very few speak any English at all). Watching Brijon, a first-timer, relate the story of Noah and the ark through a translator to those kids was awesome and Brittany, our other first-timer, dived right in as well, helping wherever she was needed.

Brijon babysits everywhere!
Meanwhile, in the church we worshipped together with our Bulgarian and gypsy brethren and then I shared a word from 1 Corinthians 3. The message addressed the difference between carnal and spiritual Christians and looked at the need for growth and maturity in our walks with the Lord. This is often a real challenge in the Roma churches and I hope the message challenged and encouraged our brothers and sisters to a closer, deeper walk with the Lord. After the message, members of the congregation shared several testimonies of God's powerful work in their lives and the church prayed for several needs in the body. When the service ended, our team treated everyone to American-style grilled hot dogs (Bar-S Jumbo) complete with American mustard and ketchup (theirs is very different). We hung out and fellowshipped for an hour or so.
Linda helps with painting
Hey, who gave him a ladder?
 One last cool story to end our day. My first trip here was 4 years ago in 2008. That year at the Black Sea camp, I met a young gypsy kid named Niki. We had a great time at camp and became friends. Then, we visited Stolnik after returning to Sofia and I got to see him again, making sure to take my picture with him. That was the last I saw of him. This is pretty standard with many of the gypsy kids because of the difficult home life they come from. However, tonight I saw this really tall teenager walk in that looked vaguely familiar... Yep, it was Niki! I took another picture in front of the trailer that was their old church with my newly rediscovered friend. God is good!
Four years ago with Niki

Today with Niki
Well, off to bed now. Tomorrow we're up early to finish painting, then we will be spending several hours at an orphanage here in Sofia. Finally, we're going to end our day in Elin Pelin for another church service with Pastor Niki and his congregation before heading off to dinner with some of them. Keep us in prayer and may God challenge you to serve your brothers and sisters wherever they may be in your life.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We're here!

After 34 hours of travel, we have finally arrived and are comfortably set in the flat at the new Blaga Vest church building. Just had dinner which my daughter, Megan, prepared for us and now showers and off to bed.

Tomorrow, we're off to the Roma (gypsy) village of Stolnik where Pastor Niki Vasilev leads a church. We're doing some painting in their building and possible building an outdoor barbecue pit for fellowships. Then, we're hosting a cookout for everyone and staying for their evening service.

Good night everyone! (Лека нощ)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pastor Chuck and Lynda Join Team

Surprise! Due to the delays in our flight schedule today, Pastor Chuck and Lynda Kelly, our pastor and his wife, were able to join us for the trip after all. It has been a huge blessing to the whole team to have them traveling with us and we look forward to sharing every moment of the trip with them.

Of course, right now we're all just living the airport life, so there's not much excitement. We're riding escalators and elevators all over the place as we dash from terminal to terminal throughout the airport. However, we took some pictures of both of them just so you can all see how well they're doing.

While some members of the team are taking our layover in San Francisco as an opportunity for a quick nap, the Kellys are wide awake and just excited to be here. They were even able to slip away to a coffee shop for a little time to themselves!

Of course, the pastoral responsibilities can't be overlooked either, but between the cell phone and airport phones, they've been able to stay in touch with everyone and keep things flowing smoothly. Modern communications are such a marvel!

We're so glad they decided to come with us and plan to share many more amazing pictures of their journey to Bulgaria with the rest of the team.

Let's Try That Again!

Ok, after a few hours in line and on the phone, we got re-booked through San Francisco with a departure from Las Vegas at 1:18 this afternoon. Only hitch is, now we get in at 10:10 Wednesday night, so we'll miss the evening service at Blaga Vest. Fortunately, we extended our trip one day so we can attend the Wed service on the way back.

God is good and we're on our way once again... well, in a few hours anyway!

On Our Way... Sort of

The team, along with our families and drivers
We're off on another epic adventure across the world. We gathered for prayer and last minute packing arrangements (redistributing stuff to make sure we're all under the weight limit) this morning at Pastor Chuck's  before heading off the Las Vegas for the first flight of our journey. We made it to the airport  with time to spare, got through security in no time, found our gate and then grabbed a quick breakfast. Special thanks to the Hartmans and Jim White for driving us up to the airport!

After boarding on time, we found ourselves sitting for awhile past our departure time before finally hearing the announcement that a seal was bad on our aircraft. To make matters worse, the airline did not have the seal in stock here in Vegas. However, another airline has now loaned them the part. We are currently de-planed and waiting for repairs before boarding again and resuming our travels.

Our broken airplane
Three things are keeping my heart calm and peaceful right now.

  1. We have a 4-hour layover in New Jersey, so this delay shouldn't affect our overall schedule. 
  2. This is my fourth trip to BG and we have never had an eventless journey. My first year, the Sofia Airport was closed because of a fire, forcing an overnight stay in Germany. On our second trip, we missed our connection in Germany, leading to a 7-hour delay. Last year, the vehicle taking us from Bullhead City to Vegas overheated the whole way and we arrived at our gate in the nick of time! This delay fits the pattern perfectly!
  3. God is in control... Seriously, We're going in His name by His calling and strength and we completely trust Him to make it happen. We know He's got amazing plans and we can't wait to see them unfold regardless what happens to oppose them.
Having said all that, I'm really hoping we keep our schedule intact. We're supposed to arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria at 12:10pm tomorrow and I'm supposed to be teaching at the Blaga Vest church tomorrow evening. I'm really looking forward to it! Because of our previous mishaps (and last year's Thursday departure), I've never even been to a church service at Blaga Vest... really excited about this year!

-Pastor Mike

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Send-Off

Pastor Chuck prays over the team
This morning in church, the team came forward and Pastor Chuck prayed over us along with the rest of the congregation. He shared some of our plans with the church and encouraged them to be praying for us during our trip.

This is always a special moment for me in the years that I've gone, and I know it carries a lot of meaning for some of the others as well. I am reminded of how the apostles and church would lay hands on those called to serve in the New Testament. We are privileged to be going as an extension of our local congregation as, together, we go out into the world in fulfillment of His Great Commission! We may be the eight who are going to Bulgaria, but truly, our entire church is reaching out in obedience to serve our family in that nation.

Brijon, Brittany and Linzi packing supplies
After church, the team gathered in a classroom for some final preparations. We all brought our suitcases so that we could split up all our supplies among them. We had to pack crafting supplies, food, brochures and gospel tracts, and more. At the same time, we made photocopies of everyone's passport. Each one of us will carry a copy of someone else's passport with our own in case one gets lost or stolen.

Now, we spend the next day and a half relaxing with our families. With summer camp and VBS wrapped up, I look forward to hanging out with my wife and kids for these last moments before leaving them for a few weeks.

God bless you all and be praying for us!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Final Countdown

Vacation Bible School wrapped up last night at our church and, with that, the team is now completely focused on our upcoming trip. With our departure only a few days away, we are all scrambling to get our clothes organized and packed, purchase last minute supplies, wrap up business at home, and spend time with our families over the weekend.
Sunday after church, the team will gather to dole out and pack all the team supplies, including: food, candy, craft supplies, t-shirts, etc. At the same time, we'll make copies of our passports to hand out among the team so everybody has a copy of somebody else's. This makes it easier if a team member loses their passport overseas (which has never happened yet!).
Monday will be spent with our families, enjoying our last quiet day together for two and a half weeks. Then, we reassemble Tuesday morning at 1:30am for a last check of weight on everyone's luggage, followed by a team picture with those who come to send us off and prayer over the trip. We plan to be on the road by 2am  so we can make the airport in Vegas by 4, leaving us plenty of time to reach the gate for our 6am departure.
Please be praying for us over the next few days and follow along right here as we embark on another epic journey for the Lord!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"I Will Follow"

front cover of our conference brochure
That is the theme of the one-day youth conference we will be hosting in Sofia on the Saturday after we arrive. Our desire is to encourage the young people of Bulgaria to not only accept the doctrines of Christianity at an intellectual level, but to passionately pursue Christ as disciples, surrendering their lives to His plans and purposes.
Joey, Vernon, and I will teach the main sessions on discipleship, peer pressure and accountability. Joey and Linzi will be breaking out the boys and girls for a lesson on living in purity. There will also be a breakout session with several different classes for the kids to choose from. Our teenagers will be involved in the teaching on these, and we will close with a Q&A session for all the kids to ask questions of our team.
conference schedule
Be praying for the conference to go smoothly. It's a lot to plan long-distance! Itzo Yatanski of Blaga Vest has been very helpful in working out details, and we've even put together a nice color brochure for all the kids with the schedule and topic information that we translated into Bulgarian with the help of our good friend Simona Ivanova.
When its all over, we're serving a taco dinner to the whole crowd, with salad and a side of refried beans for a little taste of home BG-style.
Please keep this conference in prayer. It is a new endeavor for us, but one we've been talking and praying about for several years. We're expecting about 40 kids from Sofia, Elin Pelin, Gabrovo and Macedonia. We really need to be led by the Holy Spirit to minister to these kids and point them toward a radical relationship with Christ as His followers!