Days 11 & 12: Partners Latvia, Good-bye, and Home

Early on, as we planned our trip to celebrate with Matthews Church, we thought we would travel to Latvia on October 22 and return home on November 2. I’m so thankful we adjusted our trip to October 12 through October 25. There are lots or reasons for my thankfulness, not the least of which is Matthews Church will have their 2nd Celebration Sunday with only local friends present and this seems right to me. As I’ve shared in previous blogs for previous trips our Latvian friends set the bar for hospitality. They will love us and care for us at great cost to themselves. Their 2nd Sunday Celebration will be intense and beautiful and when it is over they will be able to rest, not take care of us. They will never complain, and I know that they love us, but friends take care of friends, right? So I rejoice that we are on our way home.

Our trip changed in timeframe because our friend and partner in serving and loving Latvia, Chuck Kelley, suggested we might want to come to Latvia early enough to view the “Secret Double” Art Exhibition. We did this and were blessed by the focus on depression and the helps available in Latvia. Yesterday we got to meet with the staff of Chuck’s Latvian organization, Partners, and heard more of the background of the exhibition. We visited with Vineta Zale, Office Manager; Almers Ludviks, Latvian Director; Madara Molnika, Mission Development; and Madara Lazdina, Art Director. It was helpful to hear about the history of Partners in Latvia and to better understand the current strategies employed to support and encourage the church in Latvia and participate in the spread of the gospel. 

Partners Latvia
Partners Latvia and us! Steve behind the camera

From  Partners we spent several hours walking the city, taking in sights, finding souvenirs, and beginning the ‘good-by’ process.  Our sightseeing included one last last breath-taking adventure. Mid-afternoon we found our way to the Radisson Blu hotel and the Sky High bar where we enjoyed an afternoon ‘tea’. Why this particular place? We were served as we took in a 360 degree view of beautiful Riga from 26 stories high. I’ve included one picture, but our cameras couldn’t overcome the afternoon sun glare on the windows that our eyes had no problem with. The view was amazing.

Souvenir Shopping
Souvenir shopping

Souvenir Shopping

Sightseeing

Sightseeing
Glare-marred photo of a gorgeous view

Our Last Supper

We returned to our rooms to pack in preparation for today’s early departure and then found our way to a restaurant not far from our hotel. We had earlier received an invitation from Matthews Church to join at this restaurant with the Evergreen Sister Church and key leaders from Matthews Church for a final meal together. The room was lovely, the meal options delicious and the fellowship sweet. Steve and I had the blessing of sitting near Ainars and Mairita Purmalis, Laima Dravniece, and Egils and Elina Ergli. Ainars has limited English — way more English than either Steve or I have Latvian — but Laima and the Erglis were able to help us understand when help was needed. How I long to be able to speak and understand the nuances of the language to communicate our hearts! There is no place like home; this is undeniable. But with every visit to Latvia I leave a little bit more of my heart in this place that feels like family and home. 

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Day Ten: Sightseeing With Hardijs

Hardijs Rozenfelds is a busy man. He has a very responsible job as an anethesiologist and works regularly in four area hospitals and once a month in the small community of Madona in Eastern Latvia. He is the Chairman of the Board at Matthews Church going on five years now. His wife Vigrita works in Pharmaceuticals and they have three grown children. Along with many others at Matthews church he has planned the 150th Celebration and has one more major day of that celebration this coming Sunday. And the man sings in the choir! I tell you all of this not to impress you with his power or accomplishments, but rather to also share that Hardijs took the day off of work today and spent the day touring us four Oregonians around his Latvia. He shared stories from his days and his faith and his church and his country. He shared his life with us. And he insists upon taking us to the airport at 5:15 Wednesday morning because this is how his Grandma taught him to treat guests. Because this is the kind of man that Hardijs is. What a blessing his friendship is to us. 🙂
Hardijs picked us up at our hotel and we headed to Balta Kapa, Salkastri for a glimpse of the Gulf of Riga. The morning was crisp and clear and the view stunningly gorgeous. The natural area is well maintained and we walked on wooden boardwalks to a perfectly situated viewing platform where we stopped for photos and the chance to drink it all in.

Explorers on a Nippy Fall Day
Token Group Selfie! 🙂
Balta Kapa, Salkastri
 

From Salkastri we climbed back in the car and wended our way to Sigulda. The roads took us through varying country – from forested areas to farms to small communities.  As we neared Sigulda, it was amazing to realize how many of the beautiful golden leaves had fallen from the trees in the week since Steve and I visited.  We drove a short distance along the 280 mile Guaja River, the only major river that begins and ends in Latvia. We saw recreational facilities including a golf course and ski hills and an obstacle course. And we saw the training facility for the Luge, Skeleton, and Bobsled Olympic events – a facility that attracts athletes from several countries to come to Sigulda to train.

After enjoying the beauty of Sigulda and surroundings, we headed over to Ligatne and the Secret Soviet Bunkers. Steve and I had actually gotten to tour these Bunkers a few years back with Pēteris Eisāns. At that time we went in a large tourist group. Today it was only the five of us and our English speaking Latvian guide. Even going a second time through there was nothing boring about the Bunkers. I was surprised once again at how recently they were kept ready for utilization in the case of a nuclear war. Decommissioned in 2003, the Bunkers were designed to house Soviet elite leadership 9 meters underground for a period of three months should a nuclear strike warrant it. 

Our capable guide Regina, at the door to the Bunkers
A Meeting Room graced with Latvia and a bust of Lenins
Lenins, Randy, Mike

Mike and the Hotline

There’s a new sheriff in town
You too can have your very own Soviet era gas mask – 8 euros
 

From the Bunkers we traveled to Cesis. Cesis is the home of the Cesis Castle, built in the 1200’s. It was the first place the Latvian flag flew and the first place it flew again when Latvian independence was regained in 1991. Today it is the home of various cultural events including the Baptist Song Festival. We stopped in Cesis for a meal together and then walked around the community a bit during the golden hour. The temperature had dropped and the wind had picked up so we left fairly quickly to begin our trek back to Riga, but first we took a brief side trip and hike to see the Ergli Cliffs not far from Cesis. 

Hiking to the Ergli Cliffs
Looking down at the Gauja River

Capturing the View
 

We traveled west to Riga into the gathering night with a deep orange sky in front of us. We ended our day with a quick dessert together. I have so many impressions from this day….

  1. Latvia is beautiful, pure and simple!
  2. Our guide at the Bunkers is married to an American and one day she said to him that it was awful that America might have bombed her and destroyed her. He said, “But I didn’t know you then; I didn’t know it was you!” Isn’t that the way with all war?
  3. Hardijs shared some of the very personal ways Matthews Church provides benevolence and some of the challenges inherent in Orphan Ministry in Latvia. Knowledge brings deeper understanding.
  4. We talked of war and peace and of fear and certainty and in my heart I kept on thinking “Thy Kingdom come Lord!” The solution to all our ills is awaiting the signal from God for the return of Jesus. In the meantime let us continue to encourage one another as we see the day approaching.

Tomorrow we will enjoy a visit with Chuck Kelley’s staff at Partner’s here in Latvia. We’ll do some final walking tours of Riga, and then tomorrow evening a meal with Matthews Church leaders and Evergreen Baptist, their Sister Church from Bixby, Oklahoma. And then a few short hours after that we head home!

I believe that relationship breeds purpose. Several ideas have been planted during this trip as we’ve interacted with friends here in Latvia. I’m eager to see how God puts flesh on them. And, no doubt, seeds have been planted that we can’t even see — those immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine things that God specializes in. So much anticipation!

 Day Nine: Celebrating 150 Years

Today, Sunday October 22 and next Sunday, October 29 are the two Sundays set aside to Celebrate Matthews Church’s 150 years of serving God. We were so blessed to take part in all aspects of the celebration. We left for Matthews Church at 10:30 this morning set on an 11:00 arrival time for services that began at 11:30. 

As with the last two Saturday nights, once again the Celebration was filled with music. I don’t think it is possible to over emphasize how important music is to the Latvian heart. Add to that heart a soul that longs to praise God and musical expression becomes an overflowing fountain. Today’s service also overflowed with prayer as every ministry area of the church was prayed over during the celebration. During the service all ages were involved in praising God –  even the littlest ones who sang “Jesus is my Friend”. At one point in the service Pastor Mike brought greetings from Suburban and prayed scripture over Matthews Church. And then Pastor Scott from Evergreen Baptist Church, a second sister Church from Bixby, Oklahoma, also brought greetings. After the celebration concluded, the whole congregation, including us two sisters, squeezed onto the stage and a photograph was taken of everyone. And then, homemade Latvian cake for all!

Matthews Church Celebrates 150 Years
Matiss Babrovskis translates for Pastor Mike

Pastor Scott from Evergreen Baptist Church, Bixby Oklahoma
 

Those of you from Suburban may remember the Latvia Link Team talking about a timeline project to honor Matthews Church. Erik Simmons visited Latvia in June to discuss the project and the idea shifted a bit to become a history booklet of Matthews Church. Today those history booklets were available in both English and Latvian. They are a beautiful reminder of God’s hand in the history of the church. Matthews gave both Sister Churches a gift too! We each took home a beautiful wooden clock made from the heart of a tree from Latvia’s forest and a plaque celebrating our friendship and partnership with Matthews Church. Each Pastor’s wife present was given a beautiful bouquet of flowers — another language of the Latvian heart.

Front Page of the 150th Celebration History Booklet
Inside pages of the 150th Celebration History Booklet
A Gift From Our Friends
 

After the congregational photograph and a piece of cake we climbed a couple of flights of stairs to “The Least of These” service. Today around 150 people came to worship, hear the Gospel preached, and to receive the blessing of a small portion of food. These people are in hard times – some are homeless, some struggle with addictions, all are in reduced circumstances. Steve was surprised by a request to share a word with them, but the Holy Spirit was not surprised as Steve shared from his quiet time this morning. It was perfect — the story of Nicodemus, a man who thought he had everything, but found he had nothing without Jesus. As Steve said, Nicodemus’ story is Steve’s story, and my story and the story of each and everyone of us until we decide to give ourselves to following Jesus body, mind, and soul. As Steve shared I stood beside him and prayed over these men and women God loves so much. And then at the end of the service we were privileged to help distribute food and bless each person in the name of Jesus. It felt like a holy communion – a sharing of the word of life and the bread of life all in the name of the One who died for us. I praise God for Janis Neiders, the far man in the picture below, and his tenacious devotion to this ministry.

Worship and Scripture shared in Latvian and Russian

From The Least of These service, we took off with Lauris, Marks and Anni and Gatis and Ance Olte to go for a walk on the banks of the Daulgava River. And last, but not least, off to a dinner of pizza with Gatis and Ance. It was so good to meet these two face to face as we’ve heard many glowing reports about them from our Volleyball Camp team over the years. They are every bit as wonderful as we’ve been told. 🙂

Ance and Gatis Olte of Volleyball Camp Fame

Pizza and Friends — a great combination!

Our day was non-stop from 10:30 to 8:30 and it was all good! We look forward to tomorrow, connecting with Hardijs Rosenfelds, Chairman of the Board for Matthews, and learning a bit about Latvian history.

Ciao!! 

Day Eight: Connecting New and Old Friends

Our hotel includes a wonderful breakfast with our room, so we started our day together talking and laughing over a good meal. Just a bit about breakfast here — it isn’t the typical waffle, cold cereal and coffee meal we tend to get in the States. The selections are abundant and range from various cereals and muesli to eggs, bacon, cold cuts, cheeses, coffee cakes, yogurt, baked beans (Steve wants those for breakfast from now on), mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, fruit, etc., etc. It is yummy and invites lingering and conversation.

We left the hotel about 11:00 to walk to a local flower vendor and then on up to Matthews Church and a visit at the Pastor’s home. Flowers speak the language of friendship and appreciation in Latvia and we knew we wanted to communicate that to our friends here. We may have looked a bit like an odd bridal party as we made our way through town to Matthews Church.

Flower vendor on Terbatas Iela
Hmmm – which is most handsome? Flowers or the Guys?

We arrived at Matthews just before noon. Lauris Grins met us there and took us up a few flights of stairs to the home of Pastor Ainars Purmalis, his wife Mairita, and their daughter ‘Anni’. They greeted us warmly and led us to their table which was decorated beautifully and covered with many delightful dishes. The Purmalis family also invited our friend Gatis Olte, Volleyball Camp planner and coach extraordinaire, and Lauris and his son Marks also joined us at the table. We enjoyed a wide ranging conversation learning more about each other’s lives and our mutual hearts to love and serve Jesus. We spoke of past partnership and of opportunities to come, including this coming summer’s Volleyball Camp — our third camp together. Pastor Mike presented Pastor Ainars with a letter and a card from Suburban’s Elders with congratulations on the 150th anniversary of Matthews Church. 

We left Ainars and Mairita’s warm company to walk a few blocks with Matiss Babrovskis to the apartment where he lives with his wife Elina and his 5 1/2 month old little girl Emma. Matiss is in year two of Baltic Pastoral Institute training. During this year of study Matiss serves as an intern at Matthews Church for three weeks of each month and attends classes at BPI for the other week of the month. Suburban has the privilege of providing some financial and prayer support for Mattis as he studies and prepares for full time ministry. Mattis participated in the program portion of this last summer’s Volleyball Camp and made a great impression on our team. He had creative ideas and the kids loved him. The actual sports portion of the camp is important and helps to connect the kids to one another and to both the American and Latvian coaches. But the importance of the program portion is it works to connect the kids to Jesus. We planted the seed of an idea with Matiss and Elina that they might someday come to Suburban for at least a couple of weeks or maybe even for a 3 month internship. This is only a dream at this point, but something we will pray about and see how God leads.

Around Mairita’s table
What a fellowship!
New friends! Randy, Mike, Elina, Matiss. Emma was sleeping. 🙂
From Matiss and Elina’s home we took a walk around a large and beautiful park right across the street from Matthews Church. During the summer months Mathews Church has a monthly sports outreach to local youth that happens in the park. Today the weather was crisp and clear and the leaves were golden, both on the trees and where they had fallen under our feet. So beautiful!

A golden October day

The next couple of hours we were at Matthews Church and blessed to hear excellent choral and instrumental music from adult and children’s choirs, small ensembles, and Christian classical guitarist Kaspars Zemitis. This is the first time I had the opportunity to hear a choral setting written by Kaspars and called “Mass” that consisted entirely of voices and guitar. There were several pieces interwoven including ‘Agnus Dei’, ‘Kyrie Eleison’, and ‘Sanctus’. All were beautifully and exquisitely done. Here is a link to Kaspars Zemitis presenting  one of the songs we heard this evening with another Latvian choir.  Kyrie Eleison by Kaspars Zemitis and Liepaja Choir

Matthews Church doorplate
God’s stained glass – the beauty of fall reflected in Matthews Church windows
Matthews Church choirs and instrumentalists — full praise to God!

Our day was full and tomorrow promises to be more of the same as we gather with Matthews Church for a special 150th anniversary Sunday celebration.

Day Seven: Pastor Mike and Randy Arrive (and Laima Candy Museum)

Originally Steve and I thought we would spend this day available in our room waiting for Mike and Randy to arrive. We realized the flaw in this plan was we needed to leave long enough for our room to be done up and fresh towels brought in. So we decided a tour of the Laima Chocolate Factory was in order.

Laima Chocolate Museum and Factory

Tiffany, our museum guide with excellent English language skills

Sampling Laima Drinking Chocolate

What a great PreSchool field trip

I’ve known since our first visit here that I enjoy Laima candies. Today I realized how important they have been in the contemporary life of Latvia. Even during occupations when Russian or Nazi forces claimed the factories as their own success stories, the heart and soul of those working in the factories has been about producing a Latvian product in a Latvian way with great excellence. Even the wrappers for the candies have communicated – sometimes about the world, sometimes about the candy, and honestly sometimes propaganda during occupation. When we were at the museum today, there was also a group of preschool aged children there. It was fun watching them tour and enjoy the samples Laima freely gives.

When we finished the tour we walked back to the hotel hoping to find our room ready. Not so much. In fact it was not ready until 3:30. We realized that a LOT of people checked out today and a LOT were checking in! We must have seen 100 or more check in as we waited for Mike and Randy to arrive. 

Mike and Randy arrived at 3:30 with all their luggage and completed a quick check in — thank you all for praying! We met at 5pm in the lobby and walked them up to Lido on Elisabetes Iela for a yummy authentic Latvian dinner. After dinner we took them on a walk down Brivibas Bulvaris (Freedom Bouvelard) and into Old Town. This was a brief tour mostly designed to keep them awake until at least 7:30 so they can somewhat adjust their bodies to the time here.

They’ve Arrived!

Tomorrow we will start with a long, slow morning, but then we’ll be engaged from noon until about 8pm. I’m looking forward to beginning our weekend of celebrating what God has done through Matthews Church! Please pray that we will honor and glorify God together as we remember and rejoice in this 150 year story of God’s faithfulness.

Day Six: Morning Walk and Brunch With Liva Fokrote, Dean of BPI

Today was a slightly slower pace with fewer appointments scheduled so we started our day with a walk to the Latvian National Library. The day dawned clear and beautiful – in fact, although there have been some showers and rainy walks since we arrived, for the most part we’ve walked in dry weather. This is a blessing for us, but we are thankful even more for this answer to prayer for Latvia. We hope the dry weather continues so farmers can bring in the harvest before it is too late!

The Latvian National Library building is located across the Daugava River about a mile and a half from where we are staying. The building is beautiful and functional and houses both books and historical collections of value to the people of Latvia. 

The Latvian National Library
Entry Area and Registration Desk

Steve in front of the Wall of Books

One of my favorite features of the Library is ‘The People’s Bookshelf”. This shelf is five stories high and is protected by a wall of glass. The people of Latvia have been encouraged to donate a personal book and to write the story of the book’s significance inside. When complete the wall will house 15,000 books. Today the collection is over 5,000 books. When I saw the library in 2015 Laima Dravniece shared that a Latvian Bible was the first book in The People’s Bookshelf.

Across the Daugava

Another lovely feature of the library is the incredible views, especially on a beautiful fall day like today. As visitors we were able to access up to the eighth floor (out of a total of 13) and the views were outstanding!

Across the Daugava

From the library Steve and I walked back across the river and to the Baltic Pastoral Institute (BPI) to spend some time visiting with Liva Fokrote, Dean. We got to know Liva back in 2014 when Steve and I first visited Latvia. Liva and Peteris Sprogis, Bishop of the Latvian Baptist Union, and Chuck Kelley, Director of Partners Latvia, worked together in 2008 to open this training school for those called to be Pastors. Liva is fun to talk to – intelligent and real, she clearly loves Jesus and these young men who want to grow in Him and serve His church. She shared some wisdom and some insights about how Americans can best partner with Latvians in spreading the Gospel to Latvians. 

Liva Fokrote, Dean of BPI making a point

After lunch we released Steve and I power walked with Liva back to the Baptist Union offices and where I had the privilege of meeting Līvija Godiņa, the retiring Director of Women’s Ministry and Agnese Megne, the incoming Director. I was impressed with the humble spirit of both of these women and their clear hearts for Jesus and the women who love Him. As I prepared to leave, I was introduced to a group of four women who are in Latvia to teach “Entrust”. Entrust is an excellent Women’s Ministry Training program that started in Austria. http://www.entrust4.org/home. My friend Martina has taken part in Entrust training, now in her second year, and has found it both challenging and a blessing. 

Baptist Union offices

This day is nearly done. For dinner tonight, Steve and I are splitting. I will enjoy a last meal with Martina while Steve goes in search of pizza! 😉 Tomorrow we will stick close to the hotel waiting eagerly for Pastor Mike and Randy to arrive. We can’t wait! Please pray for travel mercies and connections to fall in place — and luggage to arrive with the team! 🙂

Day Five: Inguna Raudina & Peteris & Baiba Eisans

During Suburban’s summer of 2015 trip to Latvia, our team was blessed with the language interpretation skills of Inguna Raudina a young woman of Matthews Church. The ladies from Suburban appreciated Inguna’s skills at interpretation and her evident love for Jesus and joy in the Lord. Today Steve and I got to have coffee with Inguna and catch up with where following Jesus has brought her at this time. A lot has changed in 2 1/2 years!

One year ago, with the help of Baltic Global Initiative Director Peteris Eisans (more about Peteris later), Inguna went on mission internship to Jordan. For three months she worked three days a week teaching English to children. Children of several nationalities, several language groups, several religions and various life status – including some refugee children. She lived with a local Pastor’s family and worked at developing relationships and growing in her understanding of what God had next for her life. 

Inguna Raudina – her tattoo is Ephesians 3:20, 21 in Arabic
When Inguna returned to Latvia she became a member of Vilandes Baptist Church in Riga and joined “Josiah Venture” https://www.josiahventure.com/ a mission organization focused on reaching and discipling the youth of Europe. Her primary area of ministry is youth camps, often the place that a young person chooses to follow Jesus. Josiah Venture also works to connect these young new believers to a local church and into a discipleship experience. Inguna is walking in faith as she serves the Lord through Josiah Venture and seeks to build her support base for her ministry life. Steve and I are praying with her that her support goals will be met and, even more importantly, for the youth of Europe to hear the Gospel message and respond!

Inguna Raudina

A couple of hours later we met Peteris and Baiba Eisans. It was so good to see both of them again, but honestly it was best to see Baiba since it has been a long time since we spoke face to face. Peteris and Baiba are doing well. Baiba does finances for a couple of organizations, one of which is Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ). Their three children are growing up! Ruta is nearly 15, Philips is 11 and Edwards is 6. Peteris’ role as Director of Baltic Global Initiative keeps him busy with travels and several projects. A top project right now is The Kairos Project, an educational series that encourages individuals to engage in cross-cultural missions. In January Peteris will fly to the west coast and spend time in Portland presenting at Mission Connexion, spend time with Suburban (hooray!), and spend some time in California working with a group that will help him discover and apply for grants to help with various projects. Peteris has very clear vision, passion and drive to see the gospel transform lives in the Baltic nations, but also to see the churches of the Baltic nations become sending churches engaged in cross-cultural missions.

We spoke of possible projects for the future – projects that could unite U.S. churches with Baltic churches and BGI for God’s greater glory. Talking to Peteris is always a great encouragement and spiritual shot in the arm. 🙂

Peteris and Baiba Eisans