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!

Days Three and Four: Visiting the Aizupietes Family in Sigulda

I’m pretty sure no one would use the word ‘adventurous’ to describe Steve and me. That may change! On Monday we stepped way out of our comfort zone and boarded one of the regularly scheduled commuter trains that run between Riga and Sigulda, about 60 kilometers away. Riding the trains is really no big deal and people here do it everyday. But there is this whole language barrier thing and the not knowing the rules and expectations thing that we had to overcome.

Our reason to go to Sigulda was to spend time with Sandijs and Martina Aizupietes and their children, Toms, Emils, Reinis, and Elizas. Some of you following the blog may remember Martina from her visit to Suburban in November of 2014. Her husband Sandijs is a bi-vocational Pastor of Sigulda Baptist Church and attended Baltic Pastoral Institute (BPI). When Steve and I team taught at BPI during our first visit to Latvia in January 2014 I got to know Martina.

Watching Martina and Sandijs navigate life reminds me of our middle years of ministry when we both worked full time, we were raising three kids, and we carried our love and concern for the church and for a world yet to know Jesus. For Sandijs and Martina you can add Sandijs working full time in construction work, Martina working at her own bookkeeping business and one additional child and you can imagine the daily juggling act that is required to keep all the balls in the air. It was a complete joy to sit with this family, converse with each of the amazing kids, walk around town with them and see the beautiful fall colors, and enjoy a 4 hour breakfast and deep conversation at Martina and Sandijs’ table. I love this family and their desire to serve the Lord, love His people and see more people come into the Kingdom. Would you join me and Steve in praying for them as they serve Jesus in Sigulda?

Martina, Claudia, Sandijs, Steve
Inside the train, a very efficient way to travel
The house that Sandijs built (and the character who built it)
Sigulda Baptist Church – next week is VBS!
Fall colors through the train window
Martina and the beautiful, golden valley
Morning at Sandijs and Martina’s table

Day Two: Visiting Communitas International Church

Today Steve and I took the opportunity to visit another church in Riga that is part of the Baptist Union. Communitas International is an English speaking body of Christ served by Mark and Vesma Sandberg. We were introduced to Vesma back in 2014 when she translated during our time serving at the Baltic Pastoral Institute. I’ve grown to love Vesma as we’ve continued to skype nearly once a month since we met. She is an amazing servant of the Lord used by Him in so many ways. The passion she has that most speaks to my heart is her drive to see the church love and minister to Orphans. 
Communitas is a family made up of many nations who understand English and long to serve God and see Him move in Latvia. We met couples and individuals who have deliberately chosen to move to Latvia from other countries simply to see this nation won to the gospel. One of the couples we met, Bill and Donna Mauldin, moved from Texas some years back and opened up a small publishing house with the purpose of publishing Christian materials in the Latvian language. This is an important mission as the Latvian language group is small enough that larger publishing houses don’t find the market lucrative. In a God coincidence, we heard today that they are working on translating and printing the Trauma Based Relational Intervention materials (TBRI) in Latvian. I’ve heard our own Kim Simmons speak glowingly of these materials and the help the concepts are to parents raising children they have adopted or are fostering. Vesma will go to a TRBI training later this month in Texas so that she will be equipped to return home and begin reaching the concepts here. Kim also wants to attend this training sometime soon. I hope to get Kim and Vesma in a skype conversation sometime after we return home.

Bill and Donna Mauldin

After church we shared a meal with Mark and Vesma and their daughter Anna. Anna is 12 and full of spunk and it was fun to visit with this family and share hopes and dreams. I’m hopeful we can squeeze a bit more time with Vesma in before we leave Latvia.

Claudia and Anna — jacket twins!
Anna, Mark, Vesma, Claudia, Steve
 

We got back to our room fairly late afternoon and after a brief rest and change of clothes, we took off on an evening walk into Old Town. God answered a lot of prayers providing a break in the rain today. It was beautiful and we hope it continues as Latvian farmers are hurting due to a very wet year. They need some dry days to be able to complete this season’s harvest.

Soviet Era building – was KGB
Latvian Academy of Science – built as Stalin’s ‘birthday cake’ – seen on walk to church

Orthodox Church – seen on morning walk to church

Latvian Museum of Art

Day One – Visiting Friends

Before coming to Riga this trip, I asked Laima Dravniece, my friend from Matthews Church, to spend our first day with us for the joy of her fellowship and to help us with understanding transportation options in the area. Many from Suburban know Laima and a few SCC ladies actually got to celebrate Laima’s birthday last year when she spent a week with us in Oregon.

Laima and Me!

In fairly typical Latvia/Oregon wet weather we walked to the central train/bus station and Laima showed us the schedules, costs, ticketing process and described the train and bus options for a trip we will start on Monday. Steve and I will head east and a bit north to Sigulda where we will enjoy a portion of two days and one night with Martina and Sandijs Aizupietis. Sandijs is Pastor to Sigulda Baptist Church and Martina became my good friend, my Latvian daughter, after the first trip Steve and I made to Latvia in 2014. 

Riga, Central Train Station

After we determined how we will travel on Monday, Laima showed us some sights in the area including the Riga Central Market. We had seen these massive one time dirigible hangars from a distance before, but never had the chance to visit them. For the sake of brevity, I am including a link to learn more about them from Wikipedia.  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riga_Central_Market 

The markets are astounding in sheer volume of produce and meat and fish and people! A feast for the eyes and a place I’m sure I would visit every week if I lived here to purchase the freshest items at the best prices.

Fresh, living Eel Fish, people took bags of these out
One of many stalls of beautiful, fresh produce
Four of the dirigible hangars that are repurposed as Riga Central Market

From the Market we walked to the Riga Congress Hall to view the art exhibition “Secret Double”. Suburban supports Chuck Kelley and Bridge Builders International or Partners as it is called in Latvia. Chuck and Partners worked to bring together artists from the Baltic States and beyond to highlight the issue of depression and share resources available to offer help and supports. The exhibition was well done and included a painting by Chuck and a textile art by Carol Andresen of Corvallis!

Secret Double Art Exibition

After lunch Laima called our hotel for us and found out that our luggage had arrived! Jubilation and thanksgiving ensued and Steve and I took some time to freshen up before we headed off with Laima to Matthews Church for an evening choral concert. Choirs from area Baptist Churches joined Matthews Church choir to share many songs of praise. The evening included a recounting of the history of choral music and choir directors over the 150 years of Matthews existence. There was a time during the years of oppression when Sunday School was outlawed, but even then singing was allowed. And so choir singing became a way to continue to teach and memorize the great truths of faith. Even more than in our culture, music expresses the heart of Latvia. The concert was wonderful — a full and rich choir, a resounding pipe organ, an expressive saxophone, excellent piano, bass, guitar, and percussion — a delightful evening praising our God together.

Ainars Purmalis, Senior Pastor Matthews Church
Matthews Church Banner
Combined Choir, Matthews Church, led by Maris Dravniece, Worship Pastor

What a wonderful way to end our day! Thank you for your continued prayers!

Travel Day

Conflicted. I think I understand that word better than ever now! On one hand in just 18 hours Steve and I traveled over 5,000 miles without any illness or death or really any major inconvenience. Even in our lifetime the trip between Corvallis and Riga, Latvia certainly has held many more hardships and lots more hours! So that is a huge praise!

But we did encounter some ‘challenges’ on our trip. Our trip from PDX to Seattle progressed on time until the cabin doors were closed and the pilot announced that due to traffic in Seattle we were going to have to sit on the tarmac for 40 minutes before our turn to take-off rolled around. In some ways this is just one of those things that happens on any given flight day. But we had also just discovered that we could not check our bags from PDX through to Riga and instead we had to go to baggage claim in Seattle, get our bags, go to the ticket counter, check our bags through to Riga and get new boarding passes, then go through security again before going to our gate. Before the delay we thought we could do this in our 2 hour layover without worries and maybe with lunch. But after the delay nothing was certain.Thankfully we made it in a ‘5 minutes to spare’ fashion, basically walking onto the plane to Paris without much wait. In the rush to get to our seats and get situated, Steve was working at putting carry-on luggage into the overhead bins and handed off his ipad and coat to me to hold for him. When he took them back from me he said “Where’s my passport?” Ummm, I didn’t know because I didn’t realize he handed it to me, but it was nowhere to be seen. We looked under the seats, in the aisle, in the overhead bins, under the feet of the poor people behind us — everywhere! Steve retraced his steps, even getting escorted off the plane to see if it had fallen somewhere on the jet-way, all to no avail. When he returned to our seat, I could see him shaking his head at me from way up the aisle. I’d been praying this whole time asking the Lord to open our eyes to the passport. I knew without it Steve was going to be permanently escorted off the plane.  Just as he got back to me, I looked under the seats again and found a blanket kind of wrapped around a bar in the seat mechanism. I tugged on that and there under the bar, under the blanket, in the same shade of blue as the carpet, was Steve’s passport! THANK YOU JESUS!!!!! I’m not sure of the last time I’ve felt that relieved and grateful.

Just in case you ever travel to Europe by way of Paris, you should know that Charles DeGaulle airport is its own city — maybe even it’s own zip code! The place is a monster. We landed, connected and departed all in the same terminal (one of three), but travel from our arrival gate to our departure gate was a 2 hour trek with 2 security checks, a bus ride, and one passport check to enhance the experience. Back when we discovered at PDX that we couldn’t check bags through to Riga, we were offered the option of checking them to Paris and collecting them there for the go-to-the-ticket-agent, check-in-the-bags routine. I can guarantee, if we had chosen that route we would have missed our flight to Riga for sure. On the other hand, our bags might have made it. Which they didn’t until mid-morning on Saturday about 18 hours after we arrived!

In all of this we were met with kindness and help from all of the airport and airline’s staff. That was so sweet after all of the horror stories we hear about flying these days. And in all of this, I learned a lot about myself; primarily that I’m a wimp. But I also learned to just keep praying, just keep praying, be patient and wait. Answers do come and things look a whole lot better after a good night’s sleep.

Here We Go!

Soon Steve and I head out the door to begin the 18 hour trip that brings us to Riga, Latvia and a visit to Matthews Church, Suburban’s Sister Church there. We covet your prayers for safe travels and the ability to be present to God and others even on the journey.

There is a unique feature in the room we slept in last night. High above our bed, on a side wall, sits an electric outlet. So curious. I know the purpose of a wall outlet. It brings electricity to a place and from there so much can happen depending on what is plugged in. But this particular outlet must be intentionally designed for a unique use – either that or someone ran out of electric wire and didn’t want to waste the short piece left. 😉

I kind’a feel like that outlet. I know my purpose and Steve’s purpose. I love the way the Westminster Catechism states it: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.’ I even know that as we embark on this trip we go to join our brothers and sisters at Matthews Church in glorifying God for the marvel He has done over the course of 150 years of Matthews Church’s existence. But when such a uniquely positioned opportunity exists, I wonder what other purposes and possibilities does the Master Designer have in mind for us and for Pastor Mike and Randy when they join us next week? Please pray that we are faithful and useful servants ready for whatever He wants to plug us into!