Kids in former Soviet countries are discovering a message of hope
by Dan DeGroat
The vehicle bucked and darted over the dilapidated dirt road until my teeth hurt. Seat belt? Oh, sure—it was one palm against the ceiling and the other hooked under the seat.
My destination? A Christian summer camp in northwest Russia called Rainbows of Hope. It is exclusively for street children in a nation where hundreds of thousands of kids have no real home.
But Christian youth camps in Russia? How did that happen? When the Cold War ended, the West discovered something amazing. Behind the old Iron Curtain were 30,000 Soviet-built summer camps. The Communist leaders had used them to provide children with a fun experience while soaking their minds in atheism and Communism. When Soviet rule came to an end in 1991, the camps no longer served a purpose.
As Christian churches emerged, leaders began using these abandoned summer camps for faith-based programs. The very places where children had been taught that God does not exist were now being used to tell them, “Oh, yes, He does exist, and He loves you! And you can have a relationship with Him.”
Thousands of street kids are being reached through Chris-tian camping. These “throwaway” children are hard on the outside, but their hearts are still tender enough for a seed of hope to take root.
“These kids have their own subculture—even a street language,” Vera says. “They can’t read or write. Some of them actually sleep at home from time to time, but their parents don’t want them so they forage for survival in the city by day. Our camp sessions are a month long because it takes a week or so to [have them come down from the effects of] alcohol, tobacco, and glue.”
Svetlana, a camp director in the former Soviet country of Belarus, describes some of her campers: “One boy lives under a bridge between two pipes on some boards. There’s also a girl who sometimes lives with her parents, but they’re both alcoholics. She prefers to live on the street.”
These camping leaders know that many kids are “employed” by the mafia. Children transport drugs or pornography in exchange for cigarettes and potatoes. Mafia leaders often use deaf and mute children because those kids can’t squeal if they’re caught.
The same kids who would never think of going to church will attend a Christian summer camp because there’s food there. Plus, there are shelter, relationships, fun, and happiness. Many of the children experience a real childhood and unconditional love for the first time at camp.
“This is Timofey,” Vera said. “He came to camp from the streets, and my husband and I fell in love with him. We adopted him. He’s my son now!” She beamed.
A little homeless boy, hopelessly lost, was loved by a couple he didn’t even know. He was purchased at a great price and rescued from certain peril. Clean, well-fed, and happy, he sat at the director’s table.
Like Christian camps in other parts of the world, Rainbows of Hope uses the most effective means of reaching the most receptive hearts. Vera has created a temporary community of faith where God’s love is not only talked about, but it’s also continually modeled through dedicated Christian staff.
In such an environment, where kids are removed from the
influences of a culture that is often hostile to Christian faith, the
Spirit of God is able to work, unencumbered.
Throughout my time at Rainbows of Hope camp, I never saw a real rainbow. But I did see real hope on the faces of children when true peace replaced despair and joy leaked out of their eyes as Jesus Christ drew them to Himself with open arms.
When my visit to the camp came to an end, my heart was forever stirred. Because at the end of that rainbow, I found treasure much more precious than gold.
Dan is executive director of Global Outreach Group (GOG), a worldwide endeavor that trains indigenous church leaders to reach people through outdoor ministries. GOG has worked in Russia and the former USSR for seven years.
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