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Church camp, European style

Youths hold up a map of Latvia showing the location of Camp Hope 2010. (Photo provided by Eric Williamson)

We received a record number of comments when we asked you to share your favorite church camp stories.
But the U.S. isn’t the only place where church camp makes a tremendous difference in young lives.
I got a message from Eric Williamson, minister for the Chesmont Church of Christ in Pottstown, Pa., with an update on Camp Hope — a weeklong camp for orphans in the former Soviet republic of Latvia.
“We had over 80 orphans at the camp and about 40 workers,” Eric writes. “Lives were changed, relationships were built and children as well as staff began studying more.
“We had children reading the Bible who had never read the Bible before. One young man who was given a children’s Bible finished reading the whole Bible by the end of the week. He was actually one of the kids who was struggling at the beginning of the week. … But then on Wednesday he started reading his Bible and finished on Friday.”

Campers in Latvia at Camp Hope 2010. (Photo provided by Eric Williamson)

The camp was the idea of Janeks Vimbsons, who grew up an orphan in Latvia before he moved to the U.S. and was baptized while attending Coventry Christian Schools in Pottstown. Read more about Janeks’ story.
(Eastern European Mission also produced a video telling some of Janeks’ story. EEM supplied Camp Hope with curriculum and Bibles.)
During the Soviet era, youths in Eastern Europe spent their summers at “Pioneer Camps,” where they were indoctrinated with the values of communism. After the Berlin Wall fell, many of these camp sites opened their doors to Christian groups.
YouthReach International is one such group. The ministry, formerly known as World Wide Youth Camps, coordinates Bible-based camps in Russia and Ukraine. In recent years, the ministry has expanded its mission beyond camp — to care for and mentor orphans and youths year-round. Right now YouthReach is hosting a concurrent Orphan camp and “Russian Mentor Boot Camp” in Novosibirsk, Russia.
Since I began working for The Christian Chronicle nearly nine years ago, I’ve had the privilege to see a few Eastern European youth camps in action. In 2002 I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, and visited a youth camp in a place called Molodozhnoe, right on the Gulf of Finland. Members of the West Erwin Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas, volunteered at the camp.
As I reported in 2002, the kids I met at the camp seemed like any other kids anywhere else in the world.

But as they embrace the humid summer air — a rarity in the St. Petersburg area — some of the boys’ shorts and shoeless feet reveal muddy brown splotches. The sores, now healing, are from impetigo or other skin rashes acquired in prison. These children have done jail time for stealing. …
Many of these youths have experiences far beyond their years. Cast out or abandoned by their parents, they roamed the streets of St. Petersburg. Some stole for a living. Others lived with alcoholic parents in impoverished conditions.
‘The most horrible thing is that these kids see these things,’ said camp director and West Erwin member Joy Rousseau.

I witnessed a baptism at the camp. I didn’t want to get the Chronicle’s digital camera wet, so I gave my old Pentax film camera to one of the West Erwin members for close-up shots. I stayed back on land and snapped this shot of a young boy witnessing the baptism from a distance. To date, it’s probably my favorite photo I’ve shot for the paper.

Young Russians watch as a camper is baptized in the Gulf of Finland on July 24, 2002. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

Six summers later, I got to attend part of Camp Ruta, an annual youth camp in the Baltic nation of Lithuania (just south of Latvia). Members of the Gateway Church of Christ in Pensacola, Fla., helped with the camp. Here’s a snippet of the story I wrote in 2008:

For students, Camp Ruta is “one of the most hands-on types of mission work there is,” said Ed Humphries, Gateway’s singles minister and former director of the camp. Regardless of their abilities, counselors can demonstrate “the joy and the peace … that come with Jesus.”
“Really, this summer camp is not any different than any summer camp that you’ve ever been to,” Humphries said. “I think the difference is that, for these kids, this is their introduction to that joy, that peace, that happiness. I love to be a part of it.”

Oleg Popok, of the Vilnius, Lithuania, Church of Christ and Ed Humphries of the Gateway Church of Christ in Pensacola, Fla., lead a rousing chorus of “The Wise Man Built his House Upon the Rock” at Camp Ruta in Lithuania in July 2008. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

Juozas Puodziukaitis and Ilja Amosov, the church’s ministers, were coordinators for the camp. I wrote a feature about their unique backgrounds and ministry a few months later. During my time in Vilnius I stayed with Ilja and his wife, Daiva. (Unfortunately, Gateway minister Danny Dodd and a few others had indoctrinated Ilja with misinformation and made him a fan of Ole Miss. I made sure to leave him with a Georgia Bulldogs ball cap.)
The camp itself was a great experience. Every time I think about it, I remember the very loud song the campers sang the first time I put my elbows on the table in the mess hall.

A camper at Camp Ruta in Lithuania unwinds herself after a toilet paper mummy race. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

(To the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”)
Get your elbows off the table, Erik!
Get your elbows off the table, Erik!
We have seen it once or twice
And it isn’t very nice
So get your elbows off the table, Erik!
(Then, to the tune of “London Bridges”)
Round the mess hall you must go,
you must go, YOU MUST GO!
Round the mess hall you must go,
holding hands with … Svetlana!
I think it was Svetlana. I can’t remember her name for sure. But she was very professional about the whole thing — said it happened all the time.
Have you participated in a youth camp in Eastern Europe — or anywhere else in the world? What are your favorite memories? What role do these camps play in evangelism and long-term church growth?

  • Feedback
    Erik, this a another GREAT article! Thanks for sharing your experiences in camps, European style! Now, get your elbows off the table! 🙂
    Gwen Antwine
    July, 7 2010

    Thankyou for your article and blog featuring Eric an Janiks. I am heading out to Ukraine (I’m in the airport now) to participate with one of our five teams who will be teaching character traits and distributing Bibles. This is an incredible opportunity and experience! God bless all those who touch the lives of children the world over!
    Darryl Willis
    EEM Youth Camp Program
    Darryl Willis
    July, 8 2010

    Great article and nice photos! What a great work can be done through the youth camps to reach young people for Christ. I pray that Camp Hope and all the other camps will flourish in Eastern Europe. God bless your efforts for our Lord.
    Doug Edwards
    July, 8 2010

    Nice article, Erik! Camps are a fantastic method of introducing Christ to the next generation through practical means – playing, talking, loving, caring, laughing, lessons. We have found that they are deeply impactful when they connect kids with local Christian mentors who can continue the relationships and discipleship all year long. For many of these kids, this is the first time anyone has noticed them and truly cared for them.
    And the excitement for Christ and evangelism by short-term missionaries experienced during these camps is brought back to their home churches, making a difference right in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces as well. Praise God for making this a win-win-win!
    David Hennessey
    Executive Director
    YouthReach International
    David Hennessey
    July, 8 2010

    To me summer camp experiences were all about making friends and having a good time learning new skills. Swimming, water skiing, archery and many other fun experiences too numerous to mention. For most it was the first time being away from their familiar surroundings. I do not recall being indoctrinated by any religious group. Its seems that as soon as the borders of former countries of the Soviet Union allowed free travel missionary groups have sprouted up like mushrooms. I don’t take it kindly when these groups use the bible and gods name to collect donations to convert these children to their beliefs.
    If they really cared about these children they could use this time to encourage self reliance and not expect “God” to solve all their problems. I have seen too many discouraged youngsters who finally realize that achieving success in life is of their own doing not praying for some miracle intervention. Maybe thats why its much easier to approach children of russian descent than latvian.
    I grew up with the belief that god helps the ones that help themselves.
    Erik, hope you take these thoughts in kind even if I question your motives
    July, 22 2010

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