“Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.” -Psalm 139: 7-10
I recently had the privilege of being part of a team helping out at an Eastern Europe for Christ camp in Rát, Ukraine, right here. Hopefully this blog will convey the great time we had, the challenges we faced and the ways in which God carried us all through. And hopefully you might consider joining one of the teams for next year’s camps.
This blog isn’t a chronological order of the camp , instead it’s a collection of all the different aspects that the trip included.
Suppose I better start by introducing you to the two teams of leaders, the Brave Brits and the …
Umm… Umm…Unflinching Ukrainians!
Our fearless team leaders were Martin and Kathleen, experienced leaders and our unofficial parents for the week. They led us through all the countries and border crossings, not to mention Edinburgh Airport; that place is no laughing matter! They were our spiritual parents too as each morning and evening we had a time of Bible reading, praying and sharing. They met a few of us in Stornoway before we left and put our minds to ease.
Then there was Christina. Edinburgh dwelling, Bethany Trust working, theology reading, banter wagon. After buying myself and Jennet cheese toasties on the plane, we knew she was going to be epic. She had such a heart for, and interest in the campers.
Sticking to the girls, we then have Joanne. It was thanks to her talk at our Youth Fellowship that I ever even considered going on the trip. She has as much a talent for languages as she does for getting on with people. In the most loving way, she was the Swiss army knife of the group, with more than enough language and people skills to help us no matter where we ended up!
And lastly for the girls we have Jennet, who when asked the rather obscure question, “Would you like to come to Ukraine with me?”, didn’t back away slowly but instead wholeheartedly agreed to come along. A great linguist and teacher – it wasn’t just the kids who learned from her grammar classes!
She also kept me safe and alive (on special instruction from my mother).
For the boys we firstly had Hamish, a man who knows most things about most things and has the ability to make them interesting. He turned the leg of a broken chair, a Sooty puppet, and a call from Allan Sugar into possibly one of the best talks I’ve heard.
Followed by Scott – oh wise up! – Drennan. Scott and myself spent the first night in Edinburgh together in a flat which was very kindly offered to us by Martin’s brother and parents. I had prepared myself for gale force 10 awkwardness with this guy I had never met before, but within half an hour we were deep in conversation about calling, providence and Psalm singing. It should also be noted that Scott had no previous connection to anyone in the group, he was also the only non Free Church group member; think he deserved x2 bravery points for that!
And lastly there is myself. After seeing the free space advertised on Facebook, I put my name down not really expecting an answer back, but there I was in rural Ukraine, the guy who thinks going to Inverness is an adventure, and also the guy who barely has a mastery over English and ended up teaching it to campers. So whoever you are reading this, really you have no excuse not to come along next year as it really does take all sorts!
Before we move on to travel I have to mention the Ukrainian team. It might be fair to assume that the communication and relations would have been somewhat difficult and cold between ourselves and our Ukrainian counterparts. In reality it was quite the opposite! From our first meeting with Tibor (more about him later) to saying our last goodbyes to the team, we had bonded not just as a team but also as genuine friends. The kind of friendships which are only possible because of our shared love of our Lord and Saviour!
They helped by translating our daily lessons and Bible studies and they also stood alongside us and translated our evening talks to the campers. I still remember the fear on Tibor’s face when he realised he had to translate mine!
I have to give a special mention to Ferenc who helped out Jennet and I in our daily teaching and study classes. It can’t be said enough how gracious and patient he was with us, and also just the fact he is a genuinely fun guy who cared for the campers and looked after us clueless teachers.
They say that the travelling is almost as important as the destination. Well that proved itself to be true as seven pasty skinned Scots and an intrepid Irishman made our way to this small village right on the border of the .
Myself and Jennet dragged ourselves onto the 6 am ferry bound for We had a quick stop in for the essentials, namely and sweets. Some of us buying a few more sweets than others, I won’t say which stash belonged to whom…
After a lovely train journey and being treated to some of our country’s beautiful scenery, we arrived at Edinburgh Waverly station where we first laid eyes upon our Irish friend, Scott. The next morning we enjoyed a beautiful, turbulence free plane journey arriving early at .
It has to be said that crossing the street in Budapest is more a leap of faith than anything else, you just step out and trust that the drivers see your contrasting pasty white/shining red face, before they get the chance to see a closeup of it!
It’s much the same with the cyclists on the pavement with the advice being, “Oh it’s fine you keep walking, they’ll just swerve around you.”.
After a few days spent on foot touring around Budapest’s markets and shops, we boarded the train which was bound for Csop, Ukraine. This is where we hit our first problem. We had bought our train tickets in Budapest the day before, but seemingly when you purchase tickets for the journey, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re entitled to seats on the train! So before our departure, Martin and Hamish alighted from the train in order to try and book us seats on said train, whilst our poor misunderstood ticket inspector (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mr MacSween, an old maths teacher) looked upon us, mystified at how we had managed to get this far. The clock was ticking and our fellow team members hadn’t even made it to the front of the queue, and might I add, the train would have quite happily left without them! After about thirty minutes or so, we rang them to tell them to return to the train without the seat reservations.
In the meantime, we had befriended a lovely Hungarian man with an unpronounceable name (so we just called him George) who had impeccable English. After explaining our situation to the slightly frustrated ticket inspector, George told us where to find him if we needed any more help. It transpired we could by the tickets from the inspector himself, which I assume was what the poor man was trying to tell us all along!
The journey itself was great, about 6 hours long, but in great comfort and with four hours of free WiFi. It was bright for around three quarters of the journey so we were treated to the changing landscape of urban sprawl, to gentle green hills, to fields and fields of sunflowers, all before turning back into a semi-urbanised area.
About two miles from the border and at one o’ clock in the morning, we had to change trains at Zahony station. Unfortunately, which train we had to change to, we were not so sure. All we knew was that the train we were on was headed to Moscow, an unwanted adventure by all.
After asking around, the team and a few of our newly made train pals, alighted from the Moscow-bound train, carefully hobbled across the train tracks with our luggage to the other platform and managed to board the correct train, bound for Csop, where we were to be collected by Tibor.
This next train (see right-hand photo) was nothing like the previous one. It was definitely old and looked as though it was straight out of an old black and white James Bond film. It was on this train that we crossed over the border from Hungary to Ukraine, but also the border of the E.U.
Imagine if you will: guard towers, electric fencing, dogs, balaclavas, and guns. No, not the border to South-Lochs, but indeed the Hungry/Ukraine border crossing. Now I’ll be honest, it was not that bad; they looked at the Passports – looked at us – looked again at the passports and sent us on our way; a breeze compared to Stornoway airport.
As with most experiences, ‘you had to be there’. The food that we had in Hungary and Ukraine, well, you had to be there! In our few days in Budapest we ate at a pub named, ‘For Sale’. It’s a pub with a gazillion meals on the menu and massive portions, but in short, it was brilliant!
We had our first real taste of local Ukranian produce when we arrived at the camp at two in the morning. Tibor brought us bread, meat and beautiful vegetables from his own Garden. A tomato and ham sandwich has never been so good! Our second meal in Ukraine was also thanks to Tibor and his accommodating family. After attending his Church service we were very kindly invited back to their home for our Sunday lunch. A sausage dish made with local meat and vegetables from his own garden, with the ever present and ever tasty bread always supplied.
However, as we all know, camp food is always slightly different from home cooking!
Before every meal they had two prayers, one English grace sung to a Scottish Psalter Psalm tune and one incredibly catchy Hungarian tune. Each meal was finished with a shout to the cooks apologising for not finishing all the food.
With every meal we received a drink, which I’m still not 100% sure what it actually was, but if you imagine lukewarm orange diluting juice you’re half way there. Almost every morning we were given bread with salad and a hammy-spammy-moussey-slicey thing. After our initial tasting – and realisation that it wasn’t ham – we almost got quite used to it! Unlike other places I’ve been to, where I flat out didn’t like the food, the Ukrainian food wasn’t actually that bad, it just wasn’t what we are used to. For them lunchtime is the main meal of the day. We usually had a soup dish followed by a main course with meat and then some days we were treated to a pudding of some sort. Of course the pudding days were the best days!
Now, we cannot discuss Ukranian food and drink and not mention Kvass! ‘What is Kvass?’, I hear you cry. It is a drink that comes from fermented brown bread mixed with some honey and some spices, often with some raisins thrown in for a laugh. It was supposedly non-alcoholic, but that could be argued with! We (the junior members) had waited all week to try this famed drink. So, after we said our emotional goodbyes to all the campers we took a wee walk to the local restaurant – a beautiful place with friendly owners – to tickle our tastebuds with Kvass. Tibor graciously bought us all a big glass of the stuff. It’s hard to describe the taste, maybe brown sugar mixed with treacle comes closest. Whatever was in it, it provided the perfect refreshing end to a busy and blessed week.
Tibor is the leader of Camp Ràt. He is the pastor of three of the local Hungarian Reformed churches in the area. (I must mention that although the town we were situated in is in Ukraine, the people there speak Hungarian and go by Hungarian time.) He is also the a husband and father of two (now three!) beautiful children. Although his home was two minutes down the road from camp, he insisted on sleeping at the camp to in case of an emergency. His commitment to the children, to the other leaders, and to God is truly inspiring. He was the first one up every morning and the last one to go to bed at night. He also enjoyed scaring us wee junior leaders and playing the odd practical joke. One of my favourite examples of this is when he collected us from the train station in Csop. Picture this scene: it’s one in the morning in a country far from home, myself, Jennet and Scott are travelling with a man we barely know and his opening line is this:
“So, have you heard of the black market?”
*Uneasy shiftings from us in the back car*
“Your organs would sell well…”
The sense of humour of Ukraine is rather dark in comparison to ours. It didn’t so much break the ice but blew up the iceberg.
When Tibor came to see us off at the border control, it wasn’t just waving farewell to the pastor, but farewell to a true brother in Christ.
What is a camp without any campers? Well I don’t know because our camp was full of them and they were awful!
I’M JOKING OF COURSE!
I know some of them will be reading this so I’ll be completely honest; you guys were fantastic! We couldn’t have asked for better campers. They were all so willing to learn and they all had pretty good English already!
They were constantly funny, and enjoyed nothing more than watching us leaders get confused or watch us try some new food.
Believe it or not, they even went to bed when we asked them to! (Most nights anyway…)
The campers came from the surrounding villages and towns and a variety of backgrounds and social situations. I cannot express just how welcoming they were towards us, it was almost as if we had known them all their lives. They had a great respect for the leaders but knew when to have fun too, they were kind and caring for one another and listened intently to all the talks, lessons and studies. They were more than happy to talk to us and to listen to us, they were honest in their Bible Study and always had a great deal of questions to ask.
It’s hard to describe just how hard it was to say goodbye to them all. Brave faces were kept by all the leaders but we all felt the same. The fact that we still talk about the campers testifies to the impression they left on us. I won’t go into detail with all their stories but some had gone through difficult times, others were dealing with tough situations, but they were all full of joy and had a genuine desire to learn both the English language and God’s Word.
We miss them very much but we keep them in our prayers and we hope to see them again at camp next summer!
Teaching and Praise
There were two aspects to the daily teaching; two hours of English lessons, an hour of Bible study, and an evening fellowship including a talk and praise. The campers were put into classes based on their level of English. There was a beginners class, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2, and an advanced class. Myself and Jennet taught the Intermediate 2 class, and – not to be biased – they were the best!
We had prepared worksheets before leaving Scotland but we were horrified/delighted to find out that our class far exceeded the lessons we had planned. Many people worry that they would not be able to teach a class or lead a Bible study but you would be surprised at how we were enabled to do so. It was just one of the many times that God carried us through!
The campers were great listeners and provided us with some excellent work! They wrote stories and poems, studied grammar and sentence structure.
The Bible studies were based on a Hungarian version of the Christianity Explored study book, although our campers had a good number of questions which led us to discuss many interesting topics. With the help of Ferenc and Tibor, we managed to answer almost all their questions. The rest, only God knows the answers to.
For the evening talks, the British leaders took turns to deliver a different message every night. There were topics covering sin, why Christ came, crucifixion, Christian living, etc. We were joined by a translator which was strange at first but you soon get used to it. The campers enjoyed singing very much and a particular favourite of theirs was ‘10,000 Reasons’ by Matt Redman.
We ended the week with a camp concert where each class put on a performance for the rest of the campers. These performances included plays, sketches, and songs, and of course us leaders joined in too.
So much more happened that there just isn’t time to include, but here are a few things:
Scott getting stopped at the Ukranian border just after Joanne had put some of her spare clothes in his bag.
The huge fruit, notably the utterly mahoosive watermelons.
The sheer joy you get in learning even a smidge of Hungarian.
The moment when you see the campers face light up when they get an answer right or their question answered.
It’s hard to write about this kind of experience, you can’t fully understand the heat or the sights, sounds and tastes unless you go and see for yourself.
So why should you go?
1) It’s something you have never done before. You are stepping out of your comfort zone, out of your country and out of your daily way of life – which is healthy as you gain perspective.
2) You can see the work of God in another part of his Church, and see him working in the lives of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ across Europe!
3) You will receive great fellowship both from the British team, but also from the Ukrainian team.
4) You will learn to rely more on God, as you lead the campers through the lessons and the teaching and also as you travel in a foreign country and face obstacles you wouldn’t normally face. The words of the Psalmist in Psalm 139: 7-10 really does describe our collective sentiments throughout the trip!
5) You will be challenged and you will grow in your own understanding of both the Christian life and the Word of God.
If you have any questions please feel free to comment below.
Photo credits go to Jennet and Tibor, who graciously allowed me to use their massive collections. Special thanks to Jennet who also proof read and added extra relevant information.