Remembering teRiga 2005
By Jeremy Andresen and Darcie Gudger
RIGA, Latvia – “What are you doing here with all these people?” The Latvian tram conductor who asked this question was just one of many Riga citizens whose curiosity gave way to questions throughout the week of the teRiga—Serving the City project. Loving, sacrificial service does that to people—gets their attention and starts conversations.
A horde of young people crammed into the electric tram, shoulders pressing into backs, and arms lifted high to hang onto the overhead grab bars. The elderly conductor squeezed his way through the mass of beige-colored t-shirts, collecting the 20 santims fare.
Coming to Larita Brown, a Bridge Builders staff member, he pointed a gnarled finger toward her and spoke. Larita looked to Roberta, an interpreter, for help. As the man repeated his question, Roberta translated. “He asked, ‘What are you doing here with all these people?’” With Roberta’s help, Larita told him that this team was going to Mezaparks, Riga’s largest park, to clean up garbage, trim over-grown trees, and weed gardens—a gift of service and love to the people of Riga.
The man shook his head from side to side. “Embarrassing. How embarrassing to have American woman come to clean up Latvian mess.” Then, gently he reached out and took hold of Larita’s arm. Her eyes widened in confusion as he began to force his way through the mass of bodies, leading her up the aisle. He stopped suddenly in front of an elevated chair. He turned and spoke softly to Larita.
“He wants you to sit,” someone translated.
“Yes. He said that you came willingly to clean Latvian mess, so you must sit in his conductor’s chair as place of honor.”
* * * * *
A Week of Service and Friendship
teRiga 2005 began with all the energy that is generated when 130 youth and young adults gather. Participants included Latvian, Swede, Australian, American and Irish students. For many, this was a time to renew friendships from last year’s teRiga project. Members of the local press were also present, taking pictures and conducting interviews.
Assembling at their “home” during the project, Pardaugava School, the group started the week with a special opening ceremony. A worship band, comprised of youth from several Riga churches, blasted the roof off the room with songs of praise. The melodies were familiar to the American team, and they sang along in English.
BBI President, Rev. Chuck Kelley, greeted the students, assuring them they will never go wrong serving other people.
Pastor Pavils Smirnov of the Morning Star Church of Riga presented a message that included the challenge to the youth to respond boldly about their commitment to Christ when asked by curious citizens about their efforts at the work sites. He reminded them that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be presented in a language understood by ALL people—service.
Students were split into teams to begin work. Throughout the week, 15 different work sites were transformed by the hard-working participants. Some of the sites required the majority of the week to complete, while others were done in a few hours. The work sites varied in tasks from basic landscaping (pruning and weed pulling) to demolition and removal of several abandoned storage units in very poor neighborhoods of Riga.
Before and after the work hours, the teRiga participants gathered at Pardaugava School for meals and fellowship (and sleep—occasionally). The fellowship time was especially precious, as some of the Latvian students were still seeking to understand Jesus’ place in their lives. Student leaders stayed up until the wee hours of the morning after the evening chapel services talking and praying with those who sought their counsel and God’s wisdom.
The school’s Director complimented the leadership and participants of teRiga, saying, “The administration of Pardaugava School of Riga is thankful to the Partners project team of teRiga: Lienite Bemera, Lina Leitane, Zigmars Atvars, and Vineta Zale. We appreciate the team’s efforts to both organize people to serve and to present spiritual and moral values. It is wonderful to see young people improving their communication skills and creative potential during the project, and bringing benefits to their city by making it cleaner.”
In all, nearly 2,000 hours of work were completed during the week of teRiga.
But this visible witness of God’s love went beyond even this. One of this year’s participants wrote this a month after the end of teRiga: “I want to tell you about great experience in my life. Last 4 days we had a camp. We were 14 youth and our church pastor, there to get some new friends and to get closer to God by serving people. We worked 2 days. We helped one very old lady with housework. She was almost 90! This work was such a blessing for all of us.”
And what a blessing to Latvia that teRiga’s vision—opening eyes to Christ’s love through service—is spreading as students return home.
* * * * *
Thirty-two Churches Bless Riga
Mezaparks, site of Latvia’s renown Song Festivals, is heavily used—and heavily abused. Not enough city funds are available to keep the park free of trash and neatly manicured.
On this particular Saturday, the park was filled, as usual, with families, knots of young people, strolling seniors—and something different. As tram upon tram emptied, groups of people, young, old, and in-between, approached tables, spoke a few words, selected tools from piles stacked near the tables, then marched off across the park. Passing walkers stopped to stare at this hive of activity on such a sultry summer day.
This is what they were seeing—three hundred and twenty people had arrived for teRiga’s largest service project on the final day of the week’s ministry. All were there to spend a day clearing trash and trimming overgrown areas at Riga’s Mezaparka. Thirty-two Latvian and Russian churches across multiple evangelical denominations sent their pastors and their people to serve their fellow citizens, in Christ’s love.
And there were some additional, surprising volunteers. Skipping down the path with rakes in hand, three young girls around the age of seven approached the registration table. They told the BBI/Partners staff that they heard of teRiga on Latvian Christian Radio and wanted to help! For the next several hours, this tiny team spruced up the area in front of the outdoor stage.
Several elderly people dressed in wool sweaters and rubber boots also arrived, stating their intent to work. Hard-working teens on the teRiga team were amazed at the endurance and perseverance of these senior volunteers, who seemed impervious to the draining effects of the hot, thick air.
As the work day drew to a close, evidence of hard work was everywhere. Weeds that had choked planting beds were removed, pathways cleared and beautiful vistas revealed.
And the results of work of another kind were evident, too. One example—Katie, one of the American participants, had befriended twin Latvian sisters earlier in the week. Working through interpreters, Katie learned that the girls only attended church once a year, at Christmas, and had little previous exposure to Christians. As Katie and the twins spent time together, the sisters began asking questions about Katie’s faith and the faith of the others on the teRiga team.
Near the end of the week, one of the sisters told Katie that she wanted to know this Jesus everyone was talking about. With the help of a translator, Katie was blessed by walking her new Latvian friend into the Kingdom of God!
* * * * *
We praise the Lord that teRiga accomplished more than cleaning up messes. Hearts were cleansed through the blood of Jesus. That’s what we were doing here with all these people.