By Callie Newton
CORVALLIS, Oregon – “Would you like to go to serve the kingdom in Latvia this summer?”
The question from my pastor’s wife was enough of a “calling” for me. My husband and I said, “yes,” without much thought because we strive to be servants in our church. We’ve turned down almost nothing: we’ve lead worship, been part of the choir, driven elderly members to service, made palm trees out of craft paper and pool noodles and even become the de facto youth group leaders for a group of middle and high-schoolers. This seemed like an obvious next step. Besides, who am I to turn down a trip to an interesting country I would otherwise never see?
As we prayed about and prepared for the trip, to teach at English day camp in Madona, Pastor Marc Andresen warned us, “You know, sometimes trips like this can really screw up your life.”
Vecriga (Old Riga) stole my heart first. Our first day in country, we tripped down cobblestone streets and stood in the shadows of buildings that have seen centuries. And as we drove east toward Madona, toward camp, the reason we were there, I understood why we’d come.
I almost can’t describe the kind of listless desperation I observed outside the capital. We met joyful, loving people. But many more seemed to be looking for something, hoping for more.
We spent the week teaching about fifty students from ages 8 to 16 about English and Jesus. The morning lesson focused on academic instruction in a variety of age-appropriate topics – my little ones learned about fairy tales. But in the afternoon, we focused on the parables of Jesus, strengthening and affirming the faith of students in Madona and its surrounding communities.
The week at camp was full of miscommunication, hard work, running around and eating pounds and pounds of kartupeli (potatoes) and Karums (a delicious, bite-size, chocolate-covered, cheesecake-like treat produced in Latvia), and at the end of it, one of my eight-year-old students handed me a picture she drew that made it all worth it.
The picture featured my Latvian co-teacher, Krista and me. The student wrote – in English – that I was her favorite teacher. As she handed it to me, her bright blue eyes shone with appreciation, love and hope for what was next.
In that moment, and after that week, I became sure that Marc was right. My life is “screwed up” now. God broke my heart into a million pieces for the country and the people I met and I don’t know if I’ll be able to put it back together again from halfway around the world in Oregon.
My husband, Aaron, says that teaching at English camp in Latvia is the absolute best thing he’s ever done and I agree, but what’s next for us in Latvia is still unclear. On our last night in the Riga before flying home, I watched raindrops crash against a bus window on the way to our airport hotel and I cried. I asked God what I should do next and how I could affect change in this amazing place I discovered. He told me that, of course, there’s nothing I can do alone. He holds Latvia in His hand. He holds all of us.
Callie Newton is a writer/editor/web editor in the Department of Interactive Communications at Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. Both trained journalists, she and her husband, Aaron, are active members of Calvin Presbyterian Church, also in Corvallis.