By Natalie Meeks, BBI Writing Specialist
GREENVILLE, South Carolina – God writes stories. His tales weave in, out and around. Plots shift and merge, yet the projection stays the same: Due north and stepping Heavenward. Four months ago, I had the joy of discovering a new chapter of His story when I traveled far northeast to Eagle’s Wings Camp in the little town of Ergli, Latvia.
“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.'” – Matthew 19:14
One sunny June afternoon, I knelt in the sandy square of an outdoor volleyball court. The Latvian summer breeze kept company with the camp and me, as I watched the teen camp leaders pulling weeds and tidying the court in preparation for the upcoming game. All around me, these young Latvians were participating; actively and eagerly tending and caring for their summer home-away-from-home.
I dug my fingers into the sand, intent to help and thinking briefly that this was the first time my hands had sunk into a bit of Baltic earth. My ears were glued to the story I was privileged to hear from Krista Leimane, the young woman working alongside me.
Like many of the young leaders who volunteer their summers at Eagle’s Wings, Krista is one of the camp’s alumni. She began attending the week-long summer program years ago, a child herself. It was here at camp, summer after summer, that Krista was first exposed to the Gospel. Here, she played, prayed and was encouraged. She formed friendships and was led gently and intentionally toward the knowledge that all good things come from Him who loves her. At Eagle’s Wings, the love of Christ is poured out on these kids in fun, creative, loving and memorable fashion.
My new young Latvian friend told her story of returning year after year to the place that felt like a home away from home – first to learn and then to lead. She explained that now, as a camp leader, one of her greatest joys is the privilege of experiencing the transformations that take place in young campers:
“When little ones first arrive at camp they are often shy and scared. But after just a few days, God does so much – through the camps and its leaders – that these children become more open and brave; not only for communication with others but to hear about God and worship Him.”
The motto of Eagle’s Wings greets the young campers and distills into three words the underlying mission:
Ticība, Jautrība un Draudzība, … Faith, Fun and Friendship.
Diks Bortnikovs, Eagle’s Wings Executive Director, explains that this motto lays the groundwork for relationships and Gospel-understanding for all children coming into the camp. “Even the youngest camper comprehends this,” he shared. Faith, Fun and Friendship is more than an expression. “It is a vision and a tool.” Each day, the camp leaders pray that the campers would “take one step closer to developing friendships, having fun and knowing Jesus. It is very important that we give them the plain gospel, but we do it through the Three F’s.”
Whichever summer camp the child is taking part in, be it one of two orphan-ministry or three local-outreach camps, they experience a week away in a beautiful setting separate from their daily routines. Here, they embrace the opportunity to shed the expectations of others and are free to truly be themselves, to live above artificial limitations, to blossom into who they were created to be… That is, a child of the Living God.
In a nation that is trekking solidly along the grueling timeline of recovery from autocratic rule and atheistic doctrine, Diks recognizes the importance of both relationship and joy in ministry to these children. “Eagle’s Wings is so much more than a camp,” he explains. “The camp is a discipleship tool.”
We know that our Heavenly Father is the very Creator and Incarnation of joy. We experience this by means of our relationship with Him. Communicating these truths in daily life at camp is aimed at acting as an introduction and getting-to-know-you between the children and the Lord Jesus.
“Within the camp, they can see that I love God and I love them. And then, most importantly, they can see that God loves them.”
But seeds once planted must be watered and tended.
Further distinguishing Eagle’s Wings from a typical summer camp is its commitment to the ongoing discipleship and nurture of the children. Throughout the year, Latvian schools schedule three full weeks of vacation. Eagle’s Wings takes advantage of these windows of opportunity to reach back out in ministry. These vacation weeks spring to life in Ergli by means of fall, winter and spring camps.
Diks and the camp leaders take seriously their responsibility to serve the children for the Lord. The mission doesn’t stop short at evangelism. Discipling, equipping and mentoring are critical components of the Eagle’s Wings vision. Camps are not simply outreach; they are an investment. Never before have I had the joy of witnessing a camp with such a humbly intuitive and successful strategy for ministering to its participants: To save, nurture and develop faith and leadership in young people year round.
For, as Krista poignantly observed, “God has done many things in our lives through these camps. Now we can serve God there and try to share His love with others.”
“And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Natalie is BBI’s Writing Specialist from Greenville, South Carolina. She researched this piece while in Latvia to adopt her Latvian son. One meaningful place they visited was Lithuania’s Hill of the Crosses.
Photography by Tallis Woomert.