by Gatis Lidums
Can hope for Latvia really begin with the Republic of Cuba? One may wonder. Yet when Cuba left its embassy building in Riga, it opened an opportunity and ignited my vision, along with some of my close friends and partners including Bridge Builders International–to help Latvia’s suffering. Today, we are remodeling the embassy, transforming it into a quality pastoral counseling center for Christians in need of emotional support, spiritual direction and counseling. We are thrilled to realize our dream to build the largest Christian counseling center in the Baltics.
One may also wonder, where did it all begin? Back in 1986 during Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, I had just completed my two years of mandatory military service in the Soviet Army and returned to my hometown of Riga with a burning passion to serve the Lord. My friend and colleague Aigars (who has served as a BBI missionary in one of the Central Asian Muslim republics), also felt called to serve. After some discussions and some prayer, we started a Bible study for seekers in the basement of a downtown Riga Baptist church, which was quite a novelty at that time because the Soviet Union was still an atheistic world power.
We started this group with no formal theological training and it quickly grew to more than 30 people. It wasn’t long before we realized that we needed both solid biblical training and quality counseling skills in order to deal with the deep issues this group brought to the Bible study. So, I prayed about the opportunity to study the Bible and counseling.
Not long after, BBI President Chuck Kelley connected me with a missions-oriented Bible college in Sweden where I began my theological training. Later, Chuck was adjunct faculty at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon and I received a scholarship there for the M.Div. program at Western where I graduated with high honors and specialized in pastoral care.
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I began to teach practical theology and counseling —alongside continuing active ministry–at several higher learning institutions in Latvia. I also was able to finish my Th.D. in practical theology and get licensed as a marriage and family therapist.
At the height of my teaching career, I felt the Lord was leading me to start the first-ever Christian counseling ministry in Latvia and with colleagues, we opened a small office in downtown Riga. Soon the large client load caused us to maintain very limited connections with patients–only through prayer and once-monthly supervision times. We prayed for the Lord to provide a facility where we could all serve, teach and equip the body of believers together.
Some four years ago, a Christian couple had come across the abandoned building, once the Embassy of Cuba in Riga. They had rented it for the purpose of opening a Christian kindergarten for the kids with special needs but the building was too big. It was a significant financial burden on the new school, yet the couple kept praying the Lord would show them how to use the other half of the building for His glory.
Then God connected us with this Christian couple, and soon we were remodeling the deserted wing of the embassy building into the first-ever, full-scale, Christian counseling center in Latvia. The center will have two rooms for conferences and training and four offices for counselors to work with the clients.
Why is the Latvian Christian Counseling Center important?
- It would be the first full-spectrum, Christian counseling center in Latvia’s history, and also in the entire Baltic region. “Full spectrum” means that several licensed and properly educated Christian counselors remain in one location to provide spiritual and emotional support and spiritual guidance to Christians in need (Latvian churches do not have counseling ministries which are very common in the U.S. and somewhat common in the European churches).
- This center would be the first place in the country and the region that would systemically offer seminars and workshops on Christian counseling in various areas, such as Christian parenting, relationships, Christian witness in the workplace, etc.
- This center could potentially become a significant resource in helping the refugees from North Africa currently coming to the EU in large numbers (all Latvian counselors connected to the center can also work in English). These people in many cases are very open to a loving and empathetic conversation with a counselor, even if this counselor is a Christian.
Three things the center hopes to achieve once the building is renovated and suitable for ministry:
- To have a major seminar, workshop and/or conference every four months, on topics such as: “How to develop a deeper and more intimate relationship with God in the hostile and atheistic work environment;” “Challenges of Christian parenting in the modern day Europe;” and “Practicing faith and love in the home where only one parent is a Christian.”
- To offer about 40 client hours per week to the Christian community upon the completion of the center.
- To offer spiritual formation retreats twice a year.
As we reflect on the progress of the Christian Counseling Center project and see God’s hands — in firm grasp — every step of the way, no longer do we have to wonder about how it all came together. In retrospect, the story of how a small communist republic in the Caribbean became such a crucial factor for God’s Kingdom in Latvia….when we consider God’s way of putting the right people together at the right time, well then, it all makes perfect sense.