Tagged moldova

behind-the-scenes-of-the-2016-jmi-gala

Behind the Scenes of the 2016 JMI Gala

Every year we host the Justice & Mercy International Benefit Gala in order to raise money for all the mission work we do in Moldova, the Amazon and South Africa. It has become one of my favorite weeks of the year. Our National Directors – Alina, and her husband Vlad in Moldova; and Sarah, and her husband Magno in the Amazon – come all the way to the United States to attend and share about the work they do. These people are so special to me personally, and to our whole church family. In addition, we have people come in from Reston Bible Church as well as other JMI partner churches and so many friends from out-of-town who go on mission trips and invest in the work. It has become like a giant Family Reunion! All united in Christ and with a common desire to make a difference in His Name.

The Gala is our biggest fundraising event of the year and there is a lot that goes into making it happen. Our JMI and our Rolling Hills Staff Teams all work hard because we believe in what God has called us to. Along with this, it takes close to 100 volunteers – most of whom go on mission trips and sponsor children through JMI. The fact is, we all sincerely love the people we go to serve. The precious orphan children in Moldova, the pastors in the Amazon, the poor and forgotten in South Africa – they are truly our friends. We love them, and we know what a difference this night can make in their lives.

But, the Gala is also a lot of fun. When you are serving with people you love, united in a cause bigger than yourself and you see God do miracles in people’s lives, of course it’s fun! It is not work, but a calling and a passion.

Here are a few of the behind the scenes fun moments as we prepare for the Gala:

Taking our National Directors out to experience some good old American fun:

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Setting up in the auditorium with staff teams and volunteers – it’s all hands on deck

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Serving with people we love

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Praise God for allowing us to be involved in what He is doing in the world. When Christ is transforming lives there is nothing like it! There is no place in the world that I would rather be than serving our God with people I love and seeing lives redeemed for His glory. Thank You, Father! Get involved. Jump in because serving God is awesome! Go on a mission trip, sponsor a child, serve locally, but do something. You will have a great time serving, and God will impact lives through you. We are better together.

“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” Psalm 84:10

Lastly, here is a message from one of our good friends about giving to JMI:

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Do something today that your future self will thank you for.

We hired a Moldovan Band…

It was graduation night in Moldova. There were 11 students graduating from our Justice & Mercy International Transitional Living program and moving into the Independent Living program. All of these kids grew up in the orphanages throughout Moldova. They never had much of a chance of success – until now. And, this called for a celebration!

In Moldova, the statistics of what happens to kids when they have to leave the orphanages at age 15 or 16 are overwhelming. Sex-trafficking. Organized crime. Suicide. But, through JMI and by God’s grace we are seeing that change. Surrounded by their 12 Moldovan Staff Leaders – house parents, social worker, phycologist, vocational director and more – as well as 31 Americans (our Mission Team from Rolling Hills), and 50 of the other transitional living and independent living students, these 11 graduates received their diplomas.

This marked a huge milestone for them. In the program, they have been discipled in Christ, learned to speak English, received additional education (high school equivalent) and been taught character, self-esteem, work ethic and integrity. These kids are sharp, and they are ready. Most people with any ounce of initiative in Moldova merely leave the country. But these kids are now prepared to change the country.

So, we hired a Moldovan band and we made it a celebration! These graduates are just as smart, talented and gifted as anyone their age in America. The difference – opportunity and someone to believe in them. In the America, many kids have parents who teach them, give them advice and believe they can do anything. In Moldova, these kids don’t have parents, or really anyone who believes in them. In America, our kids have opportunities for college, universities, and well-paying jobs. In Moldova, you need connections to attain more eduction and good jobs are hard to come by. In fact, a decent paying job can range from $100 to $300 a month. A month! Think about trying to live on that.

But, now these kids have three things necessary to succeed: 1. Jesus – they know Christ and He is with them. They know an inner peace, a joy and a purpose in life. 2. An opportunity – because of JMI they have access to universities (we even have one graduate going to med school) and through our vocation director, access to good jobs. 3. Someone to believe in them – because of having a sponsor (an American Christ-follower who has been helping them) and because of our JMI Staff in Moldova, they have people who believe in them. And, if you have someone who believes in you, there is nothing that can stop you!

IMG_5193Therefore, we had to hire a Moldovan band and celebrate. And celebrate we did. We had food, a big JMI cake and lots of Moldovan & Russian traditional dances. Everyone loved it! All the kids were in awe. Most of them have never had a birthday party in their life, much less a huge celebration. We wanted to mark the moment and to let the graduate know that they are valued and celebrated for their hard work. Also, we wanted to set the stage for the ones coming behind them. The American high school seniors on our team said it was better than their prom at home. It really was one of the best nights ever!

I think this is so much like our God. Remember, when the prodigal son came home, what did the Dad do? He threw a party. And, I bet his party was incredible! There was food (fatted calf), and I bet a cake, and I am sure traditional dances – and who knows, maybe even a Moldovan band with a xylophone and a violin. I am sure that this party was better than prom. How awesome that we have a God who gives us His Son, who offers us the opportunity to be adopted into His family, and who believes in us. This should cause us to celebrate! As well as to throw parties for those who, because of His love and grace, now have a hope and a future. You see, we had to hire a Moldovan band!

 

“She turned to the sunlight And shook her yellow head,And whispered to her neighbor_ %22Winter is dead.”

Changing a Country

My first time to Moldova was in 2003. On that trip, I knew that God had a huge heart for the precious orphan children I met and a huge calling for us, a baby church in Middle Tennessee. I must admit that before that trip, I knew very little about this small country in Eastern Europe. But, it was the statistic that 60% of girls trafficked into prostitution in Eastern Europe come out of this country of 4 million and then meeting some of these vulnerable children that truly grabbed my heart. Not only the girls, but also the boys are in danger of trafficking, organized crime and even suicide. I have returned every year since my first trip and our church, Rolling Hills, has been sending mission teams multiple times a year. By God’s grace, we have had a front-row seat to see Him change an entire country.

Camps for Orphans and Vulnerable Children with Mission Teams

unspecified-1I am writing this on a plane returning home with one of our summer mission teams. From the first year, the prioritization of taking mission teams from Rolling Hills and other churches has been the basic building block. By hosting camps at various orphanages throughout Moldova, we have been able to share the Gospel and to see countless young men and women commit their lives to Christ. Having a spiritual foundation is the essence of a person’s worth and value. Christ has transformed their lives with His love, just as He has for each of us. We have seen God changing Moldova, one life at a time.

Mission teams have also allowed us to connect with children in order to hear their story and see the depth of their need. Through individuals who have served on one of our teams, we have been able to meet physical needs with clothes and food as well as to foster on-going discipleship by connecting Christ-followers in America with these children. This has allowed us to meet pastors in area villages who have helped identify the need. I am so thankful for the hundreds of people who have gone to Moldova to serve – God has used you and continues to use your prayers, love and support. You are a part of God’s bigger story for this country.

Sponsoring Children

After a few years of taking mission teams to serve in Moldova, we quickly realized that we had to do more. These kids were coming to know Christ, and we were able to give food and clothes, but they had long-term needs at the risk of not being met. In 2008, we started a non-profit called Justice & Mercy International. The first role of JMI was to hire a National Director and begin a sponsorship program. This sponsorship program has solidified the connection between an American (sponsor) and a vulnerable child in Moldova. This sponsor becomes a surrogate “parent” to the child providing resources for clothes, food and advice. Through letter writing and connecting a JMI staff member with the child, the child’s future is being impacted. Today almost 400 children are being sponsored through JMI in Moldova.

Different from great organizations like International Justice Mission (IJM) who rescue trafficked children from brothels, we are endeavoring to be on the front end – protecting the children and preventing them from ever having to experience the hurt and tragedy of this abominable situation. And, by God’s grace, it is working. Lives are being saved – spiritually and physically!

Transitional Living Homes

Through JMI, we were able to start a Transitional Living Home for when children outgrow and have to leave the orphanages at age 15 or 16 – their most vulnerable time in life. Today, we have a home for girls (The Grace House) and a home for boys (Boys to Leaders). The Transitional Living program is two to three years of providing a place for the child to live, a mentor (House parent), enrolling in additional school (“college”), teaching them English and spiritual discipleship. We have over 30 girls and boys currently living in our transitional living homes.

Independent Living

unspecified-3After the children graduate from the Transitional Home, they can move into an independent living apartment with others from the program. This allows them to learn how to live in an independent setting with the help of a social worker, vocational director and additional education. We have close 20 boys and girls in independent living apartments. It is exciting to see these kids growing up, exceling in school and attaining jobs in areas of influence – education, local churches and even government jobs.

By God’s grace, it is working!

Last night was an amazing celebration for JMI in Moldova. Our Mission Team shared in a graduation party at the Grace House for 11 graduates of the Transitional Living program. With caps and gowns, the graduates came out onto our stage in the back courtyard. With about 80 people present, we applauded the graduates for their hard work, prayed over them and blessed them. There was not a dry eye in the place. It was incredibly special!

unspecified-2Graduates like Ejor. Ejor grew up in the orphanage in Baltsi. He came to know Christ through one of our Rolling Hills mission teams. He has been in the JMI program for three years, and his English has progressed to the point where he now serves as a translator for JMI. In fact, Ejor leads worship at the Camps that our mission teams host in different orphanages and villages. Kids in Moldova are drawn to Ejor, and God is using him to impact the next generation there.

Graduates like Elijah. Eli grew up in the orphanage at Internat 2. This was our first orphanage in 2003, and we served at this Camp for 9 years in a row. I have watched Eli grow up. I met him when he was 8. He told me at graduation, “You were the first man who ever said he was proud of me.” These kids, just like all of us, simply need someone to believe in them. Eli was also one of our translators for the week and leading other kids to Christ.

unspecifiedAt the graduation that night, Elena and Ion came to visit. Elena was one of our first girls in the Grace House in 2010. Since she graduated from the program herself, she has gone on to marry Ion (a godly man) and just completed her Masters in education. Next month, Elena and Ion are the leaders of a Camp at their Moldovan church for 125 children in their community.

After the graduation, we had a big celebration. We had a Moldovan band, and all 80 of us danced traditional Moldovan dances. We had a cake to celebrate the 5-year anniversary of the NGO status of JMI’s work in Moldova. I stood looking around at everyone laughing and having so much joy, and thought, “Only God.” Only God can change an orphan’s life and only God can change a country.

We certainly have a long way to go, but we take motivation from the fact that Moldova used to be known for sending orphan and vulnerable children into the sex slave trade, and now we are seeing Christ transform these young lives so that this country will be known for sending missionaries for Christ. Through the leadership of these young followers of Christ who are now getting jobs in education, business and government, and volunteering in their local churches, with American mission teams in orphanages and sponsoring vulnerable children themselves, we are seeing a new Moldova emerging – one with a hope and a future. God is changing this country, and we all have a part to play in His bigger story for this country. Get involved and join in what God is doing. Don’t miss it – God is changing a country!

 

“Father of the Bride”

It is hard to describe the emotions. For the past 3 years, Lisa and I have helped sponsor a young girl in Moldova named Elena. As a church, about five years ago we began a non-profit called JMI (Justice and Mercy International) to assist with precious orphan children in Moldova, South Africa, Brazil and around the world. I met Elena in Moldova close to four years ago when she was just 16. She grew up very poor in a Moldovan village. Her mom was sick and unable to care for her. She hated her dad for leaving her and wanted to kill him. She was in the hospital with nowhere to go. A distant relative shared with her about the Grace House.

When I first met Elena, she was hard. She was jaded by life and did not interact well with others. She was angry (somewhat understandably so) and hostile. But, I also sensed there was something more to her life – God was present and God was at work. God was drawing her to Himself, and I had a front-row seat to watch the process of transformation in this precious girl. Three years ago, I had the privilege to baptize Elena in a lake in Moldova. From her baptism (July 9) to today (July 7), she is truly a new creation. There have been bumps along the way; however, as people have poured into her and God’s Word has taken root there has been a visible, powerful change. Her life is now characterized by joy, ambition, and hope that gives glory to a God who redeems and restores.

Last summer before I arrived in Moldova, Elena e-mailed and asked me to meet with a young man. Elena e-mailed often with Lisa and me about advice for life, so I did not give much weight to her request. We all met at the downtown McDonald’s one sunny afternoon. John wanted to ask advice, but he also wanted to ask for my blessing on his relationship with Elena. It was at that moment that I realized the seriousness of the conversation. My parental instincts took over, and I began to drill him with questions. What unfolded before my eyes was a man of deep faith in Christ. He loved Jesus with a full-on commitment. I found out he was teaching at the college and working on his PhD in Mathematics. Also, I saw his love for Elena. It was real, fresh, authentic and good. Following our conversation, Elena asked me if I approved. I gave my blessing to which she responded “Will you walk me down the aisle at my wedding?” It surprised me when she asked, although something, in a weird way, felt natural.

For the past year, I have been anticipating this day. Elena and John planned their wedding when our Rolling Hills team would be here (how special that we all have become like family). As I thought about my role at her wedding, I was anxious about being the “Father of the Bride.” I constantly thought about the moment. The anticipation, the questions (I have never been to a Moldovan wedding), the awkwardness. Then came the time…I stood in the back of the church holding her arm. The attendants were in place, and it was our turn to walk.

Walking her down the isle was emotional. But, not as emotional as I envisioned. I thought I would cry (imagine that :)). And, while I did shed tears, there was something actually peaceful. There was something almost comforting. As I placed her hand into John’s, I actually felt God’s Presence. And, I felt like my job was complete. Now, I know I will continue to pray (and probably help support as all “parents” do), but I felt like a stage of the journey was complete. And, it felt good. It felt right. To see her big, contagious smile next to John’s steadfast, humble presence simply made me marvel at God’s redemptive and beautiful plan coming to fruition. This is what it is all about as we disciple and mentor these young men and women in our transitional living programs – leading them to Christ, growing them in the faith, and helping them establish a future.

The wedding lasted 7 hours (seriously, 7 hours). Though it was long, the ceremony was filled with Christ. Their pastor prayed over them and made the ceremony personal. This was comforting as well. While I appreciated sharing, I loved the fact that they are so involved in their church that their pastor knows them by name! After the ceremony came the reception – and the food! Mounds of food. Tables overflowing with plates and plates overflowing with delicious Moldovan creations. Not ever knowing what I was eating, but enjoying it all! There was music, laughter and the food kept coming. For five hours we ate. I believe this is what Jesus was referring to when He talked about the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

There is a tradition in Moldova that when a bride leaves for her wedding, she leaves her home of origin. To watch Elena walk out of the Grace House in her wedding dress with Jazgul and Natalia (two of the girls with whom she began the Grace House program) as her bridesmaids was almost surreal. It was good, and it is right. As a church and as JMI we have a long way to go. There are many more kids who need our help. But, what is happening is working. Lives are being changed, and “parents” (sponsors) enjoy watching their kids fulfill God’s plans for their lives.

Now, I know my time is coming. With three little girls, I imagine one day (in the very, very distant future), I will be “Father of the Bride” again. The, next time, I pray I have the same feeling of peace because my girls are in the center of God’s will, marrying a man who loves Jesus even more than her, and who loves her so much that she keeps smiling. Yes, there will be tears. But, I pray I experience the same feeling as today just because I know it is right. And, maybe, this is what God felt in the Garden (where He initiated the entire “two become one flesh” idea). And, just maybe that is why in creation the Father simply kept saying, “It is good!”

Moldova

“Will you bring a mission team to Moldova?” The words came through the phone as if from God, Himself. My response, “Where’s Moldova?” Little did I know this invitation ten years ago would radically impact my entire life. This small country between the Ukraine and Romania has grown into a special place in my heart and woven herself into the very DNA of this young church plant, Rolling Hills. At the time of the invitation, we had 15 people meeting in an apartment clubhouse. When we took our first trip, 8 months later, we had 18 people go. And, so it began…

Tonight I am packing for my 12th mission trip to Moldova. The motivation that first called me to go help, in some way, make a difference in this country where 60% of girls trafficked into prostitution in Western Europe originate, still draws me today.  We must make a difference in one precious orphan child at a time. As I look over the years, I am still in awe with what God has done in this short amount of time:

  • Over 225 orphans now have a sponsor who prays for them, supports them and gives them hope for the future.
  • Over the 250+ people from Rolling Hills have been on a mission trip to this country. I am so thankful for God’s church!
  • The creation of JMI (Justice & Mercy International) to address the growing needs of the thousands of orphans in this country as well as throughout the world.
  • Transitional Living Homes for girls and boys in Moldova who graduate from the orphanage at the age of 15 and have no where to go.
  • Inga, who I remember meeting as a young teenager in Moldova, now an active partner at our church, graduating from Lipscomb University and marrying to an amazing guy this fall. Every time I see Inga, I am simply know it is all worth it.
  • John Koon, from our college ministry while he was at Vandy to intern at our church, then goes on one of our Moldova mission trips and now lives and serves full-time in Moldova working at the same orphanage! One of my heros!
  • Stas & Eugene – my first translators on our first trip. They were 14 & 12 years-old respectively, and we were the first team for which they had ever translated. By God’s grace, they were able to come to Belmont University, graduate and Stas has returned to make a difference in his country. Eugene has one more year at Belmont, and though he can make more money in the States, has sensed God’s call to return to Moldova to impact his home country for the glory of our great God.
  • Precious children like: Elena, Igor, Edward, Illie, Jazgul, Diona, Mariana, Dema and the list goes on. Kids who God has drawn to Himself and who I absolutely love. What a joy to see these kids who had no hope become people who share the Hope of the world with others. It brings tears to my eyes simply to thinking about all our God has done in their lives.

I stand in awe of God’s grace and His invitation! All glory to His Name! And, God’s call continues to me, to Rolling Hills and to many, many others to join Him in what He is doing in this special place. Since day one in Moldova, my prayer has been for God to turn this sending country for human trafficking into a sending country for missionaries. We have a long way to go, but I celebrate all God is doing. So, here we go…

Eugene, Moldova and a Hamburger

As I sat eating a hamburger at Burger Up with Eugene last week, my mind raced with the greatness of our God. In fact, the moment seemed to be truly surreal – an almost, “Is this really happening?” kind of a moment. You see, I first met Eugene 9 years ago in a country called Moldova. Our church was less than a year old, and God called us to go to this country to do missions. Honestly, I had never heard of the country of Moldova. It took me looking it up on a globe to discover it was between Romania and the Ukraine. However, something compelled this little group of people in Middle Tennessee to go to this place, and what God has done has simply been indescribable!

Moldova is the smallest and poorest country in the former Soviet Union. While this makes it a country in dire need because so many people have to leave the country in order to find work, what really gripped our heart as a church is the fact that almost 60% of the girls trafficked into prostitution in Western Europe come out of this tiny country of only 4 million people. We had to go and do “something.” Not knowing what; but simply being obedient to God’s call we went. The first year there, we feel in love with so many beautiful children in the state-run orphanages. In addition, we built amazing friendships with our translators, many who were simply older teenage students themselves. My first translator was Stas and with him came his little brother, Eugene.

Every year, our work in ministry in Moldova has grown. As a church, we started JMI, “Justice & Mercy International,” our own non-profit in order to help address the human trafficking issues in the country. We now have two Transitional Living Homes in Moldova – one for girls and one for boys. Along with this, we employee multiple Staff Team members in country, from Social Workers to Administrators in order to help as many children as possible. What God is doing in the lives of the kids in these programs is nothing short of miraculous. We are seeing kid’s lives saved – both physically and spiritually! Ever since we started working in Moldova, our prayer has been, “God, transform this country for Your glory by raising up a new generation that loves You.”

By the grace of God, and the awesome generosity of some amazing people, Stas and Eugene have been able to attend Belmont University. Stas graduated last year, and he is now working in the government in Moldova (I believe he may be the President of Moldova one day). Eugene just completed his junior year at Belmont. As we ate together, we talked about Eugene’s future plans. Eugene looked at me and said, “I know I could stay here in the States and make a lot more money, but I believe God has called me to go home and do something for Him there.” Then, he added this, “What if I was able to start a business where I could hire the kids from the Transitional Living Homes; thereby, giving them jobs and giving them hope.” I sat in silence just pondering the possibilities.

There are some special times in your life when God simply blows you away with what He is doing. A hamburger with Eugene from Moldova was one of those times. Our God is truly at work! He is using a young, passionate, growing church here in Middle Tennessee to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. He is raising up a new generation in a country that has been considered “the least.” The Bible says, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and I believe this with all my heart. Imagine the impact as “our” kids graduate from the Transitional Living Homes and invest back in their country, their churches and their communities. Imagine the impact as the 225+ kids who are being sponsored by people here in the States through JMI have opportunities for living, working and worshipping that they would have never had in the past. Imagine God raising up a new generation of young adults like Stas, Eugene and more that understand their call of God to invest in making a difference in their own country.

I don’t know what God will do in the future, but I celebrate what our God has done in just nine short years. Stories like Stas, Eugene, Inga, Elena, Ed and countless other precious children inspire me. We have close to 50 people going to Moldova from our church this summer. All I know is that God’s amazing story continues…