It was February 2013 before we had our first meeting as a team of enthusiastic and nervous people who had signed up to go to the Czech Republic. We thought we were signed up for running a kids club with an orphanage, but what actually happened was very different to that.
Had I advertised the trip as what it turned out to be I wonder if we would have had such an enthusiastic uptake in applications. In my experience the worries and concerns which present themselves before going on one of these teams very often seem completely irrelevant upon returning home.
About two days before we were due to leave I got the final list of who was coming to the residential - 10 young people aged 9 - 17. I knew this would create a few nervous butterflies in the team. Most of our guys were 16-17, and I knew the thought of working with people their own age would seem a million miles away from what they signed up to. So when I told them who was coming and what age they were, I could feel the awkwardness. However I also knew that this team of young people were coming on an experience to be stretched, deepened and challenged, so in my heart I knew that while this was potentially a scary prospect, it could also be the making of them. I wasn't concerned even though I knew they would be.
But (and I know it's bad to start a sentence with 'but') knowing that pre-team nerves and worries are rarely post-team regrets I was happy to let them stew without much discussion.
We had four days at the start of our trip to tidy up our plans and preparations, we also sneaked in a trip to Prague - so the team were more than ready to begin by the time Sunday came. Sitting in the room in the Vavrovka (Rough translation: Vav's bar - yes it was a fully licensed premise on a Christian camp site), we got wind that the kids had arrived, so it was off to meet them.
We started by introducing ourselves through our wonderful interpreters (Vojta (voyta), Katt and Lucie (Lutsya)), and then we went outside to play some ice breaker games. It was a slow start. Andrea and I had challenged the team to spread out at dinner time so we weren't a holy huddle, and they did - we can't deny the language barriers were problematic but the team did very well to communicate regardless.
Early days are always hard, but when its with people of a similar age without being able to speak the same language the difficulties are bigger. The programme we had organised helped to break the barriers down though, we filmed some videos which required some 'interesting' roles and face paints, and we also did a pamper night for the older girls. These two activities really helped to deepen friendships and grow a bond between the young people and our team. From then on the interaction grew and the fun kicked off!
These guys epitomised growing Deeper, Wider and Closer through this mission trip and as a church we must release them into the wider service of the church, not simply see them as future leaders!
I was genuinely impressed with the level of maturity and willingness to get stuck in shown by every member of the team - DRY is very blessed to have such young people among us, and I am excited to see where God takes them, and us! Infectious enthusiasm is how I would describe their attitude, and I pray they remain so as they go back to their churches and families. As a church family and diocese we need to realise the young people in our pews have so much to teach us about stepping out in faith! These guys epitomised growing Deeper, Wider and Closer through this mission trip and as a church we must release them into the wider service of the church, not simply see them as future leaders!
So when it came time to end the experience there were inevitable tears and sadness. On quite a few levels too.
Firstly that the team experience was over - our 7 months as a team was officially over, our mission complete. I was really sad to be seeing the end of this little group of faithful disciples. I know I will miss our meetings with this gang, but I am really delighted they are already talking about what comes next. I reminded them of the parallel of Jesus life, where He first had to die before new life could come - and that in order for the next new thing to happen with them, this little group had to finish. I am excited for the next step and as diocesan youth officer want to support them in whatever way I can.
The more bitter end was of course saying goodbye to the young people we had got to know and love over the previous 7 days. Young people who seemed just like us, yet had few of the things we did. Who seemed scary and distant at first, but who became friends by the end. Who couldn't communicate in the beginning, but by the end were throwing looks at each other, pulling faces, laughing together and crying when it came time to part ways.
It was so hard saying bye to a group who I knew had had many goodbyes in their short young lives. I knew in some ways that our goodbye reinforced the pain of separation they had already experienced, and I was very moved by that. The fact we were going home to loving families, and they were going back to a children's home also stood in stark contrast to me. I look at the photos from the week and I see beautiful young people who with a supportive family would be living very different lives. I see young people who have been through things they should never have, and who are 'worked with' by professionals opposed to being loved by a relative. This is not the way is should be - yet I am heartened to know that my God has a divine bias towards these - the least of the least.
When the news came to me that we only had 10 young people in our group, I was immediately concerned for the wrong reasons. It just doesn't sound as good as working with 50 young people - what would parents think? What would those who gave money think? But this was a worldly concern which had no right to be given a seconds thought. That we were chosen to work with these young people was an awesome privilege - that they were described to us as the worst - the least, before we met them - makes me even more delighted that it was our team who got this group. Matthew 25 tells us when we serve the least, we are serving Jesus Himself. In realising this, we can genuinely say that were the ones who were blessed by the kids. We always seem to make the mistake that we will be the ones bringing the blessings... How arrogant can we be sometimes!!?
I really don't think I have processed the week - as soon as the kids left on the Saturday, we as a team got some rest then distracted ourselves by playing silly games and doing challenges to pass the time and keep us occupied. On the Saturday night we praised God for His faithfulness, and then at 5.30am on Sunday we were on the road home. It is only now it is all clicking together in my mind.
Hand of Hope stands alone in Czech Republic as a Christian ministry to these kids, the least of the least - this is real Matthew 25 stuff. We should support them and I am delighted that the excess money we raised through the team went to them to carry on this work. I hope we continue to support them in the future too.
One of the things I sought to reinforce with the team is that with our words and actions we can achieve so much, however when we are in situations we feel overwhelmed by, or lost for words for - that God's Word and prayer comes into its own. The fact that our words are useful, but Gods Word is Sovereign really can take the pressure off. "How can I talk to an orphan who has had a horrible life I cannot imagine? Well my words may be useless but God's Word is effective! My thoughts and good intentions may come to nothing, but my prayer is always heard"
Isaiah 55.11: 'So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." This is a verse I spoke about to the team. While slick presentations and fancy words can seem impressive, when they stand at the front and simply give all they have in service to God - God tells us that His word will not return void. Their efforts are not in vain when their hearts are turned towards Him. I know some in the team were worried about not being dynamic enough from the front - but we don't follow a God who cares about that stuff - we rely on a Holy Spirit who works in hearts. In this we trusted, and still do as we are back in Ireland now.
So this experience has been emotional, it has been hard, and it has been very rewarding - but the best thing it has been is eye opening - because we know that while our efforts are pleasing to God, His word remains True, He works in spite of us because of His Grace. And while we feel helpless and useless back home - separated by distance, Our God Reigns and He continues on the work which He Himself started. That we have a vital role to play in continuing to pray for these young people is an awesome relief to us, for in any other arena we would be feeling helpless and redundant - but with God we find purpose and partnership in continuing to help and bless the lives of the young people we met, through praying for them.
What a Faithful God we serve - who allows us this privilege to come to Him through Jesus and petition Him for the future of these - the least of the least. As we sit at home, we are not useless, our work is not done - Listen to this from Philippians 1:
4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Paul tells us that the work is begun in us and will not be completed until the day of Jesus Christ - so while our little team is sad to say goodbye to each other and to the children, we must be assured that this has only begun a good work, in both the team and in the young people we got to know and love, and even more than that - there is so much more yet to come!
In this promise, we rely - and in our Faithful God we place our Trust!
Day eleven was our final day with the children. We got up early so we could spend as much time with them as possible. After breakfast we signed the bibles we had bought for each child. We then got together for our final session. We discussed our favourite moments from the week and had a recap on all we had learned about God. We watched a dvd of pictures and videos from the week that Martin had stayed up all night making. We went outside to have a final group picture before presenting a bible and copy of the dvd to each child.
We were very sad to say goodbye and even got a little bit emotional. We waved them off with a Mexican wave as they passed. We then gathered as a team to pray for the kid’s future and I ask you to do that too. They were amazing and made a huge impact on our lives.
Subdued, we looked through some photographs of the week. We then headed to bed to catch up on some much needed sleep.
To cheer ourselves up in the evening we had a ‘Czech Challenge’ competition to win ourselves a prize of some sweets. Nicola’s involved wearing a white sheet and running about pretending to be a ghost. Rebecca looked well with her new monobrow. I had to take the clock down from the wall and pretend it was a watch and go and ask someone for the time. Finally Emelye had to hop outside and shout ‘has anyone seen my shoe?’ even though she was wearing both.
However as much as we messed around in the evening, we couldn’t help looking round at dinner for all those smiling little faces. We played some volleyball with our three translators before meeting together as a team for final devotion meeting.
We then met another team who had just arrived, for a few hours of worship. We sang whilst the interns, translators and Simon played instruments . Martin then told the other team about our week and gave them some encouragement for their week ahead. The leader of the other team then gave us a talk on ‘Do we take time to listen to God?’.
In our final visit to the vravraufka (not sure how its spelt) we had a bit of banter, some singing and our final dance of ‘Jumping in the house of God’. When we were finally kicked out, we went to bed as we had to be ready to go at half 5 in the morning.
How can this be the end of day 10?! This has all gone in so fast!! So... Friday 16th August when all condensed down went something like this:
Bible sessions + lots of games + an aqua park + a rave which apparently is an amazing formula for an epic day!
In our sessions this morning we were focusing on the future. We talked about how the future can be a scary thing to think about with lots of unknowns, but that with God we have a future and a hope that is certain and secure.
We started our day as always with zumba(!) and then went downstairs to compete in a relay race transferring water in cups on our shoes to a bucket opposite each team. We talked about what the future might look like and designed some futuristic outfits on some willing models.
After snack it was outside again to play rock paper scissors on a large scale across the pitch and to start our treasure hunt in our teams. All the pieces of paper were hidden around the complex and when all found and put in order read out the memory verse John 3:16. We emphasised again how we have a truth to hold on to in the future... that we were loved so much that God sent his only son into the world that we have a way to be made right with Him and have a hope for the future and eternity. Eleanor and Julie then spent some time helping us all to memorise this verse in Czech.
After lunch we got ready to head to the aqua park with hugely exciteable kids and an equally exciteable team! The pool was amazing and the kids had an absolute blast... there was a rock climbing wall which fell back into the pool, slides, a lazy river, water fountains and 10 kids who we have come to adore who laughed and screamed the whole time. We feel incredibly blessed that we have been the people that have got to share this entire experience with them. Their excitement over everything we do is so infectious!
After dinner it was back up for our final session of the day where we were surprised by the kids who presented us with medallions that they had been working on all week! We finished drawing and designing our tshirts and did some autograph signing.
Then it was time to dance the night away. There were amazing dance moves on display... Tomas is a 9 year old kid who has to be seen to be believed but he led the room in how its done!
Final team time, devotions and prayer before bed. No-one is looking forward to this coming to an end tomorrow, but we are so thankful for the time that we have had here so far and ask that you would join with us in continuing to pray for these incredibly special children, for protection for their futures and that they would come to know God's love for themselves, as this part of our trip comes to an end.
Today started with the police visiting the children to give a talk on drugs, alcohol and keeping out of trouble. They took finger prints and pretended to arrest and handcuff some of the kids, and the highlight which everyone loved was when they played their siren and put some kids in the police car.
It was another day of results, this time for Amy. She did brilliantly and we were all delighted for her.
The theme today was about using our gifts, and we showed clips of people doing fancy skills on skateboards and bikes which was very impressive. Amy did some Irish dancing and talked about how long she has been practising and what has gone into her perfecting her skill. She also taught us all a little move which the kids loved. We explained even though these skills are impressive God values simpler skills, for example helping out people in need, reacting to situations as they come in front of us, and giving resuscitation if they stop breathing, as the clip showed of real life heros.
Before dinner we had a mini Olympics, I was in goals while the kids took penalties. We played throw the Frisbee the furthest , archery and kinball (basically a large ball which gets thrown about and can be used for lots of varied games.
DINNER was pasta, goulash and salad and after this we watched Shrek in Czech (that rhymes!) and ate popcorn yum! Team time was lead by Martin on Matthew 25 where he shared that serving the least of people means we are actually serving Jesus Himself – he challenged us to keep doing this so much that it becomes a habit and we forget that we should do it or have to do it and instead it would just come naturally.
Day 8 promised to be a good day as we always knew we would be heading to the high ropes course in the afternoon, but more about that later.
The morning started with the usual jumping around to music to wake us up. We do this every morning as an exercise and a fun way to kick off our programme. Today's theme was on acceptance and how God accepts us. We based the teaching around the woman at the well and how Jesus accepted her even though it went against all the cultural norms of the day. Eleanor asked questions, and Andrea lead the story. The activities centred around making masks which everyone wrote on to say good things about each other, which emphasised the beauty that we all have, and that we are all accepted by God if we choose to follow Him.
So then we had lunch, and then it was off to the high ropes course. Check out facebook later for some videos and pictures of this. It was a great day - with some real characters shining through - especially Nicola who started the day getting excellent results in her leaving cert, and then bravely completed the high ropes course, even though she got stuck half way through! We definitely have some real stars in this team.
Both the children and the team really enjoyed the course and it definitely helped to strengthen the already good relationships that are developing! After arriving home, we had dinner late, and then the younger children (most of the boys) all went to bed leaving us with a fairly relaxed night. The older girls spent the evening pampering themselves, which by all accounts included face masks, make up, hair straightening and dancing like maniacs! This again proved to the young people that they are loved and wanted and cared for by others. That they have value and beauty.
We are so aware that these young people are so vulnerable, and have been through so much already, and we pray for their protection in the future, that they would find love and acceptance in all the right places and that they would only ever experience a mutual, respectful and honourable love, not false 'love which only seeks to be self serving or abusive. These young guys need these prayers.
The work of Hand of Hope is so important here, and is sewing seeds which we believe we are watering - we may not see any come to fruition this week, but we are still doing an important work in supporting this vital ministry. Simon Marriott is a great leader who inspires his team and should be held up in our prayers. We are only here for a few days, he and his team are here for the duration. Check their website for more information and I would ask you to seriously consider giving financially to support these guys who are working with the young people the world all too often either ignores or abuses. In this sadness however these guys are breaking through with the light of Christ to bring hope and transformation! What a ministry, and what a good God we serve!
Today was day 7 in the Czech Republic. Everybody was up early for breakfast but some were not alert.
After breakfast Olivia (one of the interns working with the hand of hope for the summer) lead us in morning workout with 'Jumping in the house of God'. After some more games which everybody enjoyed it was time to do some thinking
Our theme for today was love. In our 1st session we got into our teams to make a poster representing all types of love - ranging from love of sport and fashion to family love and friendly love. Amy then led us through a power point on the story on Zacchaeus meeting with Jesus. We then answered questions on it which the children interacted with.
In our 2nd session we read John chapter 15 verse 9-17. Amy then explained how we are all loved by God - we are chosen, wanted and in the family of God. After that we made friendship bracelets. We used 5 different colours - we used black to represent sin, red to represent Jesus blood, white to represent purity, yellow to represent heaven and green to represent us growing in god’s word.
After a lovely lunch, the leaders from the orphanage lead us in an excellent treasure hunt through the forest to collect gold and silver stones which translated into money or credits which the kids could then use to buy treats. It was great fun!
In the evening session we played some messy games and did a quiz which everybody took part in and thoroughly enjoyed.
For team time Julie lead us in an excellent verse from Joshua 1 vs 9 which ended up with a bit of discussion around God protecting us and keeping us safe when we are in His Will.
We woke at an early half seven with tired eyes to begin another full day of activities. The day began with an energetic workout to wake us all up, which was led by Nicola. To continue the struggle of actually waking up we played some fun games which quickly built up our enthusiasm for the day.
Our theme of “chosen” was explained through the distribution of lottery tickets which was given a twist. Instead of just one ‘lucky’ winner, we decided to make each child a winner by giving each child the same prize. This ensured they understood that they are all chosen by God, and that receiving His love is no lottery or just down to chance, this was emphasised when they were all chosen to accept a prize! To strengthen this we read 1 Peter 2:9. Next our group of kids had a well-deserved break where they ate a quick snack of fruit and juice.
We soon returned to our programme with MartinA and Andrea explaining the importance of choices and decisions we face in our lives through watching the famous Derek Redmond video. Here is a link to see for yourselves! (link). We compared the help of the sportsman’s father as he struggled to finish the race to the help of God who comes into our lives to help us equally finish our own race of life. The link to choices was contained by the decision the athlete faced as he defeated his failure and was brave enough to finish what he worked hard for. We then incorporated this idea of making choices into reality. The kids were challenged with difficult yet comical choices in a game which asked them for example: would you rather have green hands or a green face or would you rather be too hot or too cold or rather be ugly and rich or beautiful and poor?
We returned to the fresh air for an amusing blind folded obstacle course around the centre where the person was directed by their team with only the sound of animal noises. This was to emphasise how making choices can be confusing at times.
In the afternoon the kids had the opportunity to create their very own video! They all displayed their creative side by writing their own script and then performing it in front of the camera. They acted out scenes which attempted to focus in on how a difficult choice is made. Some were more successful than others!!
Tonight we had a delicious dinner of an option of quesadillas, chicken drumsticks with rice or noodles. We had a slight taste of home with peach crumble for dessert.
We had a prompt finish to the night because the kids were tired and their leaders wanted to get them to bed early. Before they went however, we enjoyed watching their very own movies with them. These were hilarious! We discovered many kids have a hidden talent of acting, so watch out for some names in the grammy awards next year! The premiere of these next big movies will be shown on facebook for us all to watch – so keep checking!
Today was our fifth day in the Czech Republic. Everybody was up early in anticipation of the children arriving. After breakfast we all got together to do the last minute run of the plan, to meet the translators and to pray for the children. At half ten the children arrived and we were ready to start !
We started off by playing some ice breakers and trying to learn everybody’s names. We were all surprised by the fact that the language barrier was so easily overcome by everyone interacting and having fun. Then we had lunch with the children. We then had an hour to prepare for the sessions in the afternoon while the children had some free time.
When we joined up again the children had their first bible session with us when we introduced them to the story of creation and how sin came into the world. Then the children got into teams and made spaghetti bridges. this taught them about the bridge between man and God before we had another small break for drinks and fruit . Afterwards we explained to the children that we built bridges to represent how Jesus bridged the gap made by sin and this is a gap that cannot be overcome by our own efforts. When we joined up again the children were all given blank white tee shirts and had to put their names across the back to show that we are all known by God. I was really impressed that the children put all their own personal touches on their tee shirts.
After a tasty dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes we all meet up again to teach the young people from Czech a bit more about Northern Ireland and about the day to day lives of David from Donegal and Rebecca from Claudy. We played some last games by 8.30pm the day programme had come to an end as it was bed time for the younger ones.
I would like to ask if anyone could pray for the children and that they will have a good time at this camp and that they will grow closer to God and feel his presence in their lives even when we have left.
We then had team time lead by Nicola after which we celebrated Andrea’s (30th!) birthday with some beautiful Czech cake.
Amy Mac our very own Irish dancer extrodanaire introduces us to our final day before the young people arrive from the orphanage. This is our last day of planning and being generally more relaxed before we kick off the programme tomorrow (Sunday) - and getting stuck into the real work and reason why we are here!!
Today is day 4 in the Czech Republic. We left the centre at half 8 and travelled to the train. After the train we took the metro and then we hopped onto the tram.
So after the journey we were finally in the capital Prague. We first went and visited a cathedral where Martin thought he would be thoughtful and offer to take a photo for some tourists…awwww. Then we took beautiful scenery photos of the city from a high point in the city. We walked through Prague along the cobbled streets to cross the river to the square.
After a tiring walk in the sun we decided to treat ourselves to lunch and have a Mcdonalds (again).. yum. All the girls went off shopping while Martin and Andrea painted a brick. They painted all our names on the brick which was stacked in the street with others that looked like a giant Jenga structure.
On our way back to the train, Rebecca and I decided to get tshirts with the logo “Czech me out”. When we got back to the centre I tried the tshirt on but it wouldn’t fit over my head as I had bought a child’s tshirt instead.
When we came back we had a beautiful dinner and played football before our last team time before all the children arrive tomorrow. Rebecca led us in our devotional tonight which was Hebrews 12v11 “No discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful. Later on, however it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” We would appreciate it if you prayed for us in that we would discipline ourselves to spend time with the children even though we are tired and that we will give everything to show them God’s love.