Peter was hunched up against the window of the high-speed train to Saint Petersburg, trying desperately to see how the train rolled along the rails when we got the message: "the health department has closed the location for the conference, please pray."
Many of the 115 students and staff from 17 cities across Russia were already en route, like us, to our annual Winter Bible Conference when this unexpected news hit. We arrived in St. Pete, shaking the softly falling snow from our luggage and hats, not fully knowing what to think or expect for this year's conference. However, while we were flying across Russia's rails, praying for help and provision, staff in St. Pete had hit the ground searching for a new location to fit our demographic and budget - not an easy task. In the end, we got our answer and miraculously nobody was lost in the shuffle.
The opening meeting emerged from non-stop logistical, physical, and relational chaos and met an audience surprisingly humble, grateful, and ready. What an incredible moment. Just when it seems everything has gone wrong, God has done the deeper and more difficult work of readying our group to listen more intently, engage with more flexibility, laugh along the way, and fundamentally, to trust. Control had been wrenched from our tight fists and we all experienced an atmosphere of grace and joy - not at all what anybody expected at the beginning of this story.
While not all the bumps were smoothed and connections made during the conference, the general flow of the conference seemed to move along on a different track - one we could not have planned and orchestrated better ourselves. One high point was a ministry market. Student teams from different cities set up tables to resemble a Russian market displaying tools, tips, and stories from their home cities. Some tables were elaborate in both content and style, others were simple, with just one or two students sharing about their home cities and friends. But what was most striking was that everybody had something to offer. Everybody had a place. Everybody had something to say. Everybody was heard.
That evening, our main speaker shared stories and Scripture about the Student Volunteer Movement of 1886 and how this movement made an incredible impact on the world. He highlighted humble participants, even reading a few interesting and humble applications people submitted years ago for missionary and ministry work for which, by today's standards, they were grossly unprepared and under-qualified. His stories ended in a picture of one really rag-tag bunch of twenty-year-olds initially involved in the Student Volunteer Movement. Then, he held up a picture of our conference students and staff right alongside them. The lack of difference between these two groups was startling. Immediately following this talk, we had scheduled our annual "come help us change the world" recruiting talk. Typically we drag and coerce students to just hear us out on this, but this year, they flooded into the auditorium, already with a "picture" in their minds of all God could possibly do in and through them. It was reminiscent of a humble speaker in the 1950's with the same tag line and vision for the young people of the world. A seasoned staff friend sent this message to his wife just following the talk, "They want to get a group of young people together to change the world for the Kingdom, I think we should sign up."
And this is why we do what we do. Things don't go as planned and we rarely get what we expect, but when God shows up, it's worth being there.