Returning to Riga
When Daryl and Julia Jones made a missionary visit to Latvia to see the Firths and the Evans’s in Riga. This brought back memories of a previous visit twenty years ago when Daryl was pastor in Aylesbury.
As the plane took off our minds went back to the turn of the century when we made our first pastoral visit to Riga. Then we were visiting Malcolm and Liz Sunasky on behalf of their sending church at Aylesbury. So it was interesting to go be going back, both to hear from the current GBM missionaries and see the ongoing changes that have occurred.
On arrival it is evidently different, with a bright technological airport that has replaced the rather older ramshackle structure of 1999. Phil Evans meets us, taps the app on his phone and within 5 minutes the named number-plated taxi arrives, which swiftly takes us down the new dual carriageway into the city. We pass modern factories, stores and shops – things have changed! Soon we arrive at Phil & Lydia’s flat in central Riga. The small lift whisks us to the sixth floor. The flat is bright, roomy and warm though there is still the uncontrollable ‘central’ heating for the whole block.
All those years ago when visiting Malcolm and Liz, we had met Malcolm and Ruth Firth who continue to serve in Riga. It was a joy to see them again. Their ministry has changed over the intervening years. Having originally worked with a Russian church, ten years ago they had the vision to plant a church in their local area. They began to meet with two others in their living room to pray and then to invite others to join them in the church plant. This is how Grace International Church, Mežciems, began.
Grace International Church
The church is made up of people from many nations including Latvia, China, India, Syria, UK and other European countries. The services are in English which meant it was easy for Daryl to preach on the Sunday and for us to teach at the marriage conference. On Sundays there is also simultaneous translation into Chinese, Latvian and Russian, as required.
On the Sunday we were there Chinese translation wasn’t required as our Chinese brothers and sisters were in self-imposed isolation as a number had been in China for the New Year or had been in contact with those who had visited recently.
Malcolm is one of the elders and alongside him is one Russian speaking man and two Chinese men, one of whom speaks Russian. So elders meetings take place in Russian with Chinese translation!
Some come to the church as Christians looking for a spiritual home, others come as seekers, or just for something to do when new in Riga. We met a number from Roman Catholic backgrounds, who are now being confronted with biblical truth for the first time. It was encouraging to hear how a number have come to faith in Christ and have been baptised. It is an ever changing church community as many have passed through the church and are now back in their home countries, taking what they have been taught with them. This is demanding and draining upon our missionaries as they face an ever changing church community.
The church attractively provides both good Bible teaching and a community to belong to. We saw the community in action with both the regular Sunday lunch that is shared after the service, giving time for fellowship, and also with the birthday celebration of one girl where there was singing, a gift and a cake. It might seem a small thing but this means a lot to those who are living thousands of miles away from their own families. It was clear to see that Malcolm and Ruth share both a parental and a pastoral role amongst the congregation. Ruth, as well as working alongside Malcolm in relevant pastoral matters, is the small groups coordinator, is involved in discipling women and leads the women’s Bible study group.
A couple of years ago Phil & Lydia Evans joined the work, having been team leaders on previous Envision teams to Latvia. Their work is of discipleship primarily amongst the younger adults, some of whom are local and some who are students. They exercise a generous ministry of hospitality, sometimes this is informal, sharing a meal, playing games – as Lydia said, ‘it’s nice for those living in cramped accommodation to have the opportunity to sit on a sofa’! After the Sunday service a group of a dozen or so went to their flat and some of the young men under Phil’s directions cooked a number of delicious curries while we continued to discuss many issues from the preaching.
At other times the discipleship is more formal with Phil hosting and leading the weekly ‘guys’ Bible study. Lydia supports Ruth in the women’s study group, mentors some women individually and also holds the occasional women’s meetings for teaching and fellowship. Phil and Lydia are also mum and dad to Isobel who is much loved by everyone, especially the students.
The main reason for us to be in Latvia was to speak at a conference on marriage which Malcolm and Ruth had organised. This was well attended, the majority being married couples, but there were also engaged couples, those dating and even some single people – how wise it is to be prepared! This was an international conference and we needed to teach God’s word while realising the range of nationalities present, including some mixed nationality couples. There were even some who have had an arranged marriage or soon will!
There were three teaching sessions. First seeing how the Bible gives us a strong foundation for a marriage, and that men and women are equal but different. We then split into men’s and women’s groups, working out from God’s word what servant-hearted headship and God-honouring submission looked like in practice. After lunch there were practical lessons entitled ‘sinners and saints’ and we ended with a challenge to ‘build’ our marriages with ‘blocks’ of romance and fruitfulness. (If you want to know more we are happy to take a conference in your church). It was deeply encouraging to see how serious each one was to learn from God’s word and to engage in discussion, thinking through the implications of the teaching. These discussions continued informally back at Phil and Lydia’s flat on Saturday, on Sunday while together at church over lunch, and on Sunday evening. (We then heard a couple of weeks later that one couple who attended are now engaged!)
It was great to be back in Latvia and to see how the work of the gospel continues. Lydia was telling us how she was going to the Toddler group at Vilandes Church. This is the same group that Liz Sunasky started over twenty years ago. To be reminded of that, and to see Malcolm and Ruth still serving after all these years, is an encouragement to us all to keep going in mission work.
Daryl & Julia Jones