A Ray of Sunshine in Belarus – Rae’s Journey (Chapter 6)

Children at European Sanatorium

As I’ve mentioned before, it was illegal for us to share the Good News of Jesus with children under 15. However, there were two areas where it was allowed. One was in children’s hospitals, and the other was in sanatoriums. Where? Sanatoriums?

In 1986 southern Belarus was devastated by the melt down of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, very close to the border between Belarus and Ukraine. Children from that area now spend time in the north of Belarus on a regular basis, for rest and recreation in a ‘healthy’ zone of the country. Village schools move in their entirety for three weeks at a time. Children and teachers are sent to sanatoriums, where it is hoped ‘clean’ food and air will give them a chance to recuperate from living in an area close to radiation.

We found that teachers were very happy to have someone come in to share the load of entertaining the children. School classes were held each day, but there was a good deal of free time, when children needed to be occupied. So, off we went.

Our first visit was to a sanatorium quite close to Minsk – but still a very long bus ride out into a lovely forest. I went with three young women, all called Lena. We carried puppets, a puppet theatre, guitars, games and a load of craft resources with which to entertain. The program happened in the Russian language, so I sat at the back, silently praying. What was the point of my even being there? I could have prayed at home. Well, I did carry some of the gear!  But, a foreigner in a group is often an attraction, even a status symbol, so my presence was not without effect. At the end of quite a long program, Lena moved to a side room, and most of the children followed her. I thought maybe it was a game, but found later, that those children had actually answered a call to find out more about Jesus. After further explanation in that little side room, many children indicated that they would like to follow Jesus. So, we dutifully took names and addresses.

By the time we had walked out to the main road at the end of the day, the buses had stopped running. Eventually a taxi came along, and we crowded ourselves and our belongings into the tiny car. Taxi drivers carry all sorts of personal items in their car boots, including spare petrol, a spare tyre, tools of all sorts and maybe the family grocery shopping. So a passenger often has to travel with his luggage on his lap. Puppet theatre, guitars and other things covered us. It was almost impossible to move, but we could talk.

I wanted to know what would happen now with the list of names and addresses we had collected. “Nothing,” was the short answer. This worried me on several fronts. I felt that taking names and addresses implied to the children that something would arrive in the mail. “No, not so.” was the answer to that problem. “How would children learn more about Jesus?” “Oh, they won’t,” was the answer to that particular problem. “How will they grow as Christians?” was my next question. “I don’t know,” was Lena’s answer to that one. My mind began turning over ideas, and by the time we had arrived home, Sunshine Club by Post was born in my mind

We would write a program for children, offering Bible stories, Christian life guidance and a related craft activity. We would mail the lessons to the children we had met from a tiny village in the very south of Belarus, and see what happened. Each lesson would have some type of reply, either answers to questions, or a piece of writing so that we knew when a child had finished a lesson and was ready for the next one. I wrote our first lesson, Lena translated it, and we were off to the photocopy shop at the end of our street. The copier was very slow, and we could see the lady operator reading the sheets as they passed through. Oh, oh! Would there be trouble? Probably not, as she was not aware of what we planned to do with the sheets.

We were excited as we prepared and mailed our first batch of lessons – all to the same little village. It didn’t take many days before we had replies. One of the Lena’s had signed the letter we sent with the initial lesson. She had included a little slip for parents to sign so that they were aware of what we were doing. We wanted them to read the lessons too. Letters came flooding back for Lena. Over the 5 or 6 years we ran this program, we only ever had one parent who refused permission for his child to participate. A miracle I think. Those first letters began a personal relationship between Lena, and eventually more than one thousand children around Belarus. We put a large notice board on our office wall to show off the photos that children sent to us.

Quick, we needed a second lesson!  From memory we began with around 20 children. This very quickly increased as children asked, “Could my cousin please join the program?” “My friend at school wants a letter too.” Our excitement grew as we had requests for children in other towns and villages to join our Sunshine Club. Lena’s fame spread abroad. Children wrote to her on a regular basis, often asking for help with a family or a school problem. I am sure her Godly advice remains with some of those children to this day.

In the beginning, we were just one lesson ahead of our quickest students. It took time for us to write, translate, set up a page, have it copied, gather the pieces necessary for the craft activity and pack letters to send out. Eventually we needed to employ others to help us. They came to our apartment one or two days a week, and worked at packing, visited the photocopy shop and went shopping for craft resources. Our office was very small, so we worked on the floor in the lounge, on the tiny kitchen table, and sometimes on beds. It was fun! We knew we were reaching out to the children of Belarus.

One of the best things that happened to our Sunshine Club was the arrival of 2 two-drawer filing cabinets – unknown in Belarus. They arrived by post, wrapped in lots of bubble wrap, and tied in paper and string. Even the postal deliverymen were intrigued. For the entire time I was in Belarus, I was in awe of the ladies in Melbourne who seemed to be able to source and send anything they felt would help us with our work. What a blessing they were.

Being able to file all of our lessons and equipment was such a bonus. We had progressed to five sets of 12 lessons for children. When requests started coming from older children and teenagers, we wrote for them too. So, then we had two lots of five sets of 12 lessons.

I learned very quickly in that new country, that relationships are important. I used the same tradespeople and shops so that I could get to know the workers, and they could get to know us. Once every 3 months we were given Christian magazines for each of our Club members. We posted these out in large envelopes, so the pile we took to the post office was huge. We once heard one of the postal workers tell another, “They send out nature stuff to children.” We were happy with that interpretation. We had done nothing wrong in our initial visit to a sanatorium, but we were not too sure about the legality of sending the Bible and related papers through Belpost. Large boxes of chocolates for the Post Office staff at Christmas time kept us as friends, and we were forever grateful for the way the Lord opened the channels for us to reach so many children in such widespread regions of the country.

A phone call one morning took our Sunshine Club to a whole new level.

– Rae