A Frisbee and Jesus in Russia

A Frisbee can transcend all barriers. As can a volleyball, soccer ball and a host of other games. But a frisbee is the iconic symbol of fun at a YL camp. Though difficult to master in all its potential, it can still be learned rather quickly and provide close-range opportunity for momentary fun. Ilya soon found that to be true.

Ilya arrived like the other kids on the train where he was met by YL leaders and staff from St. Petersburg during the welcome. He seemed like an odd duckling when he arrived. And for good reason – he was. I quickly learned from Sveta that he was from Ukraine. The only kid not from St. Pete. He arrived at camp with a brownish, canvas satchel draped over his shoulder and held it near him as if it held all of his worldly possessions and valuables. After arrival and even thereafter, he stayed to himself – a lot. He spoke zero English. Which was fine, I spoke zero Russian and zero Ukrainian (they are similar but still different). But, the frisbee drew him in. Though isolated, he wanted to be included and accepted (don’t we all).

To break the ice, I and others motioned for Ilya to come and throw the frisbee in the large circle of campers and volunteers.  Acutely aware of his inability to properly throw the disc and to hide his embarrassment of such, he began to emulate his new American friends in a silly fashion, trying behind-the-back tosses, “underhands” and “flicks”. I spent my first few minutes retrieving the frisbee from a mound of thorn-bushes that served as a plastic magnet of his tosses. Luckily, I was able to minimize my bodily damage during these retrievals before others had joined in and volunteered to share the duties of getting Ilya’s Frisbee (much more slender and more agile friends!). He got better as the week progressed and you could tell the encouragement and affirmations from others (“good toss”, “Way to go Ilya”) began to increase his confidence, his comfort and his acceptance in the group of kids and leaders.

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As it would happen, he ended up being my “secret Santa” friend during the week (when your camp does not have the equivalent thrills and rides that an American Young Life camp possesses, the team has to be super-creative in providing events to keep kids’ busy and excited – and they were phenomenal!). It was fun to ask whose name I had just drawn from the hat, not being able to read the language on the paper! I must admit I was a bit nervous, he and I could not communicate whatsoever. But for two days, I had others deliver protein bars, YL t-shirts and a new YL cap. I even gave him one small gift in person, to enhance the deception of the game. He had no idea I was his “friend”.

I had been praying for Ilya that week – nothing super fervent, but just asking God to touch Him, give him courage to be himself and to believe the message he was going to hear. When he returned to the “club room” after his fifteen minutes of quiet, Ilya was indicating that he had accepted Jesus into his heart and that he was ready to start this walk with a loving Father that he had met just this week. As did most of the kids who were at camp this week. Seriously – almost all of them!

When our team left camp and headed back into the city, Ilya came to me and wanted a picture together. That was unexpected. And beautiful. And God reminded me that I too am accepted and desired – through Ilya wanting a selfie with me.

I had gone on this Expedition to help and be part of the “work crew” – or so I thought. But instead, I was asked just to “be”, to experience camp in Russia and to hang out with kids (and man, was that lake ever cold!). I didn’t expect to be tossing Frisbees with kids and being in their world, but I did toss and I did hang and I was touched by God myself. That becomes more apparent to me each time I reflect on the week. Often to the point of tears. From a Frisbee to a changed life – only at a Young Life camp. And this one was in Russia, and I got to be there.

— Robert Best

To learn more about this amazing ministry visit www.russiafsu.younglife.org They also have a new Young Life Russia Facebook page or you can follow them on Instagram @RussiaYoungLife