A group of six musicians from the North Alabama Conference recently traveled to Camp Wesley, near Liepaja, Latvia, to offer a workshop for worship leaders of the Latvian United Methodist Church.
The group was invited to lead the event by Dan and Courtney Randall, missionaries serving in Latvia from the North Carolina Conference. Dan is director of Camp Wesley, a project well known to our conference, and Courtney is Director of Christian Education for the Latvian UMC.
The invitation was extended to Bob Bentley, a regular visitor to Latvia through the Alabama Young Adult Chrysalis Community’s support of Baltic Chrysalis. It was an invitation Bentley gladly accepted. In the months that followed, it was decided that a worship band would round out the team to lead the workshop. That was easy—Bentley is a member of the Embers Praise Band at Lester Memorial UMC in Oneonta.
The workshop began on a lovely summer evening in June and lasted four days. Most of the participants were youth and young adults eager to liven worship in their local churches.
Besides Bentley, four other team members had roots in Lester Memorial: Mitchell Nelson, who currently plays keyboard for the Bridge Band at Tuscaloosa First UMC, James BeShears, a guitarist for the Bridge Band, John Carl Hastings, a staff member at the Auburn Wesley Foundation, and Anna BeShears, recently named Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries at Lester Memorial. The sixth traveler was Rachel Sparkman, who works with youth at The Bridge in Huntsville. She is the daughter of the Rev. Robert and Debbi Sparkman of Hartselle First UMC and Bentley’s niece.
Several of the team members blogged or posted updates about their journey on their favorite social networking sites. Here are some thoughts shared by John Carl Hastings.
"When I think about the most desirable destination for missions, Latvia isn't necessarily what comes to mind. The trip, however, turned out to be one of the most profound and formative experiences of my life. In the five days we spent at Camp Wesley, God seemed to move in all that we did: in the worship, the discussion, the laughter and even the silence.
Though my job prevented leaving until Thursday, the majority of our team left on Tuesday, June 23 for Riga. After hours upon hours of traveling on Thursday and Friday, I met with Bob, our team leader, at the airport and we departed in our rental Europcar. Our goal for this trip was to conduct a workshop on leading worship for young adults in the Latvian United Methodist Church. Our brothers and sisters that we met were all in their late teens and early twenties, and quickly bonded with our entire team.
The workshop began on Friday morning as I was still traveling, but lacked the traditional workshop feel that I associate with such things. What started as a semi-formal learning experience was transformed into simply a time of singing and worship. Our team started out leading, but gradually incorporated our newfound Latvian friends into our "band." After teaching and worshiping through song, we would gather to discuss the many facets of leading worship—from what worship is and why we do it to the difference between worship and performance.
Perhaps it is cliché to say, but though we went to Latvia to teach about leading we ended up learning just as much as we taught. Because of Soviet oppression, the Church is only slowly beginning to take root again. As a result, the young adults we fellowshipped with worshipped with display a passion that is normally unmatched in our culture. Unlike North Alabama, most people are not assumed to be Christian or go to church. Their faith was as genuine a commitment as I'd ever seen.
We left Camp Wesley on Sunday and took a few days to travel around Latvia and Lithuania, visiting local monuments and restaurants and simply enjoying the fellowship that God allowed us to have with each other. It was week of exhausting traveling and service, but I was truly shown God's love by the Latvians we met, as well as the community we experience when we meet our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world."