I had felt the call to serve on the mission field since my first experience in Ukraine in 2001. During this trip I was involved in evangelism training for about three weeks. But the burden had been on my heart for some time to go to a former Eastern-block country and share the gospel. I returned from my Ukraine experience deeply burdened for the former Soviet Union. I entered seminary and began praying about whether or not the Lord was calling me to serve full time abroad or at home.
In the summer of 2002 I had the opportunity to intern in Russia for six weeks. This promised to be more than a typical short-term trip that resulted in the "high" one can easily get. The trip allowed me to really live day-to-day missionary life alongside other real missionaries and serve with them. I returned from this trip fully convinced that God was calling me to Russia.
During my second year at seminary John Piper came and spoke during our missions week. If there was any doubt in my mind as to whether God was calling me or not, it was removed during this very powerful time in my life. I was single and very much wanted to married, but more than anything I wanted to serve the Lord in Russia. I prayed and the Lord granted me contentment that he would provide for all my needs, including a wife if it was his will. I set out to prepare to serve in Russia whether I was married or not.
What happened next was truly amazing. A few short weeks after finding that contentment I met Cristy who was studying in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the seminary. We began a casual friendship that quickly transitioned into a relationship. Her heart was for the mission field also, and we believed God was calling us to serve together. In December of 2003, two days after Christmas, we were married. For the next 2 years we finished seminary and I worked at a church as director of Student and Music Ministries. We visited Russia together in February of 2005 for three weeks, our first time as a couple. We had determined we wanted to visit during the coldest time of the year possible. Being two southerners, it seemed only logical to experience the full impact of the environment in which we wanted to serve. Temperatures at times dipped as low as -55. But at the end of the trip we came away with an even stronger conviction that God was leading us to serve him together.
Shortly after our trip we learned that we were expecting our first child. Overjoyed, we continued to press forward through the application process with our mission and all of the other requirements involved. Our plan was to hopefully finish those by the time our child was born, raise funds for about 6 months to a year and then move to Russia. God had other plans though.
Seventeen weeks into the pregnancy we went to the doctor for the ultrasound that was going to tell us whether we were having a boy or a girl. It was an exciting day, and we looked forward to calling our parents to share with them the news. As we waited in the doctor's office before the appointment a show was playing on television, telling the story of a young man who had become a doctor, inspired by his little sister's down syndrome. I watched the touching story unfold, and found it encouraging, but I distinctly remember saying to myself, "I just don't know if I could handle something like that."
We were called back soon thereafter and were told that the doctor had to leave to perform an emergency c-section, but that another technician would be able to do the ultrasound. As the technician performed the scan, we smiled and waited anxiously looking at the monitor trying to make out the blurry image. Before the technician even told us, both Cristy and I spotted the evidence. We were having a boy! We smiled and kissed each other. But for the next few minutes the technician worked on the machine, ominously quiet with a slight look of concern on her face. I could tell something wasn't right. I asked her what was wrong, and she didn't answer immediately. Finally she finished the ultrasound and told us what she had seen. She began by telling us that, of course, the doctor needed to look at these results first, but that she was seeing an enlarged cranium. Our son's body was measuring 17 weeks, but his head was well over 20 weeks. She didn't say much else, but this was obviously something very serious. We were going to have to wait several hours for the doctor to get back from surgery to look at the pictures.
Over the next several hours I cannot remember exactly what we did. I know we called our parents and asked them to pray. We called a doctor friend of ours who had gone into the pastorate and he tried to comfort us with words of spiritual encouragement as well as share with us his medical opinion. When we finally were able to go back and see the doctor later in the day she shared with us the prognosis. It looked as if our son (Isaiah) had spina bifida and hydrocephalus. Suddenly two new words that I had heard only in passing up until that point and time in my life entered my vocabulary. For the sake of space here I'll leave you the reader to search those two conditions on the internet for more specific information. But in summary, we were looking at having a disabled child, one who would probably never walk, endure various other complications and most likely have learning problems throughout his life.
Over the next couple of months, we experienced so much, both up and down. We went to see a specialist, and he indeed confirmed that it was spina bifida with hydrocephalus. He offered to arrange for us to murder our child, which we declined. The love and prayers of our friends and family members overwhelmed us. Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed my parents' home in Louisiana and brought moderate damage to our little town in Mississippi. And we wrestled with our calling. We knew that medical care was sub-standard in Russia, and as we looked ahead to the unknown we debated with whether or not it would be responsible for us to take our special-needs child there. We talked with our friends and family, consulted with the leadership at our mission, and we decided to press forward, believing that the Lord would make things clear at the right time.
Isaiah was born in February 2006 and we spent 23 days in intensive care with him. He underwent two surgeries, one to install a shunt under his skin that would allow the fluid in his head to properly drain, and the other to close what was literally a hole in his spine. This did not fix the paralysis, but prevented further damage from occurring. From this point on, his needs were going to be dealt with one step at a time. We knew as he grew and developed he would need other operations, other therapies, and other special care needs.
Soon after he was born we began to do more research on medical care in Russia. Much to our surprise we discovered that the medical care in the larger cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow was much better, and that they even dealt with people in Isaiah's condition. This led to me taking a trip by myself in February of 2007 to check out these facilities. God was gracious to pave the way before me, and when I returned from two weeks in Russia I came back confident that we could move to St. Petersburg, minister there and be able to have access to the treatment our son would need. In July 17, 2007, we said our goodbyes and boarded the plane, bound for St. Petersburg.
So much has happened since then. I wish I had time to tell it all. We experienced many joys and many sorrows. We quickly learned the Russian medical system as Isaiah had several urinary tract infections. We struggled to learn the Russian language and culture. We experienced two miscarriages. But we also made new friends. We have seen people's lives changed. I started preaching in Russian, and daily our son Isaiah has been a special light to the people of Russia. It is strange and unusual to see children in wheelchairs in Russia. The average Russian woman has had six abortions, and with few exceptions children with disabilities are aborted before they are born. Simply his presence has been the source of many fruitful conversations with people along the way, and has opened up many doors for the gospel.
One of our biggest highlights came this past year, in May of 2010 when our daughter Nadia was born, delivered on Russian soil. We rejoiced in her birth as she had come on the heals of two sad miscarriages that we had experienced while in Russia. We decided to give her a Russian name. Nadia is short for Nadezhda, a common Russian name that translates "hope".
It has been a blessing to be a part of Christian Care Medi-Share through all of this. During my wife's two miscarriages we took comfort in not only knowing that we would have the financial help of other believers, but also the prayers. After her birth, the process of submitting the receipts and getting reimbursed was made as smooth as possible. Christian Care Medi-Share has truly been a blessing to us.
Our plan is to continue to serve in Russia as long as the Lord leads. We are currently working with Russian pastors in St. Petersburg to plant new churches in and around the city. I also serve as the Field Director for our mission organization, InterAct Ministries, Inc. and oversee other missionaries on the field serving out in Siberia.
We continually are looking for new ministry partners. More information about our family can be found at our website at http://siberiangrits.wordpress.com. There you can also find information about supporting our ministry through both prayer and gifts.