The other day I was playing basketball with a few of the kids from Vacation Bible School here in Magadan. Although there were several new faces, there were some old faces too. I was overjoyed to find that two of the girls that I had grown especially close to last summer were there. There was one twelve-year-old boy there (Deema) who had caused us endless anxiety and difficulty last summer. Many of the teenagers who I had been concerned for had returned for another summer. There were so many faces I remembered, so many little (now bigger!) hands that I had missed holding, so many voices I hadn’t been able to keep out of my head for the last year. This Vacation Bible School seemed to me like a preview of heaven; there was so much love and so much joy. We were all together again and it was an even better reunion than I could have dreamed of.
One thing struck me the most: the kids had changed. They hadn’t changed for worse, they had changed for the better! Teens who hadn’t been self-assured enough to look me in the eye were helping to teach classes, playing with children, and speaking and walking with maturity and confidence. Little kids who had never been in a Church before last June were correcting my pronunciation of the Mass parts and felt at home in the parish that they had formerly considered a cult. Deema – who spent that majority of his time with us last year cursing, punching, and generally wrecking havoc – greeted us with hugs and smiles. He adores Father Michael and the Sisters, leads the rosary with confidence, and strives to be good with a maturity that still takes me by surprise with every minute. (Nota Bene: Deema still needs plenty of prayers, so keep them up!)
Last August when we left Magadan I had been filled with guilt when I considered these kids. We were with them for a sparing 2 months, leaving them in uncertain hands for the other 10 months out of the year – 304 days without us in the city affectionately termed “The Devil’s Playground.” I had done the math. I knew the score: 304 - 62. I didn’t like those odds. In any rational person’s scorebook, it seemed we had lost the game.
As I played these team games with these children who have my heart, I started to realize what it meant to be a team player – and how much I fail to take that seriously as a missionary. You see, in my extraordinary game plan of how-Kaitlin-will-convert-Russia I had forgotten to account for grace. I thought I was playing alone, that if I left the field the game was lost. But now I see that I didn’t even know what we were playing in the first place.
I’m going to give you one more sports analogy before I hit my trite metaphor quota for the summer:
Last month a few of my household sisters and friends ran the Pittsburgh Marathon. None of them ran 26.2 miles, but each finished the race.
How the heck did they manage that? And where do I sign up?
I’ll tell you the secret: they ran 26.2 miles, but they did it as a team. The Pittsburgh Marathon partakes in the brilliant invention colloquially known as the “relay race.” You get a medal and only have to break a pretty basic-level sweat. 26.2 goes by pretty fast when it’s divided up between five people.
***Disclaimer: I can’t run three miles without wishing I was dead, so I’m not knocking the relay.***
Last summer I thought it was my job to save these kids. If they succeeded it meant I succeeded. If they fell away it meant I failed. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when it’s totally misdirected.
In the ten months that I haven’t been here, these kids have succeeded in a way that I could never make them succeed. They have encountered Jesus Christ, not Kaitlin Maloney. I left and the Holy Spirit descended and did in ten months what I couldn’t manage on my own in ten years.
As a missionary and a follower of Christ, I am called to cooperate with grace. I’m not called to singlehandedly save the world, this city, a handful of kids, or even myself. I am called to actively receive and participate in grace, but I’m not doing it all by myself. When I die, I pray that I might be able to tell Jesus that I didn’t let my pride and my own self-love get in the way of his work. I want to be able to say that I helped as much as I could and hindered as little as I could. (cf. MT 19:14)
For the first time, I can honestly say that I’m so thankful I left Magadan, even if only it was to learn the lesson that I’m not working here alone. I might be working all through the summer, but the Lord is at work in these kids’ lives in every moment. He doesn’t pick up where I left off or swoop in where I screw up, but – like a parent cooking a meal, painting a room, building a table, or completing any other decidedly “grownup job” with their child – He lets me help.
Please continue to keep us and the people we serve here in Magadan in your prayers. We are so grateful for this continued intercession.
Kaitlin and the Team