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When The Mission Comes To You

08/14/2018 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey

Gallery: Highland Baptist Embraces the Children of Belarus [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

Highland Baptist Embraces the Children of Belarus

By Scott Brazda

The church is a very mission-oriented church, but sometimes, you can’t leave home; you can’t go to another country to serve God,” says Natalie Broussard.  “So, what we’ve done here is, well – we call it a ‘reverse mission’.  Instead of you going over there, you bring them here.”
The place is Highland Baptist Church in New Iberia. The mission is the American Belarussian Relief Organization, more commonly known as ABRO.  “We’ve been a part of this since 2001,” explains Broussard, ABRO’s Louisiana coordinator, “when a church member found out about it and brought it to Highland. The first year we had five kids and a chaperone from Belarus; who knew?”

Who knew, indeed? Since 2001, families from Highland Baptist have played – make that, embraced – the role of ‘host,’ and welcomed in a number of children (and accompanying chaperones) from Belarus, a country whose landscape and way of life was devastated by radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.  “It truly is a sense of community,” says Broussard.  “Absolutely anybody in our church, and even in other parts of Iberia Parish, who hears about this is almost immediately on board.”

It costs about $2,000 per child to get them to New Iberia, and they come to Acadiana with practically nothing. One year, when 20 Belarussian children made the trip, Highland Baptist had to raise about $40,000 to cover the airfare. The children stay in New Iberia for approximately six weeks during which time they receive the kind of health care that is practically non-existent in Belarus.  “These children are coming from an area immersed in the Chernobyl fallout,” explains Broussard, “and in the month-and-a-half that they’re here, they breathe fresh air and eat uncontaminated food, which extends their life spans by three-to-four years.”

Then, there is the matter of finding places for the children to stay, finding the aforementioned host families.  For Lindsay Nicholson, the call—and her subsequent answer of that call—came in a flash.  “During a church service in 2017, they were telling us that a host home had fallen through at the last minute,” she recalls.  “I was kind of surprised, and just kind of raised my hand. I didn’t even talk it over with my husband; I just acted before I thought.”  She chuckles for a second, and then adds, “And I’m glad I did it that way. If I’d had time to think about it, to weigh the pros-and-cons, I don’t know if we’d have ever become a host family.”

Answering the ABRO call wasn’t nearly as dramatic for Laci Labry and her husband, Stephen. “We became a part of ABRO in 2016, and it was really because of my in-laws,” she says.  “They did the program many years ago, and as they described it to us, it was something I knew I just had to be a part of, that it was something I’d been called to do.”  The Labrys—at least Mom and Dad—were on board.  “We can do this,” remembers Laci, “we can help somebody change their life.”

But what about the rest of the family? Was their son Lane, who was three at the time, ready to welcome a non-English speaking stranger—a nine-year old girl, at that – into his home?  “Our ABRO coordinator warned us to be prepared if our child was unwilling to share his toys or his house,” says Laci.  But worry not.  “Lane was on board from the get-go.  And just because there was a language barrier doesn’t mean there was a communication barrier.”

Having strangers stay with the Nicholson family wasn’t uncommon; in fact, there had been a number of times when Lindsay and her husband Barrett had opened their spacious home to band members or those attending religious retreats.  “But those were only for a weekend,” recalls Lindsay.  “Could we handle six weeks?” And the Nicholsons already have four children of their own, ages 11, 10, 8 & 7, so this was a disaster in the making, right?  Nope. “They were thrilled to pieces, and definitely up for that adventure,” laughs Lindsay.  “It was like Christmas; we were all kind of on pins-and-needles as to how it was going to be, to have this new personality just thrown into our family of six.”

The health care element is extremely important, and during the first week of the Belarussians’ visit, they are examined on three key fronts: vision, dental and medical.  “And all of these doctors and nurses donate their time for free, absolutely free,” says Broussard.  “A lot of the kids are off the charts in the small size and where they should be; and in terms of dentists, the ones they do get to see back in Belarus don’t use anesthesia, so I’m sure it was quite frightening. Thank God our dentists were very patient.”

This year, there is an extra-special touch to the medical side of things: the Nicholsons are housing a young woman named Maryna, who serves as chaperone to the current group of four children; and 26-year-old Maryna, whose husband is back in Belarus, is pregnant.  “The people here are so nice, and my doctor did an ultrasound, which allowed me to see my unborn daughter’s face,” Maryna says in broken English.  “It was so wonderful, so awesome to see her face.  I wish we had a doctor like this back home.”  The due date for Maryna’s daughter is September 10 (and members of the Highland Baptist congregation threw her a baby shower just before the group returned to Belarus in mid-July).

After the first week’s examinations, the Belarussians are fully-immersed in what it’s like to be part of an Acadiana family: there’s vacation bible school, then family vacations, and just hanging out with their surrogate parents, brothers and sisters. Plus, there is an all-important Christian element to the way Highland Baptist has incorporated ABRO into its mission.  “My family back home is Orthodox, and not very practicing; we do not go to church,” explains Maryna.  “I never heard about God from my family.  But here, we go to church every Sunday, we have a special Bible study, and my family The Nicholsons show me how I love God, and that he loves me.”

Six weeks goes by rather quickly for the ABRO host families, and for their new, extended family members. Some of these children will return to New Iberia next year if their parents give permission.  “I have so much admiration for the parents over there,” says Broussard.  “A mother sending a child to us, thousands of miles away, sometimes to people they’ve never met?  But they know how good it is for their kids.”

The ‘goodbyes’ are no doubt tough on both the host families and the Belarussian children. “Oh, man, it’s pretty tough to say ‘goodbye,’ and I try to hold it together,” smiles Labry.  “I am thankful for technology, because we Facetime throughout the year.  I’ll miss her dearly when she’s gone.”

What’s truly amazing is an understating of who is benefitting the most from the ABRO program.  “Oh, it’s us. We’re the ones getting the most out of this,” quickly says Nicholson. “It’s humbling and so very eye-opening to see the connections made.  The rewards for us are very bountiful.”

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