Transformation in Poland

Family Camp thrives on a unique and unlikely partnership with a Nebraska church

As a group of Nebraskans piles their luggage into a van on the final day of Oboz Rodzinny (Family Camp), a Polish college student offers thanks.

“You are changing Poland,” Samuel Skrzypkowski tells them.

On Olympics Night, kids and adults alike took part in crazy relay races.

On Olympics Night, kids and adults alike took part in crazy relay races.

Actually, all involved would agree that God is the one doing that. But after seven days of leading English lessons, Bible studies, wacky contests and games, plus giving testimonies and building friendships, the Americans are too tired to argue the point.

The annual camp, held this year at a lakeside conference center in Charzykowy, Poland, is the result of an unlikely partnership between a Baptist Church in Poland and an EFCA church of about 300 people on Nebraska’s western frontier. New Hope Church of Ogallala has been sending teams to help run these camps in Poland for 14 years now.

“This is not a vacation. Trust me,” says Chuck Flaming, a farmer and cattleman from Paxton, Neb., who’s at his 14th camp (the past nine as director). Flaming is a study in contrasts. One moment he’s a general, delivering a stern warning about being on time for morning devotions. The next he’s wielding a cow’s jawbone while teaching boys about Samson. A few minutes later, he’s weeping unashamedly as he talks about life’s struggles with three Polish women, his “adopted daughters” who have been coming to camp as long as he has.

“When you go to a foreign country in whatever ministry, and when you become involved in people’s lives, they become so precious,” he says. “Every year I come to Poland; and when I leave Poland, I always tell people I leave another piece of my heart in Poland.”

Changing culture

Poland is a land in transformation.

In beautiful old cities like Gdansk, communism’s featureless, concrete high-rises now stand as relics, in dark contrast to joyfully restored Renaissance and Gothic architecture.

The oppression, Nazi horror and bread lines of the last century have given way to fledgling democracy, economic strength and a headlong rush to Westernize. The current generation of young adults has no memory of life under communist rule.

Poland today remains heavily and traditionally Roman Catholic, but a deeper look reveals that a growing number of people here either have no religion or a view of Christianity based solely on tradition. Reaching that population for Christ is the challenge embraced by the Baptist church in Chojnice, a city of 40,000 people about two hours southwest of Gdansk.

The church marks three major holiday weeks each year: Christmas, Easter … and Family Camp. Camp is the biggest outreach event of the year for a church that’s been known to turn away its own members on Sunday mornings if they haven’t brought nonbelievers with them. About half of the members came to Christ either at camp or directly afterward, church leaders say.

Ludwik Wonzniak

Ludwik Wonzniak

Ludwik Wozniak of the nearby town of Czersk has been bringing his family and friends every year since the camp’s inception in 1999. A short, balding man with a bushy mustache, Wozniak looks a little like Lech Walesa and a little more like Mahatma Gandhi (for the final evening’s masquerade party, he came dressed as Gandhi). He came to Christ in 1989 – the same year communism fell in Poland – and he seeks that same transformation for others.

“This time in camp is special for me because … we serve each other and are looking for people who need to know about Jesus Christ,” he says. “I know people from Poland need to know more about the new culture. They need to learn more English. Always, God builds new relationships.

English is indeed a big draw as Poles seek to Westernize. Americans teach English from the Bible, and small-group conversations help them converse comfortably with the Poles. Many of the teens and young adults already speak fluent English, so they serve as translators. They also are emerging as spiritual leaders among the Poles, largely because they don’t carry the cultural baggage of their parents and grandparents.

“The adults are still reluctant somewhat,” says Jim McChesney, an IRS agent from Ogallala who’s at his second camp. “They’ve got a lot of preconceived notions, a lot of built-in conditions that they have to overcome. But the youth are open to new information. So really, when you hit the ones that are 8 to 18, that’s where you really see the impact.”

That’s clearer to Flaming with each passing year as he remembers back 14 years, to the beginning.

“The one gal who now helps lead singing – she was a baby,” he says. “A lot of these other guys were just skinny little buggers. And now you see their fruits. Not all the kids turned out that way, but a lot of them have. … They are the next people who will be the leaders of this church.”

Another example is Lukasz Wozniak, Ludwik’s son, whom Flaming remembers as a small child.

“Now he’s a big guy, and he definitely feels that God has called him into the ministry. Wow! And it’s not that the camp did this, but the camp is part of that whole process. … It’s a blessing that I could have just a little bit of that.”

Beginnings

New Hope’s involvement in Poland traces back to a missionary in the late 1990s named Darwin Anderson, from International Messengers in Clear Lake, Iowa. Anderson spoke at the church one Sunday about short-term ministry opportunities in Poland and there seemed to be little interest … that is, until a church member declared, “Well, I’m going.”

Thus began a partnership between New Hope and IM that produced the first few camps. Today, New Hope plans and directs the camps on its own, with help from other churches and an IM missionary or two. Other churches that have partnered in the camps through the years and at several sites include Wayzata Free Church in Plymouth, Minn., and Keyport Bible Church in Keyport, Wash. In fact, a Keyport team helped lead another camp this year, the week before the Ogallala team arrived.

Rare opportunity

Julita Schowska

Julita Schowska

For Julita Schowska, a mother of three from Kwidzyn, Family Camp represents a spiritual battery recharge. It’s the only time during the year she gets to spend extended time with other believers. The closest Baptist church is 40 km from her home, and her family isn’t able to get there often.

This year, along with her kids, Julita also brought a friend who isn’t a believer yet.

“But I can see how open she is, how hungry she is for God’s word, for his forgiveness, for his love,” she says. “Here we have a lot of opportunities to talk about God’s love, to talk about how God changes our lives – how he changed my life. She can really see that living with God is not only between the pages of the Bible, but this is for real.”

And if Americans were not involved?

So, while the Polish people are the ones doing the hard work of evangelizing friends and family members, the Americans remain the draw. And it’s not just for the English lessons.

“There’s something we got from you guys, something we are not able to give to each other,” Julita says. “It’s the way you treat people with respect, loving with your smile on the face. This is something that is not so common here in Poland. … So American people do not only help us to read the Bible and learn English, but they also help us to learn how to treat each other — how to have fun. So without you guys, the camp is not a camp anymore.”

 

Special moments

At Family Camp, everyone was assigned to a “grupa,” a small group that would meet daily for Bible study and English practice. An American led each grupa and one of the Poles would translate.

On Day 1, Sharon Samp, an emergency medical technician from Ogallala, took notes and quotes from each of the people in her grupa to help remember faces and names. For an older woman named Halina, she wrote, “God is not with me.”

Through the week, the group veered from the simple Bible studies and delved deep into questions about church history and tradition from Halina and another older women, Jola.

On Sunday morning, the final day of camp, the Americans held their daily team devotions prior to grupa meetings. Team leader Chuck Flaming encouraged everyone to emphasize people’s need for salvation because that would be the groups’ last time together. The day’s study was about heaven, from Revelation 21.

“Chuck had told us to be bold,” Sharon says. “And as bold as I could be, I told them what the free gift of salvation meant to me, how I chose to follow Christ Jesus rather than suffer in a place without him through eternity. We closed with asking them where they stood in their heart and mind.

“Then at church service at 11 o’clock, Halina and Jola went forward, stepping across that line of disbelief and accepting Jesus as their Savior. I think my heart stopped for a minute. They praised my faith for what had happened, but it was God who opened their eyes, not me. He just spoke through me and I am thrilled for their newfound life in Christ.”

– – –

As part of each evening’s gathering, an American would give his or her testimony. On Wednesday night that honor went to John Lund, a retired salesman and schoolteacher from Ogallala. Lund spoke emotionally about how his faith sustained him through losing his wife, Linda, to cancer in 2007. Linda had preceded John to Poland; he didn’t attend a camp until after her death.

The next evening, a boy named Kuba, about 8 years old, stepped to the microphone. Through an interpreter, he said: “After John’s talk, I understood what it means to be a Christian – and I am going to do so.”

“Totally unexpected and obviously unsolicited,” Lund said later. “I had no idea who that little boy was. That’s rewarding. Maybe next year we’ll see how that’s working out.”

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