Chris’s van rolls down the snowy cobblestone
and out of the city of Sandomierz. Classical music flows through the stereo and Chris talks of God’s sovereignty in his family’s journey. We’ve finished our time at the Collegium and other area schools and are headed to Sosnowiec where we will spend several days before visiting Auschwitz, traveling to Kraków and taking a train back to Warsaw where we will spend the night before flying back to the United States the next morning.
We have been blessed by the church in Sandomierz and its pastor, Adam, both of which welcomed our group with open arms and piles of pastries. These people are the hands and feet of Christ in Sandomierz and the surrounding area and continually extend abundant hospitality to our visiting team. Adam and Chris drove us to Sosnowiec today, nearly a four to five hour drive, and are driving us to the locations where we need to go for the remainder of the weekend.
On Monday, several members of our team joined the Hatfields at the Gymnasium, another school with students around 14 to 17 years old and another school with younger students (5th and 6th grade) afterward. The rest of our team taught at the Collegium. Connor, Dave, Sandy and I played games and talked with the students at the Gymnasium, all with varied levels of English proficiency. Some groups were shy and talked little, looking down and avoiding conversations. When we talked as a group about those encounters, I remembered my own timidity in speaking a second language in my high school Spanish class.
Fear and embarrassment drove me to avoid speaking in a foreign language. Yet these students, who are also afraid of speaking in another language, are finding their voice in English for the first time. It is a joy to see them begin to emerge from their reticence and express themselves in a new way with new, funny-sounding American words.
On Tuesday, our group was split again between the Collegium and Gymnasium. This week, the group in the Collegium has focused on English games and reconnecting with students we first met last week. Games like “Categories,” “The Dictionary Game,” and “I Have Never” are a few favorites amongst ourselves and the students. We’ve seen shy students begin to speak up and speak out in group games whereas they would have remained silent in small group conversations. We see the students’ personalities emerge when we play these games and laugh together as the students give themselves grace to make mistakes and strengthen their English language skills. The students are vibrant and talented and exuberant and love to talk once they’ve laughed off the initial language barriers. We see the heart of the students when they share their voices.
On Tuesday evening, we returned to the church for English lessons where we partnered up and spoke with groups of students and community members. More students came Tuesday night than the previous Tuesday and Thursday night as more students connected with us at the Collegium and became interested in the classes and conversations. After snatching a few cups of tea and sweets, we met with the groups. Mary Helen, Sandy (Chris’s wife) and myself met with a group of five students of various ages. Two boys in our group brought their younger sisters and one boy was the son of a teacher in the Collegium and Marta with whom we have been connected during our time in Sandomierz. Our group was timid so we introduced ourselves and spent most of our time playing English games. One girl in our group was afraid to speak and only whispered to Sandy at first. We continued to encourage her and by the end of class, she began to ask us a few questions! Praise God for giving a spirit of courage to His children.
On Wednesday, we all returned to the Collegium and Dream Teams A and B (as we have dubbed our groups) saw more classes of students that we recognized. Some of our group met for coffee with students after class before the evening Bible study. In the evening, we returned to church where several members of our team shared and served. Cassidy shared her testimony and God’s sovereignty in her own life, in high school after a soccer injury and today. Connor and Cristina led worship and we sang songs like “10,000 Reasons.” Praise God for allowing us to speak united in one language of worship. Professor Hernandez shared a message on Ezekiel 36, the valley of dry bones as Adam translated into Polish. We are blessed to share our stories with the people of the church. We are blessed to hear and share in their own stories.
On Thursday, we had a shorter day in the Collegium, only visiting about three classes of students. It was a day of rest after class for members of our team who needed a little extra sleep to fight off illness and more time to visit with students for those who were feeling better. We were back in the church in the evening for English classes where we met the largest group of students we have seen at the church during our stay, 36 students! Praise God for the courage of students to begin to embrace the English classes and set foot in a church, meeting Adam and Chris’s family and members of the community who they can continue relationships with after we leave. Adam and Elise led a group of students studying for the Matura (college entrance exam) which included Iga, one of the the students we met last week. Mary Helen and I took a group of three students: Julia, Klaudia and Ewa who had met members of our team previously. We had fun talking about our passions and sharing experiences. Afterward, all three girls excitedly told us that they would be at the concert Friday (Kolah) which we had mentioned in their classes during the week.
On Friday, we spent our final day in the Collegium. Walking down the castle-like halls Elise and Connor had their “Michal detectors” on. Elise explained: she and Connor met a student named Michal earlier in the week. Connor connected with Michal during a class and heard some of his story. Wanting to continue a friendship, Connor got to know Michal and wanted to invite him to the rap musician, Kolah’s concert on Friday. During the school day on Thursday, Elise and Connor were joking that, “what are the odds that Michal will show up right now?” because they hoped to talk with him that morning about the concert. At that moment, they looked over and there was Michal! Elise and Connor leapt from their seats and tackled Michal, grabbing the handle on his backpack and stopping him in his tracks. Michal was a little surprised to see his two American friends so excited to see him, but understood after they explained about the concert why they had stopped him so abruptly. On Friday, Elise and Connor vowed to put on their “Michal detectors” to sense him if he came by again.
Before we finished our day at the Collegium, we were ushered into the principle’s office. Not to fear, the days of detention were not returning. We walked through the door to find a surprise party, attended by several English teachers and the headmaster himself, bestowing chocolate, fruit and souvenirs of Sandomierz.
We were overwhelmed with gratitude for the hospitality of the administrators and teachers. They love their students and see great potential in each one. It was difficult to walk out of the Collegium for the last time, even as we said final goodbyes to some students later in the evening. Many of our group connected with students over Facebook and Instagram so that we can keep in touch, even if only minimally, over social media.
Later in the afternoon, Cassidy and I visited Iga’s home for the last time. On the walk over, she pointed out several buildings that I had never noticed before. One building, a gray apartment building, blended in with all of the rest. “That building,” Iga said, “is where someone threw himself down four stories and died. He killed himself.” We paused and looked up at the stucco structure, nearly close enough to touch. The fourth floor windows were in plain sight. I shivered.
We reached Iga’s apartment where we met her mother, sister and niece once again. Iga treated us with a dessert and we talked for a few hours before excusing ourselves to go to the concert. We will miss Iga – her curiosity, her resilience and her joy (though we’re convinced we’ll see each other in person again someday). She is a blessing to our team and even took the care to bake muffins without eggs so that Connor could eat some!
Iga joined us for a Christian rap concert featuring the Polish artist Kolah in a venue under the city center. A group of students with whom we’ve connected over the past few weeks joined us for the concert as well, a time to enjoy together before saying goodbye and to hear the heart of the musician. Our prayer is that the students will experience the love of God powerfully and tangibly so that the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ might resonate in their hearts. Adam arranged for the concert to occur and serves as an invaluable resource and source of encouragement and discipleship to students. Please pray that the students will experience a curiosity to know more of the person of Jesus and the courage to ask the questions about the character of God and the resources to get their questions answered.
The students, teachers, shop owners, church and community of Sandomierz are kilometers away, but continue to remain in our thoughts and prayers. We are excited to see the ongoing ministry of the church and keep in touch with some of the students we have had the privilege to meet there.
In contrast to the lost-in-time old European village feeling of Sandomierz, Sosnowiec is in the heart of the industrial region of Poland. According to Chris, nearly fifteen million people live in this region which resembles one giant city (comprised of many cities squished together). Sosnowiec is urban and full of fast drivers and tall buildings. We settled into our hostel on Saturday afternoon. Hostel Brooklyn is appropriately adorned in New York City decor – a taste of “home.” After unpacking, we met with Adam, a worship leader who plays an instrumental role in worship ministry and training in Poland. He is a talented musician, composer and conductor. When he spoke of the ministry, his face brightened. We were blessed to hear his heart for worship. In the evening, we drove to the church where we met Daniel, the head pastor. Daniel helped prepare a delicious meal for us and shared his story afterward. Growing up in a highly dysfunctional family, Daniel’s heart is for the church and sharing how God redeemed his life and gave him hope. As tears streamed down Daniel’s face, we saw the power of Christ at work. Daniel is proof that God restores broken hearts.
On Sunday morning, we drove back to church for breakfast and attended the service afterward. The small sanctuary was filled with people and rays of sunlight bouncing off the bright walls. Ashlen and I shared our testimonies with the help of an interpreter who was gracious and invited several members of our team over to her flat for lunch and an afternoon visit. Dave gave a message about how, like the widow with the jar of oil, we can give our gifts that they may multiply in service for Christ. We worshipped in Polish and then split into groups to visit with church families.
Mary Helen and I went with Szymon and Daria, a newly married couple, to their home in the countryside around Sosnowiec. They welcomed us into their log cabin where we shared a meal, laughed, played Mexican Train dominoes and talked about life and our experiences before hiking around a local castle, walking in a Catholic Church and visiting the mall nearby. Our team is grateful for the hospitality of the church families to give up their Sunday afternoons to pour into our team. Our prayers are for the church of Sosnowiec as it grows and multiplies.
Tomorrow, we drive to Auschwitz, leaving Sosnowiec.
Please pray for tender, courageous hearts to mourn for the horrors of the Holocaust and to process our experiences in light of God’s love and justice.