Return trip with a mission
This past August my husband, Russ, and I traveled to Estonia for the second time.
Our first trip was in 2019 and the next two years it was impossible to travel there because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we were looking forward to this long-delayed return.
Our reason for traveling to Estonia was to participate in the ministry of Christian Camp Gideon, which is in the town of Aa, about 1 1/2 hours from the capital city of Tallinn.
Estonia was under Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991 and during those years the Soviet government built what it called Pioneer Camps. While these camps offered a variety of sporting opportunities, they mainly existed to teach older children and youth about atheism and communism.
When communism ended in 1991, so did the camps. The former Pioneer Camp in Aa was purchased by the United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 30 years ago, and gifted to the Methodist Churches in Estonia for their use.
Methodist Pastor Artur Pold became the camp director along with serving the Methodist church in nearby Johvi, and it was given the name Christian Camp Gideon to distinguish it from its atheist past.
Russ and I are United Methodist ministers and discovered this camp as a good place to lead volunteer-in-mission trips now that ministry in Russia and Ukraine is not possible.
Estonia is a beautiful, small, coastal country in Eastern Europe. It borders the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, and the population is approximately 1.3 million.
Estonia has been ruled by many world powers over the years from the Danes and Swedes to Germans and tsarist and Soviet Russia. While you’re there, you will hear folks speak Estonian and Russian as well as many young people who speak English as it is required in schools.
More than one-half of the country is forested land and one-fourth is protected nature. Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy are the most prevalent religions.
Along with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia is considered a Baltic state. Like most of Europe, the currency is the euro.
LOVE AND MISSION
Elissa Carruth Bahtin and her husband, Dmitri Bahtin, serve as the camp coordinators of summer programming at Camp Gideon.
Elissa is originally from Lewisville, Texas, and first came over in March of 2013 on a mission trip to orphanages. It was then that she met Dima, a native Estonian, who helped the American team with translation and with the orphans.
Elissa says this was her first international trip to a country that didn’t speak primarily English. While she couldn’t converse with the children, she says, “I felt God’s love pouring out by working with the children. Because of that barrier I had to rely on God.”
She also developed a special connection with Dima.
Elissa returned to Estonia in August of that same year and stayed 3 1/2 months volunteering at Sunbeam, a center for children with disabilities, started by the Methodist Church. She saw Dima on weekends since he was studying business in college.
After returning home, Elissa told her parents she wanted to go back to Estonia. Her parents were supportive. Dima came over to visit Elissa’s family in 2014 for one month. She returned to Estonia in the summer of 2014 and has been coming every summer since.
Dima and Elissa were married in 2017 and in 2018 she made the move to Estonia, where they spend half the year. Together, they started an English school for children in kindergarten through the ninth grade, which served as a springboard for attracting youth to Camp Gideon.
With the addition of Daniel in 2020 and Kate in 2022, Elissa and Dima are now a family, spending three months in the U.S. and nine months in Estonia. Dima works for a U.S. company, Love That Door, where he is the warranty manager, and Elissa has dual citizenship.
When asked why she and Dima volunteer every summer at Camp Gideon, she says, “Pastor Artur is our spiritual dad, we’re here to support him so this ministry can carry on.”
At camp, Dima does a lot of the building management while both plan the daily itineraries for the two main camps: Sports Camp and English Camp.
“We understand that the kids are our future, that’s why we have this children’s ministry. So many kids come to camp that would never come to church. The parents are willing to bring the kids to camp, but not to church,” she said.
Around 95 children ages 8 to 14 attend each camp along with 30 camp counselors. The Christian programming includes learning Bible stories and acting them out in dramas the children have created along with evening worship services conducted by Pastor Artur, Dima, and a visiting minister.
On the last evening of camp, the children and youth are asked to commit their lives to Christ with a clear and simple gospel presentation. Elissa said, “Then we encourage them to get involved in a church where they can grow spiritually.”
Christian Camp Gideon is evidence of God redeeming a special place for His divine purposes.
Camp Gideon is also the location of a Rescue Camp sponsored by the government and Elissa said, “This is the only week where the focus is not on God.”
Firefighters, paramedics and police demonstrate rescue practices for the children and youth who attend.
GOING AND GIVING
Russ and I went to Camp Gideon for several reasons. The first was to get all the information we could about the camp program so that we can recruit a team of Americans to come over and help during English Camp in July 2024.
Another reason was to distribute funds that had been raised for the camp as well as for local orphanages.
We visited two orphanages while we were there. One was for children with mental disabilities. We gave them funds badly needed to renovate a bathroom.
The second orphanage talked to us about a trip they were hoping to take to Helsinki, Finland, a two-hour ferry ride from Tallinn. Their teacher spoke of a “dream trip” they hoped to take, and even showed us a poster they had created with places on it they hoped to visit while in Helsinki. We gave them the money to make that trip.
While at camp, we met Sergei, who had come from Ukraine to help with the camp. Sergei’s town has been bombed and his family is scattered. We gave him a financial gift, which he said he will use to help those in need in his country.
At the end of our trip, we spent time in Tallinn, where we were able to visit the Estonian open-air market as well as Old Town with all of its historic buildings, churches and enticing souvenir shops. Everyone was friendly and most everyone spoke English, which was nice for us.
We will return to Christian Camp Gideon for 10 days in July of 2024 and are excited about recruiting team members for that trip. Our group will help with English Camp, where children and youth are eager to learn better conversational English. Anyone interested can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.