You couldn’t buy a TV. Or a banana.
Most everyone’s wardrobe consisted of plain, dark clothes. No colors.
And making eye contact while you’re walking down the street? Or even smiling? Ha. You must be joking.
This was life in Latvia, circa 1980s, when many of today’s young adults were growing up under Soviet rule. Back then, they simply didn’t know any better.
They didn’t know that a simple food item like yogurt was available virtually all over the world.
They didn’t know it wasn’t normal that you had to have a rich family friend to sneak in these “simple pleasures.” That splitting a small individual yogurt carton between three siblings, just to make that moment last a bit longer, was unusual.
Who gets to lick the sides?
“That yogurt, we loved it so much,” said Katherine Rozefelde, the Youth Coordinator of the United Methodist Church, who works with 12 congregations in Latvia. “And a banana was so delicious. I still remember that flavor in my mouth from childhood.”
People like Rozefelde, a newly married 29-year-old, know that looking back, she’s one of the fortunate ones.
Growing up under communist rule is one thing. But being paralyzed by it for the rest of your life is an altogether different story. And to many of those older than Rozefelde, especially those around her parent’s generation, that’s exactly what’s happened.
For Rozefelde was only 9 when Latvia gained its independence in 1991. But she was young enough to know that there was more to life. There was freedom to be had. And that freedom could be found in Christ.
This weekend at the historic Baltic Youth Festival, she’s praying other young people find that same freedom she did as a young teen.
“I think the click that will happen (Saturday) will be the one that happened to me,” Rozefelde said. “I was saved at 13-years-old at a large camp when I realized I am a sinner and that someone has paid for my sin.
“The ones who will be saved are the ones who will realize that there’s someone who lived on this earth who didn’t nothing wrong but got punished for their sins. And all I have to do is say ‘Yes.’ “
Seems so easy when you hear Rozefelde say it. And when you hear her passion for the youth of Latvia, you can fully understand how there is true hope in this country when the Gospel is so clearly presented.
Still, some talk about a missing generation that exists here. Those who grew up to adulthood under Soviet control have trouble thinking any other way. But what if their child comes home and talks about this Jesus? What if his or her conviction is so real and honest and overflowing that they can not keep it inside?
What if the Christ comes to Latvia through the youth?
“It happens,” Rozefelde said. “You hear testimonies all the time where kids go home and they don’t want to eat a meal without saying Grace or giving thanks to God.
“These are kids who accept Jesus Christ from scratch, from nothing. They have not been exposed to a weak Christianity growing up or a lukewarm Christianity. And when they fall in love with Jesus it’s so real and so new.”
So when you hear talk about the next generation having the potential to change an entire country, Latvia and other former Soviet-ruled countries like Lithuania and Estonia are textbook examples of this happening.
Religion and church? Some middle-aged folks may scoff at that notion. But then they see real change inside their kids. And they find out it’s a relationship with Jesus?
Wait a minute? Is that even possible?
Is there real hope out there?
“I think parents because they don’t have God in their life, they feel horrible about how they can’t help their children,” Rozefelde said. “Our economic situation in Latvia is so horrible, parents are desperate. They think if they work hard enough and make enough money, their kids will be happy. They just don’t think of what will happen after they die.”
And as Rozefelde has seen it play out one too many times, that attitude seeps into the core of their children’s being.
“They just get up. Go to work. Make money. Come home. Clean the house. Maybe do some laundry,” Rozefelde said. “You can’t talk about your emotions or feelings. They don’t want to talk about it.
“Some kids tell me their parents don’t even ask them how they’re doing.”
To be fair, Rozefelde makes sure she puts an asterisk next to her sweeping generalizations. Not all families are like this in Latvia. Some are quality Christian homes who love Jesus.
That includes her own household, where her father was a minister. But many other families have serious problems that seemingly have no solution to it.
No solution, without Jesus anyway.
“We have a huge alcohol problem in our country. We have a lot of unemployment as well,” Rozefelde said. “They don’t see any hope.”
But that’s where the Baltic Youth Festival comes in. With Franklin Graham preaching the Good News of the Gospel, along with relevant high-octane Christian bands like Michael W. Smith, the Parachute Band and Newsboys and other regional Christian artists, this Festival has the chance to make June 9 a date that many young people will look back as a turning point in their lives.
It’s not only the first youth Festival ever put on by the BGEA outside North America, but it’s also by far the largest youth-based evangelical gathering of its kind in the country’s history.
That alone will draw the attention of thousands to Arena Riga, which will hold two events (one at 2 p.m., the other at 8 p.m.) in a stadium seating configuration of around 12,000.
“For a Christian Festival, for this many youth, yes it’s a first,” Rozefelde said. “To rent out the Arena Riga, no one denomination here could do it.”
But regardless of what happens, Rozefelde knows there’s already so much positive to come out of this, from the individual prayer ministry that students have championed for their lost friends to the training on follow-up discipleship.
A counselor at the Baltic Youth Festival, she’ll also have a front row view when the invitation is given and knows, that just maybe, she may be witnessing a moment that may redefine a country. Or three.
Still, she tries not to think that way. And finds herself constantly reminding herself to give it over to prayer.
“I always try to remember it’s all in His timing,” Rozefelde said. “God talks about how we are to plan the seeds. He never says we are in charge of growing it or we have to stand over it with a light or we’re in charge of watering them.
“I totally believe it’s Jesus’ work.”
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