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On Mission to Go Faithfully Into the World (Part 1)

This week I’d like to introduce you to Betsy Riggan.  I’m sure you’ve seen her at CHBC where she so graciously contributes to the Kids Ministry.  Through many years of teaching Sunday School and KidsFest and loving to help kids understand the love of God for them, God prepared Betsy to pour her life into one child and beyond.  Here’s her story:

Betsy Riggan
Betsy Riggan

When we engage in hospitality of any kind, I think there is always a measure of hope that God infuses into the situation.  But hospitality seems to take on an unexpected  dimension when it’s directed by God and in His gracious hands.

I went to Ukraine in 1994 on a 10-day mission trip with a team from the U.S. to provide a Christian camp for orphans from Orphanage 21 in Kiev. The Ministry was started in 1992 by a friend who had worked for Slavic Gospel. She had been allowed into this orphanage right before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 90 children there had suffered from and through the last remaining days of communism/socialism under the USSR – a system that left people believing they had no value,  hopeless, and distrustful of authority. These children had been neglected, verbally abused, and unloved for a long time.

The team met these kids ages 5-16 at an old Russian training campground where they had been brought a day or two before our arrival. The facilities were meager, the language difference was significant, but we knew that we were bringing the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.  We were hopeful. Over the next few days, there was one particular child that I was drawn to. It was as if Jesus was saying ‘she needs special love and attention, but be steadfast. This won’t be easy’! Natasha was definitely not drawn to me. She was guarded, convinced that my motives had nothing to do with her and her friends. She wanted little, if anything, to do with my stories of God’s love for her. How dare I tell her that God loved her if her own parents, particularly her mom,  would choose to leave her in this wretched orphanage rather than say no to the alcohol that was destroying her! Natasha was not an orphan by our traditional definition but an orphan separated from and unwanted by her parents. I returned home, burdened by the lives of these children and particularly that of Natasha.

I went back a second summer, and there was Natasha. I was so happy to see her and surprisingly, she was happy to see me.  I had come back. This was new for her.  Other people had come into the orphanage to give presents and the message of the Gospel, but never returned. All of a sudden, I had her ear… doubting more than believing, listening from a distance; Natasha often preferred to have kitchen duty rather than participate in the Bible lessons.  I would sit with her and her friend Jenya and peel mountains of potatoes with them.

We provided all the normal camp things; soccer, crafts, skits, worship. We gave the kids new shoes and clothes. They had more than enough food to eat.  Through these acts of His grace, God worked.  Natasha began to include herself in the activities. She began to  sit on the perimeter and listen to the Bible stories and learn the truths of God’s story. I came home this second year with a deep conviction to adopt her.

I returned for a 3rd summer to continue to strengthen my relationship with Natasha and support the ministry. By now it was late 1995, and Ukraine was  doing everything possible to shed its connection from Russia and to become an independent country.  One of the results of their seeking to be free and independent was to declare that there would be no more adoptions until Ukraine had its own laws. I had to wait … and wait. By the time adoptions were open again, Natasha had turned 16. U.S. law prohibits adopting a child 16 or older. We tried applying for a student visa. It was denied . Thankfully God is a persevering God. Our remaining option was a  tourist visa which EVERYONE assured me would never be granted. But God! She went to the embassy and sat with the interviewer. God’s intervention granted her a 6-month visitor visa. Natasha arrived in NYC in July of 1997 with only a small plastic bag containing a toothbrush and 2 clothing items. We flew from NYC to Wheaton, and our family journey of hospitality began. With serious language and cultural barriers,  we clung with hope to Jesus and all His promises!

Natasha had been “on the streets”  for a few months back in Kiev. At 16 the orphans had to leave their orphanage home and begin to attend a trade school.  They lived in a dormitory-like setting with a small food stipend and no supervision.  This broken young lady was pregnant when she came into our home… pregnant, scared, weak, and sad at how everything was so incredibly different. She would sit in her room and cry over the loss of her freedom, her friends, her cigarettes which she had used since she was 10 to stop the pangs of hunger.

But God didn’t leave Natasha in despair. Slowly He helped her accept her new home, accept the love and care he was extending to her through others. She began to listen with yearning that just maybe she was treasured by HIM.  For us,  God was teaching our family a myriad of His truths – of willing sacrifice for another with no hope of anything in return, of patience with His refining process in each of us, and  of laughter when everything was going wrong. There was much to laugh about because so much went “wrong”!

Natasha had grown up in a big city. Her only means of transportation were the metro or her feet.  Riding in a car was a huge challenge. She was car sick EVERY time. At first, she would refuse to get into the car.  That just doesn’t work when you have doctor’s appointments to make. I quickly learned the correct Russian name for the small plastic bag necessary for the ride to the doctor! The visits  required a translator before we went, while we were there, and afterward to ensure she understood all the doctor had said.  God provided Elizabeth to translate and  many other faithful Christians to join in this journey to show Natasha the love of Christ. My 10 year old daughter joined in the fun/hospitality by helping her with  English and by fixing eggs for her. Natasha was  grateful that Maury would do this for her day after day. Eggs, apples and small smoked fish were her sole diet at first. They became a staple in our frig. God also provided an English tutor, and slowly Natasha began to have conversations with us. She began to laugh with us about silly things!

Toward the end of her pregnancy, my friends gave her a baby shower which overwhelmed her – the generosity of people who gave to her because Christ had given to them.  What a joyous day that was for her! Yes, she was thrilled by the gifts but amazed over the way others blessed her baby this way. God was beginning to affirm Natasha with hope – hope that she and her baby could have a solid future.

In February of 1998 her son Sasha was born. Natasha loved him deeply. I think she was surprised at how love felt. She was grateful that she could love like that! She wanted Sasha to have a better life than she ever  had, and she vowed to be a good mom to him. She was eager to learn everything. Her eagerness provided opportunities to talk with her about the saving love of God.  When her visa was close to its expiration, God had granted an extension. When this second visa was about to expire, Natasha was ready to go back to be with Sasha’s biological father. She had hopes for them as a family because she had had a glimpse of  life in a family.  Although not professing a sure faith in Jesus Christ, she was seeking to know Him and open to trusting Him with her life. We put them back on the plane to Kiev. I promised to see them when I finished serving at camp that summer. Little did I know that in many ways this was just the beginning of the journey with Natasha and her family.

To read PART 2 of Betsy’s story, click here.