The Army in Latvia
By Christine Bailey, Major –
Spring comes late to Latvia, but when it does come it literally bursts into life and brings with it not only color and warmth, but a renewed sense of life and hope after the long dark winter.
In some ways the Latvian Spring is a metaphor for the Army here. It came late to Latvia, even the first time around, when the Army “opened fire” in 1923. After the Soviet era, the work re-commenced in 1991 and the light of the Gospel was able to challenge the darkness that was the legacy of communism.
You can go to any corps or center in Latvia, and even if the surrounding environment is grey and depressing, the door opens on to a place of color and warmth. Take the Russian-speaking corps of Daugavpils in the south-east of the country, for example. The ministry there involves serving soup every day of the week to around 100 people, and also involves the officers, Marina and Jānis, sharing the Gospel with a conviction that comes from their own experience of being transformed by Jesus.
Going north, traveling the last mile or two on a dusty road, Sarkaņi comes into view. You could be forgiven for thinking that these former Soviet military barracks are derelict, until you see washing hanging on the line, or a rather forlorn-looking curtain at the window. Dmitrijs and Ilona, the officers, will be waiting to greet you to show you around. The beauty and cleanliness of the little house is in sharp contrast to the rest of the village. Their aim is, God helping them, to “change a village” starting with the children. Ilona puts it this way: “In these surroundings, the center is like a bright island. We are happy that we can show a different way of life.”
Less than a mile up the road and in complete contrast is Skangaļi, an imposing manor house set in its own grounds. The story of how The Salvation Army acquired the house has a romance all of its own. It was gifted to the Army by the family of the murdered Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, as the result of a chance meeting with a Salvationist on a flight from Riga to Stockholm.
Today this manor house, where the wealthy Palme family once spent their summer holidays, is home to over 20 children and young people, most of whom have difficult family backgrounds, and also offers crisis shelter to young mothers-to-be. The manor house itself provides accommodation for guests, where they are served tasty Latvian food, with locally-sourced potatoes, pickles and honey. It is not easy work for Modris and Normunds and their team, but it is all made worthwhile when someone like David says, “Living in Skangaļi Home, I feel safe and confident about myself.”
Travel to the capital, Riga, and the theme of color and hope continues. Before you even see them, you will hear the voices of children rising from the basement of the headquarters in Riga. They are children who are cared for in the Children’s Day Centre appropriately called “Patverums” (“Refuge”). Here is a place for “at-risk” children to come to have a shower, wash their clothes, do their homework, have a meal and play. These simple basement rooms, with little natural light, are full of warmth and love, and all the simple touches that go to make a place look like a home. The Queen of Sweden recently came to visit them, showing interest in all that was going on.
A short walk away in a rather run-down neighborhood, a graffiti-covered building has the tell-tale Army shield above the door. This is the Avotu Street Social Centre. Go inside on any Wednesday or Thursday at lunchtime and you will see the place packed with people eating a nourishing lunch. Most of them are elderly or disabled and each person has their own story. Aldona, the officer in charge, and her assistant Anita, visit people in their homes to find out first hand their problems and concerns. One such person is Dzintra, who says, “Thanks to the assistance of The Salvation Army—food parcels once a month, warm meals, clothes, showers and fellowship—I can survive.”
The metaphor of the Latvian Spring runs deep. What motivates the officers is the prospect of seeing hopeless lives bursting with new life and hope. Dzidra’s story says it all: “ I went to The Salvation Army’s worship service and at the end of it I knelt and prayed. My life has been changed completely.”