What An ‘Unwanted’ Russian Girl Taught Me About True Joy
With her red-dyed hair and beaded bracelet, Sonya could be any pre-teen girl in America.
But she’s not.
Sonya is one of Russia’s 700,000 unwanted children and orphans.
Her dad is disinterested in her. Her mom is an alcoholic and doesn’t want her around. This beautiful 12-year-old girl — like so many children across the former Soviet Union — has been rejected by her own parents and lives in an orphanage.
Perhaps you notice something else about her appearance? Sonya — who has reason to be angry, sullen, even bitter — has experienced a miracle in the orphanage. She’s met someone who loves and wants her. She’s found Jesus Christ. And now — despite everything that’s happened to her — Sonya has joy in her heart that’s clear for all to see.
Sonya is the fruit of a ministry among Russia’s unwanted children that began more than two decades ago when God showed me how local churches were living out the Bible’s call to care for orphans and forgotten children. In America, we often associate “orphan” with “adoption.” But the reality is that more than 80 percent of Russian orphans and abandoned children can never be adopted for a variety of legal, family, and diplomatic reasons.
As followers of Christ, how do we minister to those — like Sonya — who may never be adopted by an earthly family? At Slavic Gospel Association (SGA, www.sga.org), our vision is to support local churches in bringing these precious children the love and belonging that they crave, within their own community, wrapped in the fellowship of local believers. We call this ministry Orphans Reborn.
Every day, Sonya sits at the table in the orphanage and happily works on her Bible study lesson, provided by friends from a local evangelical church that partners with SGA. She joyfully looks forward to learning more about this Jesus who loves and wants her. And her light and joy is spreading throughout the orphanage, spilling over into the lives of the other children — heart-broken children who yearn to belong to a family that loves and cherishes them.
It hasn’t been easy for Sonya. She often feels lonely as she passes days locked inside, unable to go out because of the pandemic. Sadly, orphans are often bullied by teenagers in the orphanage.
“We stand by the windows waiting for our friends from the church to come,” Sonya says. “Every time they enter the courtyard, we shout ‘Sunday school has come!’ It’s so amazing.”
Last September, because of the pandemic, Sonya was sent home from the orphanage to stay with her alcoholic mother. “She didn’t seem happy to see me,” Sonya recalls. “She drank several glasses of vodka that day.”
When some men came to join the drinking binge, Sonya left — heading straight to the place where she knew one of her friends from the local church would be getting off the bus. She waited in freezing temperatures until her Bible teacher — Elena — arrived, just as it was getting dark. Elena put her arm around Sonya and took her to her own home, made pancakes and hot tea, and encouraged her. “She said the Lord would take care of me,” says Sonya. “Her words brought joy to my heart.”
Joy in the heart of a love-starved, “unwanted” child.
Joy because she knows she’s loved and wanted after all — wanted by her heavenly Father and loved by the family of God!
Elena and her band of faithful believers set the fountain of joy flowing through their dedication and care for Sonya and other abandoned children. They often go out in temperatures well below freezing to visit Sonya’s orphanage and share the life-transforming Gospel message with every child: “You are wanted. You are precious.”
Most children in Russia’s orphanages have never heard the Gospel before. One child, overcome with joy at the news that God loves him, said: “I’m grateful I came to the orphanage because that’s where I heard about Jesus.”
Across the former Soviet Union, thousands of local evangelical churches have caught this vision — Russian-speaking believers burning with love from above, eager to share the joy of knowing Jesus with the broken-hearted. Going door-to-door and into orphanages and children’s homes, these local Christians are among the true heroes of the faith — pressing on even as the pandemic limits their ability to minister face-to-face.
During these difficult and sometimes dark days, when life’s trials and heartaches threaten to rob you of your joy in the Lord, remember Sonya. Remember you are part of the family of God. Remember you, too, are loved and wanted by your heavenly Father — even if you’re abandoned by those closest to you. Like Sonya, you and I can have a God-given joy and peace that “surpasses all understanding.”
That’s true joy, heavenly joy — and God chose an “unwanted” 12-year-old Russian girl with red-dyed hair to remind you and me that this joy can be ours, too.
Michael Johnson is the president of Slavic Gospel Association, a Christian mission that partners with local evangelical churches in Russia and the former Soviet Union to help “forgotten” children, orphans, widows, and families, and share the Gospel.