Last Goodbyes

Wednesday was our last day in Samara, but was a very good day at that. We began with a river cruise on the Volga with many members of the church, two of which had to run to the boat to make it on time. They brought tea and leftovers from Tuesday’s meals to share with us for a snack. We then took another walk on the embankment to take in the beauty of the river one last time. After this we headed back to the church for a late lunch of a beef stew and cake for dessert. We were taken back to our hotel after eating so we could get ready for the ballet that evening.

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We saw a performance of Le Corsaire, a story about a girl who falls in love with a pirate and everything they have to go through to be together. The theatre was gorgeous along with all of the costumes, and the dancers did a fantastic job conveying the story. We had front row seats and it was an incredible experience. Once the ballet was over we had to say a few goodbyes to people who wouldn’t be making the journey to the airport with us. As expected these goodbyes were difficult, but we were all still in good spirits from the ballet that the sadness hadn’t hit us yet.

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We returned to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before leaving for the hotel at 1:30. Before leaving for the airport we prayed together one last time, ending our time there in the best way. Max had to leave before the drive because he teaches English classes in the morning and wanted to be able to get some sleep before them. Natalia, Albina, Tanya, Elena, and Olga accompanied us on the trip in the middle of the night, which takes an hour each way. Of course they brought snacks for us. Without our translator, Tanya entertained us with an app that attempted to convert what she said in Russian into English and have Doug speak back so it could be translated to her. Some worked better than others, but it kept the mood light before the hard goodbyes.

They all came into the airport with us and walked us all the way to the security gate before we had to face what we knew was going to be tough. The fact that it was 2:30 in the morning definitely didn’t help. From there we went through passport control and made it to our 4:35 flight. Luckily most of us slept the whole way and we made it to Prague around 6am after losing 2 hours on the way.

We did a 3.5 hour tour of the city during our long layover, and we learned a lot about the history of the Czech Republic from our very knowledgeable tour guide. We returned to the airport and made it to our gate, only to learn that our flight to New York had been delayed. After waiting for about 3 more hours, we decided to change our tickets for flights tomorrow to Paris and then to Cincinnati. Even though we’re spending an unexpected extra night in Europe, this city is beautiful and we enjoyed a delicious dinner at our wonderful hotel. We have another early morning tomorrow, with a taxi picking us up for the airport at 4:30am. If all goes as planned, we will be back in Cincinnati by 5pm tomorrow (Friday).

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Unless things turn out differently, this is going to be our last blog post. Thank you to those who have followed our journey and we hope you enjoyed the updates. As we expressed in a previous post, this trip has been absolutely incredible and the people we’ve met are truly one of a kind. There aren’t enough thank you’s in the world to express our gratitude to Samara UMC for being such gracious hosts and showing us what it really means to love one another and have servant hearts. You’ll be in our hearts and prayers. Until we meet again, do svidaniya!

One for the Books

This morning was pretty similar to yesterday. We finished our painting at the church and got everything cleaned up. We also took a break at noon to celebrate both Max and Stas’s birthdays (Stas is the deacon of the church) with cake and tea. After a bit of cleaning we had lunch which was a soup we would consider most similar to chowder and a second course of meat with scalloped potatoes, cabbage, and tomatoes. We finished work at the church around 4 and were brought back to the hotel to shower before going out to do a bit of shopping. Then it was time for dinner, which is what we are going to spend a majority of this blogging talking about.

If there’s two things we haven’t emphasized enough this week it’s how much food we’ve been served and how absolutely incredible everyone we’ve met has been. Starting with the food this evening, they decided to treat us to unique Russian cuisine, more specifically the ones we’ve been hearing about all week and trying to avoid. The first appetizer was a bit of bread with a thin layer of pig fat and salt. It is second from the left in the picture. Next up was a toothpick of meat that had been roasting for 6 hours on top of a broth gelatin which can be seen on the far right. We called this the meat jelly as we were contemplating it on our plates. After this came the small cup with a white liquid. It was a thick milk with a similar taste to Greek yogurt, but I must say it smelled a bit like Swiss cheese. Next was a bowl of cabbage that ended up tasting very similarly to cole slaw. Finally, they had bread with butter and red caviar, which they told us they only have on special occasions. Overall, we tried all of them and none of them were too off-putting. There were even a couple I went back for seconds of. For our main course, we had buckwheat and mushroom stuffed chicken. Once again, there weren’t many problems with this and I (Anna) was forced to overcome my fear of mushrooms, and I think I succeeded. For dessert we had a Turkish disk called chuck-chuck and it resembled a Rice Krispie Treat. It was covered in honey and definitely delicious. Along with this we were also served some very tasty chocolates. This is just one meal, but you can see how extensive it was and we feel like they never stop eating.


Now onto our second point: the people. As dinner was winding down Stas starting asking questions for everyone to answer and one in particular was what our biggest impression has been of Samara. Doug started us off and took the rest of our answers by saying the enthusiasm and spirit the congregation has is incredible. They voluntarily have spent so many hours at the church this week, not only hanging out with us, but also preparing for us and driving us and cooking for us that we definitely feel their love. The love they have for the church, the love they have for each other, the love they have for God, and especially the love they have for us. It’s so insane how connected we feel despite the language barrier. When we asked the Russians their impressions of us, it was crazy to see how we had touched them because I think we all feel like they’ve impacted us so much more than we’ve  impacted them.

The waterworks started and we know tomorrow night is going to be incredibly difficult. We realize this mission trip hasn’t been about the physical work we’ve done, but the emotional in keeping and strengthening HPCUMC’s relationship with Samara United Methodist. There isn’t a better group I could imagine having a partnership with and it’s exciting to see what the future could hold. These people will forever be in our heart and prayers and we can only hope to one day see them again. We still have one more day and will post a couple more blogs, but after tonight this was something we really wanted to share. Samara United Methodist is doing incredible things and will continue to do so with the passion they have.

Here are a few pictures from the day, but we didn’t take many:


Doug and Sarah painting

Doug trying a Georgian dish of meat wrapped in grape leaves as Tanyla looks on with excitement

Doug trying a Georgian dish of meat wrapped in grape leaves as Tanya looks on with excitement

The birthday boys, Stas and Max

The birthday boys, Stas and Max


The room after being painted and the repairing and moving of the shelving used for giving clothing to the homeless

Painting the Day Away

Sorry for the short post tonight, we just got back to the hotel and it’s already 12:30am here. Jeff started us off with a nice devotional today about the importance of the church and we talked about a verse from Isaiah 40. We were then picked up and taken to the church where we started the work they needed us to do. Jeff and Kevin worked in a hallway upstairs while the rest of us were in a room downstairs. Sandpapering the walls turned out to be the messiest activity so far. We got covered in white dust, and Doug’s hair was so white he looked like he had aged 2o years.

We took a tea break after a couple hours where we were serenaded in Russian. Doug was then asked to sing a song in English that the Russians could sing along to. Kevin got a short video showing how much fun it is interacting with this group. Please enjoy it with the pictures below.

We worked again until lunch when we had Russian soup and a second course of meat, salad, and potatoes. After lunch we got a first layer of paint on all of the walls and the ceilings are completely finished. We will do a second coat tomorrow on the walls. We then all came back to the hotel for a much needed shower. Unlike was planned, we ended up splitting up for dinner again.

Us young girls were invited to another youth’s house for a gathering with young adults. We then played some games and got to know each other better before embarking on a night walk through the city back to the hotel. Jeff and Mary previously hosted a member of the church at their house, and were invited to dinner at her parents’ place. Kevin and Doug went to dinner with the pastors and the deacon of the church. They got back earlier, but we were having too much fun to leave. Also, we got to be with Max at midnight when he turned 26, so happy birthday to him! 🙂

Goodnight and enjoy these pictures from today:

The room before painting

The room before painting

Doug after sand-papering

Doug after sand-papering

Anna after sand-papering

Anna after sand-papering

Pastor Olga getting in on the action

Pastor Olga getting in on the action

Enjoying a tea break

Enjoying a tea break

Video (it’s a hyperlink)

Sunday Funday

We got a bit of a later start this morning since we didn’t have a devotional before leaving for church. They only have an 11:00 service at the church, so we went to that, but unlike at home their average service is two hours long. Doug gave the sermon and Max translated for the congregation. Max also sat behind us during the service translated some parts. The praise band was very impressive, and one of the lead singers even sang some of the songs in English. They were nice enough to split the screen between Russian and English lyrics so we could follow along. We were presented with some gifts during the service and we had a chalice and communion plate for their church as well. The church has been very generous this week and we are very appreciative for it. Enjoy some pictures from the service:


After church we had a chicken and rice lunch with some of the church leaders. From there we moved upstairs to help in the soup kitchen run by the church on Sundays. Jeff prepared the meal for the guests with help from a member of the church named Maria. We then left the church and visited the embankment, which was like a riverwalk along a stretch of beach on the Volga. A few of us dipped our feet in the water and it was very chilly. However, it’s nice to be able to see a river that isn’t brown like the Ohio River. After walking down the embankment some we decided to rest on the grass. After trying to decline ice cream, one of the young adults with us went and bought a bunch, so what were we going to do, just let it go to waste? Of course not. Once we finished our ice cream and talked for a bit longer it was time for dinner.


We split up tonight and ate dinner at different congregation members’ houses. Sarah and I went to a woman’s house who runs the children’s choir and is involved with the youth at the church. I would include names, but I really have no idea how they would be spelled in English. Also, Russians don’t live in what we consider to be houses. It is typical for them to live in one or two bedroom apartments. They are usually pretty small, but since they own the apartment they are able to do what they want to make it their own. The house we went to was very pretty and homey. We were served pork chops, salad, a meat and potato dish, mashed potatoes, and a traditional dish from our host’s home country. She isn’t originally from Russia, but we’re yet to understand where she is from. We had tea and cake before heading out for our walk back to the hotel. Maria ( a different one than above), who was our translator for the meal, walked with us back to the hotel, which took about an hour. It’s safe to say that wore us out and we are now ready for bed so we can be back at it in the morning. Spasibo (thank you) for making it this far and we’ll be back with more fun news tomorrow.



Cуббота (Saturday)

We once again started our morning with a devotional over Romans 10:8-10 and Matthew 28:16-20. We were reminded that although we may have a language barrier with the people of Samara, we can still form a relationship through the presence of God. Jeff left after our devotional to go shopping for food he can prepare tomorrow for the people served from the soup kitchen run by the church. The rest of us had breakfast at the hotel together before heading out for our day in the city.

We were split up into groups for cars to ride around the city in. Our first stop was at an overlook of the Volga River where a statue honored the aeronautic history of the Samarans. There was also a tomb very similar to our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, remembering those who fought and were lost in the Great Patriotic War. From there we had the chance to visit a Russian Orthodox Church. When we entered, women had to cover their heads with scarves. The inside was very ornate with marble covered in gold and many icons covering the marble. We each lit candles at the altar. Here are pictures from the overlook and the outside of the Orthodox Church:

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We then visited a space museum where we learned the history of Russian space travel and rocket building. Samara is known for manufacturing parts of the rocketships and we got to see some old space satellites that had been made and used by the military. In the museum they had pressed metal made in Samara that is typically used for the fuel tanks of rockets. The tour guide was very proud of the history Samara had in aeronautics and made sure we understood how important their contributions have been.

One of the most popular places to visit in Samara is another overlook of the Volga River, from which we could see a few islands and campsites along the river. Being such a beautiful location, we saw at least 4 brides and grooms getting wedding pictures taken here. We joined the fun and decided to take a group picture. The first is just our Cincinnati team, and the second is with the group that drove and accompanied us today. Max, unfortunately, was taking the picture so he is absent from the photo.

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From here we went to a nice outdoor restaurant for lunch. It sprinkled a little bit, but we all managed to scoot under cover and stay dry. Meals have been a fun place for conversations about interesting foods Russians typically eat. Doug has decided he will try anything once, so today’s adventurous food was a soup filled with multiple types of sausages. When it was first brought up, one of the ladies with us made a gagging noise and vocalized how much she dislikes it. Doug, however, enjoyed the dish, so we’re yet to find something that he doesn’t like. Yesterday we all tried a drink made from fermented bread- definitely not as good as the soup, but we were all able to finish the tastes we were given.

Before we begin telling you about the second half of our day we’d like to take this time and address the driving situation over here. (Mom, feel free to skip this paragraph) First off, they do drive on the right side of the road, but that’s where similarities between our countries ends on this topic. There are no stop signs, and very few traffic lights and lane lines. Drivers typically weave in and out wherever they can find room. Since there are so few traffic lights, intersections are quite entertaining to watch, but not drive in. Pedestrians cross the street whenever they need and cars are expected to stop for them. I captured a video when we were waiting for the tram yesterday. It’s not the best quality, but you’ll get the idea. Max makes an appearance, so shout out to him.

We went back to the church where we were greeted by a reception of fresh fruit and baked goods made by a member of the congregation. After this time, we met with the leaders of the church about their roles and then Doug gave a presentation on how they can continue to grow their ministry. To conclude our time with them today we had a barbecue dinner outside the church with what we would consider metts, salad, corn, peas, and bread. It’s interesting to see their takes on our popular meals. We had an earlier night than last night, which we all needed because the traveling and our activities have definitely caught up with us. Thanks for continuing to follow our journey and check back tomorrow for another update!

Chowing down with new friends

Chowing down with new friends

Day 2 of Adventures

Everyone seemed to have gotten a good night’s sleep after our long day of travel and we were all up and had eaten by 9 for our morning devotional. The breakfast provided by the hotel was very nice with sausage, eggs, waffles, cereal, pastries, potatoes, and good coffee. Today’s devotional was over Colossians 3:12-17 talking about clothing ourselves in God’s love and spreading His word. The pastors and Max, our translator, from Samara United Methodist Church met us at 10 and we left for our first day in the city.

We first walked around the city center of Samara, with Max explaining different architectural styles along the way. We learned that the earliest buildings were wooden, but many have been burned or knocked down, so most of the structures present today have been built since the 19th century. They take much pride in the wood and stone carvings on the outside of their buildings, which can also indicate what type of function the building is used for. However, buildings from the Soviet time period were very functional and not meant to show beauty. We ended our walking tour at a scenic overlook of the Volga River:IMG_8661     IMG_8665

Next we headed to Stalin’s bunker, which would have been used during the Second World War, or as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War. We got to hike 12 stories underground and learn about how and why the bunker was built. We ended in a room that would have been Stalin’s office, which was designed exactly like the office at the Kremlin, so if Stalin came to this bunker he would’ve felt at home. However, there is no documentation that Stalin ever came to this bunker.

After the tour we headed to Kuybyshev Square which is just a massive area of pavement in front of a theater where the ballet performs. From here we went to lunch at a restaurant themed like a Soviet apartment. After we ordered we were able to walk around from room to room and see what types of decorations they would have had. After our meal our hosts insisted we tried blini, a Russian dessert similar to crepes. We topped them with cream and jam and they were delicious.

We then went to Samara United Methodist Church where we got a tour and learned the history of its foundation and met some more of the members. We are always greeted with big smiles and open arms. We ended our tour in the youth cafe with tea time, talking and getting to know more about each other. Then we were invited to join members in the sanctuary for a prayer meeting, which was filled with songs we (kind of) knew in English, while we had Russian hymnals in front of us. It was a great experience seeing how we could worship together even though we may not speak the same language. Below are pictures of the church and its sanctuary:

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We then enjoyed a delicious pizza and salad dinner with young adults from the church. If it weren’t for Max we wouldn’t be able to have as great of conversations as we have, so we’re very thankful he’s been so generous with his time in escorting and translating for us. Everyone has been so welcoming and we’re looking forward to another great day tomorrow. Do svidaniya (goodbye) and we’ll be back tomorrow to once again update you on our travels.

“Nothing is Wasted with God”

During college many of us had to take “core” classes. In liberal arts college, like I attended, the idea was simple:  We are committed to producing graduates who have a well-rounded education.  I remember taking Southeast Asian history, thinking during the entire semester,

“I will never use this in my lifetime!”   Oddly enough, Doug’s sister, Dianne, who is an executive with General Motors, took an assignment in Singapore.  She flew our family out to visit and treated us to a trip to Thailand.  With God, nothing is ever wasted!

In high school I took three years of French and two years of French in college. Our son, Blake, was able to study in Paris during one of his college semesters. I was amazed at how quickly he picked up the language and knew how to navigate Paris like a native!   Although I enjoy French, it has been a long time since I have used it.  Chalk it up to Exhibit A of a  “well rounded education.”

This summer I will be joining a mission team from West Ohio Conference to offer discipleship training for youth in the North Katanga Conference of the United Methodist Church, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  During our first meeting, they explained that we would need to factor in the time for translation.    French is their primary language.  As we have been working on preparing the curriculum, I realized that I will at least be able to read the Bible to the youth in French!   With God, nothing is ever wasted!

As a pastor, I often hear people put themselves down by saying, ” I can’t do this”  or “I can’t do that.”  As we study the Parable of the Talents this weekend, I invite you to to celebrate who and whose you are:  You are a unique child of God who has been created to bless the world.   Let us focus on what we can do and give God all the glory!


Pastor Cathy Johns

Privet from Russia

Welcome to the blog! If you haven’t already heard, a group from HPCUMC has journeyed to Samara, Russia in order to do mission work with our sister church, Samara United Methodist Church. This is Anna Renfro and Sarah Krott running the blog, but we are here also with Kevin Betts, Pastor Doug Johns, and Mary and Jeff Sheldon. We’re a small group, but we’re happy to make any contribution we can.

We began our adventure at the Cincinnati airport Wednesday at 1:15. We flew to JFK airport where we had a short layover before leaving for Moscow that evening. We were supposed to take off around 7pm, but an unknown bag was loaded onto the plane, which caused a delay of little over an hour. Thanks to a strong tail wind, we still made it to Moscow right on time. Not only did we get a choice of chicken or pasta for dinner, we also got a late-night sandwich and breakfast right before we landed. It’s safe to say we didn’t starve on the way over. After landing in Moscow and clearing customs, we were ready for our final flight to Samara. We had to go through security again, but Moscow’s security is a lot more relaxed and Kevin was even able to get a full water bottle through. We landed in Samara around 5pm, which would be 9am in Cincinnati. We are eight hours ahead of central time and our bodies are very confused because we only saw two hours of night before our plane found the sun again.

Everybody’s bags made it without any problems (kind of), and after leaving baggage claim we were greeted by some friendly smiles, hugs, and flowers from members of the Samara United Methodist Church. They accompanied us on our drive to the hotel, providing us with history and answers to many of our questions. A young man named Max is very fluent in English and helped translate between us and the church staff that came with him. We are currently in the hotel and don’t have plans until 10am tomorrow morning, which gives us plenty of time to relax and catch up on some much needed sleep.

Enjoy some pictures from our first day of travel:

The whole gang at the airport before departure

The whole gang at the airport before departure

A picture looking out the plane at the view of Samara

A picture looking out the plane at the view of Samara

Sarah, Anna, and Doug catch some z's on the flight to Samara

Sarah, Anna, and Doug catch some z’s on the flight to Samara

By this they will know…

This past Sunday we awoke to a shock not experienced in the United States since 9/11; hate unleashed, mass murder, an act of terror. Like you, as I made my way to church, I had no clue what had happened early Sunday morning. Like you, my emotions are all over the board; demanding, desiring, hoping for answers. Why did this happen?  How do we respond?

In the aftermath, I know this; God through Jesus Christ provides us a way forward!  Jesus instructs us: “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:4); “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34); “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35). In Jesus, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered not to stoop to the level of the perpetrator and give into hate; rather, we are empowered to seek higher ground, choosing the way of love: “By this they will know you are my disciples.”

Hate breeds hate, love in the midst of tragedy and despair breeds transformation. Bishop Palmer wrote to the churches of the conference:

“Every life lost to terrorism and gun violence is a summons to turn our backs on a paradigm that simply does not work…In these days to come, may we compassionately hold the families cut most deeply by this loss and fear.  May we stand close enough so we feel their pain as if it were our own, because it is.  And may the pain of staying the same finally give way to the pain of change.  The change we need will be costly.  We will have to give up something.  Only in the letting go of what is do we have a chance to embrace what can be . . . .We must die to live.  Die to violence, to live in peace. Die to hatred, to live in love.” (Go to the West Ohio Conference website for the complete article)

We are called to a life centered in the love of God through Jesus Christ. At times it is a life that is not easy, convenient, or preferred; but a life that is, at all times, transformative!

I look forward to seeing you in church.

In Christ,

Pastor Doug

Diving for Earrings

Doug and I have travelled to Israel several times.  We enjoy visiting a jeweler in the Christian Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem.  They do beautiful work.  We have purchased many Jerusalem cross necklaces and earrings from these dear men.

I am one of those odd women who believe you are never fully dressed without your earrings!  One of my favorite pair of earrings are gold Jerusalem crosses with my birthstone in the center.  I forgot to remove them once while swimming in a large indoor pool.

I gently pulled on my earlobes and noticed that one of them was missing.  Trained as a lifeguard, I began the search and rescue mission.  I walked around the edge of the pool and then spotted it – a small shiny, gold object – about two feet from the drain.  Next steps involved a little bit of strategic thinking.  I needed to gently approach the earring without creating too many waves.  I gently entered the water on the far end of the pool and swam underwater very gently toward the drain.  I reached down and was able to grab it with my fingers.   When I came up, I was overjoyed!  My earring was no longer lost, but found!

This weekend we will be enjoying one of Jesus’ parables, “The Woman with the Lost Coin.”  Like all good jokes, parables do have a point, or a punchline.  You either “get it” or you don’t.  As a preacher, I pray that you will “get it” and fully understand the joy of being found by a God who deeply loves you, even when you are circling the drain!  We have a God who does jump in to rescue us, pull us to safety, and rejoices with us.

May God richly bless you this weekend.  I look forward to seeing you, your friends, and your family!


Pastor Cathy